By Karl Qualls
Many hysterical talking heads, who seem to know little to nothing about Russia or Ukraine, have been claiming that a full-scale invasion and occupation of Ukraine is imminent. As a historian who has lived, worked and studied in the region for nearly three decades, let me suggest why that sense of panic is misguided and premature.
Russia has been amassing tens of thousands of troops, planes, tanks and anti-aircraft batteries along the borders of Ukraine, but if we look at past Russian actions it becomes clearer that a full-scale invasion has a near-zero probability.
In 2008, Russia swiftly and successfully defeated the former Soviet republic of Georgia’s military, but it led to little change in Georgia’s leaning toward western powers. In 2014, after six years of modernizing and increasing its military, Russia invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine. Russia still occupies the Crimean Peninsula and supports pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and those hostilities have claimed the lives about approximately 14,000 people.
So why will Putin likely not opt for a full-scale invasion? Ukraine is almost the size of Texas, and the further one moves west, the more political sentiment tilts toward Europe and away from Moscow. Today, Ukraine’s military has benefited from eight years of training and equipment from Western nations.
A Russian invasion and occupation would likely lead to thousands of casualties for Russia, and unlike 2014, when many Russians supported the seizing of Crimea, the place where Russian (and Ukrainian) Orthodoxy began as a state religion, there seems to be much less support in Russia for a war with Ukraine today.
Economic factors are in play, too. Russia’s currency is plummeting. its stock market is diving, and inflation is out of control. The cost of the war itself, combined with the promised sanctions from NATO and EU countries, would bring further misery to average Russians and less support for Putin.
If a full-scale invasion and occupation is highly unlikely, what might happen? Since at least 2008, Russia has pursued policies of destabilization, both by interfering in elections abroad, cyberattacks on governments and corporations and increasingly reaching out to Russian speakers living in former Soviet states. This is Moscow’s recognition that warfare and occupation would be crippling. Better to influence than engage in possibly endless guerilla opposition and urban warfare.
Therefore, more probable actions could include increased cyber and psychological warfare to further destabilize Ukraine. Negotiations in the coming days will likely focus at least partly on the 2015 Minsk agreement that promised greater autonomy for the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
This would be more advantageous for Putin because it would cost little, it has been sanctioned by the international community already, and putting these pro-Russian representatives from the eastern enclaves into the Ukrainian parliament would scuttle plans for Ukraine to move closer to its western allies. This much cheaper alternative still allows Moscow to have influence in what Putin considers his sphere and keeps the expansion of EU and NATO institutions from marching further east.
We should take seriously his claims about western behavior such as when Secretary of State James Baker promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move further east toward Soviet borders only to be quickly overruled by President George H. W. Bush.
A lack of magnanimity as the Soviet system collapsed has led to our current problems and Putin’s belief that the West cannot be trusted. Putin wants to restore Moscow’s relevance, be included in major global conversations and maintain its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. Until Western powers recognize this and at least have conversations about it, Putin will continue a campaign of destabilization in both former Soviet nations and further abroad.
The new weaponry being sent to Ukraine and the shift of more ships, planes and troops closer to Moscow’s borders will influence Putin’s actions. More meaningful would be to support Ukraine by helping to expand and protect its communications and energy resources and counteract disinformation throughout the region.
The U.K. and U.S. failed to hold Russia accountable in 2014 for violating the 20-year-old agreement to “respect the independence” of Ukraine and “refrain from the threat or use of force.” They cannot fail to do so again.
So, let’s take a breath. We should be worried about what Russia will do next, but we should not panic and make matters even worse by provoking Russia into more deadly actions than it is probably contemplating. Diplomacy can still work.
Karl Qualls is a professor of history at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where his teaching focus includes Russian history. He is the author of Stalin’s Niños: Educating Spanish Civil War Refugee Children in the Soviet Union and From Ruins to Reconstruction: Urban Identity in Soviet Sevastopol after World War II.
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