For the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, pressure has been building up at several levels over recent years. At the macro level, Russia’s relations with the United States (and, by extension, NATO) have deteriorated significantly as a result of the continuous flow of Russian disruptive and adversarial actions since its invasion of Ukraine in 2014. These actions include the U.S. presidential election hacks of 2016 that especially polarized the U.S. democratic landscape regarding Russia; Russian actions in Syria; the undermining of European institutions; the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom; the poisoning, arrest, and incarceration of dissident Alexei Navalny; the SolarWinds hack; and reports of specific meddling in the 2020 election against presidential candidate Joe Biden. In aggregate, it has led to the current round of sanctions against Russia. All of this is only the backdrop to the festering relationship between Kyiv and Moscow that has drawn in the United States/NATO and the European Union (EU), making the region all the more fraught and tense—especially with firmly declared, material U.S./NATO and EU support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia’s aggressive behavior regionally and worldwide seemingly masks its deep, embedded fears of threats along its extended 11-timezone periphery and an anxiousness that its population, while patriotic, is also restive. In the past year, numerous demonstrations have sprung up about corruption, questionable electioneering, and Navalny, magnified across borders by major unrest in Belarus, the Azeri victory over Armenia in recent fighting, and other flare-ups within the states of the former Soviet Union. Additionally—and rightfully so, both for deterrence and allied assurance—NATO and the United States have conducted military exercises and maneuvers within the lands of allies and partners. This movement has made terrestrial-oriented Moscow nervous, even though the correlation of forces clearly shows that their relatively small number and array is no offensive threat to Russia. Regardless, the situation plays to both perceived and contrived Russian existential threat concerns.
Russia’s formidable but still limited force array gives it several options. First and foremost, it signals its capability to take substantive offensive action against Ukraine. This does not mean, however, that the Kremlin intends to do so, despite heightened tensions and its overtly visible military deployments and posture. Most likely, this is aggressive, coercive posturing, designed to intimidate Ukraine and to push back on what it sees as an excessive U.S./NATO regional presence along Russia’s extended periphery and NATO’s support to partners such as Ukraine and Georgia. Fueling this seemingly angry posturing was Ukraine’s recent public request to be brought into NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), which was akin to fluttering a red matador’s cape in the face of Moscow’s bull. It was the announced intention to bring Ukraine into the EU Association in 2013 that helped initiate the Maidan and the ugly sequence of events leading to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea in early 2014. Although Russia’s movements are likely a military demonstration, the real prospect of a very dangerous accident, incident, or provocation could inadvertently mutate into a “how did we get here?” confrontation between both heavily armed camps that, on the ladder of escalation, could in an extreme worst case involve nuclear weapons. The decision to rescind sending two U.S. warships into the Black Sea at this time was wise; Russia is extremely touchy about Crimea, and there is still plenty of NATO regional presence compared to 2014. When linked with the prospect of direct talks between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin this summer, along with a senior-level Strategic Stability Dialogue, careful planning and messaging could help deescalate any additional force-on-force buildups. A key event to watch will be the major Russian Zapad-21 military exercise that will occur in late summer or early autumn 2021. It traditionally takes place in western Russia, including Kaliningrad, and also involves recently shaky Belarus.
If Russia does undertake offensive operations in Ukraine, its options depend on its ultimate objectives. Moscow would have the initiative, as any conflict would begin with their offensive action. Presaging overt military operations would likely be an aggressive, non-kinetic cyber and electronic warfare effort to blind and confuse forward Ukrainian and regional NATO assets as well as its command and control. Moscow would have to decide if it wants to go big and seize major tracts of land, set limited territorial objectives, or bloody forward Ukrainian forces with hard-hitting cross-border punitive strikes. Seizing and holding major terrain deep in Ukraine would be especially difficult for a Russian military designed to strike deep but not hold major tracts of land, especially in contested terrain. Any offensive variation would have huge international and domestic implications for Russia, where its patriotic but increasingly discerning population could pressure the regime if they sensed that an assault of their difficult but still kindred Ukrainian neighbor was punitive rather than existential to Russia. This likely discontent would be amplified if Russian forces took major casualties, especially young conscripts, in a difficult-to-justify offensive fight against a much-improved Ukrainian military. A Western response would be significant and substantive, such as rapidly supplying Ukrainian forces with a flood of capable lethal weapons; at the same time, Russia would be diplomatically and economically assailed internationally in ways that would especially hurt Russia’s monied interests. In a worst-case scenario, U.S./NATO forces could be drawn into a dangerous escalatory fight that neither side wants, one that could rapidly spread across Russia’s vast, vulnerable periphery including the Arctic.