NATO's refusal to accept Russia's latest demands against the background of the crisis in Ukraine has heightened fears that Moscow is preparing for war. It is a possible scenario, but one that would be extremely costly for Russia, even if it wins the fighting on the ground.
Russia raises the stakes: a new force concentration and a massive cyber attack
For the second time in less than a year, Russia has mobilized significant forces at the border with Ukraine. It did the same in the spring of 2021, when Putin managed to get a summit with Joe Biden. The summit was held in June, but did not lead to any notable results and in no way marked the beginning of Putin's return to the “high society” that had decided that the Kremlin leader was disreputable following the events of 2013-2014 (forcing Ukraine to renounce the signing of the EU Association Agreement, invading and annexing Crimea, supporting the Donbass war). The new mobilization seems to have caused more concern in the West and in Ukraine, and there was more talk about the possibility of Russia attacking Ukraine. The Western media even carried intelligence assesments regarding Russia's invasion plans. Russia raised the stakes and, in a rather ultimatum-like tone, demanded assurances that NATO would not expand to the East (that is, it would never accept Ukraine and Georgia, which have expressed their interest in joining the Alliance) and that it would limit its activities and presence in the states that became members after the Cold War. An unnecessary diplomatic marathon followed, with meetings in Geneva, the United States, Brussels, at the NATO - Russia Council, and Vienna, under the auspices of the OSCE. The talks led nowhere because Russia's claims are unacceptable: it is impossible to return to a system in which the great powers divide their territories at will, without taking into account the wishes and interests of smaller states.
Immediately after the failure of the talks, Ukraine was the target of a massive cyber-attack, and Russia began to move troops and equipment from the Eastern Military District, thousands of kilometers away, to the west. The cyber-attack was not claimed, but the US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said that such operations were part of Russian playbook (if we recall the cyber war against Estonia or the sabotage of the Ukrainian electricity grid alone), and experts had warned that they were possible against the background of rising border tensions. Kiev suspects hackers linked to the Belarus intelligence , who allegedly used software similar to that used in previous attacks by hackers working for the Russian intelligence services. Minsk is Moscow's closest ally and has become dependent on its support after the rigging of August 2020 presidential election and the brutal repression of subsequent protests further isolated the Lukashenko regime. In fact, a few months ago it was speculated that Belarus could expand its hybrid migrant operation - which was most likely launched with Moscow’s blessing - to the border with Ukraine, and more recently, since there’s been talk about a potential war, the possibility that one of the directions of attack would be from Belarus has also been mentioned.
All these are indications that Putin is moving forward and continuing the preparations for war, and Western officials seem to be taking the possibility more serious by the day - NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau are the latest to have said it these days.
What Russia risks if it attacks: human and material losses, significant economic costs, political isolation
Russia's problem is that it can't afford a large-scale war. A conflict with NATO / US can be ruled out: Moscow can counterbalance the American force only in terms of nuclear arsenals. Otherwise, it is clearly outnumbered by the United States and its allies, even if locally - on the eastern flank of the Alliance – its force is higher. The Allies are superior in numbers and, most importantly, in quality. The NATO troops are, on average, better trained and better equipped, and the technology that supports them is far superior to that of the Russians. Even there where Russia produces similar equipment, the gap is significant: in the case of 5th generation fighter jets, the number of SU-57 aircraft owned by the Russian Air Force is only a fraction of the total F-22s owned by the US. Adding to that is the growing air fleet of F-35s, which have been ordered or are already in the possession of some NATO allies; Moreover, both US models are better than the Russian one . Also, the NATO armies are supported by much stronger economies than Russia's, which, as in the Soviet period, is insufficiently diversified and largely depending on exports of raw materials and weapons.
The situation is different for Ukraine, whose army does not live up to the NATO standards in terms of equipment and training. Even though the Ukrainian military is no longer what it was in 2014 and Russia does not have as many sympathizers / agents among them as when it annexed Crimea, the Kiev forces are much worse. It is unlikely that a major offensive could be stopped with the several hundreds of Javelin anti-tank missiles delivered to Ukraine by the Americans or the Bayraktar drones provided by Turkey, but they could still cause significant damage and it remains to be seen what material and human costs Moscow can afford. There is, however, one aspect: it’s one thing to conquer a territory and win a conventional war, and quite another to maintain control over a territory with a hostile population and a guerrilla force that opposes you; the American experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan are more than relevant in this regard. Ukraine has plans to resist if the front falls, and the United States is considering backing an insurgency, including with training bases in Romania, Poland and Slovakia. We shouldn’t forget that the Soviet Union, whose force was greater than that of Russia, lost the war in Afghanistan with a guerrilla force that received money and weapons from the Americans, the losses of the Soviets being much greater than those the Americans suffered in all the post-Vietnam wars they’ve fought.
In addition to human and equipment costs, Russia must also consider the economic and political consequences of a new invasion of Ukraine. Both the United States and the Europeans have warned that they are considering severe sanctions, including on Vladimir Putin and the Nord Stream pipeline, and could have the country disconnected from the international financial payment system SWIFT. Politically, it is unlikely that any Western leader will consider any normalization of relations with the Kremlin as long as Putin is still there; most likely it will be impossible to avoid the second Cold War that has been so often mentioned in recent years. And Russia, as I said earlier, does not have the strength of the Soviet Union, while it has inherited many of its weaknesses, so the outcome would probably be the same as the first time, though a little faster.
Putin could also learn something from the first invasion of Ukraine, which eventually turned out to be a losing hand. Russia has been politically isolated and subject to economic sanctions, and supporting Crimea and the Donbass has entailed costs that are not so easy to bear. The biggest loss, as seen in recent years, is Ukraine as a whole: if by 2014 the country had oscillated between Moscow and the EU and was relatively well integrated into the so-called Russian world, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass triggered a strengthening of the national sentiment, and Russia started to be perceived as an enemy and a stranger. Even if this feeling could be changed in the Russian-speaking areas of the country, it would definitely not happen in those where the majority population is made up of Ukrainian speakers.
Russia is better off with its current strategy
Although a large-scale war cannot be ruled out, it is unlikely; at most, Russia could launch some limited attacks along the demarcation line with Ukraine and settle for some small but somewhat easier-to-maintain territorial gains - for example, a land corridor to Crimea. Much more advantageous now seems to be Moscow’s current strategy, with pressure points and multiple crises difficult for the West to manage: pandemic-related misinformation campaigns or aimed at influencing the electoral process in different countries, hybrid operations with migrants, such as on the border between Belarus and the EU, troubling the waters in the Western Balkans, through its allies in Serbia and Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina that is signaling its desire to secede from the rest of the country , which would be a terrible blow for the efforts to reform the region and make it part of the European Union. Moreover, as long as things do not go too far, Putin can still negotiate.On the other hand, once the tanks start moving, the consequences can be unpredictable. History has repeatedly shown that a spark is more than enough.