Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Is Russia Going to Invade Eastern Ukraine?

There's a lot of hype talk in the media about the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine. Yes, Russia did just steal a chunk of Ukrainian territory, in contravention of many international laws. Yes, they're unlikely to give Crimea back anytime soon. All of that is pretty much over and done with - and so not very interesting if you're CNN.

Instead, it's more fun to talk about the 40,000 Russian troops "massing" on the border with Ukraine, and to speculate about whether Russia has designs on still more territory in eastern Ukraine - which is, we are told, just packed full of Russians pining for the good old days of the Soviet Union.

In a word: no. As much as war is good business for media, it seems unlikely in the current situation.

Why? Well, first there's the lack of any coherent Russian nationalist ideology. Yes, there are plenty of old-age pensioners in the Near Abroad who would love to bring back the Soviet welfare state. There are also lots of younger 20- and 30-somethings, kids and grandkids of those pensioners, who have decidedly more complex views of the world. All in all, there isn't a sufficiently stable shared idea of who is and isn't a Russian to sustain a "Greater Russia" project - a point my coauthor Steve Saideman and I made a few weeks ago in The Monkey Cage, echoing what we argued a few years back in our book.

Then there's the questionable domestic politics of such a venture - a point I made a few weeks ago. Yes, some of Putin's base approves of "rescuing" Russians from nearby states - but most of them just don't care enough. And the more costly such "rescues" get, the fewer people are going to support them.

Now the Christian Science Monitor has come to the same conclusion by looking at the facts on the ground. CNN may be breathless about those "massing" 40,000 Russian soldiers, but in modern military strategy 40,000 isn't an invasion force, it's theater. Conventional strategy - that is, trying to use troops and tanks to capture territory - requires an attacker-to-defender advantage of at least 3:1, with 5:1 or better in key spots. 40,000 Russian troops may sound menacing, but they are not three times larger than the Ukrainian military, or even a reasonable portion thereof. Simply put, the Russian force currently dancing on the border with Ukraine is big enough to look menacing to western journalists, but not big enough to actually accomplish much of significance.

Russia behavior towards Ukraine has been terrible and retrograde and barbaric, and should rightly be condemned by everybody interested in an even modestly stable international order. Despite that, the fact that Russia is likely to get away with its seizure of Crimea is (to borrow John Mearsheimer's phrase) part of the tragedy of great-power politics. All of that is pretty well understood. Let's not muddy an already bad situation with irresponsible speculation about further Russian territorial aggression that appears, by all accounts, to be pretty unlikely in the foreseeable future.

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