For almost a year now, Russia has been carrying out provocations on Ukraine’s borders, periodically accumulating significant military forces on them. Of course, similar behavior of the Russian Federation has taken place before.
The main difference from previous cases of Russia’s aggressive actions is the high level of confidence of the U.S. leadership that this time Moscow is ready to use its troops for a new full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The opinion of the Ukrainian leadership differs, and they believe that the Kremlin is bluffing in order to obtain concessions, intimidate Ukrainians and undermine the Ukrainian economy.
Britain, in turn, reports the threat of coup and the establishment of a pro-Russian regime, even naming the names of the regime’s likely leaders — mostly representatives of the Yanukovych regime who have lived in Russia since 2014.
Such differences in assessments of Russia’s intentions and actions disorient not only observers but also government officials. This leads not only to difficulties in developing a joint strategy, but also to misunderstandings and even public disputes between members of the international pro-Ukrainian coalition. The reason for such a different assessment of what Russia is trying to achieve with its actions and what it is actually ready to do against Ukraine is very simple. Each of the evaluators looks at the situation from their own angle, ignoring the fact that to understand the big picture it is necessary to make a joint assessment. After all, after analyzing all the forecasts and presenting them in the correct chronological order, we are convinced that all anticipations are to some extent correct and only complementary, not mutually exclusive.
This task is greatly simplified by the fact that in recent days Russia has clearly articulated its diplomatic goal, the achievement of which should be the cost of de-escalating the current military threat to Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov not only said that Russia expects the West to force Ukraine to implement the so-called Minsk agreements, but also stressed that such commitments were made by U.S. President Joe Biden during talks with Putin in Geneva in the summer of 2021. The Russian version of this implementation is well known and requires Ukraine to de facto recognize the Russian puppet regimes of Donbass without withdrawing Russian troops from Ukraine. A correct assessment of the Kremlin’s goal and the inevitable consequences of fulfilling this demand allows us to finally reveal Russia’s plans and intentions in this large-scale multidimensional operation aimed at the final destruction of Ukraine as a state.
Although Moscow has publicly declared that granting special status to the occupied territories is the way to lasting peace with Russia, granting this status is in fact a necessary condition that Russia lacks in order to carry out a military invasion of Ukraine. Russia is bluffing, threatening Ukraine with an imminent military invasion, in order to create the preconditions that will not only make this invasion possible from a military point of view, but also effectively absolve Russia of any responsibility for it.
The traditional approach of the Russian Federation to the hybrid war involves internal destabilization of the country against which such aggression is carried out. This complicates or even completely paralyzes the system of political and military command and control, and creates opportunities for plausible denial of Russian involvement in aggression in the early stages, further positioning the invasion as humanitarian, which are also traditional elements of Russia’s hybrid toolkit. Such destabilization is especially important in the event of aggression against Ukraine, whose armed forces would otherwise be able to repel Russia’s aggression.
The means for such destabilization is the consent of the government of Ukraine to grant special status to the occupied territories without restoring state control there. Such consent is absolutely unacceptable for the most active part of society. Even an attempt to put such an issue to a vote in parliament will inevitably lead to mass protests involving veterans of the Ukrainian-Russian war. By using its own agents of influence among Ukrainian veterans and representatives of far-right organizations (a significant number of Russian citizens have infiltrated these organizations under the guise of Russian volunteers), Russia can easily make these protests violent. The same individuals may later take responsibility for the killings of top Ukrainian officials, the dismantling of critical infrastructure and communications systems to be carried out by disguised Russian special forces.
In such a situation, which with the help of the international media will be portrayed as an ultra-right coup, meeting only minimal resistance from the disorganized Armed Forces of Ukraine, Russia is able to launch a military invasion under the justification of the need to protect Russian-speaking people in eastern and southern Ukraine. Such an invasion is likely to be accompanied by the establishment of a pro-Russian puppet government in Kharkiv. Under such conditions, the risk of negative consequences for Russia will be minimal.
Despite the perfection of this plan, it also has vulnerabilities. The main vulnerability of this plan is that it cannot be implemented without the adoption of the Russian government’s requirements for granting special status to the occupied Donbass. Fortunately, the Ukrainian government is in no hurry to fall into this trap, and the best thing the West can do now is to stop pressuring Ukraine to make these concessions. The West needs to realize that through the Minsk process, the Kremlin is not seeking a peaceful settlement in Ukraine, but is creating convenient conditions for itself to continue its aggression.
Oleksandr Danylyuk, chairman of the Ukrainian Center for Defense reforms, is a senior fellow in the Potomac Foundation, a former Chief Adviser to Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, a member of Ukrainian government inter-agency platform for countering hybrid threats and one of the leaders of Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity.
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