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‘It’s a chain reaction’ Political scientist Andrey Kortunov on why a full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine is unlikely — but not impossible
International alarm over the Russian military buildup around Ukraine reached new heights over the weekend of February 12–13. More than 30 countries advised their citizens to leave Ukraine, and several embassies pledged to move West, relocating their staff from Kyiv to Lviv. Meanwhile, U.S. officials keep repeating claims that Russia could further invade Ukraine “at any time.” To help make sense of the building tensions, Meduza turns to Russian International Affairs Council director-general Andrey Kortunov.
I think that the evacuation of embassies is evidence of the sense of nervousness in a number of Western capitals, not so much in Kyiv. It’s a chain reaction. The politicians there have convinced themselves that war is inevitable, or almost inevitable. Memories of the very disorganized, last minute evacuation of citizens from Afghanistan are still alive. It appears that they are taking this unfortunate experience into account and trying to play it safe and prepare for hostilities [in advance].
At the same time, the Ukrainian leadership is rather restrained: Zelensky said that there’s no need to dramatize these events. Why Ukraine is taking such a position is understandable — the collective psychosis impacts on the mood of investors. We see how the main [economic] indicators are declining, how investment confidence is collapsing. Of course, all of this affects the [Ukrainian] economy in the most negative way.
I suppose that with a slightly different approach on the part of the media and the expert community this [deterioration] could have been avoided. But unfortunately, the escalation of negative expectations continues, which, of course, affects many people.
In Russia, there’s a very centralized system for making key foreign policy decisions, so only one person can give a conclusive answer to the question of whether there will be a war. I think — I would like to hope — that the threat of war is not as great as some of our Western colleagues from the journalistic and expert community are making it out to be.
It seems to me that there are several factors that make a war unlikely. Firstly, the Russian leadership has been saying for several months — not just weeks — that they aren’t going to fight and attack Ukraine. Of course, all of these statements form a specific background. If after this a war starts, then the image losses will be very large.
Secondly, it’s more or less clear what Russia stands to lose in the event of a war. There will be sanctions of a completely different degree that will affect the energy sector and the financial system, [and] perhaps the leadership of the country personally, which is talked about a lot in the West. In addition to sanctions, of course, this means the end of the Minsk agreements — and now matter how you look at it these agreements are still a major diplomatic victory for Russia and for President Putin personally. In addition, it’s clear that in this case there won’t be a repeat of the “Crimean scenario,” since Russia would have to face a hostile population. If [Russia] doesn’t occupy the whole country (which, by all appearances, it doesn’t have the resources for) then the part [of Ukraine] that remains outside of Russian control will create permanent and very serious problems. Western weapons will go there, western money — generally speaking, it’s clear that in this case Russia will lose. And what it will gain remains unclear to me.
There’s also a third argument: I think that if such a task [starting a hot war] had been set, then it would have been met in completely different ways. Look at how the operation in Kazakhstan was carried out — very quickly, within a few hours. Everything was done without too much pomp — and the 2014 Crimean operation was the same. A modern level of mobility — including [the mobility] of the Russian Armed Forces — doesn’t require the accumulation of troops over the course of several months in order to finally get ready and begin an attack. This is archaic — typical of 1914: a mobilization, troops traveling by rail, and that sort of thing.
Today, in order to minimize losses and demoralize the enemy, they act quickly — before anyone could blink an eye, they’d be marching on the central squares of Mariupol and Kharkiv. What’s happening [now] is too apparent, too obvious.
I don’t mean to say that war is impossible. There are factors like an unintentional escalation, an accident, or a mistake. An incident could lead to a clash — and not even at the Russia-Ukraine border, but on the “border” of Ukraine and the self-proclaimed republics, the DNR and LNR. Of course there are lovers of war on both sides, there are [different] interests. Given that — judging by what [the Kremlin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Dmitry] Kozak said — the last meeting of the representatives of the Normandy four failed, this causes concern.
We hoped that progress had been made at the [Normandy format talks] in Paris [in late January], but in Berlin [two weeks later] things rolled back again, and the comments from the Russian side on this matter have been quite harsh. So of course there are reasons to be afraid, there are reasons to to take additional steps so that there is no war. Moreover, in addition to the Donbas, there’s the Black Sea. The Black is a very dangerous region, there’s intense military activity there. And if we’re talking about an international conflict — not a Russia-Ukraine conflict, but a Russia-NATO conflict — I would be more afraid of [hostilities] in this territory.
Translation by Eilish Hart
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