The Russo-Ukrainian crisis, arisen between Russia on the one hand and Ukraine backed by Western countries and NATO on the other, has been on the rise recently, with both sides adopting escalatory measures at the security, military, and diplomatic levels, which raised concerns over the possibility of an outbreak of war between the two countries.
This analysis attempts to highlight the main indicators of the Russo-Ukrainian crisis, while identifying the motivations for the escalation and the expected scenarios.
By the end of 2021, tensions over the Russo-Ukrainian crisis had escalated. Historically, this crisis has roots extending for years between Moscow and Kyiv, the latter supported by NATO countries. Tensions between the two neighbouring countries have culminated in several moves, the most notable of which are:
- Russian Mobilization on the Borders with Ukraine: Russia has mobilized more than 100,000 troops equipped with tanks, guns, and ammunition along the southern, eastern, and northern borders with Ukraine. Besides these troops, satellite imagery have shown Moscow’s transfer of hundreds of tanks, guns, and missiles from remote areas (e.g. Siberia, near borders of Kyiv) in the lead-up to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, similar to that of 2014, when Moscow invaded Kyiv, an invasion that gave rise to its annexation of Crimea.
Additionally, Moscow sent about 30,000 soldiers to Belarus, backed by special forces, advanced fighter aircraft, short-term S-400 missile systems, and several SU-35 air-defense fighters. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, these forces will stay in Belarus until mid-February to conduct a series of exercises near Brest (on the Polish borders), Baranovichi (northeastern Brest), Grodno (near Lithuania–Poland border border) and Minsk.
- Cold Response to Russia’s Security Demands: On 17 December, Russia submitted two draft documents to the United States and NATO, outlining its security demands. The first draft, submitted to Washington, stipulated that the United States commit to forestall NATO’s expansion in the east, the accession of former ex-Soviet countries to NATO, and the establishment of military bases in the former ex-Soviet countries that aren’t NATO members, along with preventing bilateral military collaboration with ex-Soviet nations or the use of their infrastructure to engage in any military activity. As for clauses of the draft pact proposed to the NATO, these included NATO’s commitment to no further enlargement of the alliance through accession of Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries to NATO and the non-exercise of any military activities in Ukraine, South Caucasus, Central Asia, and other eastern countries.
The NATO and US response to Russia’s demands was disappointing, ignoring its concerns and security interests. For its part, Washington rejected Moscow’s demands regarding non-accession of Ukraine to NATO, whereas NATO announced through its Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, rejection of the Russian demands regarding its expansion in the west, which exacerbated the crisis and heightened tensions between them and Russia.
- Boosting Military Supplies to Ukraine: Towards dealing with the Russian threat, the US and Western countries’ response materialized in providing military support to Ukraine through equipping it with emergency military equipment and advanced weapons, in addition to threatening to impose economic sanctions on Moscow to suppress Russia’s moves to invade Kiev and providing significant aid, estimated at about $2.7 billion since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, to strengthen Kyiv’s defense capabilities.
Motivations for Escalation
There are several motivations behind the Russo-Ukrainian escalation, which can be identified as follows:
I-Motivations of Russia: Russia seeks to ensure Ukraine’s disengagement from the West and prevent its accession to NATO. Ukraine’s NATO membership will pose a direct threat to Russia’s national security as it, in substance, means NATO’s deployment of its forces at a “zero distance to the border” with Russia, and hereby militarily besieging Russia and limiting its defense capabilities in the face of the aerial, land, and naval threats of the West. Putin wants written assurances –rather than oral promises– that guarantee Russia’s protection of its vital space against any potential threats through threatening to use military force and gunboat diplomacy.
Additionally, Putin views that Ukraine has historically been a strategic buffer zone for Russia. As such, Russia’s military moves on the borders with Ukraine can be interpreted within Russia’s attempts to bring Kyiv back to the Russian fold, after having thrown itself into the West’s arms since 2014, as part of Putin’s endeavors to re-impose influence on ex-Soviet countries.
II. Motivations of the West and the US: Western powers justify their support for Ukraine by defending NATO’s “open door” policy that recognizes the right of any eligible state to independently decide whether to join the alliance or not. That said, there remains underlying motivations behind the West’s support for Kyiv, including the fear of the United States and European countries of Russia’s instigation of a war and invading Ukraine, as has been the case in 2014 when it annexed Crimea in the aftermath of toppling of the then pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president, let alone the West’s concerns about a shortage in gas supply as a result of the possible negative repercussions in the event of imposing sanctions on Russia. Notably, 40 percent of Europe’s gas is supplied by Russia.
Furthermore, Western powers are cautiously watching Putin’s ambitious endeavors to restore his ancestors’ glory. Therefore, they try to undermine the growing political and military influence of Russia by surrounding it with conflicts and tensions, including accession of Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations to the NATO, pushing Russia (which will naturally rise to defend its national security and regional environment) to involve in political and security struggles that may have devastating consequences.
In view of the previous dynamics, three possible scenarios seem to resonate:
- Scenario 1: Outbreak of War: This scenario is based on the premise that Russia will instigate the war and invade Ukraine, either partially by taking control of the Eastern separatist areas or by full invasion of Kiev. While this scenario is already suggested, chances of it are unlikely given unwillingness of the disputing parties to incur a high cost and the ominous consequences the war would give rise to.
Moscow, for instance, won’t be able to incur the severe economic sanctions that would be imposed on it by the West in case it invaded Ukraine. Kyiv, too, for several reasons, won’t be able to go to war with Russia, given 1) the disparity in military capabilities between it and Moscow, 2) its systematic internal crises that make it difficult to risk entering into a military confrontation with a country the size of Russia, and 3) insufficiency of the Western support (that Ukraine relies on) to protect Ukraine in the face of the Russian escalation, particularly all indicators suggest that Kyiv will be the only victim of this war.
- Scenario 2: Resolving the Crisis through Negotiations: This scenario assumes that parties will reach a lull agreement through negotiations. Russia is expected to engage in talks in tandem with continuation of its military maneuvers on the borders with Ukraine as a way of putting pressure during the negotiations, towards ensuring getting as much gains as possible from negotiations that guarantee protection of its living space and national security.
Several indicators show this scenario to be the most likely given its low cost for all the involved parties. Perhaps Washington’s announcement on 2 February of its willingness to discuss the possibility of allowing Russia to assure that no Tomahawk cruise missiles are stationed in Romania and Poland if Russia agrees to share similar information on missiles deployed in specific Russian bases, is an indicator that reflects the desire of the disputing parties to move to negotiations.
- Scenario 3: Continuation of the Status Quo: This scenario assumes the continuation of the status quo, meaning countries involved in the crisis will continue escalation, both at the security, military or diplomatic levels, until new variables are introduced, pushing parties to war or pacification. Notably, maintaining the status quo is quite dangerous, as it will leave the war option on the table.
Overall, the scenario that will unfold primarily depends on the flexibility of the involved parties and the extent to which they are willing to indulge in negotiations that will lead all of them to make concessions, or otherwise pay the high price of escalation.