Russia, Ukraine and Threats
Moscow appears to be setting up conditions to justify action against Ukraine but its goal is unclear.
By George Friedman
Tension between Russia and Ukraine is escalating. According to the Russians, a special operations team from Ukraine attacked Crimea. The Ukrainians denied the claim. The Russians appear to be moving forces around in Crimea and increasing the number and the posture of the forces in the area. More significant militarily, there are some reports of Russian troop buildups east of their border with Ukraine and an unconfirmed report of a brigade of Russian troops deploying in pro-Russian rebel-held territory inside Ukraine. The Russians have done nothing to tamp down tension. In fact, they have increased it by citing multiple Ukrainian provocations and insisting that they will not be allowed to persist.
Whatever the truth in the reports, it is obvious that the Russians are establishing a justification for taking action against Ukraine. Our model predicts that the Russians will eventually move to change the situation in Ukraine, militarily if necessary. Ukraine is too important to them strategically to accept anything less than a neutral government in Kiev. A pro-Western government with close ties to the U.S. and other militaries can evolve dangerously from the Russian point of view. Therefore, we expect the Russians to take some significant action – diplomatically, economically and/or militarily.
However, our view is that for the moment the military option is likely off the table. Ukraine is a very large country and just occupying it against minimal resistance would require a force that Russia didn’t have a year ago. Given that the Russians couldn’t count on minimal resistance, their forces needed modernization, extensive training and a strong logistical base. Thus, we expected the informal truce that has been in place – with low-level fighting and an implicit commitment from the U.S. not to get directly involved in boosting Ukraine’s military position – to continue to the end of 2016 at least.
Therefore, our forecasting model says that an increase in tension will lead nowhere. But while models are nice, and we are proud of ours, the Russians are talking war, and we must consider why they are doing it now.
The Russian economy has declined precipitously and is still declining. This has to be hurting President Vladimir Putin’s political position, especially among senior officials and oligarchs who constitute the Russian elite. Putin has been increasing his power lately, replacing some governors with his former bodyguards. But actions like that don’t make him appear powerful to us. On the contrary, it makes us think that he is extremely worried and trying to shore up his position.
The declining economy is one of the forces undermining his position. The other is his mishandling of Ukraine. While Westerners think of Putin as the aggressor, at the end of the day, Ukraine’s Russian-friendly government was replaced by a pro-Western government. All the Russians retained was Crimea, where they already had a massive force by treaty with Ukraine, and a presence in eastern Ukraine. There, the Russians tried to incite a broad uprising that never happened, and the rebel forces they supported were essentially fought to a standstill with the Ukrainians. An equivalent scenario in the United States would be if the U.S. simultaneously went into a massive depression and faced a pro-Mexican coup in Texas. Not being able to do much about the economy and the Ukrainian situation, Putin needs to do something. He needs to appear threatening, even if it’s a bluff.