Russia Is Unlikely To Invade Ukraine. But This Is What It Could Do

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

The current situation as concerns Russia and Ukraine has many worried, with the prospects of war in Europe making mainstream headlines. However, there are multiple misconceptions about what is really happening. Here I deal with some of them.

Is this a Russian conflict against Ukraine?

Not specifically. In the history of Russia, Ukraine plays a vitally important part, the very roots of old Rus can be traced back to Kiev. The Ukrainians are very much part of the Russian family and share common values and beliefs. What has changed is the gradual move to the West by certain Ukrainian and Western politicians who have encouraged this. The Ukraine is very rich in agricultural lands, and although it would not stand well with Moscow, Ukrainian membership of the European Union could be acceptable. What is not acceptable to Moscow is the tendency for EU members to join NATO. This would, and already has, lead to a build-up of covert US military forces under the NATO banner less than 500km away from Moscow.  Putin wants these covert forces and US supplied weapons systems removed and an agreement that Ukraine will not join NATO. The disagreement is primarily a struggle for influence between Russia and the United States, not Ukraine per se.

Would Russia Invade Ukraine?

It certainly could. However, it is important to understand that this would not be popularly received in Russia itself, who maintain strong family and historical connections with Ukraine. The situation is nothing to do with Putin seeking popularity back home.

What About The Situation In Crimea and Eastern Ukraine?

The problems essentially lie within pro-EU Ukrainian politicians in Kiev. They want to push to the West. However, in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine, the population are more Russian speaking and influenced. This has meant that Ukrainian national infrastructure and spending has not extended so far to these regions as Kiev regards them as less patriotic. Much needed expenditure has been diverted elsewhere as politically, these regions are more pro-Moscow than Kiev but are part of Ukrainian territory, although Kiev has not treated them equally. The Crimea situation evolved because the Crimean people felt they were being treated so badly they asked Moscow for help. Moscow held (an illegal, but still relevant) referendum in Crimea and the vast majority elected to become part of Russia. The Russians then occupied Crimea. It is important to note that there was no fighting or military action in this annexation of the territory – the local people wanted the Russians back in control. It is a similar situation in Eastern Ukraine.

It is possible that a solution could be found to Ukraine ceding parts of its East to Russia. But the problems over potential NATO membership and US weapons systems in Ukraine would still remain.

What Is Russia’s Likely Reaction If Not To Invade?

It is true that the US and EU would place severe sanctions on Russia if it did invade Ukraine. That scenario actually suits the US as it would probably mean that EU gas supplies from Russia would effectively cease and be replaced by US gas supplies. However, Russia has other clients for its gas. A disconnection from the SWIFT banking network is possible and would damage Russia, but in time it would recover and technical alternatives, especially with China, would emerge. Even so, Moscow is probably unwilling at this stage to incur such penalties. The US position seems clear: invade Ukraine and there will be sanctions.

But there is a third path. Russia has mobilized thousands of troops on the Belarussian borders with north Ukraine, thousands more in the east, and has sent a significant Naval presence to its territorial waters in the Black Sea. It has Ukraine surrounded on three sides.

I suspect that this presence will remain there for the foreseeable future.

The implications of this will be an increased US military presence in the Eastern EU, meaning Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania. However, the US does not provide this support for free, Brussels and the countries concerned will have to foot the bill. Countries in Western EU may not be happy having to contribute what would amount to billions to have US troops on the EU’s eastern flanks when a NATO withdrawal from possible involvement in Ukraine would solve the issue.

But then again, the US will also want to sell weapons and additional systems to the European Union. Washington has a vested weapons sales interest in talking this conflict up. I suspect that the Russians will keep that economic and military expense and pressure on the EU, without doing anything in the Ukraine, until eventually the EU number crunchers realise just what an expense this is, and start to question the viability and desirabiity for an increased American military presence in multiple European countries, all of whom have to pay for this.

If correct, then Moscow will not order an invasion of Ukraine. But it will keep a very strong military presence around it to discourage further EU and NATO involvement until the EU gets fed up with the cost of maintaining what essentially will amount to a Cold War front. Russia will not face sanctions as it won’t have invaded, but it will have created a huge geopolitical problem for Brussels. This is the more likely situation.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State commented recently about Russian troops being called in as part of the CSTO by the Kazakhstan Government to assist in putting down the uprising earlier this month. He stated that “Once you invite the Russians in, it is very hard to get them to leave.” In actualilty, the Russian military performed what they were asked to do in Kazakhstan and were returned back to Russia after just ten days. With the US Secretary of State so inaccurate about Russia’s intentions, a pinch of salt should be taken about the extent of potential violence in Ukraine. The beneficiary is Washington, not Moscow or Brussels.

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Russia Briefing is written by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm has 28 offices throughout Eurasia, including China, Russia, India, and the ASEAN nations, assisting foreign investors into the Eurasian region. Please contact Maria Kotova at russia@dezshira.com for Russian investment advisory or assistance with market intelligence, legal, tax and compliance issues throughout Asia.

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