By Jack M. ’23
In recent weeks, tensions between Russia and Ukraine have risen to a feverish pitch, provoking fears that an invasion may soon be forthcoming. The United States and its European allies, many of whom form the security alliance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are scrambling to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine with hope waning, as all parties have reached a diplomatic stalemate. While Moscow has denied any plans to invade the former Soviet state, the growing mass of troops along Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders suggests otherwise. Recent intelligence reveals that Russia could invade Ukraine at any time, in what promises to be “the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world, in terms of war and peace, since World War Two,” as U.S. President Joe Biden stated in a press conference last month.
Ukraine and Russia have a common history as the Slavic center of the former Soviet Union and remained politically aligned even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. By the 2000s, the two countries drifted apart as Ukraine sought closer ties with Western Europe, and the relationship between the two countries completely soured in 2014, after the pro-Russia government in Ukraine was toppled, resulting in the Russian annexing of the Crimean Peninsula. For many years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that Russians and Ukrainians share the same history and culture and are, thus, one people. In an interview broadcast last year on Vesti, a Russian television program, Putin opined that the border between the two countries is an “artificial construction dictated from the west.”
The Russian President has spent much of his decade in office trying to restore Russia’s position in the world and challenging U.S. geopolitical hegemony. Thus, any potential invasion of Ukraine has less to do with neutering the potential security threat of a NATO-supported Ukraine and more to do with a long-term strategy of reducing American influence in Europe. This strategy is made clear by Moscow’s diplomatic demands that NATO halts its eastward expansion and military deployments in the region. Putin’s recent actions reveal his plan to restore Russia to its former glory, with Moscow at the center of an Eastern bloc reminiscent of the former Soviet Union – the fall of which was described in 2005 by Putin, a former KGB officer, as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Despite the potential ramifications of an invasion, certain Western powers are hesitant to impose sanctions on Russia, as much of Europe is dependent on Russian gas, especially Germany, whose Northern border marks the endpoint of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Gas is not just a source of energy, but also an economic bargaining chip used in diplomatic negotiations. The European Union (EU) receives 41% of its gas from Russia, making its economy heavily dependent on Russia and turning potential economic sanctions into a double-edged sword. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a 750-mile line running underneath the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine which often receives lucrative fees from gas transports into Europe. In the event of war, it is entirely possible that Russia will turn off the pipes, having flaunted its willingness to reduce energy exports during the 2006 and 2009 supply crises. At a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Biden declared that “If Russia invades…then there will be longer Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” It is not clear how Biden plans to block the undersea pipeline, especially considering its critical importance to Germany, a strong American ally.
Meanwhile, Germany has faced censure from many of its European allies for its unwillingness to support Ukraine militarily. Accused of watching from the sidelines, Germany recently offered to send 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, after which Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko asked “What will Germany send next? Pillows?” Germany’s unwillingness to take a stand has frustrated NATO, as the alliance preaches the demand for unity in facing the Russian threat. “It’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page. That’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing, and there are differences,” Biden stated at a White House Press Conference. This acknowledgment of the existing divisions within NATO has only encouraged Putin, according to CNN reporter Matthew Chance, “This gives the green light to Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure.”
While the fragility of the NATO alliance has been revealed in the varied response to this crisis, Putin is hard at work strengthening Russia’s alliances, most importantly with China. Under the backdrop of the Beijing Olympics, Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week in order to strengthen what Steven Lee Myers, Beijing Bureau Chief of the New York Times, described as an “Alliance of Autocracies.” The meeting led to a joint statement that announced a “redistribution of power in the world,” an overt message that the era of US hegemony is over. A weak response by NATO to a Russian invasion of Ukraine would reveal NATO’s hesitancy to confront the world’s great powers and could serve hence as an invitation for China to invade Taiwan. Nevertheless, in a call on February 12th, Biden warned Putin that an invasion would result in “swift and severe” costs to Russia, which would diminish his country’s standing and cause “widespread human suffering.”
While Russia may have the upper hand in the event of an invasion, Ukraine is no pushover, with the second-largest army in Europe at over 250,000 troops. According to the New York Times, the impending invasion threatens to have a death toll of over 50,000 civilians and could spark a refugee crisis that would affect all of Europe. Time is of the essence for Russia, whose tanks depend on the ground remaining frozen. Ukrainian soil is currently at its peak freeze point, in mid-February, and any delays could turn the grounds muddy, a condition which protected Russia from Napolean’s forces in 1812 and the German Blitzkrieg in 1941, and which would become a challenging defensive force today as well. Thus, Russia is likely to strike soon, possibly even during the Olympics, which are scheduled to end on February 20th. Putin, who turns 70 in October, may see an invasion of Ukraine as his final opportunity to reassert Russian dominion in Europe and to finally cement his legacy.