Much of the reporting, both by the media and intelligence services, on the massive Russian build-up near Ukraine’s borders is misleading. Potentially, the Russians have over 100 battalions ready for a ground maneuver into Ukraine, with the support of hundreds of fighter jets and attack helicopters, artillery and rockets, as well as warships off the coast. But the clear interest of Russian President Vladimir Putin is to use as little of this military force as possible. Just by concentrating all of these units in staging areas, in full view of the cameras, he has achieved the desired effect without firing a single shot.
Russia is once again seen by everyone as a superpower that can begin a world war, should it so choose. These are no longer the miserable remnants of the once-mighty Red Army, whose soldiers were selling their weapons to buy food in the chaotic years of the immediate post-Soviet era. Putin has shown an army that has gone through a comprehensive modernization and rearmament process. But once he has presented that force, using it is another matter.
The Russian public is not that different from that of other countries. It doesn’t have any patriotic urge to see its sons return home in coffins either.
All the military campaigns Putin has embarked on – in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria – have relied on having local militias of collaborators, separatists and mercenaries to do most of the work on the ground. These have been reinforced by relatively small Russian special-operations groups, with the number of Russian troops on the ground being kept to a bare minimum. Instead, Russia has provided the game-changing elements: aerial bombing, long-range missiles, electronic warfare and cyberattacks.
A large-scale Russian ground invasion, of the sort the Biden administration and Western intelligence organizations have been warning of for weeks, does indeed match the scale of forces positioned around Ukraine. But it doesn’t fit the doctrine of hybrid warfare developed and practiced by Russia over the past two decades, which relies on propaganda, psychological warfare and cyberattacks as much as on conventional firepower.
The conflicting reports over the past two days of Russian units moving away, or toward, the border are immaterial. They don’t indicate an end to this crisis or an imminent attack. It makes more sense to look at the itinerary of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. On Tuesday afternoon, instead of marshalling his troops for the attack we were told would be taking place at 3 A.M., he was at the Russian air base in Syria, observing the deployment of strategic bombers there and handing out medals.
Shoygu and Putin have time. Battalions and squadrons can be moved around. The maximum pressure, on Ukraine and Western governments, will remain for months to come. Russia will still have sufficient forces to make major land grabs in the Donbas region and along the Black Sea coastline, though there is still no necessity for them to be used.
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The timing of Putin’s announcement of a “partial” pullback is not coincidental. He didn’t make it following a call with U.S. President Joe Biden or a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. He chose to make it on the day he met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who throughout the crisis has taken a much softer tone toward Russia, refusing to publicly commit to a suspension of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline should Russia invade. That doesn’t mean Scholz’s diplomacy was more effective – just that Putin will continue trying to do everything he can to create discord among the Western leadership.
It’s hard to escape the impression that Western politicians and at least some of the intelligence and military experts briefing them are still thinking in terms of the wars of the previous century when assessing Putin’s intentions. The age in which the mass mobilization of troops inevitably leads to war, as it did in 1914 when the lights went out all over Europe, ended when armies began to use modern communications.
Neither are “false-flag” attacks – like the one staged by the Nazis at Gleiwitz (now Gliwice) on the border with Poland in 1939 – useful anymore as a pretext for an invasion. If the Russians had tried something like that in 2022, it would have been dismantled and exposed on social media within minutes. Likewise, the other World War II clichés trotted out such as “Russia won’t invade before the mud freezes” – as if nowadays the Russians don’t have enough wide-tracked combat vehicles or Ukraine lacks asphalt roads.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine, if it happens, will be different in its scale and methods from previous wars. In fact, it has already happened and has been ongoing for the past eight years, since the Russians responded to the Maidan revolution in 2014 by annexing Crimea and engineering the takeover by separatist proxies of enclaves in the Donbas.
The low-intensity conflict has rumbled on ever since, far from the eyes of the media, taking the lives of thousands of Ukrainians and the homes of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced refugees. And even if all of the Russian units return to base, it will continue wherever Putin chooses to keep undermining Ukraine’s fragile democracy. Whether or not he chooses to launch an all-out war, the existence of a pro-Western democracy in Ukraine is insufferable to him and he will keep trying to snuff it out.