November 22, 2021

Russia Won’t Let Ukraine Go Without a Fight

By Michael Kofman and Michael Kimmage

Ominous signs indicate that Russia may conduct a military offensive in Ukraine as early as the coming winter. Moscow has quietly built up its forces along the Ukrainian border over the past several months, which could be a prelude to a military operation that aims to resolve the political deadlock in Ukraine in its favor. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin may once again be engaging in coercive diplomacy, this time around Moscow may not be bluffing. If no agreement is reached, the conflict may renew on a much larger scale.

Why would Putin risk geopolitical and economic upheaval by reigniting the military confrontation with Ukraine? After all, he has good reason to be invested in the regional status quo. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, walking away with one of the largest land grabs in Europe since World War II. Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion have not bitten particularly hard, and Russia’s macroeconomic situation is stable. Russia also retains a firm hold on the European energy market: the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will cement German dependence on Russian natural gas, marches toward activation despite legal snags. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia are in the midst of strategic stability talks. Putin met with U.S. President Joe Biden in June as part of the effort to build a more predictable relationship between the countries.

A continued contest for influence in Ukraine is unavoidable and will get worse before it gets better. However, that does not preclude the search for a diplomatic solution that reduces the risk of the rivalry spiraling out of control.

Below the surface, however, Russia and Ukraine are on the trajectory toward renewal of this unresolved conflict, which may redraw the map of Europe once more and upend Washington’s efforts at stabilizing its relationship with Russia. Year by year, Moscow has been losing political influence in Ukraine. The government in Kyiv took a strong stance on Russian demands last year, indicating it would not compromise for the sake of working with Putin. European nations appear to have backed Ukraine’s position, and Kyiv has simultaneously expanded its security cooperation with Russia’s American and European rivals.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.

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