Is the crisis in the Ukraine heading for escalation?


By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi​​ | January, 2022

Russian tank
Photo: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation | CC BY 4.0


Some 200 years ago, Carl von Clausewitz, one of the founders of modern theory of war, had already coined the phrase "war is the continuation of politics by other means". It seems that President Putin's conduct since rising to power, and particularly over the past few weeks, is a practical display demonstrating this very perception. Time after time the Russian leader is proving his willingness to use force in order to promote his country's strategic objectives domestically and internationally. The invasion of Georgia in 2008, the takeover of Crimea in 2014, the use of force in Syria since 2015, and the deployment of forces in Kazakhstan this past month, alongside cyber activity against governmental institutions in various countries (such as Estonia and the Ukraine), and attempted assassinations against local opposition leaders, are tangible manifestations of his approach. His conduct vis-à-vis the West and Ukraine during the current crisis can also be viewed through the same prism – creating the option for an imminent, concrete military threat.



Intense diplomacy a cul-de-sac


Russia and the United States have been engaging in ongoing diplomacy in recent days in an attempt to find a solution for the crisis, through bilateral talks in Geneva, the convening of NATO's North Atlantic Council (NAC) in Brussels, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. A series of meetings and talks between corresponding Russian, American and German foreign ministers followed, including a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart Blinken (21 January in Geneva). For the time being, at least on the public level, large gaps seem to be remaining, as both parties are digging their heels.


Russia subsequently continues to convey strong and intimidating public messages. Thus, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov has warned that, in the event that Russian demands are rejected by the United States, it would "endanger not only its own security but that of Europe". Foreign Minister Lavrov said Moscow expects the U.S. and NATO to respond in writing, and that Russia is "not ready to wait forever". Ryabkov neither confirmed nor excluded the possibility of Russia deploying forces near U.S. borders by sending military assets to Cuba and Venezuela, while comparing the current tensions over Ukraine to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.


By contrast, U.S. officials have argued that the Russian demands do not serve as basis for negotiations, altogether dismissing the possibility that NATO would forego its "open door" policy, and limit its collaborations with certain countries. President Biden issued further warning whereby, should Russia invade the Ukraine, it would face "disastrous" sanctions that would make President Putin "regret having done it". The United States has also claimed to have intelligence pointing to Russia's promotion of a "false-flag" operation designed to lay the groundwork to try to fabricate a pretext for invading Ukraine: Russian operatives trained in urban warfare and using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. At the same time, Russia would ramp up a disinformation campaign accusing the Ukraine of being responsible for these attacks. According to U.S. government officials, the Russian Army could wage an attack "at any moment".


While diplomatic talks are underway, Russia continues its military preparations near the border with the Ukraine. It has sent attack and transport helicopters to the border, as well as marine, logistics and ground forces previously stationed in the Far East or central Russia. The Russian Army has also held a military exercise near the border with the Ukraine just days ago, in which 3000 troops and hundreds of tanks took part. Moreover, large-scale military Russian forces, some from the eastern part of Russia, have arrived in Belarus, allegedly as part of the large military exercise the two countries are planning to hold in February. The increase in military asset deployment on the border, execution of military exercises and sending of forces to Belarus are all designed to achieve several goals simultaneously on the strategic, operative, and cognitive warfare levels – exerting greater pressure on the West to display Russia's seriousness of intentions, completing military preparations, as well as creating confusion and uncertainty with regard to the nature of the military actions taken.


It is noteworthy, however, that the condition of the ground in Eastern Ukraine is far from optimal if Russia is indeed planning a military maneuver that includes invading extensive areas. At present the ground is not frozen enough, making it difficult for armored vehicles and logistic equipment to be in transit, whereas, in two months' time, it will turn muddy. Nevertheless, Russia has a wide range of military options at its disposal that do not necessarily include (initially, at least) the extensive use of ground forces. For instance, it could launch a cyberattack and paralyze Ukrainian government and military systems, use forces to take over key areas, and so on, to show the United States what it stands to lose if the crisis should continue, and force it to negotiate in amore convenient conditions for Russia.



What's Putin's next move?


At this stage, the ball seems to be in the United States' and NATO's court, as they are expected to respond in writing to Russia's security demands. However, the response is not likely to provide even a partial solution for Russia's requirements, especially with regard to the commitment to avoid having the Ukraine join NATO.


An analysis of Moscow's conduct and declarations in recent weeks (including its recurring use of the term "red lines") reveals a clear image whereby President Putin is determined to promote new security arrangements in Europe that center on the U.S. and NATO's commitment to refrain from expanding the alliance, deploying weapons and holding exercises near Russian borders, all in order to right the historical injustice committed against Russia, in his view, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Putin seems to be identifying a historical golden opportunity for altering Russia's geostrategic and security status due to the combination of several factors. Primary among them is a U.S administration, perceived as being weak and deterred by conflict, that strives to focus its attention and assets domestically and on the Asian domain, vis-à-vis China, alongside the West's accumulating exhaustion of investing resources in military struggles (particularly against the backdrop of economic difficulties caused by the pandemic). It is also likely that the tightening axis with China, and support Beijing has been providing Moscow, are giving Putin tailwind for his continued aggressive policy. This development was reflected in the events in Kazakhstan in recent weeks, where China fully supported the activation of Russian forces, as well as in reports of a joint Russian, Chinese and Iranian naval exercise.


Furthermore, Putin is well aware that the manner in which the crisis is resolved would directly project onto Russia's image of power in the international arena, and even his own personal prestige both domestically and globally. In view of the realization that Russia would find it difficult to maintain a credible image of willingness to use force for long, coupled with the concern that forces be eroded and large resources wasted, it seems that, in the event that no material change in the West's position occur to enable Putin to present a significant accomplishment publicly, Russia is expected to take harsher and more aggressive steps in the very near future.



Recommendations for Israel – A cautious approach and dialogue


Naturally, an escalation in this crisis could have projections, at least in the immediate timeframe, on collaborations between the great powers on issues pertaining to Israel's crucial interests (Iran, Syria). Israel should, as it has to date, continue to maintain a cautious policy with regard to its conduct vis-à-vis this crisis in view of the potential implications for its relations with both Russia and the Ukraine. Thus, it should display caution in its public references to the crisis in general, and to the developments with the Ukraine in particular. Israel is further advised to avoid promoting security ties, certainly on the public level, with the Ukraine at this time.


At the same time, Israel should maintain its security coordination with Russia with regard to its actions in the northern arena in view of the two countries' shared interest to weaken Iranian presence in Syria. It should also promote strategic dialogue with Russia to try and influence its relations with Iran, particularly in view of the possibility that bilateral ties between them would grow closer, including in areas such as security and military procurement, following President Raisi's visit to Moscow.




Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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