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Is Russia really about to invade Ukraine?

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Staff writer James Westmacott on increasing tensions and border scuffles between Russia and Ukraine in Crimea.

And so, the latest chapter of the seemingly never-ending Russia-Ukraine debacle has begun, with reports this week that the Kremlin has made its move to mass over 90,000 Russian troops at the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian officials have subsequently been warned by Western intelligence to prepare for a ‘high probability of destabilisation’ for as early as this winter, in what has turned out to be a major escalation of the crisis – ongoing since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Though the true aim behind the Kremlin’s move remains unknown, a variety of interpretations have risen to the fore. Though it begs a far more serious question – will Russia really invade Ukraine?

First and foremost, it’s important to say that how far you trust Western intelligence is entirely up to you. After all, its record isn’t exactly what you would call squeaky clean. Nonetheless, the news that Russia has sent troops to its eastern border with the Donbass region of Ukraine, where Moscow-backed enclaves have been fighting a proxy war with Kyiv since 2014, has clearly been perceived as a statement of Russian aggression which has undoubtedly heightened tensions.

So, what really are Russia’s motivations behind this latest move? The leading school of thought remains that Moscow is simply looking to threaten Kyiv with war, by planting the thought of military conflict in the minds of Ukrainian politicians and people. Although not currently a member state of either, Ukraine has in recent years made clear its political aspirations of joining NATO and also the European Union, clearly emphasising Ukraine’s westward-looking future. The Kremlin instead seeks to attempt to reverse Kyiv’s pro-western moves by undoubtedly making clear that they will simply not let Ukraine go without a fight. Ukraine is simply drifting to the West too much for Putin’s liking. He’s always regarded Ukraine as a rightful part of Russia, with the former head of the KGB having been on record stating that the breakup of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’. The Kremlin has also made clear its concerns about the growing Western influence in Ukraine such as the expansion of US training bases in the country, along with US and Ukrainian militaries partaking in joint military exercises in the Black Sea, hence the Russian attempt to reign them back in.

And it may well work. Having planted the seeds of doubt and fear in the psyches of the Ukrainian population, will they desire integration with the West quite as passionately as they did before, given the heightened risk of tension and instability in the short-term, and something as extreme as potential military conflict in the long-term? Do Ukrainians mind being caught between East and West, or will they simply stand up to Mr Putin and go ahead with its political westernisation regardless?

It must be said though, that a fully-fledged invasion for now seems unlikely. You may not like President Putin – and you would of course be justified in that view – but he certainly isn’t stupid. He knows how to play the game, and is only too aware of the geopolitical and economic implications of initiating such a thing. A full-scale invasion would also be very out of character for Putin whose geopolitical military operations to date have largely been small scale, low cost and low risk. Many argue that Russia has little to gain from an invasion of Ukraine, with clear risks of engaging other powers in conflict, galvanising NATO, as well as the fact all-out-war would likely not go down particularly well amongst the Russian populace already suffering through Covid, economic sanctions and plummeting oil prices.

Though is history merely repeating itself? Back in 2008, the Kremlin deployed Russian combat forces on its southern border with neighbouring Georgia, ultimately resulting in the successful Russian invasion of two Georgian regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Ukrainians themselves are of course too no strangers to such phenomena, with the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Very few predicted that Putin would be brave enough to initiate such action in these cases, emphasising how rapidly the situation can turn when nobody’s looking. Whether Putin’s latest move is characterised by a desire to invade or merely deterrence remains to be seen. Nothing is certain.

The famous Ukrainian writer Anatoly Kuznetsov once wrote of the Donbass region, that ‘there is in this world neither brains, nor goodness, nor good sense, but only brute force. Bloodshed. Starvation. Death’. Whether those words ring true once more, only time will tell.

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