So, Russia is once again gearing up for invasion and war. The Former Soviet Union (FSU) often did it in the past. In 1956, Hungary, a Warsaw Pact country, announced the decision to introduce free elections and to leave the agreement. However, the FSU could not allow Hungary to overthrow its government and leave the Warsaw Pact as this would destroy the unity of the Soviet bloc and weaken the defences of the FSU. It used 1,200 tanks and about 35,000 troops for the invasion. In the 1960s, following similar efforts by the Czechoslovakian leadership, the Soviet Union invaded that country in 1968 employing approximately 2,00,000 troops and 5,000 tanks. That was the heyday of the Cold War and many believed that Moscow wished to demonstrate and project its willingness to employ force when its interests mattered. However, Moscow has always had a propensity to do everything with an overkill. In March 1969, the Soviet Army fired more than 10,000 rockets and shells from its newly developed BM 21 Grad Multi Rocket Launchers and other heavy artillery on the Damansky Island, which was disputed with the Chinese. It was believed that the course of the Ussuri River changed due to this barrage. So, when Russia, the core republic of the FSU that inherited the Soviet legacy, decides to mass 1,20,000 troops and over 1,200 tanks north and east of the Russo-Ukrainian border, things have to be taken seriously. In addition, this deployment extends into Belarus, which borders Ukraine as an extension in the north. Crimea, which has the strategic port of Sevastopol where the Black Sea fleet anchors, has already been occupied by Russia in 2014. There are Russian naval vessels on their way to the Black Sea as a reinforcement even as its Navy is exercising worldwide. Russia has announced the deployment of advanced Su-35 fighter planes to Belarus, along with S-400 air-defence systems, munitions and medical support. Russian Speznaz special operations forces and Iskander missile units were also on the ground in Belarus. Russia could calibrate it by upping the ante in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two easternmost areas of Ukraine, where Russian proxies are already active.
Is there a chance of war in Europe, the least likely theatre in many years because of a carefully drawn-out balance? That balance actually became a misnomer once the Warsaw Pact was dismantled and Russia was militarily and economically weakened after the Cold War. America’s and NATO’s hard grind to extract the last ounce of security from that situation, and persisting with it beyond reason, is now upsetting everything. The Russians were patient till 2014; they really had very few options. As NATO absorbed nations of the former Warsaw Pact and former Soviet republics, it was like the slow turn of the screw; its eastward march threatened Russian security. Ukraine is not just another former republic; geo-strategically, it juts into heartland Russia and rests on the Black Sea too. It has a 46 million population that is seeking betterment of life through greater integration with the West. Moscow has already got a foot in the door through eight long years of hybrid invasion, which has seen the Ruble become the accepted currency in the eastern part of Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk) where ethnic Russians exist in near majority. Russian President Vladmir Putin could do more demonstration, akin to the invasion of Crimea, by simply taking over and merging Donetsk and Luhansk with Russia. It would present a fait accompli and with some demographic tweaking, a sizable Russian majority could be created. A Russia-friendly Belarus in the north, willing to host even nuclear weapons, helps in all this, especially since ethnic Slavic commonality also links the two.
What Russia has to be mindful of is the fact that Ukrainian nationalism also runs high. A direct military assault on the nation with an attempt to take capital Kiev through Special Forces is not going to go uncontested. The Ukrainian armed forces are 2,50,000 strong and a 1,00,000 increase over the next three years has already been announced. An Iraq-style resistance to permanent stationing of Russian troops is not going to permit a cakewalk like the 1968 Czechoslovakia invasion.
At the height of the Cold War, the US had almost 4,00,000 troops deployed in Europe to deter a Soviet invasion. The doctrine of deterrence was however backed by a willingness to go nuclear (including first strike). Today there are 70,000 US troops stationed in Europe, with half of them in Euro heartland Germany. The US has placed 8,000 troops on state of high alert, to be deployed. However, none of these troops are likely to fight in Ukraine; they are to defend the heartland, so to say. Nuclear deterrence may not work here as Russia has drawn the redline on any further attempts to absorb Ukraine into NATO. In fact, as a part of its strategy it is even demanding that NATO remove all former Warsaw Pact nations and former Soviet republics, but that is an overkill that the Russians know too well.
It’s not the military dimension that is important for the moment; the economic one takes priority, especially when one looks at the energy management of Europe. Russia has used energy revenue to accumulate some $630 billion in foreign exchange reserves. In 2021, for example, the Kremlin put its oil price expectation at $45 per barrel; that year, prices averaged nearly $70 a barrel leading to improved Russian reserves. With this Moscow has insulated itself from the effects of economic sanctions imposed on it. Overall, Russia supplies about one-third of European natural gas consumption, used for winter heating and much more. In reality neither side can do more in the energy versus sanctions game. War may not be entirely localised. If it happens the energy infrastructure may also get affected. A Europe reeling under the negativity of immigration, pandemic and then energy shortages is going to find it extremely difficult not to adhere to the Russian demand. It’s the US that won’t and schisms within NATO are already evident.
The Russians will continue depending on historical precedence to bolster their threats and perhaps execute a small skirmish-based demonstration somewhere. High dosage of hybrid war will follow; there appears to be little chance of conventional war. There are no early solutions either but tensions in Europe will affect many other emerging strategic standoffs and the behaviour of ambitious big powers such as China. It’s a standoff worth observing with focus.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir