Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


According to Ukraine and United States (US), as early as January, the Kremlin could unleash a war on Ukraine. Tensions between Washington and Moscow have escalated in recent weeks over a major Russian troop build-up on its border with Ukraine, raising fears of a potential invasion and spurring warnings of new Western economic sanctions on Russia.

Biden and Putin spoke in a secure video conference on Tuesday. While Biden  urged Putin to de-escalate Ukraine tensions, Putin  was seeking binding guarantees that NATO would not expand to Ukraine.

According to Russia, eastward enlargement of NATO is a military danger. Given this view, NATO bases in eastern Ukraine would be an existential threat to Russia.

Current situation

In 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists seized a swath of territory in eastern Ukraine, Donbass, igniting a conflict that continues to simmer to this day.

Putin is anyway simply bluffing to force the West, especially the US,  to be more attentive to his demands. It is not an invasion but a generation of uncertainty, of geopolitical entropy to achieve a critical mass to coerce the West to start the new Yalta Talks with Russia.

Putin claims the West ignores Russia’s “red lines” by holding drills in the Black Sea and dispatching sophisticated arms to Kyiv.

He has demanded “legal guarantees” that NATO would not accept Ukraine as a member.

“We will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia,” Putin wrote in an article in July, reiterating his claim that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.”

Russia's military build-up near Ukraine is an intimidation tactic: Russia's military posturing appears to be primarily coercive and demonstrative in nature. Nevertheless, should Ukraine try to invade Donbass, Russia will surely react: it is to be seen if Russia will limit its operations to seize and retain Donbass or it will invade Ukraine.

A Russian military intervention in Ukraine could reduce its military options in other strategic directions. Russian one million-strong army may face military-strategic overstretch should the Kremlin decide to launch extended combat operations in Ukraine.

Russia expects a large-scale military intervention in Ukraine to be challenged by armed resistance. This could be both in the form of regular Ukrainian armed forces units and irregular military forces using partisan warfare methods. Anyway, NATO or another significant third party force intervention is not likely to be anticipated in the near term by Moscow.

Biden – Putin virtual meeting

US President Joe Biden has warned Putin against any “military escalation” with Ukraine. In a statement after the call, the White House said Biden “voiced the deep concern” of the United States and its European allies “about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine” and made clear they “would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation”.

For his part, Putin presented the US president with a demand for legally binding security guarantees that would rule out the expansion of NATO.

Putin said NATO was bolstering its military potential near Russia’s borders and making dangerous attempts to conquer Ukrainian territory. Therefore, Russia is seriously interested in obtaining reliable, legally fixed guarantees that rule out NATO expansion eastward and the deployment of offensive strike weapons systems in states adjacent to Russia: a “red line”  Moscow would not allow to be crossed.

Biden administration officials have dismissed that demand, noting that only NATO members decide when other nations join the security alliance.   Meanwhile the US and its allies have called for Russia and Ukraine to return to negotiations brokered by France and Germany to resolve the border dispute in the Donbass region  and implement the “Minsk Agreements”, a pair of ceasefire agreements reached in 2014 and 2015.

Russia's military options in Ukraine

Russian troops could reach the Dnieper River that dissects Ukraine, seize a land corridor to annexed Crimea and ensure the resumption of water supply to the arid peninsula that was cut off in 2014 causing a chronic drought.

The blitzkrieg  may include an invasion of Russian troops from Moscow-friendly Belarus, which is north of Kyiv and from Transdnistria, a breakaway, pro-Moscow Moldovan region stretching across Ukraine’s south-western border; such land-air operations could be combined with a naval assault on the cities of Odessa and Mariupol.

The real advantage for Russia is that it already has proxies fighting in the separatist war in eastern Ukraine, giving it the option to link up with them and extend the area already under their control.

There could also be domestic “provocations” that involve disgruntled oligarchs, pro-Kremlin politicians and a sizeable number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Ukraine’s east and south. Meanwhile Moscow could stop the supply of natural gas that heats almost every Ukrainian house and apartment building.

Consequences of a war

A total war between Ukraine and Russia would result in a Russian victory. The largest country on earth with the second largest nuclear weapons stockpile could defeat Ukraine. But Russia cannot commit all its military forces to a war with Ukraine because of multiple military threats from many directions whereas Ukraine can commit all its forces to a war with Russia.

If the Russian Army gains control over significant portion of Ukraine and battles for major cities outside Donbass erupts and if images of mass casualties and atrocities are circulated on social media then NATO leaders may take action. At first, non-military measures are likely. For example, economic sanctions could be put in place.

Russia could be sanctioned through the banking system by cutting Russia off from the SWIFT system which would severely damage the Russian economy. Moreover,  the US and the EU could stop buying Russia’s hydrocarbons and fertiliser and could  give up on North Stream 2, a brand new natural gas pipeline to Germany that awaits certification.

Russia could lose two-thirds of its foreign trade revenues, while US energy companies will reanimate their shale oil and liquefied natural gas projects to compensate for the lost exports from Russia.

Then, although full scale NATO retaliatory attack on Russia is unlikely, NATO could provide up to date intelligence, advanced artillery detection radars, anti-aircraft defence systems and munitions to Ukraine. Also, the Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine Joint Brigade of 4,000 could be deployed in West Ukraine as deterrent.

Ukraine and Russia

Ukraine and Russia share hundreds of years of cultural, linguistic and familial links. As part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the second-most powerful Soviet republic after Russia, and was crucial strategically, economically and culturally. Ever since Ukraine split from the Soviet Union, both Russia and the West have vied for greater influence in the country in order to keep the balance of power in the region in their favour.

The throne of Kiev held a dominant position in Ancient Russia. This had been the custom since the late 9th century. The Tale of Bygone Years captured for posterity the words of Oleg the Prophet about Kiev: “Let it be the mother of all Russian cities.”

According to IMF reports in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Ukraine's GDP per capita had been below 4,000 USD . This is less than in the Republic of Albania, the Republic of Moldova, or unrecognized Kosovo. Nowadays, Ukraine is Europe's poorest country.


Putin wants the easing of sanctions and that the West acknowledges him as the legitimate leader of a great power, the primary arbiter of not only Ukraine’s energy wealth, but also its political destiny.

Threats only work if they are credible, and the risk of a full-scale Russian invasion is real. There is palpable concern in Ukraine, which is also felt by Ukraine’s international partners.

Russia is not threatening to invade Ukraine out of the blue, but to escalate a war being waged by Moscow’s proxies in east Ukraine’s Donbass region.

The low-intensity Donbass war still has strategic utility for Russia, because it gives Moscow an enduring veto over Ukraine’s stability. Russian forces may well be on a hair-trigger footing to preserve this status quo.

Moscow wants to stoke the burning embers of the Donbass war, rather than extinguishing them or igniting them into the raging inferno of a major war. The question is how long this can be sustained, but it seems that both Russian military build-ups near Ukraine this year have served this end.

For now, the Kremlin will be acutely aware that the most powerful veto it retains over the possible drift westward of the Kyiv government into structures such as the European Union and NATO is to preserve a low-intensity warzone in east Ukraine, while occasionally brandishing the threat of a major invasion.


The Russian leadership is determined  to use military force to regain imperial control over Kyiv. But planning, rehearsing, and preparing for war is part of the military’s job description.

That does not necessarily mean President Vladimir Putin will automatically follow war plans in this form. Military threats, including nuclear threats, have long been part of Moscow’s approach to coercive diplomacy. The West should be used to this by now.

A massive build-up of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border constrains Ukraine’s ability to react to a local offensive in Don bass, making such an operation more predictable and controllable for the Kremlin.

Ukraine’s high-readiness forces would be dispersed across the country to guard against a possible incursion from other directions, meaning that they could not be thrown into battle in the east. With the Ukrainian front line exposed, Moscow would have greater freedom of action.

Russia has a clear aim: to weaken Ukraine so much that it will be relatively easy to control the country’s politics. Moscow can achieve this by forcing Kyiv to implement the Minsk agreement on its own terms – which would establish a de facto Russian veto on Ukrainian domestic affairs – and by starting and exploiting anti-government revolts.

Alternatively, Moscow could pressure Washington to “deliver” Ukraine by signing security guarantees favouring Russia. These guarantees would prohibit Ukraine from not only joining NATO but also engaging in any form of cooperation with the West that would strengthen its resilience. This would eventually force Ukraine back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.

If Russia’s coercive strategy works well, there is no guarantee that it will stop with Ukraine. Russia’s current alteration of the force structure in its Western Military District is partly directed against NATO.

With Chinese-Russian military cooperation increasing, today’s imponderables may become tomorrow’s possibilities. American generals have long warned Europeans that, in the coming decades, the US will not be in a position to simultaneously protect its Asian and European allies against the threat of both China and Russia.

Biden cannot probably deliver on Putin's demand but  he will try other means to de-escalate the situation because he doesn’t need a crisis in Ukraine. His foreign policy priority is handling China. He will probably seek to stabilise the United States’ relationship with Russia, exactly in order to focus on China: his permanent obsession.

Beijing considers its competition with the United States as part of an "epochal geopolitical shift" while making advancements in space and satellite technologies and posing a "prolific and effective" cyber threats.

Russia will therefore grow its "strategic cooperation" with China well aware that Washington cannot absolutely cope, at the same time, with two nuclear powers the size and strength of the Dragon and the Bear.