Dr Simon Saradzhyan, Director, Russia Matters Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Not a day seems to go by now without dire warnings of an imminent Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Such warnings do not come out of the blue: A variety of sources—including government organizations, such as U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence, military and diplomatic agencies, and non-governmental organizations, such as Jane’s and Russia’s Conflict Intelligence Team—are reporting that the Russian military is amassing assets, including infantry, airborne, artillery, missile and tank units, in regions adjacent to Ukraine in numbers unseen since 2014. While the concentration of Russian tactical battalion groups vis-à-vis Ukraine is hardly disputable, tentative results of my research into the Russian leadership’s past decisions regarding military interventions indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to order these combat units to conduct an offensive against Ukraine unless Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky makes the first military move on the Donbass chessboard.
I have examined nine instances during Putin’s leadership of Russia where he was likely to have considered ordering a military intervention in another country but decided against it, and three instances when he did end up issuing such an order (Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015). My examination of these 12 instances reveals that for Putin to issue an order to intervene, a confluence of three conditions needs to be present. First, Putin has to see a clear, acute threat to one or more of Russia’s vital national interests as he sees them (see Table 1). Second, he has to have a reasonable hope that the intervention would succeed in defending the threatened vital interests or in advancing them. Third, Putin has either to have run out of options that do not involve the use of armed force, and are therefore generally less costly, or lacks the time needed to exercise non-military options in response to the perceived threats. I do not believe that Putin, who is the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to Russia’s foreign and defence policies, sees either the first or third of these conditions applying when he looks at Ukraine.
In terms of the first condition, when it comes to Ukraine, neither of the most pressing threats to Russia’s vital interests – that is, preventing armed conflicts being waged against its allies and preventing the arrival of hostile regional hegemonies on Russia’s borders – have become qualitatively more acute recently and nor have new threats emerged. Moreover, the probability that NATO, which Russia’s leadership views as a threat to their country’s national security, will accept Ukraine as a member has not increased. Yes, Zelensky has made several appeals to the Alliance recently, arguing that a path toward NATO membership is the only way to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, while NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s response to these appeals has included expressions of support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, he has kept silent on whether the Alliance would offer Ukraine a membership action plan (MAP). NATO did promise Ukraine in 2008 that it would join the Alliance one day, but that day has not come any closer with recent events.
In addition to the issue of the expansion of NATO to include Ukraine, Putin’s aides have also made it clear that a Ukrainian offensive in the occupied Donbass, where half a million people have acquired Russian citizenship, would be treated as crossing a Russian red line. “I support the assessments – that also exist inside Ukraine – that the beginning of hostilities [in eastern Ukraine] is the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Dmitry Kozak, has said. “It’s a self-inflicted wound, a shot not in the leg but in the face,” he said, adding that Moscow “would have to come to the defence” of Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine. These explicit warnings may have been, perhaps, one reason why the chief of the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Ruslan Khomchak, publicly pledged that his forces, which have been concentrating in areas adjacent to the Donbass region, would not launch an all-out offensive against the pro-Russian separatists in Donbass.
Were, however, Ukraine’s leadership to break its promise and order such an offensive against Donbass or were NATO to offer Ukraine a MAP, the first of the conditions necessary for Russian military intervention would emerge, altering Putin’s calculus. It seems unlikely, though, at the time of this writing, that either contingency would occur in the near future.
In terms of the second condition noted above, as long as Ukraine doesn’t make the first military move in Donbass, I doubt that a Russian offensive against this country would advance any Russian vital interests, such as preventing armed conflicts waged against its allies or the arrival of hostile regional hegemonies on Russia’s borders. Any such offensive would not put a decisive end to Ukraine’s NATO aspirations unless Russian tanks manage to roll all the way to Ukraine’s western frontiers. Moreover, even a limited Russian intervention could yield significant net costs for Russia. Yes, the prospects for any offensive being successful from a purely military point of view do seem to be fairly positive. Russia’s armed forces do operate more tanks, artillery, multiple rocket launch systems, missiles, warplanes and other systems than their Ukrainian counterparts, and these systems are generally more advanced than those in the Ukrainian arsenal. In addition, Russia has far more professional soldiers in its armed forces than Ukraine does.
However, it is not clear whether all these qualitative and quantitative advantages would be sufficient to ensure that the Russian Army’s numeric superiority over the Ukrainian Army would create the minimum 3:1 ratio that any attacking side normally would need to prevail, ceteris paribus. This ratio is much closer to 2:1 than to 3:1 even if the entire available Russian ground force was somehow employed in the offensive, along with the Donbass’ separatist forces, estimated at 50,000. When calculating the correlation of forces, one should also factor in that the Ukrainian armed forces have acquired some advanced systems, such as U.S. Javelin anti-tank missiles and counter-battery radar, that would definitely make life, or, rather, combat, more difficult for the attacking ground force.
The fact, moreover, that the Ukrainian war machine now has a functioning chain of command and that the Ukrainian military has spent the past several years preparing to repel an offensive from the east also indicate that a hypothetical Spring 2021 campaign won’t be a walk in the park of the kind that Russia’s “little green men” enjoyed in Crimea in Spring 2014. Even if Russia were to limit the offensive to advancing some 300 km to establish a land bridge to water-starved Crimea, such an offensive force could still suffer significant casualties that the Kremlin would find difficult to conceal or justify (unless that offensive came as a counter-offensive in response to a major Ukrainian attack). A failure like this could, in turn, result in a significant decline of the Russian leadership’s domestic approval rating in contrast to the surge in public support that Putin enjoyed after an almost bloodless taking of Crimea.
Putin could always count on his ratings to eventually rebound by the next presidential elections in March 2024, but his United Russia party, whose popularity has been declining, may find it difficult to retain the commanding heights in the State Duma when parliamentary elections roll around in September 2021. And the further west that Russian forces might advance, moreover, the more likely it would be that this campaign would have to be followed by a lengthy counter-insurgency operation in lands where sympathizers of Russia are scarce compared to the traditionally pro-Russian parts of eastern and south-eastern Ukraine.
More importantly, perhaps, unless Russian tanks roll all the way to the western borders of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government would still probably refuse to abandon its efforts to win NATO membership and reorient toward Moscow, therefore denying Russia the benefit of advancing its vital interests (Table 1). The financial and economic costs of an all-out war initiated by Russia against Ukraine would also be significant, including Western sanctions “from hell,” such as a ban on all high-tech exports to Russia and its exclusion from the banking payment system, SWIFT. And then, of course, there would also be the burden of subsidizing newly acquired territories, which could be quite significant, as the case of Crimea has shown. For a decision-maker as rational as Putin to agree to incur these costs, he would have to see the benefits that would outweigh them, such as the successful parrying of an acute threat either to a vital Russian national interest or to his own grip on power. As explained above, no such threat emanates from Ukraine at the moment.
Third and lastly in terms of the above-noted conditions, Putin has yet to run out of non-violent and therefore generally less costly options in regard to defending and/or advancing Russia’s interests vis-à-vis Ukraine. That the Russian leadership believes it has not yet run out of such non-forceful alternatives follows from the continued willingness on these leaders’ parts to engage in negotiations and other communications with Western political leaders and military commanders, who Moscow expects to bring Ukraine to its senses. The demonstrative, unconcealed and massive movements of Russian military units along the country’s border with Ukraine are also meant to signal Moscow’s resolve to Kyiv and its Western partners, to compel Zelensky to stop what the Kremlin sees as deliberate Ukrainian efforts to stall negotiations on implementation of the Minsk-2 agreement and to increase pressure on Russia via the newly-established Crimean Platform, which is aimed at bringing together Western allies. The Russian military deployments are also meant to deter Zelensky – who apparently had ordered the movement of Ukrainian troops and weapons closer to the conflict zone in Donbass – from using these forces for an actual attack on the separatists.
Strong language—such as Kozak’s warning that a Ukrainian attack on Donbass will usher in the “beginning of the end of Ukraine” and the assertion of Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, that Ukraine’s NATO bid could “entail irreversible consequences for … Ukrainian statehood”—also demonstrates that the Kremlin so far hopes that Ukraine can be deterred by words rather than by force.
So, if the conditions for Putin to order a new major military intervention in Ukraine are not yet present, then why have Russian forces been amassing in areas adjacent to Ukraine? For one thing, the Russian military-political leadership may have concluded that the Ukrainian leadership has decided to try to change facts on the ground in Donbass by force and, therefore, the Russian military needs to be ready to intervene on the separatists’ behalf to beat back any Ukrainian offensive. And in addition to signalling Putin’s resolve to prevent Ukraine from forcefully retaking Donbass, the troop concentration may also be meant to put pressure on Zelensky to stop what the Kremlin sees as the Ukrainian leadership’s efforts to duck out of implementing Minsk-2.
This peace agreement, if implemented as agreed upon in 2015, would allow Kyiv to eventually re-establish control over Donbass, but on Moscow’s conditions, which would make Ukraine’s further drift toward NATO difficult. However, the Kremlin’s intention to employ its military for signalling rather than for actual fighting doesn’t preclude scenarios in which an accident could drag Russia and Ukraine into a war. Accidental wars have erupted more than once in history and for Russia and Ukraine to reduce the probability of an unintended open conflict, they both need to reverse their respective military build-ups.
Table 1: Russia’s vital national interests as seen by the Russian leadership 
|1. Prevent, deter and reduce threats of: secession of constituent republics from Russia; insurgency within Russia or in areas adjacent to Russia, and armed conflicts waged against Russia, its allies or in the vicinity of Russian frontiers.|
|2. Prevent emergence of hostile powers or regional hegemonies or failed states on Russian borders; ensure Russia is surrounded by friendly states, which Russia can heavily influence.|
|3. Establish and maintain productive relations with core European Union members, the United States and China, upon which Russian national interests hinge to a significant extent.|
|4. Ensure the viability and stability of major markets for the flows of Russian exports and imports.|
|5. Ensure steady development and diversification of the Russian economy and its integration into global markets.|
|6. Prevent neighbouring states from acquiring nuclear arms and long-range delivery systems.|
|7. Prevent large-scale and/or sustained terrorist attacks on Russia.|
|8. Ensure Russian allies’ survival and their active cooperation with Russia.|
Table 2: Correlation of Russia’s and Ukraine’s military potential
|Russia||Ukraine||Ukraine’s as % of Russia’s||Ratio (rounded to whole numbers)|
|Military budget in national currency||3,087 bn roubles||117.8 bn hryvnia||n/a||n/a|
|Military budget in USD||$40.7 bn||$4.3 bn||11%||81 : 9|
|Active military personnel, including||900,000||209,000||23%||9 : 2|
|Army||280,000||145,000||52%||57 : 29|
|Navy||150,000||11,000||7%||150 : 11|
|Aerospace Forces/Air Force||165,000||45,000||27%||11 : 3|
|Airborne||45,000||8,000||18%||45 : 8|
|Reserve personnel||2,000,000||900,000||45%||20 : 9|