No, Russia won’t launch a major military invasion of the Ukraine, and here’s why

Update Feb 24:  Despite my earlier optimism, Russia did invade. I’d like to invite you to check out my latest essay: Ukraine, economic “war,” and the cyber conflict that could follow

Here’s the original, Feb 9 post:

Today I had the great pleasure of participating in a panel entitled Tensions Rising at the Russia-Ukraine Border”  livestreamed by Duke University’s Global Communications team.  The first question posed to me asked whether Russia will actually launch a major military invasion of Ukraine.  My answer?  No, and in this post I’m going to expand upon my comments during the panel and explain some of why I think that.

The panel

First, a bit about the panel (and I highly recommend watching the video of it here and/or reading the summary here).  I was honored to join Bruce Jentleson, the renowned professor of public policy and political science here at Duke, who served as a senior adviser to the State Department Policy Planning Director from 2009-11.  He’s the author of the acclaimed book, The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from Twentieth-Century Statesmanship.” 

Bruce recently wrote a ‘must read’ Washington Post op-ed directly related to the panel’s topic: “Biden is ready to deploy sanctions against Russia, but will the bite live up to the bark?”

Completing the panel was Simon Miles, a brilliant assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke and an expert in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of Engaging the Evil Empire, an account of how Washington and Moscow ended the Cold War.  And, wow, his expertise is not simply about Russia’s complicated history and politics, he is also very knowledgeable about Russia’s military.

The whole event was masterfully orchestrated by Greg Phillips, Duke’s Global Communication Director, and his hyper-talented team.  Again, you can watch a video of the panel here and/or read a summary here.

Why Russia won’t launch a major military invasion of Ukraine

I believe we won’t see Russia launch a major military invasion of the Ukraine, mainly because Putin has already made key strategic gains.  Specifically:

1)  Putin has crushed any illusions the Ukrainians might have had that some nation would come to their aid with combat forces.  Moreover, although the Ukrainian military has improved in the last few years, it is evident that it cannot alone field forces capable of defeating a determined Russian military effort.  A few plane loads of U.S. weapons might boost Ukrainian morale a bit, but won’t make much of a difference militarily.  Moreover, I don’t believe Ukraine could realistically build a military capable of defeating Russia, and that vulnerability will inevitably influence the Ukraine’s options with respect to Russia.  Putin can exploit this reality going forward.

2)  While Putin won’t get an explicit agreement that Ukraine would never be admitted to NATO, he has, de facto, achieved almost the same thing as NATO countries seem shaken enough by the crisis to be determined to avoid further antagonizing Russia over this issue.  For these and other reasons, I doubt there will be any traction for any proposal to admit Ukraine to NATO for the foreseeable future.  My bet is that Putin is keenly aware of this.

3)  Putin has showcased to the world how formidable Russian military capabilities have become in recent years.  Among other things, it is no small logistical accomplishment to have transferred, in the middle of a Russian winter, thousands of troops and tons of equipment from its Far Eastern forces to central Europe – and military experts around the world will notice.  Putin, an ex-intelligence officer himself, understands the value of this demonstration and how it can be used as a tool of intimidation.

While Russia cannot conventionally defeat the combined militaries of NATO, it is useful to recall that the NATO treaty doesn’t legally require countries to aid each other.  Given the recent events, it is worth reviewing this 2019 Washington Post article “Would NATO allies keep their promise to defend members that are attacked? It depends whom you ask.”  NATO countries in the shadow of Russia have to think about this, and Putin will use it to his advantage.

4)  By not invading, Putin gains an advantage he could draw upon in the future.  Specifically, he can cast the US’ and NATO’s frantic war warnings as deliberately provocative, sky-is-falling alarmist rhetoric that had no substance in fact. Here’s the key: if he again threatens, NATO and the US will have a harder time convincing publics to take it seriously, setting the stage for a Russian opportunity to gain strategic surprise.  It isn’t hard to imagine a future where the West assumes that a Russian military mobilization is simply another feint…until it is too late.

Other factors

None of this is to say that the threat of sanctions the U.S. and NATO are using play no role in deterring a major attack (but be sure to listen to Bruce’s analysis of their potential impact – or not – on a Russia girded for them).  The potential cost of a major invasion in terms of Russian blood and treasure, and the fear of becoming embroiled in another “Afghanistan”, are also no doubt factors militating against a full-blown invasion. 

Also, as discussed during the panel, many of the forces assembled on Ukraine’s border come from the Far East and – notwithstanding the rapprochement with China – it is unlikely Putin would want that vast area to seem to be vulnerable to China or anyone.

Furthermore, listen to Simon’s brilliant analysis of Russian domestic politics.  Hearing that, my assessment now is that a war over the Ukraine, especially a costly one, would not play well internally.


Nevertheless, Russia does have a range of military options it likely could execute with tactical success, including several that fall below the “major invasion” level.  My own take is that none are likely, but if forced to choose I would put seizing a land bridge to Crimea at the top of the list.  The Economist described that possibility this way:

Another scenario, widely discussed in recent years, is that Russia might seek to establish a land bridge to Crimea, the peninsula it annexed in 2014. That would require seizing 300km (185 miles) of territory along the Sea of Azov, including the key Ukrainian port of Mariupol, up to the Dnieper river.

During the panel I also speculated that Putin might do something militarily that confounds the U.S. and NATO.  The hypothetical I used was the deployment of a small number Russian troops into Ukrainian territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists.  Would that trigger the threatened mother of all sanctions package against Russia? 

Not necessarily.  In the first place, it could fall into the “minor incursion” realm that President Biden said would cause “a fight about what to do and not do.”  Though the White House has sought to walk back those comments, the truth is that Europe, currently in the midst of winter, depends upon Russia for 40% of it’s natural gas supply, and that would complicate the response.  Just today NPR reported:

“The fact that they are dependent on Russian gas has given Vladimir Putin tremendous coercive power over Europe’s economies,” said retired Gen. H.R. McMaster, a former U.S. national security adviser, in an interview with NPR last month.

During the panel I added this wrinkle: Putin could deploy military medical teams and cast the operation as an “humanitarian mission.”  Russian troops would be on-the-ground in Ukraine despite all the warnings.  But how would it play if the U.S. and NATO reacted harshly to a putatively “medical” mission?  Similarly, suppose Putin sent in engineering units to build a hospital or fix a bridge?  What could – or should – be the agreed-upon response?  This is the kind of complicating “gray zone” tactic the Russians are perfecting, and the West is still struggling to counter.

Concluding thoughts

Another point I tried to make during the panel is that the U.S. and NATO need to keep in mind the whole world is watching.  As the Ukraine is left largely to its own devices to defend itself against Russian aggression, what does Taiwan think as it faces a growing threat from China?  What does Saudi Arabia think as Iran’s nuclear potential grows? 

Consider this from a Brookings article:

In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the United States, Russia, and Britain committed “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against the country. Those assurances played a key role in persuading the Ukrainian government in Kyiv to give up what amounted to the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, consisting of some 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads.

As yourself this: would Ukraine today be concerned about a Russian invasion if they still had 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads?  Nations with the capability to develop nuclear weapons and who also face existential threats might be asking themselves a similar question.  This could end badly for those like myself who are advocates for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Putin is an extremely shrewd leader of a still-powerful country, and the U.S. and its NATO allies ought to use this crisis as a wake-up call, even if it is resolved without war.  Of course, a peaceful outcome would be wonderful, but should not be too celebratory as there will still be very serious challenges to address.  As we say on Lawfire® things are often more complicated than they seem.  

Again, permit me to urge you to watch/listen to the video of the panel found here (and/or read the summary here) as I really don’t want you to miss the terrific insights from Professors Jentleson and Miles.

Update: Yesterday the (Feb 11) the media reported retired LTG Ben Hodges, who served as the commanding general of the United States Army Europe, as saying (much as this Lawfire® post likewise contends) that he “does not expect the massive, full-scale invasion of Ukraine that many in Washington predict.”

I also concur with his assessment of what actions the Russians might take if they do resort to some measure of military force: 

“It will be a little bit below some perceived threshold where not every European country will be so thrilled about having to invoke sanctions ‘like you’ve never seen before’ because Russia took some islands or coastal area,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, now the Pershing Chair at the Center for European Policy Analysis.   

“What the Russians are doing is like a boa constrictor that is continuing to squeeze Ukraine,” Hodges added. He does not expect the massive, full-scale invasion of Ukraine that many in Washington predict. 

“I don’t anticipate an all-out assault with these red arrows that we’ve been seeing pictures in newspapers, red arrows coming in from every direction simultaneously. I don’t know that the Russians have the assets.” 

Doing something “a little bit below some perceived threshold” would fit with Russia’s “gray zone” tactics that seek to exploit apparent legal and political seams to achieve its objectives. 

Regardless, let’s continue to hope and pray that LTG Hodges – and Lawfire® are right and we won’t see a major military attack or, ideally, any attack at all.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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