Troops, tanks, missiles and warships are on the move. Russian forces, slowly but surely, are surrounding Ukraine on three sides. The picture on the ground suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin is about to launch a massive, multifront offensive into a neighboring nation that for eight years has been slipping from his grasp into the hands of the West.
But the former KGB lieutenant colonel — who has spent his career refining tactics to keep his adversaries off balance and exploit their differences — retains a plethora of options short of starting a full-blown, mass-casualty war that would put his own economy and soldiers at risk.
President Joe Biden alluded to those possibilities during a news conference Wednesday. Biden made, and later corrected, a gaffe suggesting that a “minor incursion” would be more permissible, but he revealed an uncomfortable truth at the same time: The United States and its NATO allies have agreed to inflict a devastating economic blow on Russia if Moscow invades Ukraine, but actions short of war — such as cyberattacks or sabotage — could divide allies over how aggressively to respond.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to walk back that admission Friday after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, underscoring that actions apart from a military invasion, including cyberattacks or paramilitary activity, “will also be met with a decisive, calibrated, and again, united response.” Blinken noted that Russia is hatching plans for subversive activity that may not look like a traditional invasion.
“We’ve seen plans to undertake a variety of destabilizing actions, some of them short of the overt use of force, to destabilize Ukraine, to topple the government — a variety of things,” Blinken said.
His comments came a week after the Biden administration, without going into detail, warned that U.S. intelligence had obtained information about a group of saboteurs, trained in urban warfare and explosives, that Russia sent into east Ukraine. The U.S. Treasury on Thursday sanctioned four current and former Ukrainian officials whom Washington said had been acting with Russian intelligence to lay the “groundwork for creating a new, Russian-controlled government in Ukraine.”
The result is an increased focus on what some military analysts call the “gray zone,” the nebulous space between war and peace where a country can take measures — ranging from election meddling and cyber-hacks to assassinations and arms-length coups d’etat — to shape the fate of another nation without the costs of military warfare.
The Kremlin has a long track record of such activity dating to the Cold War, and more recently including the hack and release of emails from top Democratic Party officials during the 2016 presidential campaign — an operation that U.S. authorities attributed to Russian military intelligence.
Even if Putin decides to launch a formal military assault on Ukraine, it is far from clear that the Russian leader would opt, at the outset, for a mass ground offensive that would entail occupying large Ukrainian cities or marching on Kyiv.
Because Ukraine has limited air defenses, Russia would probably secure early dominance in the air, which would allow its forces to carry out decapitating strikes in Kyiv and across the country, potentially forcing the government to capitulate to the Kremlin’s demands even before any tanks rolled across the border.
“I think Russia has left itself many flexible or scalable military options and can pursue a spectrum of activities,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. who focuses on Russia. “For example, they can gradually increase the pressure starting with cyberattacks, increase harassment along the lines of contact, all the way up to a large-scale multidomain operation using air, missile and ground attacks.”
Massicot said Russia could reduce its combat exposure and minimize casualties by leading with airstrikes, standoff precision munitions or even long-range artillery fire, all of which could be launched from afar and still have a significant impact on Ukraine.
The buildup Putin has engineered along the border would amplify any actions Russia decided to take short of an invasion by keeping the threat of a full-scale ground war looming in the background.
Some analysts argue that Moscow has no intention of invading but is escalating tensions to persuade Washington to accept its core demand that Ukraine be barred from NATO.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that for Moscow, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO is like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis “on steroids” because of the risk that missiles could be deployed there in the future. He dismissed the idea of a Russian invasion.
“This ‘minor incursion, major incursion’ is all part of Western fears and fantasies and has no relevance to the thinking in the Kremlin or the plans of the General Staff” of Russia’s armed forces, Trenin said. “The idea behind Russia’s moves, in my view, is not to wage war against Ukraine but to use a demonstration of military power to bring the United States to the negotiating table to discuss security issues in Europe, including those related to Ukraine.”
Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent Russian foreign policy analyst and a member of the Russian International Affairs Council, said the Kremlin’s goal was to redraw the European security balance between NATO and Russia and sweep away Euro-Atlantic institutions as the basis of European security, “because from Russia’s point of view it’s not working.”
He said the goal is too ambitious to be achieved through routine diplomacy, hence Russia’s escalation of military pressure.
For Moscow, “threatening Ukraine is not enough” to achieve the concessions it wants from the United States, Lukyanov said, suggesting that Moscow might do something provocative away from Ukraine. “It might mean that the Western fixation on Ukraine might be not entirely correct, and in order to increase tension and step up the escalation process, actions might be taken somewhere else.”
Putin has said he will take “military-technical” actions if NATO does not accept his demands. Some analysts believe that could include placing more aggressive weapons in locations that directly threaten the United States and NATO allies.
Military analyst Rob Lee, of the war studies department at King’s College London, believes that a Russian military operation against Ukraine is more likely than not, in part because of the unprecedented scale of the Russian military buildup underway around the country.
“It looks like they’ve deployed units from every military district, including the Northern Fleet, to near Ukraine. That’s unprecedented,” Lee said. “They’re moving equipment from not far from the border of North Korea all the way to Belarus. They’re doing a ton of things that are not standard. What they’re doing is not something they’ve done before, so we’re in uncharted waters.”
He said Moscow wants to prevent Ukraine from ever becoming a threat, so its most likely approach is an overwhelming attack to destroy Ukraine’s military, inflict casualties and swiftly force President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accede to Kremlin demands, without necessarily trying to occupy territory. Anything less than a formidable air attack would be unlikely to achieve Russia’s goals, Lee added.
Russia could also take the opportunity to seize a small piece of territory of strategic importance — for example, the coastline along the Sea of Azov, which would provide a land bridge from mainland Russia to Crimea (which was annexed from Ukraine in 2014), or a swath of territory farther into Ukraine that holds a canal that once supplied Crimea with water.
Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that beyond the issue of NATO membership, Russia’s goals could include changing the government in Kyiv or causing it to fall apart. He said a “shock and awe” air campaign could be “a way for Russia to achieve multiple ends without getting involved in a costly, open-ended occupation.”
Weiss said, “There is a really serious threat that this is about being able to accomplish regime change without a ground war, because the current government in Kyiv looks very unstable at a moment of national peril.”