In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Event Summary: Is Russia Poised to Invade Ukraine?

November 22, 2021
RM Staff

On Nov. 19, the Center for the National Interest hosted a webinar, “Is Russia Poised to Invade Ukraine?” All speakers agreed that the build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border does not look like a bluff, however, the panelists disagreed about Russia’s intention. George Beebe, the vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, and Dimitry Suslov see Russia’s objective as an agreement on Ukraine’s status with NATO. Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, believes Russia wants Ukraine firmly in its sphere of influence, and will not accept Ukraine as an independent entity with its own identity. Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, emphasized that Russia does not desire a large-scale conflict in Ukraine, and would accept a guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality. Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA and a fellow at the Kennan Institute, cautions that Russia may not be backing down, and would be capable of launching a large-scale operation against Ukraine if a favorable agreement is not reached.

The speakers made several key points:

Michael Kofman:

  • “This the most serious military build-up since 2015. This is not a distinct event from the buildup in spring. Forces that arrived in April never left. No invasion seems imminent (days, weeks), but we should watch the coming months. Russia seems very serious about red-lines in messaging to Kyiv.”
  • “People in Biden admin are taking Russia more seriously than they did 6 months ago. What happens when we meet, and we don’t agree? Russia is trying to compel a negotiation on core interests. I am not confident they will back down this time. An operation will play out if there is no real move on agreeing to red-lines, Putin can only back down so many times. They haven’t made a decision; the threat is serious though. Russian military does not look like it is bluffing.”
  • “A future conflict would be on a much larger scale. We are talking about forcing a decisive political agreement, not just taking more of Donbass”.
  • “Ukraine could put up resistance … it would still lose. It depends on a lot of things we don’t know about scale and direction. We can guess, but we can’t know. Conflict likely would be intense, take weeks, and I don’t think Ukraine would win. There would not be time for substantial military assistance from NATO.”
  • “I don’t think a neutral Ukraine would be supported by Ukraine. Buffer states are also rarely stable, there still is competition about who is being buffered. Some analysts need to update their views about Russian military and economic capabilities, Russia can do a large-scale operation if they want.”
  • “I don’t think there is any collusion between Russia and China. To me, Taiwan is a future situation, more far out than Ukraine and Belarus. But things are contingent.”


Melinda Haring:

  • “Putin is getting older and wants to shore up his legacy. Traditionally, Russian leaders have done this by conquest. He also thinks he can get away with it. Putin does not see his position as weak; he believes he had a very good year and sees the U.S. as weakening internationally. He has lost patience with Zelenskiy. It looks like the time is right for Putin, he thinks ‘why not?’”
  • “In CFTNI discussions we pretend that Ukraine doesn’t have agency. Russia wants veto over Ukrainian foreign policy, not Ukrainian neutrality. I think Kyiv is goal of a military operation, there are limits though. It was Russia that tried to sabotage Minsk, not Ukraine. We need to avoid war. But Putin believes Ukrainian is not a valid identity.”
  • “We are at loggerheads; U.S. policy has been consistent, Ukraine has agency. This situation is not going away, we need to support Ukraine.”


George Beebe:

  • “I don’t think the Russians are bluffing. I don’t anticipate they will launch an invasion next week. But they are a month or two away from being able to do that. I don’t think they want to invade Ukraine though. They don’t want to see redlines crossed. But the U.S. is looking at this situation like a World War II problem, and is afraid of appeasement. The situation is a lot more like WWI. We could get into a spiral that makes a conflict that neither side wants. We need to show “diplomatic dexterity.” We need to find a way out of a potential trap here.”
  • “The real question Russia is facing now is can it afford not to act.”
  • “Russians have to some degree undermined their own interests. Russia does not want Ukraine to be anti-Russian, though is okay with Ukraine not necessarily being in the Russian sphere. There is a possibility for Ukraine to be removed as a battle ground, made neutral, by agreement between U.S./Russia.”
  • “I doubt there is conspiring between China and Russia. But there is possibility of simultaneous challenges in both Ukraine and Taiwan for the U.S. We need to decide which theatre is more important.”


Dmitry Suslov:

  • “The build-up is a serious message. But it does not show intention to conduct a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. There is a deep understanding of the costs of such a move in Russia. Russia wants the U.S. and NATO/EU to hear its message that Russia is discontent with three aspects of the Western policy vis-a-vis Ukraine; These are 1) Western support for Kyiv evaporating Russian influence in Ukraine, 2) perceived Western support for dissolving Minsk agreement, 3) intensified Western support for “backdoor” into NATO through military support.”
  • “U.S. is paying lip service to diplomacy, but not taking these concerns seriously. If Biden prefers damage limitation with Russia, to prevent worsened relations that distract from China/domestic challenges, he should take Russia’s concerns seriously. If U.S. wants stabilization, it needs to meet Russia half-way. The pending summit between Putin and Biden will be decisive. If Putin and Biden can come to a common understanding, then stabilization is quite likely, if not, ‘the negative scenario becomes more realistic.’”
  • “From the Russian perspective Ukraine is not unfinished business, but business which is just beginning. Ukraine is an existential issue for Russia; Russia simply cannot allow Ukraine to become western aligned and therefore the keystone of new cordon sanitaire. Russia doesn’t need a Ukraine to be Russia-aligned. A neutral Ukraine is more important than good relations with West.”
  • “Russia would not want to occupy and govern Ukraine. They want to persuade U.S. to change policy with muscle flexing. The war is highly hypothetical, but I don’t perceive a big war of conquest. There is not large-scale support for Russian occupation even in the “Russian speaking” parts of Ukraine. Conquest would be hard and extremely costly. Russian society would not support it. Russia would accept a neutral Ukraine.”
  • “If Ukraine adopts a new constitution, then Finlandization will not be necessary. Decentralization may prevent NATO membership. I don’t think integration with EU will be acceptable. Russia wants Ukraine to be “in-between” the West and Russia, not EU aligned with small caveats.”
  • “Russia showed its dissatisfaction with Minsk. Russia doesn’t want to pretend everything is fine when the West is sabotaging the agreement. On the topic of freedom of choice and agency, Ukraine’s choice is limited by the menu they face. Russia wants NATO membership off the menu.”
  • “The next 6-10 months depends on U.S.-Russia summit. Russia/China collusion doesn’t seem likely. Russia is not interested in increased polarization; also, it doesn’t want American defeat in Pacific, it wants continuation of competition between China and U.S., without either side winning. Competition increases Russian value in the eyes China and the U.S. If confrontation ends in victory for either side, then Russia become more marginalized.”