Experts paint dark picture for region, global order if Russia invades
A possible Russian invasion of Ukraine could take numerous forms, many of which would lead to a protracted conflict that destabilizes Europe with far-reaching consequences for the United States, experts and officials warn.
“Part of the problem is that this is a very dangerous situation because it could rapidly escalate in ways that could lead to catastrophe,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a video posted on Twitter Monday, after previously calling a Russia-Ukraine war “the most significant threat in Europe since 1945.”
Russia has continued to say it is open to engaging in diplomatic efforts to curb tensions in the region. But at the same time, it has amassed an estimated 130,000 troops along much of Ukraine’s border.
“Putin is trying to maximize his rhetorical and on-the-ground flexibility at all times. He will say anything to keep options open,” said Lester Munson, a former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“He is also interested in seeing how the other side, that is the United States and the West and the Ukrainians, reacts when he either takes provocative steps or makes blatantly insincere assurances.”
Further complicating matters, Russia has also rolled out joint training exercises with the Bularussian military, moving 30,000 troops along with a significant supply of Russian hardware to the country just north of Ukraine and its capital Kyiv.
NATO troops, including some 6,000 U.S. soldiers, have been sent to the region.
“So right there the possibility of miscalculation exists, that one side thinks that the move the other side is making is an attack, and suddenly you have war,” Rubio said of the buildup on both sides.
Experts have outlined multiple pathways for Russia to invade the country.
Even a more limited offensive to seize territory in Eastern Ukraine would be a major undertaking for Russian forces, while a more ambitious effort would move further West and also capture ports in Odessa.
“Such a move would deprive Ukraine of vital economic ports along its southern coast, render Ukraine landlocked, and resolve Russia’s long-standing logistical problems with providing supplies, including water, to Crimea,” Alexander Vindman, former Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, wrote in Foreign Affairs Magazine.
“This would be an enormous operation requiring all the forces Russia has assembled in Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders. This would also require seizing and holding contested terrain,” added Vindman, now a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute.
“Russia would be forced to engage in a costly effort to occupy major Ukrainian cities, exposing its forces to difficult urban warfare, a protracted military campaign, and a costly insurgency.”
Another option would be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, something Vindman said would not likely lead to a long-term occupation as it “would entail a level of urban warfare and additional casualties that the Russian military probably wishes to avoid.” Instead, Russia would likely hold territory and supply lines as a way to inflict damage and achieve its diplomatic goals.
The world has been left with a confusing picture about whether Russia will invade and how imminently it may move, with officials warning that an attack will begin on this week, while also saying Putin has yet to make up his mind.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday he was informed the invasion would take place on Wednesday, something Ukrainian leaders later clarified he meant ironically.
Meanwhile, Russia has said it would partially pull back troops in an effort to forward diplomatic talks, even as the lower house of its parliament voted to recognize the independence of Russian-backed separatist territories in eastern Ukraine.
“So far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground, not seen any signs of reduced Russian military presence on the borders of Ukraine, but we will continue to monitor, to follow closely what Russia is doing,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday.
But experts warn any Russian intervention could be devastating for both countries.
“As we learned in Iraq, as we learned in Afghanistan, when you invade a country that doesn’t want you there it can become painful and bloody,” Rubio said after an all-member briefing from Pentagon and State Department officials.
“[Putin’s] going to face a long and protracted resistance and we’ll have to explain to the Russian people why their economy is in tatters and their sons keep coming home dead,” he added.
“There is no way that the Ukrainian military no matter how much you equip them can win an all out conventional assault. What they could do, however, is mount an irregular long term resistance that I think will be very, very costly and devastating to the Russians.”
Any violence in the country could also set off a refugee crisis as people seek to flee, with U.S. intelligence concluding as many as 1 million to 5 million people may try and leave the country.
“If Russia does invade in the days and weeks ahead, the human cost for Ukraine will be immense. And the strategic cost for Russia will also be a immense,” Biden said in a speech on Tuesday.
“If Russia attacks Ukraine, it will be met with overwhelming international condemnation. The world will not forget that Russia chose needless death and destruction. Invading Ukraine will prove to be a self-inflicted wound. The United States and our allies and partners will respond decisively. The West is united and galvanized,” he added.
The president also noted a Russian invasion “would also have consequences here at home,” but added “ the American people understand that defending democracy and liberty is never without cost. This is a cause that unites Republicans and Democrats.”
The global economic implications would also come, as NATO allies weigh sanctions for Russia that will push Moscow to further align with China.
Sanctions would likely target the Russian banking sector and its energy industry, but it could be a struggle to unify NATO allies on some measures, particularly with some in Europe, like Germany, dependent on imports of Russian natural gas and oil.
“Russia is kind of a one-trick pony when it comes to their economy,” said Jamil Jaffer, founder of the National Security Institute at George Mason University adding that there are “not a lot of options immediately for addressing supply” for Eastern European nations.
“The Russians know as well as we do that in the long run unless there’s a major shift of U.S. and European prioritization, and we’re willing to supply them with the supplies they need like natural gas…that we’ll eventually have to ease up on the sanctions,” he said. “The Russians are playing the long game.”
In the short term, sanctions from the West are likely to increase Russian reliance on China, something that Munson said will be to Moscow’s detriment in the long run.
“Each made a deal with the devil. And once that goes past, their interests are not at all the same,” he said, noting that China will soon be setting the terms as they buy Russia’s natural resources.
“China is going to exploit Russia enormously. So Putin making a deal with the country most likely to exploit Russia is not a great long term play. He’s making a claim that’s good for him now,” as he pursues yet another term as president of Russia, Munson said.
Going after the banking sector might be an easier, narrow move that could more immediately hit Putin and his inner circle of oligarchs but Jaffer warned that could also result in blowback.
“That’s going right at their throat,” he said. “That would have the biggest impact but it’s the closest thing you can do to get at economic warfare.”
But he said broader economy-wide sanctions may not cripple Putin’s popular support like the U.S. expects, particularly if he’s able to blame the West for a faltering Russian economy.
“I think imposing sanctions broadly across the Russian economy impacting a lot of people will bring them together, whereas Russians losing lives on the battlefield will sap public support as they say ‘Why are we on this adventure in the Ukraine?’”
Rubio warned the U.S. should not expect Russia to remain passive in the face of sanctions.
“The minute he invades, Russia’s economy is going to get hit with sanctions – crippling sanctions. And Putin will respond probably with cyber attacks, let’s say against our banks and our own economy. We would respond to that with our own cyber attack and back and forth that goes and the escalation would continue until two sides conclude that the next move left in the escalatory chain is a military move, and then we’re on the edge of war,” he said.
“And so even as we impose crippling sanctions and consequences for an invasion, we cannot allow this to escalate and become something far more dangerous and catastrophic.”
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