Why Russia Escalates But May Not Go to War Over Ukraine

Why Russia Escalates But May Not Go to War Over Ukraine

While the situation looks grim, not all hope is lost.

Russia and Ukraine may be on the brink of a war that could, in a worst-case scenario, reach unprecedented dimensions in post-war Europe. Territorially, Russia and Ukraine are the two largest European states, and both are military heavyweights.

Of course, Russia’s conventional armed forces far exceed Ukraine’s in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Russia is also a nuclear superpower, while Ukraine is a non-nuclear-weapons state forbidden to acquire any atomic warheads under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Still, over the last seven years, Ukraine has built up a formidable and battle-hardened conventional army. Ukrainian forces are partly equipped with modern high-tech weapons that are both Ukrainian- and foreign-built. Ukraine would also be supported by more Western arms and intelligence in the case of escalation. Thus, it is unclear whether Russia could quickly and easily achieve victory against Ukraine as it did against Georgia in the August 2008 five-day Russo-Georgian War.

Moreover, it is unclear how both the Western and Russian publics would react to a Russo-Ukrainian war. Past experiences suggest that neither negative foreign reactions nor the pacifism of ordinary Russians can be counted on as constraining factors. Russia’s occupation of one-fifth of Georgia’s territory in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014 were both popular with Russians. These actions increased support for Vladimir Putin’s regime and anti-Western sentiments.

Even worse, Western reactions to Russia’s southern expansions were restrained. No sanctions of any significance were imposed on Moscow in 2008. Oddly, Russia-West relations improved after the Russo-Georgian War and occupation. In 2014, the West initially punished Russia for its annexation of Crimea and covert intervention in the Donbas with minor sanctions. But their then-limited effects encouraged the Kremlin to escalate further.

The European Union (EU) imposed moderately significant sectoral sanctions on Moscow in the summer of 2014. But they were an obvious reaction to the killing of over 200 EU citizens on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on July 17, 2014, when a Russian army unit shot down the plane over eastern Ukraine. Restrained Western reactions might suggest to Putin that Russia’s territorial expansion is not a big issue for the West—the Kremlin only needs to avoid killing EU citizens en masse.

So, what can Ukraine do in light of the frightening lessons Moscow may have learned from its 2008 and 2014 adventures? The key factors that determined past Russian behavior and will determine future Russian behavior are the relative costs of military escalations and the Russian public’s assessment of those costs. Many Russians viewed then and still view now the material and human losses from the 2008 and 2014 escapades as permissible.

The costs of Moscow’s Georgian operation were and have remained objectively low. In the case of Ukraine, the Russian public perceives the relative overall cost as bearable. Putin’s swift grab of the Crimean Peninsula was a national triumph; therefore, many Russians continue to tolerate Russia’s ongoing socioeconomic stagnation that resulted from, among other factors, the Western sanctions regime that was established in 2014.

Thus, in a sense, the Kremlin’s behavior was rational in both 2008 and 2014. The expansionist aggressions increased public support for Putin’s regime and decreased support for the West. At the same time, the political and financial expenses for Putin’s regime were limited.

One can only speculate that Moscow had foreseen and hoped for these effects in 2008 and 2014. Kremlin decisionmakers probably desired and expected the large and immediate domestic political gains, on the one hand, and the muted foreign economic fatalities, on the other. From their point of view, it might have been a sin of omission not to take swift advantage of the opportunities that materialized in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.     

The conclusions from the past record of Ukrainian and Western behavior that should be applied to the current situation are threefold. First, Ukraine should be careful to avoid situations that the Kremlin could interpret as weakness and also present a semi-legitimate casus belli to the outside world and the Russian population. Kyiv needs to avoid domestic conflicts that the Kremlin may think it can exploit.

Second, Ukraine needs to unambiguously signal to Moscow that its people are united and ready to see the conflict through. The Kremlin should get the impression that an invasion will—unlike in the case of Crimea—trigger immediate and resolute resistance from the Ukrainian military and that a hasty pledge for a ceasefire on whatever terms will not happen—unlike in Georgia in 2008.

Third, the West needs to communicate through public and non-public channels its readiness to impose sanctions that are more than symbolic. The EU, especially, would have to publicly decide and signal that it will not wait for a mass killing of EU citizens before more sectoral sanctions are imposed on Russia. Achieving a united decision by all twenty-seven member states will not be easy, but leading EU officials should try their utmost to secure such unity with the support of interested member states. The hawkish United Kingdom is no longer an EU member, while Poland—Ukraine’s strongest advocate in the EU—is hampered by a homemade conflict with Brussels. The Union will need other member states to take the lead on suggesting and pushing through sanctions.

While the situation looks grim, not all hope is lost. A principal difference between the current situation and those before Moscow’s attacks on Georgia and Ukraine is that Russia’s socioeconomic outlook is today bleak. In principle, the Russian people do not want war with Ukraine, and they may be less inclined toward foreign adventures during times of economic stagnation. If Russia and the West keep cool heads and demonstrate enough resolve, a new war may be avoided.

Andreas Umland is an analyst with the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

Image: Reuters.