Will Russia Invade?

BMI View : We still believe direct military aggression by Russia in Ukraine is unlikely at this stage . However, we cannot completely rule it out, particularly if the violence between Ukrainian and ethnic Russians increases over the coming days and weeks. We therefore assess what we believe the most likely form of military intervention would look like, and potential implications, before outlining why we believe an invasion remains an unlikely scenario.

Ukraine's Geopolitical Significance

Ukraine's geopolitical importance to Russia and the West stems from its status as a 'pivot' state in Europe. Despite 25 years having elapsed since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the West continue to view the relationship between them as a zero-sum game (see February 29, 2012, 'Can Russia And The West Ever Be Friends?'). Against this backdrop, Ukraine is a large country bridging Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) with Western Eurasia. It has a large population of 46mn people, and considerable natural resources. Essentially, a Ukrainian state that is aligned with Russia allows Moscow to be a major player in the CEE region, for it brings Russia's influence to the borders of south-eastern Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, which are all NATO member states. Ukraine also provides a direct land route to the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria in Moldova. Furthermore, the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol is the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and the sea ultimately provides Russia with naval access to the Mediterranean, via Turkey's Bosphorous and Dardanelles Straits. Finally, Ukraine also holds psychological and cultural importance to Russia, because the first Russian state emerged in Ukraine in the ninth century, and because a quarter of Ukraine's population is ethnically Russian. For Russia, Ukraine's independence has been an historical aberration.

BMI View : We still believe direct military aggression by Russia in Ukraine is unlikely at this stage . However, we cannot completely rule it out, particularly if the violence between Ukrainian and ethnic Russians increases over the coming days and weeks. We therefore assess what we believe the most likely form of military intervention would look like, and potential implications, before outlining why we believe an invasion remains an unlikely scenario.

Ukraine's Geopolitical Significance

Ukraine's geopolitical importance to Russia and the West stems from its status as a 'pivot' state in Europe. Despite 25 years having elapsed since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the West continue to view the relationship between them as a zero-sum game (see February 29, 2012, 'Can Russia And The West Ever Be Friends?'). Against this backdrop, Ukraine is a large country bridging Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) with Western Eurasia. It has a large population of 46mn people, and considerable natural resources. Essentially, a Ukrainian state that is aligned with Russia allows Moscow to be a major player in the CEE region, for it brings Russia's influence to the borders of south-eastern Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, which are all NATO member states. Ukraine also provides a direct land route to the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria in Moldova. Furthermore, the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol is the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and the sea ultimately provides Russia with naval access to the Mediterranean, via Turkey's Bosphorous and Dardanelles Straits. Finally, Ukraine also holds psychological and cultural importance to Russia, because the first Russian state emerged in Ukraine in the ninth century, and because a quarter of Ukraine's population is ethnically Russian. For Russia, Ukraine's independence has been an historical aberration.

From the Kremlin's point of view, the US-led West has been seeking to roll back Russian influence in Western Eurasia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This has been achieved mainly through the expansion of NATO and the EU to include virtually all former Soviet satellite states in Europe, most significantly the Baltic states, by attacking Russian allies such as Serbia in 1999, and by courting the energy-rich Central Asian states, especially after '9/11'. Although Ukraine is highly unlikely to join NATO or the EU any time soon, Moscow frets that a Westward-leaning Ukraine could still serve to block Russia's re-emergence as a world power. Indeed, Ukraine's drift away from Russia could encourage other Moscow-friendly ex-Soviet states to follow suit. Moreover, if Russia were ever to lose its base at Sevastopol to a NATO presence, then the Western alliance would have much greater ability to project power in the Caucasus, where Moscow is struggling to retain influence in the face of an Islamist insurgency and Georgian assertiveness.

From the West's point of view, it is important for Ukraine to become a liberal free-market democracy along the lines of most CEE states. Ukraine's membership of NATO and the EU would be desirable, but not essential. The US and EU also unofficially want Ukraine to be a check on Russian influence in the region. However, in our view Moscow's concerns about potential NATO expansion into Ukraine are somewhat exaggerated, especially when one considers that the Western alliance struggled to wage war against even minor enemies such as Libya in 2011, is war-weary after more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, and lacks interest in intervening in Syria's three-year long civil war.

Where And How?

In line with most media reports, we believe any direct military intervention by Russia would occur in the Crimea region, in the south of Ukraine, where Russian sympathies are strongest. Not only does this region have the highest proportion of ethnic Russians (almost 60% of the population), but it already has a Russian military presence in the form of a naval base in the city of Sevastopol.

If tensions between pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow groups become more violent, Russia could decide that protecting ethnic Russians warranted sending more troops to the region, while the naval base would allow the Kremlin to increase military personnel on the Crimean peninsula without explicitly invading the sovereign territory of Ukraine. Russia could then choose to move personnel deeper into Crimea if invited to do so by regional officials. At the time of writing, the situation in Sevastopol looks highly fluid, with pro-Moscow demonstrators naming a Russian citizen, Alexei Chalov, as the mayor of Sevastopol, and with a group of around fifty heavily armed men having occupied the parliament building. Tensions between pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow groups might easily escalate in the next few days. Sending forces deeper into the Crimea could be further justified by Russia in the absence of an elected government in Kiev, with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev saying that Ukraine's interim authorities had conducted an 'armed mutiny'.

Implications

An increase in Russian military personnel at Sevastopol alone may not prompt a military response from either Ukraine or Western powers. However, it is hard to envisage a direct land invasion of Ukrainian sovereign territory by Russian troops (even if limited to Crimean soil) that failed to provoke retaliation from Western powers. This retaliation could take the form of economic sanctions, or a military response from NATO forces. The latter, even if limited in scope, could be a prelude to a major new European war.

Cost Of Russian Invasion To Outweigh Rewards

Clearly any Russian military invasion would mean that the current political and economic crisis would escalate well beyond Ukraine's borders, and for that reason we still believe outright military aggression by Russia is unlikely. In addition, any move by the Russian military into Ukrainian soil would be a self-defeating act by the Russian government, whose ultimate goal with respect to Ukraine is to incorporate it into the Moscow-led Eurasian Union. Invading Ukraine would only antagonise Ukrainians, further driving the country away from Russia's grasp. Furthermore, blatant Russian aggression could prompt the West to reduce ties with Russia, potentially triggering a formal new Cold War.

For that reason, Moscow is more likely to resort to other means to preserve its influence over Ukraine - such as covert support for the pro-Moscow parties and parts of the population, as well as the threat of disruption and/or price hikes to its gas supplies to Ukraine ( see 'Gas Leverage A Possible Russian Tool', Feb 27 2014). In addition, Russia might also encourage a federalisation of Ukraine, which is likely to materialise given the linguistic, religious and ethnic division between the pro-EU western and pro-Moscow eastern provinces of the country.

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Related sectors of this article: Political Risk, Defence, Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics, Armed Forces, Defence Industry, Security
Geography: Ukraine, Russia
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