Over the past year, as Russia gathered troops along its border with Ukraine, fears of an imminent invasion grew. A number of Western leaders have repeatedly warned against this possibility.
Moscow has denied making such plans, although it has not withdrawn its troops. Some observers interpreted these Russian statements as misleading and even accused the Russian authorities of planning a false flag operation.
A closer look at Russia’s geopolitical behavior over the past two decades, however, shows that its officials are not necessarily trying to deceive the international community. A full-scale war in Ukraine doesn’t quite match the way the Kremlin has used hard power in its geopolitical games. The examples of Georgia, Syria, Libya and (so far) Ukraine show that it pursues a profitable policy.
In each case, the Russian government had a clear understanding of the risks on the ground. He performed a careful cost-benefit analysis and established clear, bounded goals for the use of hard power. The profitable policy is a conscious choice because the Russian decision-makers know well that they do not have the means to maintain a large-scale war.
From Georgia to Syria and Libya
Russia undoubtedly made these cost calculations before the 2008 Georgia war, in which it intervened on the side of separatist forces in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia against the Georgian government.
At the time, the Russian forces were not really facing a formidable adversary and were able to easily defeat the Georgian forces in South Ossetia within days. Russian troops then entered Georgia proper, ransacked the town of Gori and halted. Once the limited goal of repelling Georgian forces from South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been achieved, Moscow opened up to European mediation.
Russian troops could have cut Georgia completely in half, taken control of the valuable transit oil and gas pipelines between Azerbaijan and Turkey, and crippled the economy and the political system. All these gains would have been valuable bargaining chips to force the Georgian government to recognize the independence of the separatist regions. Yet the regional and global costs of such progress would have been too high for Russia, so it settled on a limited military operation.
A similar calculation was made before the intervention in Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2015. Moscow did not deploy a massive ground force – as, for example, the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq – and instead limited its hard power to fighter jets, special forces, mercenaries, military advisers and navy ships. To further reduce the risk, Russian diplomats engaged with various stakeholders, such as the United States, Israel and Turkey at different stages of the war. This engagement ensured that the rebel forces were not supplied with anti-aircraft weapons, which guaranteed the air supremacy of the Russian and Syrian forces.
Russia’s heavy bombardment of rebel-held areas provided effective air cover for Syrian regime forces and allowed them to move from defense to attack. Within months, Damascus, backed by Russian and Iranian forces, was able to regain control of large swaths of territory and, over the next three years, drove the rebels out of several strongholds and limited their presence to the northwest of the country. . Russia achieved its goal – preserving the al-Assad regime – with minimal costs, both in terms of casualties and funding, and even made diplomatic gains against Western powers on the international stage.
When asked to intervene in the Libyan conflict, Moscow made even less of a commitment and still achieved a great deal. Russian involvement has been limited to deploying Russian mercenaries and supplying arms to renegade general Khalifa Haftar, who controls the east of the country. Although its offensive on the capital Tripoli ultimately failed, Russia did not end up on the losing side. In fact, he managed to position himself as a mediator between the Libyan government and Haftar and won a prominent place on the negotiating table, alongside other actors, both Western and regional.
Moscow calculations in Ukraine
When Russia intervened in Ukraine in 2014, following the pro-democracy Maidan revolution against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, it took a similar cost-effective approach. It did not launch a massive invasion of its much weaker neighbor. Instead, he deployed forces without insignia, while denying it, to the Crimean Peninsula, where the strategic military assets he wanted to secure, namely the headquarters and facilities of his fleet of the black Sea.
He then undertook a relatively bloodless takeover of this Ukrainian territory by organizing a referendum and presenting the annexation of Crimea as the fulfillment of the “will of the people”. He went no further in his attempt to conquer Ukrainian territory. A full-scale war was not the method and the occupation of Kiev was not the goal.
Instead, to punish and subjugate the new government in Kiev, he set up separatist forces in the east of the country, funded and armed them, and sent troops to support them. He relied heavily on mercenaries and Russian soldiers not wearing insignia to deny his involvement and present the events on the ground as a spontaneous uprising. Thus, Moscow gained leverage over Ukraine at minimum cost.
Today, eight years after the start of the conflict, Russia is gathering a large number of troops along the border. Has he changed his approach? It’s unlikely. Despite Western predictions of an imminent invasion, it is doubtful that the intended target of Russian military mobilization is Ukraine.
Moscow has not lost its influence over Kiev in the Donbass region, as it is almost impossible for the Ukrainian army to put an end to the separatist movement there while it enjoys Russian support. If the Kremlin wants to put pressure on the Ukrainian government, it could simply do so by intensifying the conflict in the East, which does not require a large deployment of Russian troops.
In fact, only the large military presence along the border is already doing enough damage to Ukraine: it is seriously undermining its economy. Moreover, the Russian authorities do not see a threat emanating from a “democratic Ukraine”, the Maidan having now lost its appeal in Russian pro-democracy circles.
Therefore, the gathering of troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border is not aimed at Kiev, but at the West. Moscow wants to force Western countries to finally sit down for negotiations on European security issues. And this strategy seems to be working. Since 1991, this is the first time that the West has seriously engaged with Russia to discuss European security.
Russian officials undoubtedly understand that Ukraine will not enter NATO, as there is currently no enthusiasm for it within the military organization. What concerns the Kremlin is whether the United States will deploy missiles or missile defense elements on Ukrainian soil.
Moscow wants action on several issues, including halting the deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe and limiting military exercises near Russian borders. On December 17, he submitted a proposal outlining his demands to both NATO and the United States.
So what happens next?
Until the Kremlin feels it has received the necessary security guarantees, it will likely continue to maintain military pressure on the Ukrainian border. It could deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Belarus or even ramp up in other hotspots in its immediate vicinity, such as Georgia. It can hold war games closer to Western Europe, as it did in recent naval exercises near Ireland. It could even show off its military capabilities closer to US borders, deploying hypersonic missiles on its submarines or installing long-range missiles in Venezuela, for example.
All of these measures, however, will enter into Russia’s profitability calculations. This means that a full-scale invasion or war is highly unlikely.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.