The Kremlin claims NATO is building up forces on Russian borders, while the West accuses Moscow of preparing to invade Ukraine. The Eastern European country, on the other hand, says that it has not recorded any Russian equipment or military movement directly near the border, but is ready for a potential large-scale confrontation. How likely is a “great war” between Russia and Ukraine?
This is not the first time that various media, analyst and politicians announce an “imminent” Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ever since Moscow, Kyiv, European mediators, as well as representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic signed the Minsk-2 Agreement in February 2015, there were numerous speculations of Russia’s plans to grab more Ukrainian territory. Although the Minsk-2 deal effectively ended “the hot phase” of the Donbass conflict that erupted in 2014, low-scale positional warfare still goes on. However, over the past six years most media remained silent on daily shelling and sniper firing along the front line, but there were occasional speculations that the Kremlin could “soon” invade Ukraine. In March and April there were numerous reports of both Russia and Ukraine building up their forces near the Donbass and Crimea, but at the end “a big war” has not broken out.
This time the very same warmongering rhetoric dominates the public discourse, which is irresistibly reminiscent of Aesop’s fables The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Indeed, the very nature of the Donbass conflict indicates that it can be resolved only by war, unless Russia agrees to voluntarily to return the coal-rich region to Ukraine, which at this point does not seem very probable. Hypothetically, Moscow could trade the Donbass for Nord Stream 2 pipeline, especially after Germany’s energy regulator temporarily halted the certification process for the new pipeline that will carry Russian gas into Europe. Such a move, however, could have severe consequences for the very existence of the Russian Federation, given that once the Donbass issue is resolved, the status of Crimea will undoubtedly be on the table. Thus, the Kremlin is expected to keep preserving the status quo in the Donbass as long as possible.
There are, however, fears in the West that Moscow may launch an invasion of Ukraine in order to pressure its Western partners to give a green light for Nord Stream 2. Given the current energy crisis, it is rather debatable who needs the controversial pipeline more – Russia or the European Union. Although Nord Stream 2 is believed to be purely Russia’s geopolitical project, in reality it is a joint business between Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom, Royal Dutch Shell, German utility company E.ON, Austrian multinational integrated oil and gas company OMV and French multinational electric utility company Engie. Still, after the United States recently imposed additional sanctions in connection with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and Ukrainian gas companies Naftogaz and GTSOU were given notice that they will be included in the ongoing German certification procedures of the project, Russia and Germany may have a hard time pursuing their gas agenda.
All that, however, does not necessarily mean that Russia will start a war against Ukraine. From the purely military perspective, it would not make any sense to launch an invasion in January or February, as some analysts speculate. Springtime and warm weather would represent much better conditions for a military campaign, although at this point it is not very probable that the Kremlin is ready for such an option at all. According to Konstantin Kosachev, Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council Konstantin Kosachev, Russia will never use its armed forces in southeast Ukraine. Previously Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky said that his country will not invade Ukraine “unless provoked”. Such contradictory statements from the Russian officials could suggest that either the Kremlin still has not made a final decision on Ukraine, or that Moscow is still trying to find a common ground with the West.
One thing is for sure: at this point neither Russia nor Ukraine seem to be ready to take the first step and openly declare that the Minsk-2 Agreement is dead, since such a move would be interpreted as a call to war. That is why both Russian and Ukrainian leaders, as well as Western mediators, keep claiming that the Minsk-2 has no alternative, although in reality none of the points of the deal have ever been implemented. For the foreseeable future Moscow and Kyiv will continue to play the game of chicken, although they will both swerve out in order to avoid bumping into each other. But in the long-term someone will have to make the first move that will lead to the resolution of the conflict. Given that Russia, through its proxies, has already achieved most of its military and political goals in 2014, and now firmly controls the Donbass coal production, it is very likely that Ukraine will eventually attempt to restore its sovereignty over the energy-rich territory.
Meanwhile, Kyiv will keep purchasing weapons preparing for an “imminent” war with Russia. Ukraine has already used Turkish-made Bayraktar drones in the Donbass, and some reports suggest that Ukrainian troops have been firing American-made Javelin missiles at Russian-backed forces. The US is reportedly considering supplies of air defense systems, namely stinger missiles, to the Eastern European nation, which could be interpreted as another pressure on Russia in a new Cold War game between Moscow and the West.
At the same time, Washington and Moscow keep doing business as usual. Amid energy crisis, Russia supplies two million barrels of diesel to the US, and ranks second by total petroleum exports to the United States. Ukraine, on the other hand, aims to sign a long-term contract of Russia’s natural gas transit to the European Union, while at the same time Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accuses the Kremlin of plotting a coup against him.
Could it be that warmongering rhetoric is part of behind the scenes deals on energy supplies, as well as an attempt to consolidate Zelensky’s power at home?