Ukraine troops

Parsing the Evidence: Will Russia Invade Ukraine?

January 27, 2022
RM Staff

This week, with Washington rejecting two of Moscow’s three key security demands, Russian military equipment massing near the border with Ukraine and NATOprepared for the worst,” the question dominating global affairs remains: Will Russia invade Ukraine?

The White House answer is a qualified yes, the Kremlin’s a qualified no. Two of Western Europe’s most powerful countries, Germany and France, seem to think Putin is bluffing; a third, the U.K., seems pretty sure he’s not. Kyiv, meanwhile, is downplaying the threat of an imminent invasion by Russia. Analysts are similarly split.

The volume of words written in answer to the question has been staggering. So we at Russia Matters have selected a handful of experts who have backed their assertions with abundant research—and, in a few cases, conceptual models based on that research. Their evidence is summarized below, with two entries leaning toward the “likely to invade” camp, and two toward “not likely.”

Among the authors, caveats abound, and rightly so. The situation on the ground is fluid and assessments are open to refinement. Military analyst Michael Kofman, who argued this week that “a large war in Europe is likely,” tweeted within 24 hours of his article’s publication: “I debate parts of it with myself every day. I hope I’m wrong and appreciate the counter arguments out there. I think we will have better clarity in a few weeks.”

This last point has been echoed by many insightful Russia watchers, including those who “see every indication” that Putin is going to use military force, like America’s No. 2 diplomat, ace negotiator Wendy Sherman. On Jan. 26, she suggested that Russia may not want to invade Ukraine until the second half of February: Doing so earlier could steal the spotlight from China during the Feb. 4-20 Olympic Games in Beijing—an affront Russian President Vladimir Putin may want to avoid vis-à-vis his powerful friend Xi Jinping.


Rob Lee, Foreign Policy Research Institute

Lee argues in a detailed analysis for FPRI that a ground invasion of Ukraine is likely because, over the past year or so, the Kremlin has come to see its neighbor “as a permanently hostile country” that has been increasing both its military capabilities and its defense cooperation with NATO in a way that poses long-term security risks for Russia. Moscow—unable to force Ukraine into military neutrality and to deter Kyiv, the U.S. and NATO from adopting what it sees as “anti-Russian” policies—has changed its approach “from deterrence to compellence.” In Lee’s view, Moscow’s cost-benefit analysis likely suggests that “a significant military escalation … would be less costly today than in the future if Ukraine continues to strengthen its military capabilities.”

Lee describes several factors that have altered Moscow’s threat perception. One was Russia’s dashed hopes for achieving its security objectives through improved relations with President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in 2019. A key step would have been a negotiated solution to the eight-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine on terms favorable to Moscow. But Kyiv walked away from commitments made in 2019 and 2020 that would have strengthened the Russia-backed separatists’ political legitimacy, and last spring moved against Ukraine’s most prominent pro-Putin politician, Viktor Medvedchuk—shutting down his three TV stations and putting him under house arrest. In impassioned remarks to his Security Council, Putin suggested that Ukraine was turning, “slowly but steadily, into … an anti-Russia.”

Moscow’s fears were likely heightened, too, by NATO support for Kyiv. Lee points specifically to a $2.4 billion U.K.-Ukrainian deal for the joint production of missile boats and other naval weapons, as well as strategic defense agreements with the U.S., not to mention tens of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid. Likewise, NATO member Turkey has been supplying Ukraine with combat drones that—though no match for the Russian armed forces in a large-scale war—could have proved a gamechanger in Kyiv’s fight with the separatists. Putin and other Russian officials have also rung the alarm about the prospect of long-range missiles based in Ukraine, which could reach Moscow in a matter of minutes.

Russia’s previous military build-up near Ukraine in April was a shot across the bow, Lee writes. But that show of force failed to deter Ukraine’s defense modernization, NATO support for Kyiv or Zelensky’s objectionable policies. Now Moscow “may view military force as its last resort to change what it considers an unacceptable status quo.”

Lee focuses more than most analysts on the particulars of Russia’s objectives, military options and military capabilities—not surprising for a former Marine infantry officer working toward a PhD in war studies. The objectives and the options are clearly linked: “The more ambitious the goal, the more force necessary to change Kyiv’s and NATO’s cost-benefit calculus.” If Russia aims to force through constitutional changes in Ukraine or a modified version of the Minsk accords, he argues, it will need a ground invasion or “heavy use of fires” that could threaten the survival of the Ukrainian state. The goal would be to impose unacceptable costs on Ukraine—destroying military units, inflicting casualties, taking prisoners of war or degrading Ukraine’s ability to defend itself—and to alter Zelensky’s incentive structure enough to induce painful concessions. For this, Lee writes, the likeliest Russian offensive option would be a land operation, mostly east of the Dnieper River, possibly including a planned withdrawal in as little as a week or two. Land around Kyiv may be occupied in a push to get Russia’s demands met. Such an operation would keep Russian troops out of cities and thus keep down the risks of civilian casualties and effective insurgency. Lee discusses less ambitious options as well, noting that they would likely be supported with hybrid means, such as cyber and electronic warfare systems. “The problem with these more limited options,” he writes, “is that they likely would not solve Russia’s primary problem: a hostile Ukraine that is increasing its conventional deterrence capabilities. So a more aggressive option is more likely.”

In examining the current “posture of Russian forces,” Lee concludes that not only are they better positioned now than in the spring for a major offensive but that “the scope of this deployment of ground combat power is unprecedented for post-Soviet Russia.” Part of the troops, weapons and other materiel being moved toward Ukraine’s northern border is going to Belarus, where Russia says it will be holding joint military exercises.

Significant military escalation in Ukraine, however, might not happen immediately. Like Kofman, Sherman and others, Lee mentions the Olympics: The planned drills with Belarus are set to end on Feb. 20, the same day as the closing ceremony. Additionally, equipment is still en route from Russia’s Far East. Once it arrives though, “readiness costs” will likely compel Moscow to decide whether to use force within the next few months.


Map of Ukraine's regions
Map shared by Peter Fitzgerald under a CC 4.0 license. 

Samuel Charap, Edward Geist et al., RAND Corporation

In a RAND report on Russian military interventions, the authors analyze 25 interventions Moscow has undertaken since 1991 in an attempt to identify their drivers, patterns and “signposts.” The report was published in September 2021, before the current build-up on Ukraine’s border Nonetheless, when its four key findings are matched against some of the evidence provided above and elsewhere, the results suggest an invasion is likelier than not.

  1. “Changes on the ground in post-Soviet Eurasia that create an external threat or the perception of a rapid change in the regional balance or in Russia’s status in ways that contradict Moscow's interests should be seen as potential triggers for military action. Moscow will not hesitate to act, including with force, in its immediate neighborhood.”

Obviously, Ukraine is in “post-Soviet Eurasia.” Some of the threatening changes Russia perceived in its security status vis-à-vis Ukraine and NATO are described above. Other analysts, including Carnegie’s Dmitri Trenin, have pointed out that prior to Russia’s current build-up NATO had “increased the scale and frequency of its military exercises in the Black Sea area.” Moreover, in September, (around the time of the report’s publication, as it happens) Kyiv launched joint military exercises with the U.S. and other NATO countries in western Ukraine, and members of Congress called for more security assistance to Ukraine and more U.S. troops on NATO's eastern flank in Poland, Romania and the Baltic states.

  1. “Russia seems to act in ways that are consistent with a desire to avoid losses when it comes to regional power balances. Moscow has intervened when it perceived regional balances to be shifting away from a status quo that was favorable to Russian interests. U.S. planners should view potential future significant (perceived) losses for Russia as potential signposts for military action.”

Again, the shift away from a status quo favorable to Russia is described above.

  1. “Although Russia intervenes in some cases in response to exogenous shocks, it often openly signals its interests and even its redlines. Prior to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Moscow made clear that it anticipated the need to act following the NATO Bucharest Summit. With Ukraine, Russia had made clear for years that it would react to perceived Western encroachment. Although Russian leaders have frequently uttered untruths about their country's actions and interests, there are genuine signals within the noise.”

At the 2008 Bucharest summit, NATO committed to accepting both Ukraine and Georgia as members in some unspecified future—a move vehemently lobbied for by President George W. Bush. Two months before the summit, William Burns—then the U.S. ambassador to Russia, now head of the CIA—urged the administration to reconsider, writing in a memo declassified a decade later that, if Washington pushes for this, “Russia will respond. The prospect of subsequent Russian-Georgian armed conflict would be high. ... It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”

  1. “Russia's one combat intervention beyond post-Soviet Eurasia—Syria—does not appear to be setting the stage for a series of similar interventions. The success of the Syria intervention may have made the leadership more likely to consider undertaking an expeditionary intervention, but there are still significant logistical challenges for the Russian military beyond post-Soviet Eurasia.”


Simon Saradzhyan, Russia Matters

Like the RAND team, Saradzhyan has analyzed cases of Russian military intervention, but only under Vladimir Putin. In an Orbis article out this month—the culmination of his multi-year effort to ascertain what conditions are necessary and sufficient for Putin’s Russia to intervene (or not)—he considers seven cases when Putin likely had to decide whether to send in troops. In three, the Russian commander-in-chief ultimately decided to intervene; in four, he opted not to. Saradzhyan likewise considers seven potential drivers influencing these decisions. Of the seven, Saradzhyan identifies three conditions that all had to be present for Putin to authorize military action abroad:  

  1. He had to be directly motivated by a clear, acute threat to one or more of Russia’s vital national interests as he and his team see them (or a clear opportunity to advance some of those interests).
  2. He had to have a reasonable hope that military intervention would succeed in warding off this threat and/or advancing the interest in such a way that the benefits of using force would outweigh the costs.
  3. He had either to have run out of non-military (i.e., less costly) options of responding to the threat or to lack the time needed to exercise such options due to the threat’s urgency.  

Back in November, in an article for Russia Matters called “Why There Won’t Be a People’s Republic of Left-Bank Ukraine Just Yet,” Saradzhyan applied his thinking directly to the latest build-up near Ukraine. At the moment of writing, Saradzhyan concluded that the first condition, the perception of an acute threat, already existed; the second condition—a reasonable hope that military intervention would achieve its goals—was materializing; and the third condition, the exhaustion of non-military options, was absent. In greater detail:

  1. The acute threat: Putin had “recently signaled that Western efforts to anchor Ukraine and strengthen it militarily constitute a major threat to Russia’s vital interests”—in this case, its interest in preventing the emergence of hostile powers on Russia’s borders and ensuring Russia is surrounded by friendly states among which it can thrive and play a leading role. Akin to Lee, Saradzhyan assessed that this was a status quo Putin wouldn’t tolerate much longer “even in the absence of a NATO Membership Action Plan, or MAP, for Kyiv”; the president’s goal, in Saradzhyan’s view, was a militarily neutral Ukraine.
  2. Feasibility of military success: Two months ago, Russia's military-political leadership was “apparently trying to create Condition 2 … with reported reinforcements of Russia’s military presence in the vicinity of Ukraine.” Now those forces are greatly expanded. Still, whether they are sufficient to achieve military victory will depend on the extent of the operation: limited territorial gains in eastern and southern Ukraine? marching all the way to Kyiv and, perhaps, further west? establishing control over “left-bank Ukraine,” as some analysts have suggested? (The latter, in Saradzhyan’s view, was unlikely because it would incur human, financial and other costs for Russia that would together easily outweigh the benefits generated by occupation.)
  3. Non-military options exhausted: On this point Saradzhyan presciently wrote that, “considering Moscow’s perception of Washington’s influence in Kyiv, it probably won’t be until Putin loses patience with Joe Biden on Ukraine that he will decide whether to send troops into Ukraine and, if so, how far.” As of this writing, Moscow still seems to hold out hope for diplomacy: On Jan. 27, after Washington had effectively rejected the Kremlin’s demands to rein in NATO expansion, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that part of the American response “gives hope for the start of a serious conversation on secondary questions"; on the same day, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in Paris held their first talks on the stalled implementation of the Minsk peace accords since 2019.

Eugene Chausovsky, Newlines Institute

Like Saradzhyan, Chausovsky, writing in Foreign Policy, has studied Russia’s record of past military interventions and interprets it as showing that an invasion, in late December at any rate, was unlikely. “Russia’s use of military force in the Putin era,” he writes, “while often appearing aggressive and erratic, is actually rather conservative and risk-averse, with a strong cost-benefit analysis taken by the Kremlin in each particular case.” 

Chausovsky identifies five variables underpinning Russia’s strategic framework for such calculations: 1. a trigger; 2. local support; 3. anticipated military reaction; 4. technical feasibility; and 5. relatively low anticipated political and economic costs.

“If any one of these conditions is insufficient or nonexistent,” he argues, “then Russia is unlikely to intervene militarily, even within the former Soviet space. If all these factors are present, there is a much higher likelihood for a Russian military intervention. And if Russia gambles wrong, it pays a very high cost.”

In examining the five variables vis-à-vis Ukraine, Chausovsky contrasts the current build-up with Russia’s interventions of 2014-2015:

  1. A trigger: Ahead of Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and its covert troop deployments and other aid to separatists in eastern Ukraine, the proximate cause was clear—"the Euromaidan Revolution, which ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.” Now, Chausovsky, believes no clear goal is evident, “other than further undermining the Ukrainian government, using revanchism to shore up domestic support or sending a message to the West.” In his view, this makes an intervention seem unlikely.
  2. Local support: Back in 2014, local support for Russia’s intervention was strongest in Crimea and Donbas, but “was very limited in the rest of the country; logistically, Russia already had troops in Crimea and had direct access to Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but going farther into Ukraine would have entailed long supply lines and more actively hostile political territory.” Now, that low-hanging fruit has been picked. A February 2021 survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, for example, reportedly found that only 12% of Ukrainians in government-controlled territory have a positive attitude toward Russian leaders (as opposed to 41% with positive feelings toward Russia generally).

The other three variables—anticipated military reaction, technical feasibility and relatively low anticipated costs—seem to bleed into each other in Chausovsky’s analysis, due in large part to the much greater support Ukraine now has from the West, including the military aid mentioned by Lee. Hence, low local support for Russia in Ukraine and significant NATO support for Kyiv drive up the “economic, political and potentially military costs for Russia” considerably. Moreover, Chausovsky warns, a decision to invade “could backfire and push Ukraine even closer into NATO, violating one of Russia’s core imperatives.”

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the featured authors. Photo by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry shared under a Creative Commons license.

Correction: The USD equivalent of the U.K.-Ukrainian defense deal at the time of the above-mentioned memorandum would have been $2.4 billion, not $2.3 billion as initially calculated.