It is unlikely that there will be a full-blown Russian attack against Ukraine in the coming year. This does not mean, however, that the tensions will not escalate on a smaller scale. Belarus included.
For many months now, the eyes of the world – or at least European and American – public opinion have been focused on the eastern fringes of the West. First, the attack of Alexander Lukashenko’s officers on the borders of the Baltic states and Poland. Then the menacing movements of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine. According to many experts, both operations are part of a broader plan of exerting pressure to force specific concessions or connections from the West. However, while the actions of the Belarusian regime have so far been hybrid in nature, there have been real fears that the maneuvers of the Russian troops are a preparation for a full-scale aggression against Ukraine. Will Moscow strike again in 2022, this time using a regular army? How will Minsk contribute to the escalation of the conflict with Ukraine and the West? Are we waiting for a continuation of hybrid activities or an open war?
Russia concentrated over 92,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine. Moscow is getting ready for aggression. The Russian army is likely to strike at the turn of January and February – argued the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, in an interview with the American portal Military Times at the end of November. On December 9th, he made a similar statement in the New York Times. “There are not sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces”, admitted Budanov, clearly using the media to call for the support of the Washington administration.
ESCALATION IS INEVITABLE
The Biden-Putin summit in December did not result in a breakthrough. The US president announced sanctions, strengthening NATO’s eastern flank and support for Ukraine in the event of aggression. At the same time, he ruled out direct participation of American troops in a possible war. Putin, in turn, accused Kiev of failing to implement the Minsk agreements (including the special status of Donbas within Ukraine), accused NATO of “installing” itself on the Dnieper and increasing its military presence on Russia’s borders, and finally demanded that NATO not expand to the east and and not strengthen the Alliance’s eastern flank. – The Kremlin will now have to authenticate the ultimatum it set before the West. That is why escalation is inevitable – Wojciech Konończuk, deputy director of the Center for Eastern Studies, argues in an interview with “Do Rzeczy”.
In his opinion, the simplest form of “credibility” will be to transition to the phase of a heated conflict in the Russian-controlled Donbas, where mobilization has already begun. Moscow provides the separatists with weapons, advisers, and instructors – officers of the Russian army and secret service. – A possible scenario will be “Donbas+”, that is, breaking the demarcation line and attacking the territory of the self-proclaimed republics into the areas controlled by Kiev – says Konończuk. – Kremlin propaganda has long proclaimed that Ukrainians are responsible for acts of genocide against civilians from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This message, intensified recently, may serve as a pretext to launch an attack through the hands of separatists, but also using regular military forces – he adds. As he points out, it is not about full-scale land aggression using large tactical units. Artillery fire from the territory of the Russian Federation is a more probable scenario for instance. Naturally, this would not be the first of such operations since the beginning of the war. But the Russians never pleaded guilty, even when the evidence was clear. “Ikh tam niet”, or “they are not there” – this was the official reaction of Moscow every time accusations were made of the participation of regular Russian troops in the war in Ukraine. This phrase has become a symbol of the Kremlin’s hybrid operations. “Little green men”, mercenaries from the Wagner Group1, instructors, to put it simply – Russian soldiers, fighting “incognito”, are sarcastically called “ikhtamniets”.
So why would Moscow unveil its face shield this time? – Firing on Ukrainian units could be presented as a just revenge against “genocides”, or as a necessary and just liquidation of specific units of the “Kiev junta” before they commit another crime against the Donbas civilians – says the deputy head of the Center for Eastern Studies. – In addition, the Russians often remind NATO countries of the bombing of Serbia during the war in Yugoslavia. Now they could say that since the West has used this type of combat with impunity, it has no right to criticize Russia for similar actions – he adds. He also points out that, in his opinion, full-scale aggression and the occupation of all of Ukraine are very unlikely – Russia, admittedly, is able to conquer Ukraine in a relatively short time, but maintaining the occupation is another matter.
ANOTHER OF PUTIN’S BLUFFS?
Anna Maria Dyner from the Polish Institute of International Affairs considers the invasion to be an unlikely option. – Firstly, Ukraine is a much stronger country militarily than in 2014. The army remains in constant combat readiness and is armed with equipment that may cause serious problems for potential aggressors: American Javelin anti-tank missiles or Turkish Bayraktar strike drones. The Russians know that a full-scale operation would entail not only large financial costs, but also internal costs: the expected numerous casualties would likely not be something to increase public support for the operation – says Anna Maria Dyner. – Secondly, in the event of an invasion, the West would have to introduce immense sanctions and break negotiations with the Kremlin, some countries would probably decide to support Kiev through the supply of equipment and weapons. Thirdly, although with some problems, Russia would probably be able to occupy all of Ukraine, but then an even more difficult struggle with the partisan movement and social resistance would begin – she adds.
Therefore, according to an expert from the Polish Institute of International Relations (PIIR), the current situation is the most comfortable for Putin. By simulating preparations for an invasion, it forces the authorities in Kiev to keep the army on constant alert. There are tangible costs – Ukraine, spending money on armed forces, is neglecting other areas and postponing key reforms until later. So internally it is becoming weaker, an easier target for non-military activities. – It is easier to destabilize Ukraine from the outside than to conquer it, thus taking on the burden of maintaining a country with over 44 million people. Finally: if Russia decides to attack, it will no longer be able to use its weapon of fear that it will attack if the West does not give in, says Anna Maria Dyner.
Traditionally, the West no longer presents an absolutely unified approach towards Moscow. Many leaders would rather concede to Putin’s demands and force Ukraine to implement the unfavorable Minsk agreements. – The paradox is that Kiev absolutely cannot afford any concessions. According to a poll conducted in December, only 12% of Ukrainians want their country to implement the provisions of the Minsk agreements. As many as 54% were in favor of their revision and re-signing. respondents. A concession to Moscow could mean a new Maidan for Volodymyr Zelensky, says the deputy director of the Center for Eastern Studies.
There is plenty of evidence that Putin is bluffing again. The possible relentlessness of the West would likely discourage him from taking any risks. Nor will he lose face by resigning from his threats, because…he never explicitly voiced these threats. He can always say that troop movements were mere maneuvers, without any live targets. Of course, there is always the risk that the Kremlin will eventually decide to strike frontally. – The invasion would make sense only if Putin wanted to use the victorious operation to raise the lowest levels of support in history. But it would not necessarily help, Kiev is not Crimea – speculates the PIIR expert.
– The Russians have invested several billion dollars in Nord Stream 2. Putin would have to be crazy to attack earlier and risk blocking the gas pipeline – says Konończuk. – This is a question of his emotional stability, which in terms of Ukraine is really undermined. Moreover, Putin rarely makes impulsive decisions. For centuries, Russian (and Soviet) strategic culture has been based on rational calculation to get the most out of a situation at the lowest possible cost. The Russians are legalists in their own twisted way. They care about appearances, hence they so consistently persuade that “ikh tam niet”. Although no one, not even in Russia, believes that – he adds.
THE WAR’S SECOND FRONT
Actions on the Belarusian front may be closely correlated with actions on the Ukrainian front. – Until the fence is completed, we will be exposed to migratory pressure at all times. Blocking flights to Minsk will not help if a new route to Moscow is launched, says the deputy director of the Center for Eastern Studies. In his opinion, it is possible that some of the migrants will be transferred by Lukashenko’s secret services to the more permeable border with Ukraine, provided that Moscow will have an interest in this. Thus, a second, hybrid war front will be opened against Kiev. Migrants would be pushed to Ukraine not to subsequently move in the direction of Poland (a too difficult of an operation), but to destabilize Ukraine itself. For many years, Lukashenko sought relatively good relations with Kiev. Recently, however, he almost literally recognized the annexation of Crimea. – In order to prove his loyalty to Putin, he could risk a final breakdown in the relations with Ukraine and transfer a hybrid attack using migrants to the south – Konończuk considers.
According to Anna Maria Dyner, building a fence on the border with Belarus will not guarantee a complete solution to the problem, especially since it will never be completely impenetrabel. – Migrants are just one of many hybrid tools that Lukashenko can use against Poland – she says. – In the future, we will face a much more serious threat, which will be the growing integration of Belarus and Russia, significantly altering the geopolitical security in the region. The border of NATO and the EU’s eastern flank will be patrolled not only by Belarusian but also Russian soldiers. We also need to prepare for coordinated actions by Minsk and Moscow in the field of information warfare and other hybrid actions against Poland and the Baltic countries, as well as on the international arena, for example at the UN or OSCE forum, which we will chair in 2022 – she concludes.
1 a Russian paramilitary organization, whose officers have taken part in various conflicts, including operations in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Syrian government as well as in the war in Donbas, aiding the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
This article was published in December 2021 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.