Can the situation on the Ukrainian border be de-escalated? Maybe, but probably not.
The military build-up on Ukraine’s borders (in the north, east and south in Crimea). This mobilization is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the past.
75% of Russia’s total battalion tactical groups have been moved. Artillery, air defense units, tanks, APCs, bridge-laying equipment, mine clearers, armored excavators, engineering equipment, refueling, huge amount of logistics, etc.
This is a massive mobilization and a clear preparation for an extensive invasion. You also can’t keep all this equipment, troops and logistics there forever.
Cyber: Since early December, there has been a dramatic increase in cyber intrusions on Ukraine government and civilian networks from Russia. the targets are precisely the ones that you’d expect to be targeted for intel collection and battlefield preparation ahead of an invasion.
Diplomatic ultimatums. The list of demands that Russia issued last week was a non-starter for the US and NATO allies. It is simply not a serious proposal for the start of the negotiations. Making the list of demands public – and making it difficult to climb down from them without losing face – is an unprecedented diplomatic step that further signals they are not serious about having actual talks and want a propaganda pretext for invasion. Rejection of multilateral negotiations and demanding 1:1 US-RU talks. This is designed to either provoke a rejection from the US (yet another pretext for war) or drive a rift between US and its allies in Europe:
A real negotiation on the points Russia is raising would take years. Expecting it to be resolved quickly is unrealistic and Russia knows it. Yet another pretext for invasion by claiming the US is not serious about their concerns. Rhetorically, things are reaching a boiling point. Diplomatic language is being thrown out the window and with each day comes a new escalation:
The information battlefield is now being prepared for a provocation that can be pinned on Ukraine, US or NATO (or all 3). They will be used as part of an excuse to justify an invasion:
Why would Russia invade?
Mainly, a fear of shifting military power balance between Kiev and Donbas separatists. Putin observed the Karabakh War last year and has a good appreciation for what a military armed with modern NATO weapons, such as Turkish TB2 drones, can do to retake territory. He has lost faith that Zelensky has any interest in resolving the issue of Donbas diplomatically and believes he needs to forestall a change in the status quo there militarily – sooner or later.
Saakashvili’s push to rearm and take over Georgian separatist territories and change the status quo is what triggered the Georgia War in 2008. The same appears to be happening now.
Also, Putin has real concerns about NATO expansion. The Kremlin elites believe the threat is real.
Historically, there had been numerous devastating invasions of Russia (Hitler, Napoleon, Swedes, Poles, etc) which had been launched either through from what is now Belarus or Ukraine. The prospect of either country joining NATO (an implicit anti-Russia military alliance) has been and would be unacceptable to any Russian leader – Putin, Yeltsin, Gorbachev or even someone like Navalny and is viewed as an existential threat.
Pro-western government in Ukraine, protests against Lukashenko, color revolution in Georgia, protests in Moscow, etc have all been viewed by Putin through the same lens – covert Western attempts to undermine Russia and build coalitions of enemy states in the near abroad. Even without Ukraine joining NATO, Putin has become convinced that a pro-western Ukraine poses a serious threat given the deployment of NATO weapons and advisors there even without formal membership.
In the video below, Putin talks of a 4-5min missile flight time to Moscow or threat to Crimea. This may or not be true, but, he believes it:
Putin knows that an invasion of Ukraine, would put a permanent end to all talk of Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus or any Central Asian states of ever joining NATO or deployment of NATO weapons and troops on their territories without Russia’s agreement. It would instantly reinstate Russia’s sphere of influence in that part of the world. No former Soviet Union state (aside from the Baltics) would dare mess with NATO or EU again.
The time is now. This might be the best time Russia will ever have to invade. The US is distracted by domestic politics and new geopolitical confrontation with China, and energy prices are skyrocketing. Europe is wholly dependent on Russia’s gas and even the US is currently importing Russia’s crude oil. There is little chance there will be economic sanctions on fossil fuels. Sanctions are not an effective deterrent. Russia has learned to live with them, even if it dislikes them. Its economy is much more resilient today to them – including in part due to help from China. Russia has learned to expect sanctions no matter what. Sanctions instituted this year for activity traditionally considered acceptable espionage – such as the SolarWinds/HolidayBear hacks – have undermined their use for deterrence as they send a signal that we will sanction Russia for everything it does.
What to expect? Russia will invade Ukraine this winter. The US will go for harsh sanctions. The EU will water them down. Russia will take an economic hit, which will be used to point the finger at the US and the world economy will be hit bad next year.
“Documented movements of military equipment of the Russian Armed Forces dated from 12 to 15 December. All convoys and military echelons were filmed in or heading towards the Bryansk Oblast and were moving towards the border with Belarus.”