Does the Russian warmongering rhetoric hint at the invasion of Ukraine?
The concentration of the Russian troops near the Ukrainian border made some media evoke the preparation of a Russian invasion.
Recently, the information about Russia massing troops near the Ukrainian border and fears of a possible invasion appeared in diverse Western media. The warmongering rhetoric also peaked in the Russian information space. The RAND’s Samuel Charap rushed to publish an op-ed suggesting the change of approach to Russia that Biden's administration has to undertake. He also advocated for Washington shifting the focus from “only on coercing Russia” to “also push Kyiv to take steps toward implementing its obligations under the Minsk II agreement”. The Minsk II that he, himself, described as “victor’s peace, essentially imposed by Russia on Ukraine at the barrel of a gun”.
Mr Charap’s op-ed is based on several assumptions that might be debatable, to say the least. One of them is the inevitability of a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine, thus the need to coerce Kyiv to accept the Russian demands to prevent it.
His op-ed sparked a lively debate on Twitter and on the pages of different outlets, including Politico, where his piece was initially published. But, we will rather focus on a different aspect of the Russo-Ukrainian tensions, instead of further fueling this debate.
The need to legally entrench Ukraine in a ‘grey zone’
Even though nobody knows what’s on Kremlin’s mind, not even the most prominent experts and Russia watchers, we may however make a few assumptions of a possible calculus.
Given that the Minsk II agreements didn’t bring the desired outcome for Moscow and that the current geopolitical situation is rather favourable for Russia. For instance, Biden in the United States, France readying for the presidential and legislative elections, the Nord Stream II, recent weaponization of migrants against the European Union by Moscow’s satrap Lukashenka, extremely profitable natural gas and fair crude oil prices, to name a few, may encourage Kremlin to act. Moscow also understands that Ukraine joining NATO is a matter of a window of opportunity, that may be opened, for instance, if the future transfer of power in Russia doesn’t go smooth enough.
Kremlin also knows that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine may cause disastrous outcome for Russia itself due to the lack of necessary forces and potentially extreme costs inflicted on Russia, thus making it off the table. But, there is an opportunity dictated by an urgent need to, at least, half-achieve the goal of subduing Ukraine by ensuring that the West formally agrees on the neutral status of this Central European country, therefore excluding any possibility of membership in both NATO and the EU. This would temporarily satisfy Russia until there is a window of opportunity to assert control over Ukraine via a wide range of tools ranging from economic and diplomatic to subversive activities.
But in order to achieve this Moscow needs to persuade the Western countries of inevitability of a full-scale invasion unless the collective West and Ukraine agree on the Russian terms. Kremlin’s calculus is based on the experience and post 2008/2014 observations of the West, where Ukraine would rather be advised to accept the Russian demands instead of being massively supplied with arms to drastically increase the costs of any Russian military venture. Legally entrenching Ukraine in a “grey zone” would be a success for Russia at this point and that’s exactly what Kremlin wants to achieve now.
Also, worth noting, that on November 18, at the extended collegium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Vladimir Putin highlighted the following: “our recent warnings still make themselves felt and produce a certain effect: a certain tension has nevertheless arisen there”, meaning the NATO countries. Moscow needs to maintain a decent level of tension, unpredictability and create fear in the information space.
The Russian Reflexive Control
The presence of a significant part of the Russian troops near the Ukrainian border became normality for Kyiv after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Moreover, the Ukrainian army emerged as one of the most serious and combat-ready armies on the European continent, making swift and relatively easy Russian operations and land grabs extremely difficult to carry out.
Worth noting, that the periods of intensification of hostilities and shifts in numbers of the Russian troops present near the Ukrainian border is something usual. For instance, the most recent such period was related to the joint Russo-Belarusian military exercises Zapad-2021 this autumn. And, on December 3, the Ukrainian Minister of Defence, Oleksii Reznikov, said that currently there are 94,3 thousand Russian troops in and around Ukraine “that can be used for escalation”. Worth bearing in mind, that this number is not extraordinary and is way not enough to carry out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Together with the warmongering rhetoric against Ukraine in the Russian media, the subject of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine became more and more visible in the Western media. This sparked a lively debate among those supporting the idea of more concessions to Russia at the expense of Ukraine and those who advocate almost unconditional support to Kyiv, and launched a chain reaction in the information space ranging from diverse media proposing different scenarios to even the polls asking whether NATO should get militarily involved if Russia attacks.
Worth admitting that this information noise starts more and more looking like a Russian information operation (IO) with the elements of Reflexive Control (RC). Reflexive Control can be understood as the influence on the actors, persuading them to make decisions prepared in advance by the party in Control. While, among other things, the demonstration of force, the demonstration of false intentions, as well as disinformation are a part of RC.
For instance, we can make an assumption based on the factors described above, and others that were omitted, that Russia is carrying a massive IO. This includes playing the muscles at the Ukrainian border and being extremely aggressive in the information space to create fear in the West of the inevitability of a full-scale invasion in Ukraine, thus making the Western countries to coerce Ukraine for the sake of status quo.
While the Russian IOs in Ukraine aim to sow panic within the Ukrainian society, portray the West as an unreliable partner and disseminate the general narrative that nobody would help their country in case of a full-scale Russian invasion. Thus, it’s better to implement the Minsk II under Russian terms and accept constantly growing number of Moscow’s “red lines”.
While the best case scenario for Russia is to secure Ukraine’s de jure place in the “grey zone”, at least for the time being. However, the Kremlin may be tempted to intensify the conflict in the Donbas to add some pressure, if Putin and his entourage assume the Western response would be insignificant.