- Recent troop movements in western Russia point to the possibility of war with Ukraine.
- The two countries have centuries' worth of tensioned of history, with recent strains exacerbated by an expansionist Russia.
- New fighting could drag the U.S. (and the rest of NATO) into the conflict, though not all NATO countries are enthusiastic about standing up to Russian aggression.
U.S. intelligence officials recently warned NATO allies that Russian military forces are massing up to 175,000 troops on Ukraine's border—and could be in a position to invade that country by late January.
If true, this would mark the second round of fighting between the two neighboring countries, and the second time in eight years that Russia has invaded Ukraine. Unlike last time, this new conflict could draw in the United States and elements of NATO, pitting nuclear-armed powers against one another. Here's everything we know about the possibility of a war between Russia and Ukraine.
Why Does Russia Want to Invade Ukraine?
After Russia, Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe by area, and the two share a land border. Historically, Ukraine made up a major part of the territory inhabited by the greater Rus people (ancients who gave their name to Russia and Belarus); it was politically dominant among the Rus before the Mongol Empire invaded it in the 13th century. The territory never fully recovered, and its neighbors, including a Moscow-centered Russia, continually divided up the land until the early 20th century. Although Ukraine enjoyed a brief stint of independence between 1918 and 1920, it subsequently joined the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. Ukraine has had full political independence ever since.
However, Ukrainian independence has never sat well with Russia, and that has held true under the reign of President Vladimir Putin. A history of foreign invasions, from the Mongols to Nazi Germany, has caused many in Russia to desire a wall of buffer states, including Ukraine, surrounding the country. NATO's expansion eastward in the 1990s and 2000s to include countries like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia stoked Russian paranoia about foreign encroachment. Despite NATO's purpose as a defensive alliance, many across Russia view it as a military organization dominated by the United States, which has invaded foreign countries (Afghanistan, Iraq) twice in the last 20 years.
Ukrainian sovereignty is also a sore point for those in Russia, particularly Putin, who came up during the reign of the Soviet Union and remember a time when the USSR was a superpower. While the U.S. and NATO primarily see Ukrainian independence as a net positive for the Ukrainian people. Meanwhile, Moscow sees it as a rejection of a union between ex-Soviet states; Under this zero-sum thinking, Ukraine's sovereignty is a win for the United States and NATO.
What Happened Last Time Russia Invaded Ukraine?
Crimea, a peninsula along the northern coast of the Black Sea, had long been a part of Russia, but the Soviet Union transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. This was not a big deal as long as the Soviet Union existed, as it was about the same as the U.S. federal government transferring a swath of land from California to Nevada. But once the two countries were independent, however, Crimea proved strategically important for Russia's control of the Black Sea.
In 2014, things came to a head. Russian marines, paratroopers, and Spetsnaz special forces invaded and captured the Crimea region of Ukraine with hardly any fighting. At the same time, Russia-backed proxy forces attacked Ukraine in the country's Donbas region, seeking to break it off from Ukraine and join it to Russia. The unofficial war is still ongoing, with occasional flare-ups of violence along the Russia-Ukraine border.
The response from the United States and NATO has been tepid. The annexation of Crimea, and the use of proxies in the Donbas, were met with economic sanctions and minor military aid to Ukraine, though not nearly enough to re-equip the Ukrainian ground forces in any meaningful way.
Now, a broader concern has emerged: failure to inflict sufficient punishment on Russia for its aggression has only emboldened it (and Putin in particular). Moscow reasons that it can outlast any repercussions, short of war, with the West.
What Kind of Military Action Could Russia Take Against Ukraine?
On November 19, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials had warned NATO allies that Russia was preparing for action, moving forces westward toward the border with Ukraine. The U.S. believes Russia has been redeploying Russian Ground Forces amounting to about nine or ten combat divisions, or about as many divisions in the active-duty U.S. Army. The activity began in October, and will be complete by late January or early February.
Interestingly, Russian steel and oil companies began complaining about a shortage of rail transport that also began in October—perhaps due to high levels of military transport.
What kind of military action could Russia take against Ukraine? Unlike in 2014, when Russia used proxies and its own military personnel, stripped of their identification, a new conflict would see direct, open conflict between the two countries. The 90 or more battalion tactical groups of the Russian Ground Forces, bolstered with tanks, artillery, and air support, would be far too large to hide their identities.
If it does come to all-out war, Russia will likely only use a fraction of its assembled combat power, quickly seizing a limited amount of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine is too large to completely occupy, and the longer a conflict drags on, the more likely a NATO military response will become. The occupation of Ukraine, to satisfy Putin's appetite for expansion, is merely part of Russia's goal; The rest is about cowing the country into political submission to intimidate NATO.
How Would the U.S. and NATO Respond to Russia Invading Ukraine?
Would NATO respond militarily? Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, has warned member states that they must "expect the worst," while stating that Russia would "pay a high price" for attacking Ukraine. Many NATO countries—especially small, formerly Soviet states such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as former captive Warsaw Pact nations—back military involvement in Ukraine, reasoning that they could be next. Germany, however, has all but signaled it would not use military force against Russia, which supplies it, and much of the rest of Europe, with natural gas in the winter. Other countries closer to the Atlantic than the Black Sea might well reason that, with no direct stake in a Russian-Ukrainian war, there is no reason to start a wider one.
If Russia attacks Ukraine, it will be over quickly, and there won't be much NATO can do about it. There are no NATO combat troops in Ukraine, and deploying them in sufficient numbers to resist the Russian Army would take weeks. By the time NATO cobbles together a credible military force, Russia will sue for peace, demanding a ceasefire.
A major problem is the potential for Putin to miscalculate. If Putin aims for a larger piece of Ukraine, and there is significant resistance, NATO forces could end up opposing him, suddenly giving him a bigger war than even he wanted. If Putin attacks NATO forces directly, Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter, NATO's founding document, would require all NATO countries to respond militarily. Suddenly, Russia would be looking at a war with virtually all of Europe.
Putin is already laying the groundwork for freezing out NATO from the equation. Russia broke diplomatic ties with the alliance in October, then complained that Brussels had "destroyed all mechanisms for dialogue" that could de-escalate the crisis. The Russian President has also warned that NATO long-range missiles in Ukraine would be a "red line" that would force Russia to act. Putin hinted that the short flight time of tactical missiles (potentially with nuclear warheads) from Ukraine to Moscow would force him to preemptively attack.
It's quite possible that Russian military deployments are merely posturing meant to frighten Moscow's enemies; Maybe Putin isn't even contemplating invasion. But it's not like Russia hasn't attacked Ukraine before. NATO is split: some countries are warning that inaction will further embolden Russia, while others have signaled they won't consider military action. If push comes to shove, will the United States really go to war with another nuclear power? Let's hope Putin has other plans this winter and we never have to find out.