A Russian invasion of Ukraine has appeared imminent for almost two months now. Yet it has not happened, and the window for it is closing.
When the spring rains hit in the next month or so, maneuver warfare on the Eurasian plain will be substantially harder. Armored and tracked vehicles will struggle in the mud. Also, maintaining a large force in staging locations at high readiness is expensive, especially in the cold. Russian troops must be fed and housed in the field in temporary facilities at cost.
In short, if Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to invade Ukraine, it must be soon. And yet he has not.
Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: Why the Delay?
Much of the discussion assumes Putin is engaging in brinksmanship. There is a habit in the Western foreign policy community of reading Putin as some kind of foreign policy grandmaster. This is possible. Putin has trolled the West remarkable well for a decade now. His interventions in Western politics have created widespread anxiety that he supports disruptive populist movements such as Trump’s election in 2016, Brexit, and French rightists.
Putin may also be playing for time. Belligerence and threats may buy him concessions from either Ukraine or NATO. As many have observed, the best outcome for Putin would be some manner of self-induced regime change in Ukraine – a new Ukrainian government willing to publicly abjure NATO membership. An open invasion of Ukraine would violate Putin’s oft-stated belief that Ukraine and Russia are one people who should be in one state. The ideal outcome for Putin would be Ukrainian assent to be a non-aligned, Russia-tilting buffer state.
Increasingly though, these two approaches have backfired. Putin’s bullying of Ukraine has mostly failed as brinksmanship. NATO is fairly united in both opposition to an invasion and a Russian veto on NATO membership. Even Germany is slowly coming around. Similarly, Putin has, paradoxically, energized a sense of Ukrainian nationalism and distinction from Russia. In short, Putin’s options are increasingly shrinking to either invasion or withdrawal. Given the humiliation of a withdrawal without concessions, the best bet is still that Putin will attack. He has painted himself into a corner and is very obviously deeply aggrieved by Russia’s loss of status after the cold war. At this point, he will likely attack if only to demonstrate Russian intransigence and relevance.
But there is another, more mundane possible reason for Putin’s hesitance: invading Ukraine would be foolish blunder which Russia, much reduced in national power since the ‘glory’ days of the Soviet Union, would struggle to resolve at fair cost. Few dispute that Russia would win such a war, but the cost-benefit calculus does not much support an incursion. Russia would struggle to maintain a conflict which (likely) turned into a counterinsurgency/occupation quagmire, and the global economic punishment of widespread sanctions in response would be punishing. Russians already sense this. Both public opinion and the Russian military elite are deeply uncomfortable with the proposed conflict.
Putin, ironically, is the one most responsible for running down Russian power to that point that occupying Ukraine – a weak, semi-hostile neighbor for which NATO will not fight – is nonetheless a major national challenge. Putin has governed Russia abysmally in his two decades at the top. Russian corruption is now akin to that of third world failed states. Its GDP growth and population growth hover around just 1%. Its GDP per capita is one of the lowest in Europe, as is its life-expectancy. It is ‘governed’ as an oligarchic, kleptocratic petro-authoritarianism. It is no wonder Ukraine seeks Western integration.
Russia’s military has a mostly domestic industrial supply chain, which helpfully insulates it from the sanctions slapped on after its Crimean anchluss in 2014. And its special forces – used in the Crimean landgrab – are widely respected. But the bulk of the Russian army is conscripts whose post-cold war combat record in insurgency-style conflicts like Chechnya has been mixed. It is unclear if that army could sustain a counter-insurgency in Ukraine for years. Red Army behavior in the Afghan counter-insurgency of the 1980s was atrocious. No serious effort to win hearts-and-minds was made, and the war turned into a brutal, unwinnable quagmire. It is easy to see unhappy Russian conscripts itching to go home sliding into the same malaise of disinterest and overreaction in Ukraine.
A Quagmire Made Worse By Russian Decline
Great powers can sustain ‘forever wars’ for a while. The Americans fought in Vietnam and Afghanistan for more than a decade. The French for years in Vietnam and Algeria. The Red Army fought a decade in Afghanistan. These were foolish conflicts, but stupidity is sustainable if the national resources are there to support a misbegotten leadership’s insistence on fighting unwinnable conflicts.
Russia has that truculent, bull-headed leadership, but not the resources – not anymore. With a corrupt, resource-dependent economy smaller than South Korea’s, an invasion could easily become a forever war whose quagmire reverberations would hit Putin’s creaky regime at home. To my mind, this is why Putin has not yet attacked. He knows it would be a huge risk.
Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.
February 14, 2022 at 2:29 pm
Meanwhile, there, Kremlin TV discusses the partition of Ukraine. I don’t like overused historical references, but it still makes Czechoslovakia 1938 this map :
February 14, 2022 at 3:28 pm
Russia, under Putin, was (and still is) making progress totally unmatched despite all kinds of obstacles put up by the west. Little wonder Biden and co hate it like hell.
Russia today has the most advanced set of hypersonic weapon systems in the world whereas giant pioneer US has laughably lagged (#3).
Putin has shown he’s guy with REAL GUTS, a man with a real BACKBONE. He’s fully able to wave a finger at super duper almighty NATO & US (today’s genghis horde), and say “this my RED LINE, guys, don’t cross it or else you get hell from me”.
Russia doesn’t want fascist shithole Kyiv to be swallowed up by NATO cuz it would allow US tanks, US cavalry, US Tomahawk cruise missiles (1600 km), US AGM-183, US SM-6 and other doomsday threats to get within touch nose distance of Moscow. This demand is very reasonable, but naturally, genghis will have none of it.
Thus Putin calmly and with GREAT COURAGE has waved his finger at Biden and Brussels and warned : get ready to taste my big stick if you dare. Old man Biden’s response ? Complete hysterics, threats, refusal to listen and a ton of goebbellian agitprop.SHEESH!!!
February 14, 2022 at 3:46 pm
cope & seethe harder. Progress yes. Russia continues to amaze us
with it’s economic shit tiered decline into the basement & beyond.
February 14, 2022 at 4:20 pm
@commentar you do not appear to know and understand the real situation with hypersonic weapons. The key is not the weapon itself but the defense against it. The US practically has it, very close to deployment, while Russia has nothing. The reason the US did not move forward with hypersonics was not a lack of offensive capability but a lack of defense. It did not want to start an arms race for there was no need for it.
As for weapons basing in Ukraine, you apparently forgot the Baltics. The distance from Latvia to Moscow is around 800 km. A distance for intermediate missile, and it can be done right now.
February 14, 2022 at 4:53 pm
Russia in decline? Moscow has recently been recognized as the city with the highest quality of life and the most developed infrastructure in the world. Russia has switched to almost complete import substitution. Dozens of new weapon types are accepted every week. Russia has the best air defense and electronic warfare in the world. Russia has the most advanced missiles, incl. and already in service with hypersonic. laser systems put into service. Russia in decline? Your propaganda has no effect on anyone.
February 14, 2022 at 8:40 pm
Russia has the BEST hypersonic weapons in service today, although china’s following closely with it’s own df-21, df-17 and it’s still-in-developmemt FOBS glider. US ??? !!! So far, still under testing or still on the drawing board.
That’s the reason why Putin has been able to wave a warning finger at US and NATO…today’s genghis horde.
In the 13th century, waving a finger at the horde would entail a fate worse than death, but today’s genghis horde (although similarly very massive) is not so powerful because it is actually in decline, with a near senile dementia-wrecked leader at the helm. Way to go,,,,Biden.
February 14, 2022 at 8:56 pm
Russia has the zircon, kinzhal and the long-range Avangard hypersonic weapons, all already in deployment or ready for immediate use.
US stopped developing x-51 after it failed several times, its AGM-183A is still in very early development by Lockheed and the SM-6 Blk1B won’t be ready for testing until at least 2024.
However, US has b-52 bombers and B-1B bombers and fighters capable of hurling b-61 doomsday weapons and Abrams tanks and Bradleys and strykers in northern Europe and bmd sites in Romania and poland. It’s going to be an even-Stevens fight with a slight edge for Russia.
The war in Europe could come in may or June this year if Biden gets his way or stomps his way over the heads of his numerous euro minions/vassals.
February 14, 2022 at 11:55 pm
Russia is in decline, then what is the writer whining about?
February 15, 2022 at 2:06 am
Ladies and gentlemen. Your reasoning is for Russians, and I’m Russian ridiculous. Believe me there will be no attack. The reason is simple, traitors are not needed.
February 15, 2022 at 2:18 pm
Russia’s 500 yrs of imperial expansion resulted in a “nation” so completely fragmented culturally that it simply could not continue to exist. The collapse of the USSR was inevitable, though the “when” was not predictable. Russia still harbors dreams of restoring the old Czarist pan-slavic state, despite the principled and adamant opposition of the proposed subject states.
The Ukraine is a plum target, given its agricultural productivity, but it isn’t the only target; Russia has long fought in the North Caucasus to enslave predominantly Muslim people who are at odds with Russian imperialism and communism. Occupation of these areas will always be faced with national resurgence and non-conventional war.
The Crimea has wavered between Russian, Turk, Ukrainian and Greek control through history. Russia has it now, probably wants to re-affirm her right of possession. This may the reason for Russian saber-rattling.
Russia covets the “sort of” ice free ports of the Baltic states, and considers them the rightful hegemony of Moscow. Millions of Balts disagree. Russia would love to take the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, to gain control over entry into the Mediterranean, egress from which would still be blocked at Suez and Gibralter. Russia’s Asian ports are separated from its production centers by 5000 kilometers of Siberian expanse. Poor Russia, a resource rich vastness without the trade routes necessary to exploit those resources. And without the demographic resources to maintain control of those routes if attained.
Russia is always straining to attain its imagined greatness. It is easily tempted into rash wars over territories it cannot hope to hold long term. Russia may attack. No student of war in Europe can fail to observe that there is tendency post war to return to the status-quo ante, with very minor real changes in boundaries. All or part of left-bank Ukraine might qualify as one of those minor changes. However, threatened by a united West, Russia has always backed down.
In the US, it might appear that Russia should have no worry about being attacked. To a Russian, who has faced German, Turk, Austrian, and Polish aggression through the centuries, the matter may take on a different face. Russia’s fears of NATO are not well founded, perhaps not even real, because NATOs interests aren’t the interests of Poland, Germany, Turkey and Austria as independent actors.
A few months, and the Pripet Marshes will preclude ground attack from Belorus. They will also block a reliable direct retreat from Western Ukraine. A Spring-swollen Dniepr is an obstacle as well. Eastern Ukraine is more russified, and the likely target of Russian aggression.
Russia will likely not attack, preferring to use the threat of attack to secure its position in Crimea and to bolster its subversive efforts in the Eastern Ukraine, preparatory to an attempt at peaceful annexation. Patience will pay Putin dividends, and perhaps allow him to attain his objective without the need for an Anschluss and the economic hindrances that would follow.
None of this addresses the internal political situation in Russia. If Putin feels he needs a war to consolidate his support in-country, that would likely outweigh the reasoning for caution and patience. Survival is the greatest spur.
February 16, 2022 at 5:56 am
Russia is a country in decay? There’s some arguments for and against this. But at the end of the day, this article barely glosses over but one or two indicators to look at and really doesn’t even come remotely close to making a compelling case to support this claim.
But if we’re going to talk about nations in decline, we should be looking harder at ourselves here in the US and how laughable we are at this moment in time.
from Russia with love
February 16, 2022 at 2:41 pm
did you decide to surpass in terms of the level of delirium what the author of the article wrote?
“Russia has long fought in the North Caucasus to enslave predominantly Muslim people who are at odds with Russian imperialism and communism.”
Are you writing this about Chechen terrorists? one of these “freedom fighters” has already blown up a running marathon in the US. will you continue to call terrorists “freedom fighters” until you personally or your relatives are blown up, or even that will not stop you?
perhaps you are talking about Georgia in 2008? then you need to figure out for what reasons Georgia was never captured by Russia, which reached Tbilisi and returned its troops.
“Russia covets the “sort of” ice free ports of the Baltic states, and considers them the rightful hegemony of Moscow. ”
how can you be so uneducated and out of touch with life??? Russia has the largest port in the Baltic – St. Petersburg! Another large port, Ust Luga, was built near St. Petersburg to ensure transit under the Great Silk Road project and transit from Belarus.
in reality, it is not Russia that needs the ports of the Baltic states, it is the Baltic states that transit from Russia is vital, and everything goes to the fact that Russia and Belarus will completely refuse transit through these countries and then the Baltics will end.
“Eastern Ukraine is more russified, and the likely target of Russian aggression.”
aggression? no, liberation from the neo-Nazi Western Ukrainian regime. if you have to rename cities and streets, forbid speaking your native language to preserve “national identity”, then you definitely began to build your state on a foreign land;)
“If Putin feels he needs a war to consolidate his support in-country, that would likely outweigh the reasoning for caution and patience.”
like Obama and Iraq? 🙂 yes, we remember that this is a common practice for the United States, but everything is fine with Putin and he knows how to solve his problems without spilling rivers of blood.
I want to congratulate you, you managed to surpass Robert Kelly (he, by any chance, is not a relative of Sergeant Kelly who staged the My Lai massacre?) in terms of delirium!
February 17, 2022 at 2:01 pm
to “From Russia With Love”: your English is so poor that it’s difficult to guess what you are trying to say. Only your insults are clear. I suspect you are just a Russian propagandist; you are certainly a Russian troll. And doesn’t the world just love another Russian troll!
Russia has been lying about the Ukraine ever since the little Duchy of Muscovy first began looking for something to steal.
March 6, 2022 at 1:56 pm
Versailles “self determined” Czechoslovakia is now two countries. Ukraine was never going to survive as constructed post 1990 as a buffer state against Russian power in the Black Sea. This area is geographically and strategically a natural part of Russia and historically belongs to Russia so FORGET It. Cut your losses. Dry your eyes of the Crocodile Tears and read some A J P Taylor.