Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be preparing to launch an invasion of Ukraine, with more than 100 thousand soldiers positioned on its borders. The United States believes it will happen, and its president, Joe Biden, has warned his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that the attack could take place in February.
But Moscow denies that it is preparing to enter the neighboring country and Putin’s intentions remain a mystery.
Russia, which is seeking a commitment from NATO that it will not expand to include Ukraine, has options short of a full invasion and other avenues to lash out at Washington and its allies. All of them carry different levels of risk, for Russia and for the world.
Here’s a look at some of them:
Halfway to a total invasion
In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. That same year it also began arming rebels in the eastern region known as Donbas, sparking a low-intensity conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people since then. . Many observers believe the recent buildup of Russian troops and naval forces is the next chapter in its long-running effort to storm Ukraine, perhaps taking advantage of the fact that the United States and its allies in Europe are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and other issues. Possible scenarios include offering additional support to the rebels, who already have the support of the Kremlin, or launch a limited invasion, enough to destabilize Zelenskyy and place a representative related to the Kremlin.
Falling short of a full-scale invasion would give Russia more time to move more troops to the area and test the commitment of the United States and its allies to the harsh sanctions promised by Biden, said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of US forces in Europe. “He is going to continue to do what he is doing now, continue to apply maximum pressure on Ukraine and try to destabilize the government to alarm the population,” he said. “There is a great capacity to do more if the opportunity presents itself.”
This could end up in sanctions that could hurt the Russian economy already Putin at the national level. But there is also a risk that limited action may not be enough to achieve his goal of undermining European security by rolling back, or at least suspending, NATO expansion, said Dmitry Gorenburg, an analyst at CNA, a think tank. Arlington, Virginia research. “I don’t think he’s going to get what he wants,” he said. “If you didn’t get it before, why now?”
Russia is one of the main players in the global energy sector: it is the third largest oil producer in the world after the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the source of almost 40% of the natural gas used in Europe. In addition, it is a major exporter of wheat, especially to developing countries. Any move to cut off the flow of energy could be painful for Europe in a winter with already high oil and gas prices. Similarly, rising food prices are a global problem.
Putin has some economic clout, but there’s no indication he’s going to use it and end up hurting his country in the long run, said Edward Fishman, a former State Department official who is now with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Any Russian attempt to cut off gas supplies would lead European nations to seek alternative sources in the future.. “It’s a weapon you can only use once,” he explained. “If you do it once, you lose that advantage forever.” The Biden administration is already working with Qatar and other suppliers to replace Russian gas if necessary.
There is no doubt that Russia has the capacity to carry out major cyberattacks in Ukraine and around the world, and would almost certainly include them in any operation against its neighbor. On January 23, the US Department of Homeland Security warned security agencies that Moscow might consider launching a cyberattack against the country, including against critical infrastructure, if it perceived that the response to a hypothetical invasion of Ukraine “threatens its national security in the long-term”.
Russia is the presumed culprit of the hack of 2015 against the Ukrainian power grid. Hackers temporarily shut down several US government websites this month. Kiev, underlining why the cyber security remains a major concern in the confrontation with Moscow. “Whatever the size, scale, and nature of your ground and air attacks, cyber will also be an important part of everything you do,” Hodges warned.
The risk to the world is that hostile activity against Ukraine could spread, as happened with the devastating cyberattack known as notPetya in 2017. The counterpoint for Russia is that the United States, among other nations, has the capacity to respond, as Biden already warned Putin in June. “He knows there are consequences,” the US president said.
The Chinese Factor
China is not directly involved in the standoff over Ukraine, but it does play a role. Observers have warned that Russia could respond to Washington’s rejection of its security demands by strengthening its borderline ties with the Asian giant. Moscow and Beijing have held joint military exercises, including naval drills and long-range bomber patrols over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea.
US officials said they do not believe Russia will launch an invasion while Xi Jinping is presiding over the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics. “The Chinese are not going to like their Games being disrupted by war,” Gorenburg said. Putin is scheduled to travel to the Chinese capital for the opening ceremony, while US and European leaders are absent to protest human rights abuses.
One theory among Russia watchers is that China is closely monitoring Russia’s response. Washington and Europe on Ukraine to gauge what could happen if it acts against Taiwan. Hodges sees it as a risk: “If we, with our combined diplomatic and economic power, as well as military power, cannot stop the President of the Russian Federation from doing something that is so obviously illegal, wrong and aggressive, then I don’t think President Xi is going to be very impressed by anything we say about Taiwan or the East China Sea.”
Russian presence in Latin America
Senior Russian officials have warned that Moscow could deploy troops or military assets to Cuba and Venezuela. The threats are vague, although Russia maintains a close relationship with both nations, as well as Nicaragua. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan dismissed that idea, and regional and global experts see it as a strategy that likely won’t accomplish much beyond dividing the forces Russia needs elsewhere, and is therefore unlikely to happen. .
A more likely scenario is that Russia reinforces its already extensive propaganda and disinformation efforts to sharpen divisions in Latin America and elsewhere, including the United States..
A diplomatic solution
That the current confrontation ends in invasion is not a foregone conclusion. Although the Biden administration said it would not give in to Russian security demands, it appears there is still room for diplomacy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday that the US response “gives hope for the start of a serious conversation on secondary issues.”
France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia have agreed to sit down for talks in two weeks, an initiative that seeks to revive the 2015 agreement to ease the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Some fear this will complicate attempts by Washington and NATO to present a united front against Russia.
A withdrawal might be good for the world, but it could come at a high cost for Putin, Russian journalist Yulia Latynina said in an essay published in the New York Times on Friday. He stated that the president could have launched a riot with the movement of troops to make the United States and Europe renounce any rapprochement with Kiev. “Instead of trapping the United States, Mr. Putin has trapped himself,” he wrote. “Caught between armed conflict and humiliating retreat, he is seeing his room for maneuver shrink to nothing.”