Russia: Next Moves?

Russia: Next Moves?

There are growing concerns that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine, with satellite imagery confirming the build-up of the Russian military on the eastern border of Ukraine and Russia. Fears have been raised about the potential escalation of conflict by senior officials in both the United States and the EU. Would Russia invade Ukraine?


On November 10th Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned Russia against “making a serious mistake” in Ukraine. This is not the first panic that Russia has caused about this issue in recent times. In September, Russia and Belarus conducted a huge Zapad-21 military exercise, demonstrating a much more powerful display than the same exercise conducted four years earlier.

Russian rhetoric from senior levels of government is also cause for concern. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of “attempts to carry out provocations… and drag Russia into some kind of combat” on November 1st. Commenting on a visit to Ukraine by United States Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, Vladimir Putin said on October 22nd that it had “opened doors” for it to join NATO. The language used is particularly concerning when UN deputy ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said on November 11th that Russia would not invade Ukraine “unless it was provoked”. 


Putin has in the past referred to southern Ukraine as “Novorossiya” which in English is translated to New Russia. The choice of words alone paints a picture of Putin’s expansionist ideology.

Russia’s actions have in the past been aggressive, such as the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The annexation is a great example of how strategic Russian policy is. Crimea contains the only warm water naval port in the world; Sevastopol, and it is seen as a key area of interest for Russia. Russia’s Military Doctrine in 2010 placed the defence of Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity as priority, as well as identifying interference in their internal affairs and domestic threats as key internal military responsibilities. It seems as though in Putin’s eyes, anywhere there are Russian populations, there is a legitimate obligation for the Russian government to protect that place by way of influence. It is worth noting that Russian soldiers are based on the Eastern border of Ukraine which coincides with the area of Ukraine possessing the highest percentage of Russian speakers. It is perfectly summed up by President Putin’s term “Russkiy Mir”, which translates to “the Russian world”. 


The West’s intent on preventing the “Russkiy Mir” clearly presents an issue from Putin’s perspective, along with the ostensible Western interference in Ukraine which led to the Ukrainian revolution, including the training of Western militants in the neighboring bases of Lithuania and Poland. Putin cited these allegations as one of the main reasons why Russia was “forced” into protecting its interests in Crimea, stating that Western actions in Eastern Europe had “crossed the line”. This victim-playing language is similar to recent statements made by the aforementioned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. It is possible that this language is being used to set the foundation for another invasion, based on the pretence of needing to protect Russia’s interests from outside actors. 

The Russian government has highlighted two criteria that must be met to justify the use of force:

  • The existence, according to Russia, of a serious threat to the security (especially life and physical well-being) of Russian-speaking people.

  • A request for assistance made by such people to Russia (there are no detailed conditions for such requests).

If Russia deems the Russian populations in Eastern Ukraine to have met either of these conditions, it would, under its own criteria, allow for the use of force. 

International Reaction

Unsurprisingly, it appears the international community is on high alert regarding the threat Russia poses. Outgoing UK Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Nick Carter, said that the UK must be ready for potential conflict with Russia, saying a war with Russia is now at its highest risk since the end of the Cold War. However, is this language symbolic or genuine? If we look at recent events, it would appear the former. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 there were no direct confrontations between the West and Russia. Economic sanctions were placed on Russia, which reportedly resulted in a $600 million loss to the Russian economy from 2014-2017 alone. Moreover, when Russia invaded Georgia in 2018, we saw condemning language by key figures once again, including US President George W. Bush saying “bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century”. Still, there were no direct confrontations with Russia over its behavior.

The context makes it difficult to believe that the West would become militarily involved with Russia if they were to invade Ukraine again. The economic cost and international chaos that would ensue as a result of a US-Russian conflict makes it very unlikely. Moreover, when one considers China’s geographical and strategic position, the threat of confrontation with Russia has the potential to be extremely dangerous for the West. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li described Russia-China relations as “Not an alliance, but better than allies”. Whilst China and Russia disagree on certain topics, the two seem to strike a common interest in undermining the US and Western world. Against this background, it is far more likely that further economic sanctions would be placed on Russia. 

Looking Ahead

Russian state affiliated media outlets have been reporting this year that Ukraine is planning an offensive on the Donbas region. Clearly this rhetoric suggests a serious threat to the Russian speaking region of Ukraine and, as such, would constitute the use of force by the Russian military. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken believes it is Russia’s “playbook” to build up forces near the border and then invade on the pretense that it was provoked. If they were to invade Ukraine, the consequences for Russia would be immense. It is not likely that the West would respond militarily as this could lead to all out conflict. Instead, it is likely there would be diplomatic expulsions of Russian diplomats across the globe. Financial penalties for Russia would also be likely to occur. Moreover, it is possible that if Russia were to invade Ukraine, they could be expelled from the SWIFT banking system, which would cause significant financial disruption to its economy. As Russia’s economy is, at present, relatively weak, this would be a significant blow to the Kremlin. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, there is no telling exactly how this situation might progress. 

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author