What Would Happen if Russia Invaded Ukraine?

Sunday, December 26, 2021

In my last few posts I've written about Russian-Ukrainian relations, discussed the role of water and other resources within this relationship, and explored the reasons for why some in Russia might want to invade Ukraine.  

But what might happen if Russia actually did launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine?

The assumption, of course, is that Ukraine's forces would be no match for Russia. And indeed, were the two militaries facing off on a neutral field like sports teams in a championship game, that would no doubt be the case. And yes, in some parts of eastern Ukraine, Russian soldiers would be treated like conquering heroes. Still, this doesn't mean that Ukrainian forces would be completely helpless. Some analysts have argued that these forces, which have been beefed up substantially since 2014, could prove quite effective in resisting an invasion. 

In western Ukraine, moreover, the situation would be considerably different. Frankly, I would be surprised if Moscow attempted to invade and occupy all of Ukraine. If an invasion were to take place, my sense is that it would only involve the eastern regions of the country, such would be the hassle and cost of attempting to subdue western Ukraine. 

Putin and Russian Nationalism

It's quite common for Putin to be described as a Russian nationalist in the American media, but that's not an adequate means of describing him. Without question, Putin likes to frame his actions as reflecting a broader concern with the Russian state. But he is not a populist champion of ethnic Russians in the way that, say, Vladimir Zhirnovsky tried to portray himself in the early 1990s, or in the fashion of various neo-fascist parties in France, Austria, and elsewhere. Putin supports populists, or would-be populists, in the west not because he himself is a nationalist, but rather due to the fact that he understands how de-stabilizing and destructive such movements can be for a country. 

With respect to Russia's domestic affairs, Putin is a pragmatic supporter of Soviet-style invocations of "friendship among peoples" within Russia. And for good reason, as almost one-fifth of Russia's population identifies itself as non-ethnic Russian. 

Moreover, the Russian Federation contains numerous federal units--republics, oblasts, krais, and the like--which are often delineated according to nationality. This is a holdover from the Soviet era, when authorities in Moscow created nationally-defined territories for non-Russian ethnicities across the USSR. This is how the "Fab 15" union republics were created, and within several of these republics--and mainly within the Russian Republic--various "mini-republics" were likewise established. When the USSR broke up, it was most often within these "mini-republics" (such as Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and the Crimea) that most political conflicts and/or wars have taken place over the question of independence.  

This is why one of Putin's main objectives over the years has been to dilute the power of authorities in the regions in favor of increasing the power of the center. In some regions, such as Chechnya, re-establishing Moscow's control over would-be breakaway republics involved a combination of warfare and establishing relations with local political actors such as Ramzan Kadyrov. In other regions, like Tatarstan, economic lures--such as allowing Kazan (and Kazan-based politicians) more access to locally-produced oil revenue--proved important in squelching would-be independence movements. 

Another means of reducing the authority of nationally-defined regional authorities has been to create a new layer of government, one based upon "federal units" that are much larger than the republics, and which are not nationally-defined. While the republics still exist in Russia, the idea is to gradually decrease their authority. 

What does all of this have to do with Ukraine? Well, Putin is a back-room type of dealer, not someone who puts his faith in angry mobs. As a former security agent, he has a deep distrust for anything that might cause any sort of spontaneous outburst, and so appealing to people's sense of nationalism is not the sort of thing that he's prone to do. 

But what happens if an ethnically-defined war between Russians and Ukrainians takes place in Ukraine? This is something that could happen even if Moscow were to limit its incursion to eastern Ukraine. If a protracted military conflict were to develop between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians (as opposed to the current situation, in which Moscow-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian authorities), Putin's careful balance of Russian-state jingoism and "friendship among nations" might begin to unravel. 

In a country with as many ethnicities as Russia has, that would be a major political risk. It would also constitute a risk to Putin's own authority in Russia, which is vulnerable to being outflanked by politicians resembling the more populist and nationalist movements that Putin has supported in other countries.

Annexing the Crimea was something that Putin could claim was in Russia's national interest. Getting involved in an extended war that came to be defined as one fought between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians would be a lot more dangerous.   

NATO's Response?

Ultimately, both Ukraine and Georgia mean a lot more to Moscow than they do to Washington. For as long as these two countries are outside of NATO, it seems unlikely that NATO's response would consist of any more than sanctions and selling arms to Kyiv. 

All of this saber-rattling in Ukraine is connected to NATO and the expansion of western influence in Eastern Europe that has taken place since the end of the Cold War. And for as long as Ukraine stays in the forefront of tensions between the US and Russia, then we don't need to worry about these political conflicts shifting further westward. 

And to my mind, that would be the real concern. If the issue were not Ukraine but rather an actual NATO member. During the DJT administration, I wondered what the US response would be if, for example, Putin were to make territorial demands on NATO member Estonia (and its large, mainly ethnic Russian city of Narva). DJT, who often expressed doubts about the value of NATO and reportedly wanted to withdraw from the security pact, would have been the perfect US president for Putin to attempt such a gambit with. He knows better, of course, to try that now--which might be one reason why the Russian leader is testing the waters with Ukraine. 

The prospect of war is obviously a concern no matter what, but in the conflict brewing around Ukraine right now there are a number of unintended consequences that could end up playing a role in whatever pans out there. If Vladimir Putin finds himself presiding over ethnic bloodletting between Russians and Ukrainians, the adventure could eventually end up proving as destabilizing for Russia as for Ukraine itself. 

As the United States learned in Iraq, sometimes the invasion is the easiest part. Wars of choice often end up backfiring. 


Also see:

Why Would Russia Invade Ukraine?

Crimea River: Water and Russian-Ukrainian Relations

Rattling Kyiv's Cage

The Not-So-Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

Bad Idea Jeans: Ukraine Edition 

Crimea and eastern Ukraine: Things Can Always Get Worse


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