What will happen to Russia if it decides to start a full-scale war with Ukraine? Putin is reminded of the many unresolved problems inside Russia and train cars full of unrecognizable corpses. Russia has already suffered trillions in losses due to the occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donbas. The Russians themselves are not eager to fight for the Kremlin. But will this stop Putin?
Dialogue at gunpoint
On December 8, Putin called The Kommersant’s question about whether Russia is going to attack Ukraine “provocative.” He responded in an evasive wordy manner, beginning with a complex sentence with a “but”: “Russia pursues a peaceful foreign policy, but …” This was followed by the same old story about NATO expansion which allegedly threatens Russia’s security. The conjunction as if hints at the possibility.
On December 14, after telephone conversations with Finnish President Sauli Niiniste and French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin called for “urgent” international talks to work out “legally formalized guarantees” of Russia’s security.
According to the Kremlin’s website, the guarantees, according to Putin, should exclude “any further advance of NATO to the East” and the deployment of “weapons that threaten Russia” in neighbouring countries, especially in Ukraine. “Putin likes talking to the West holding Ukraine at gunpoint,” as journalist Roman Honcharenko put it.
However, according to Bloomberg on December 10, the Kremlin understands that “there is practically no chance to get such guarantees from the Alliance.” White House officials say Putin will not have the right to vote on future NATO enlargement. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also assured that the Alliance’s relations with Ukraine remain unchanged. “This is a fundamental principle: every nation has the right to choose its own path,” he told reporters in Brussels.
Answering La Repubblica’s question whether he was ready to abandon Ukraine’s NATO membership in exchange for a guaranteed withdrawal of Russian troops from the border, President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “It is strange to hear the Russian side asking for any guarantees after Russia itself has violated so many commitments.”
Putin has repeatedly made it clear that he considers Ukrainians to be one people with the Russians, and Ukrainian lands to be the historical lands of Russia. This is his phantom pain and obsession. But how far is he willing to go to gain the right to dispose of Ukraine at his own discretion?
Many experts put forward reasonable arguments against the possibility of a large-scale military invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
They say that Putin, for example, is quite happy with the implementation of the Minsk agreements, so that the now occupied parts of the Donbas return to Ukraine, but de facto remain under Russian control. This way, he will get several million Ukrainian voters who will vote in Russia’s favour and will definitely prevent Ukraine’s integration into NATO, and all responsibility for any socio-economic problems in these territories will be Ukraine’s. And this seems to be enough for Putin.
Andrey Piontkovsky also added rational arguments, but at the same time he urged everyone to keep in mind the apt description that Boris Nemtsov once gave to Putin in an interview with Ukrainian television: “Just so you know, he is crazy.”
Translating this into diplomatic language, we can say that his actions are not always predictable, they can be irrational. Therefore, it is impossible to rule out a scenario that seems crazy.
According to Valerii Kravchenko, an expert at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, Moscow sees that the “window of opportunity” is closing — Ukraine may soon “break away” completely. This forces Russia to act in haste. Kravchenko suggests that Putin’s plan may be to create an “alternative Ukraine” — a proxy that will enter into an alliance with Belarus and Russia. Valentyn Badrak, director of the Center for Army Research, Conversion and Disarmament, believes Putin’s only chance of not losing Ukraine is to organize a blitzkrieg right now. “Putin is well aware that a strong but not fatal blow will mean death for the one who inflicted it. Therefore, it is either blitzkrieg or a complete failure. Russia is incapable of a long war now,” said Badrak.
“Let’s release everyone who doesn’t love us”
Thus, the hypothetical price that Russia can pay for the war against Ukraine in the event of a blitzkrieg failure is the complete collapse of Russia itself. But Russia, as it turned out, could face collapse even without a war with Ukraine.
On December 9, during a meeting of the Human Rights Council, Putin unexpectedly acknowledged the fragility of the Russian Federation. He reacted very nervously to the presentation of director Alexander Sokurov He said, in particular, that in the national republics “increasingly dislike” Russians and “want to say goodbye” to them. And how young people in the North Caucasus say that in the event of a war between Russia and NATO, they will not fight for Russia. And also about the approach of the “Islamic Revolution” in Russia.
“Let’s release everyone who does not want to live in one country with us,” said the director. In response, Putin said that “NATO wants to turn us into Muscovy”, asked “not to call trouble” and suddenly said that Russia has “two thousand territorial claims”, so it may face a “repeat of Yugoslavia.”
By the way, one of such territorial conflicts was resolved in the most awkward way: Moscow simply put the leaders of protests in Ingushetia in jail for 7.5 to 9 years. They had been protesting against the change of border in favour of Chechnya. One of the accused include the head of the local council. Obviously, such actions do not prevent the “repetition of Yugoslavia” scenario, but rather accelerate it.
Sokurov did not mention Ukraine, but said that instead of waging war, Russia should focus on handling its own territories.
“I hope that you, like me, have an aversion to war and blood. Russia doesn’t need to fight… I appeal to you once again, as I have already said: it is time for us to work on a new Russia … Let’s build roads, restore Russian villages, support northern business, restore health care in the North,” the director begged. Dmitry Muratov, editor of Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, also subtly objected to a war with Ukraine in a speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Condemning the “aggressive marketing of war” on state television channels, Muratov mentioned “another people in front of other TV sets.”
“During the Chechen war, five white refrigerated cars were on rails at one station. They were guarded around the clock. It was a morgue on wheels. The bodies of unknown soldiers and officers were stored in refrigerators. Many no longer had faces from direct hits or torture… And in a small house by the tracks stood a TV. In the chairs, like in a waiting room, sat the mothers and fathers of the missing soldiers. And the operator with a video camera broadcast images of bodies one after another. One after another. 458 times. This is how many military servants were on the shelves of these cars in their last train, taking them from war to death. Mothers who had spent many months searching for their boys in the mountains and gorges of Chechnya saw their son’s face on the screen and shouted: ‘It’s not him! It’s not him!’ And yet, it was. Today’s visionaries promote the idea of dying for the Fatherland, not living for it. Let’s not let this TV fool us once again,” said Muratov.
A study by the Moscow Carnegie Centre found that Russians perceive the idea of a real big war “without enthusiasm”:
“The military actions in Donbas in 2014 against the background of the triumphant capture of Crimea were perceived very positively. However, as soon as it became clear that Donbas and Luhansk were, to put it mildly, a slightly different format of military operation, much bloodier and more destructive … the war ceased to please people, it began to frighten them instead. And ‘if there is a war tomorrow,’ as the song goes, let a professional army go and fight, not our boy, he still needs to enter a university, then find employment, and we actually have plans to go on holiday to the seaside, what war are you talking about?”
“Russia’s losses will be significant”
On Russian talk shows on TV, where they were conquering and burying Ukraine year after year, they keep doing just that. Lower-level military experts call for an urgent solution to the “Ukrainian issue”: “If the Ukrainian issue is not resolved now, in the most radical way, such a war will still happen, but then, human and material losses will be much greater.”
Propagandists twist the headlines of foreign media: “NYT: The Armed Forces of Ukraine will be destroyed in 30-40 minutes — head of Ukraine’s military intelligence assessed the country’s chances in the event of war with Russia.” Of course, the head of military intelligence never said that. Instead, the statement came from Robert Lee, a professor of King’s College London, who meant that Russia can do a lot of damage very quickly. But he never said it would take Russia 30-40 minutes to annihilate the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Nothing new about this, of course. There is another thing that is more notable — cautious voices that Russia will also pay a considerable price. For example, Sergei Tsekov, a member of the Federation Council representing the occupied Crimea,said that “no one is interested in an armed conflict,” and that “Russia’s losses will also be significant.”
The National Interest (TNI) is one of the favourite American media of Russian propagandists and pro-Russian media in Ukraine. It often praises Russia, especially its military power, calls on the US leadership to reckon with it, and most importantly, not to sacrifice relations with Russia for the sake of Ukraine, because it does not seem to be worth it. It is headed by an American of Soviet descent, who in mid-2018 became the co-host of the political show Bolshaya Igra on Russia’s state TV channel First.
This time, TNI also came out with a similar position. If Washington refuses to acknowledge Russia’s red lines, they say, Putin is ready to fight, and there is little the US can do to stop him.
But there is one caveat. Russia will pay the price: “The good news is that Putin almost certainly understands that an invasion of Ukraine would lead to a complete break in relations with the West, rendering Russia in effect a dependent junior partner of China. Moreover, he probably realizes that Russian forces would very likely have to deal with guerrilla resistance in occupied Ukrainian territory, and that unoccupied portions of western Ukraine could become a host for U.S. and NATO forces over the longer term. It is doubtful that these are outcomes he finds appealing.”
Trillions of dollars in losses
According to the calculations of military and political observer Oleksandr Kovalenko, Russia has already paid quite the price for its invasion.
“Since 2014, Russia’s GDP has lost more than $5.56 trillion. This is the price of the occupied part of Donbas, this is the price of the occupied Crimean Peninsula, this is the price paid by the Russian economy for seven years in a row. So, I just wonder, was it worth it?” asks Kovalenko.