- Research Programs
- Regions & Topics
- All Publications
A nation must think before it acts.
How ambitious are Russia’s foreign policy objectives, and how much force does Moscow believe it must employ to achieve them? Moscow has submitted various ultimatums, but the most critical and pressing issue is that the Kremlin now regards Ukraine as a permanently hostile country continuing to increase its defense capabilities. Russian hopes for improved relations with President Volodymyr Zelensky were dashed in 2021, and Moscow is now focused on reducing the long-term security risk posed by Ukraine, including halting its expanding defense cooperation with NATO. However, this is one of the most unrealistic and difficult demands for NATO to satisfy, particularly because Ukraine is developing long-range missiles domestically. This diplomatic impasse suggests a significant risk of a Russian military escalation in Ukraine with few obvious offramps.
A number of recent articles have suggested that the costs of a potential invasion are too high, or that the purpose of a Russian military operation in Ukraine would be to occupy territory. A better explanation of Moscow’s current actions is that they are part of a compellence campaign. If Moscow cannot convince the United States to agree to some of its demands and force Ukraine to make concessions, it may view military force as its last resort to change what it considers an unacceptable status quo. Russian behavior suggests that it believes the costs of inaction would be greater than the costs of a significant military escalation in Ukraine, particularly after reviewing the events in Ukraine over the summer and fall. Moscow’s military objectives would focus on imposing unacceptable costs on Ukraine by destroying military units, inflicting casualties, taking prisoners of war, or degrading Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. Russia could choose to seize territory to raise the costs on Kyiv, but this would likely not be the ultimate objective. Moscow could possibly achieve its objectives by unleashing Russia’s superior fires capability without an invasion or launching a short punitive raid with a planned withdrawal. These options would have fewer risks and costs than a large-scale invasion designed to occupy significantly more territory.
Russia’s current activities are a continuation of the military buildup it conducted near Ukraine in March and April 2021, and its armed forces are now better positioned for a major offensive. In April, Russia had slightly fewer battalion tactical groups — combined-arms units formed from motorized rifle, tank, naval infantry, or airborne battalions with supporting attachments — near Ukraine than today, as well as aviation and naval reinforcements. As part of that buildup, Russia deployed a number of battalion tactical groups, multiple launch rocket systems, Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile systems, and other units from the Central Military District’s 41st Combined Arms Army based in Siberia to staging positions near the border with Ukraine. Those forces were complemented by units based closer to Ukraine from Russia’s Southern and Western Military Districts, and units from the Russian Airborne Forces. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced at the end of the spring buildup that the equipment from the 41st Combined Arms Army would remain near Ukraine until the Russian-Belarusian Zapad 2021 exercise in September, but most of the equipment didn’t take part in the exercise and wasn’t sent back to Siberia afterward. This indicated that the exercise was not the true purpose of their deployment.
Russia’s threats against Ukraine are more dangerous now because, ultimately, its public threats earlier this year failed. I previously argued that the spring 2021 buildup was a demonstration designed to deter NATO and the United States from adopting “anti-Russian” policies, such as moving forward with Ukrainian accession into NATO or further NATO defense cooperation with Ukraine, by threatening to asymmetrically use military force against Ukraine. Three factors likely influenced the timing of the spring buildup. First, it was a reminder to Washington of Moscow’s military power and forced dialogue with the Biden administration to clarify the U.S.-Russian relationship. Second, the buildup occurred just a month after Ukrainian President Zelensky decided to shut down three television channels controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of President Vladimir Putin. Russia adopted a more conciliatory approach after Zelensky’s inauguration with the hopes of reaching a deal over the Donbas, which included replacing the more hawkish Vladislav Surkov with Dmitry Kozak as the Kremlin’s point person for negotiations with Ukraine. However, Russian officials felt Kyiv did not live up to its commitments from the 2019 Normandy Summit, which included granting the Donbas a special status. In 2020, after reaching a tentative agreement on establishing an Advisory Council with Russia, Kyiv walked back from the deal after domestic criticism. Moscow concluded that Ukrainian domestic politics would prevent any progress in implementing the Minsk agreements without external pressure. According to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, Russia’s hopes for a diplomatic agreement with Ukraine collapsed in 2021, and Russian officials began to intensify pressure on their neighbor.
After the spring buildup ended, Kyiv continued to pursue policies that angered Russian officials. Medvedchuk was placed under house arrest in May. In response, Putin devoted the entirety of his opening speech at the next meeting of the Russian Security Council on developments in Ukraine, including a passionate defense of Medvedchuk. He accused Kyiv of “purging their political environment” and suggested that Ukraine was turning “slowly but steadily, into an antipode of Russia, an anti-Russia.” A month later, Putin reacted angrily after the Ukrainian parliament adopted a law on indigenous peoples, which didn’t include Russians (it also didn’t include Ukrainians). He compared the law’s consequences to those of “some kind of weapon of mass destruction.” In August, Zelensky sanctioned several Russian entities and blocked several Russian websites, including the digital services provider Rostelecom and the Moskovsky Komsomolets and Vedomosti newspapers.
The third factor explaining the timing of the spring buildup was Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2nd Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijan won with critical support from Turkey, which included Turkish officers operating the TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles that played such a crucial role. The war was the first time an outside power had used military force in the former Soviet Union and was only the latest in a series of confrontations between Russia and Turkey. The two countries had recently fought over Syria’s Idlib and Aleppo provinces and Libya in the spring of 2020. In addition, Ankara has sold TB2 combat drones to former Soviet states, including Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. Moscow likely viewed Ukraine as a place where it could confront Turkish defense cooperation with Russia’s neighbors and linked Ankara’s actions to the Kremlin’s broader criticism of creeping NATO support for Kyiv.
If one of Russia’s objectives of the spring buildup was to deter further NATO support for Ukraine, the summer and fall events demonstrated its failure. One week after the June 2021 summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, the United Kingdom sent the HMS Defense frigate through Crimean territorial waters, infuriating Russian officials. A Russian Coast Guard ship fired warning shots from behind the British frigate, and Russian officials claimed Russian Su-24 bombers dropped aerial bombs in its path. Russia never published footage of this and British journalists on the HMS Defender never reported on the alleged use of bombs, which indicates Russian officials were lying, but it demonstrated how seriously Moscow considered the event. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that anyone engaging in similar future acts “will get clocked in the nose.” The day before the incident, the United Kingdom signed a Memorandum of Implementation on a naval arms deal with Kyiv. The final 1.7-billion-pound loan agreement with Kyiv for the joint production of missile boats, as well as minehunters and other naval weapons. Meanwhile, the United States provided an additional $60 million worth of equipment, authorized by the Biden administration in August, as well as additional Javelin anti-tank guided missiles. The U.S. also signed a Strategic Defense Framework and Charter on Strategic Partnership with Ukraine.
Defense cooperation between Kyiv and Ankara continued as well. The two countries moved forward on a deal for the licensed production of TB2 drones — the drone that played a critical role in the Nagorno-Karabakh war — in Ukraine. Turkey delivered additional TB2 to the Ukrainian Navy in July, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced plans to purchase another 24 TB2s in September. At the end of October, Ukraine conducted its first air strike with a TB2 drone on a D-30 howitzer in the Russian-occupied Donbas. This strike proved that Turkey exported the TB2 without restrictions on their use in the Donbas.
TB2 drones do not significantly alter the balance of power between Ukraine and Russia but they do between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed rebels in the Donbas. If Ukraine keeps using them in the region, Russia would be forced to counter them directly with the Russian military — either by shooting them down or targeting their airfields with long-range missiles — or covertly deploying more capable air defense or electronic warfare systems to the Donbas.
From Moscow’s perspective, the TB2 strike and the HMS Defender incident were public embarrassments that tested Russia’s credibility, especially after the publicity surrounding the spring buildup and the summit with Biden. So, it is not surprising that the Kremlin decided to change its approach. Russia deemed the status quo unacceptable and saw trend lines undermining its position. Its coercive measures in the spring failed to deter Ukraine’s defense modernization, NATO support for Kyiv, or “anti-Russian” policies adopted by President Zelensky. As a result, Moscow changed its approach from deterrence to compellence.
In contrast to Russian officials providing justifications for their buildup and mentioning red lines in vague terms during the spring, Moscow is now giving concrete demands to NATO and the United States and specific examples of actions that would violate their red lines. These demands are tied to a short Russian-imposed deadline with the threat of a “military-technical and military” response if concessions are not granted, which are all hallmarks of compellence. Russia has deployed approximately 32 percent of its military’s battalion tactical groups near Ukraine, a figure the U.S. intelligence community reportedly believes could rise to 60 percent. Compared to the spring, Russia has sent even more equipment from the 41st Combined Arms Army, and a number of battalion tactical groups and equipment from the 1st Tank Army based in Moscow, near Ukraine’s borders.
This buildup initially focused on deploying heavy equipment and units based far from Ukraine, which means Moscow could quickly increase its military capabilities near Ukraine by deploying lighter units, such as airborne battalions, and units based 200 to 450 miles from the border. Over the past week, videos have shown military equipment from Russia’s Eastern Military District moving westward on trains, including the Pacific Fleet’s 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, tank and motorized rifle units, Buk-M2 air defense systems, BM-27 Uragan multiple launch rocket systems, and more Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile systems. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced a snap combat readiness inspection of the district on January 14 to test the ability of units to complete missions after conducting long-distance movements. Russian and Belarusian officials also announced that their forces will take part in a joint exercise that will last until February 20 including the deployment of a Russian Su-35S fighter squadron, two S-400 air defense battalions, and a Pantsir-S air defense battalion to Belarus as well as ground equipment. Interestingly, some of the units that will deploy to Belarus will come from the Eastern Military District. Of course, this also means that Russia will have military units along Ukraine’s northern border, placing Kyiv and other locations at even greater risk. If the Eastern Military District and the Russian Airborne Forces both contribute 10-15 battalion tactical groups each, Russia will have close to the 100 battalion tactical groups that the U.S. intelligence community assessed would be deployed near Ukraine. In addition, several large landing ships from Russia’s Baltic Fleet have departed the Baltic Sea and are possibly headed towards the Black Sea. An enhanced Russian amphibious capability in the region could force Ukraine to send more units to defend its southern coastline, spreading its forces even thinner.
In contrast to the public buildup this spring, Russia has made a concerted effort to obscure its movements this time, moving equipment at night, rotating units between training ranges, and blocking websites used for tracking trains. In short, Russia is setting the conditions where it could conduct a significant military escalation, including a large-scale ground invasion, on short notice and with little warning, giving its threats greater weight. This buildup is not routine “saber-rattling” and departs from normal Russian behavior and rhetoric. Moreover, Russian officials are backing themselves into a corner by committing themselves to a strong response unless they receive concessions. If it does not achieve some of its stated goals, Moscow will suffer a cost to its credibility if it does not escalate.
Russia doesn’t use force for the sake of waging war, but instead to achieve specific political goals. Their list of demands includes a complete halt to NATO expansion, limits on the deployment of intermediate and short-range missiles, and an end to U.S. and NATO countries’ defense cooperation with Ukraine. Although Russia is interested in a broader dialogue regarding Europe’s security architecture, Ukraine is Moscow’s most pressing and important issue, explaining Russia’s demands to resolve the issue quickly. None of Russia’s other demands, such as an end to further NATO expansion, explain why Moscow is so determined to force the issue right now, since there is no indication other countries, including Ukraine, could join NATO in the near future.
Rhetoric from Russian officials regarding Ukraine escalated significantly in 2021. Both Putin and former President Dmitry Medvedev penned strongly-worded essays on Ukraine in July and October, respectively. Putin ominously wrote, “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” two weeks after the Ukrainian indigenous peoples bill was adopted. Medvedev referred to Ukraine’s leadership as “vassals” and argued that further talks with Kyiv were pointless, which set the stage for the fall’s buildup and the focus of Russia’s negotiations with Washington, not Kyiv. One of the most specific concerns raised by President Putin and other Russian officials is the potential threat posed by long-range missiles based in Ukraine, which could reach Moscow in a matter of minutes. Given the deadlock on negotiations over the Minsk agreement implementation, Russia has concluded that Ukraine will remain a hostile neighbor for the foreseeable future, and Kyiv continues to strengthen its defensive capabilities. If Russia can’t force neutrality on Ukraine, Moscow will try to prevent Ukraine from improving its conventional deterrence.
When assessing Moscow’s cost-benefit analysis of using force in Ukraine, it is important to consider not just the likely costs of an escalation now, but also the costs of not taking action. There is no evidence a NATO member has considered providing long-range missiles to Ukraine, but other forms of defense cooperation with Kyiv have steadily intensified. Moscow wants to preempt further arms deliveries before Ukraine receives strategically significant weapons that could change the military balance, unlike Javelin anti-tank guided missiles provided by the United States. While it is much more effective today than in 2014, the Ukrainian military lacks strong long-range fires capabilities, particularly relative to Russia.
Concerning Ukraine, Russia lacks many tools to influence Kyiv other than military force. Thus, Moscow likely believes a significant military escalation now would be less costly today than in the future if Ukraine continues to strengthen its military capabilities. If Ukraine had longer-range missiles, it could threaten Russian cities or military infrastructure, limiting Russia’s ability to use military threats to coerce Kyiv. Notably, the assembly areas where Russian forces have massed their equipment in Yelnya and Pogonovo are beyond the range of Ukraine’s Tochka-U tactical ballistic missiles.
A large-scale invasion is not Russia’s only course of action as part of a compellence campaign. There are multiple tiers of military force that Moscow could employ depending on how ambitious its objectives are. The more ambitious the goal, the more force necessary to change Kyiv’s and NATO’s cost-benefit calculus. If Russia is determined to force constitutional changes in Ukraine or a modified version of the Minsk accords, it is unlikely to achieve this short of a ground invasion or heavy use of fires that could threaten the survival of the Ukrainian state.
Seizing and occupying territory could be a means of raising pressure on Kyiv, but occupying terrain would not be the ultimate objective. If Russia had sought to occupy more territory, the past few weeks of public ultimatums would have been counterproductive, simply giving Ukraine and NATO more time to prepare. Some analyses have mentioned potential options to seize a land bridge between the Donbas and Crimea, an operation in Odessa, or even an attempt at occupying Western Ukraine. If the purpose is to compel Ukraine’s leadership, then a ground invasion only makes sense if it puts Ukraine in a more untenable or threatened position. Neither a land bridge nor an operation in Odessa would likely achieve that result, but an offensive towards Kyiv could.
The current posture of Russian forces points to a ground invasion towards the Ukrainian capital as a more likely option. Compared to the spring, when many of the reinforcements were sent to Crimea, Russia has now deployed a significant share of its forces, primarily the 41st Combined Arms Army, to Yelnya, to the north of Ukraine. These are in addition to the 1st Tank Army units deployed to Pogonovo, 100 miles to the northeast of Ukraine’s border. Kyiv is approximately 110 miles from the northern border with Russia, and Moscow is deploying its reinforcements in the regions where they could launch offensives from Ukraine’s northern and northeastern borders. Russia has also begun moving equipment to smaller encampments near the border in the Bryansk, Belgorod, and Kursk regions. The transfer of Russian units to Belarus for the upcoming exercise increases the threat posed along Ukraine’s northern border.
The most likely ground offensive option is that the Russian military would focus on destroying Ukrainian military units east of the Dnieper River, inflicting casualties, taking prisoners of war, destroying military equipment, and degrading defense capabilities. This could include a planned withdrawal — a punitive raid —possibly after one or two weeks. It could also involve occupying terrain outside Kyiv and threatening the capital unless Russia’s demands are met. Such an operation would more closely resemble a more aggressive version of Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008 than its annexation of Crimea. By inflicting heavy losses on the Ukrainian military, taking prisoners of war, and degrading Kyiv’s defense capabilities, Russia could potentially alter Zelensky’s incentive structure sufficiently to induce painful concessions. An additional benefit of such an operation is that it would likely be less costly and would not require Russian forces to enter cities, which would increase the risk of civilian casualties and make an insurgency more effective.
If Moscow has more limited objectives, such as deterring any future Ukrainian TB2 or artillery strikes in the Donbas, it could achieve them with less force. This could include shooting down TB2 drones if they fly near the Donbas or targeting their airfields with long-range munitions. Russia could also declare a no-fly zone or announce that the Russian military would respond to any further Ukrainian artillery strikes in the Donbas with an overt response from the Russian military. These steps are too limited to force Kyiv to offer major political concessions, but they could alter Ukraine’s actions in the Donbas.
Another military option short of an invasion could involve employing Russia’s superior fires capability with artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and other standoff weapons, targeting Ukrainian military positions. A campaign of missile and artillery strikes could be limited to targeting specific Ukrainian military capabilities—for example, Ukrainian artillery units that fired on positions in the Donbas—or could inflict thousands of casualties on the Ukrainian military and significantly degrade its military capabilities, including strikes on Ukrainian air defenses and airfields. Russia could also start with more limited use of force, such as artillery and missile strikes, and escalate if its demands are not met. These options would likely include using cyber and electronic warfare systems, either in support of a broader military operation or by themselves. Indeed, even if Russia does not invade from Belarusian territory, it could employ electronic warfare systems from Belarus to disrupt Ukrainian communications and command and control in Kyiv, or possibly to interfere with U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, such as E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems, that are sharing intelligence with Ukraine.
These more limited military options would put Russian servicemembers at less at risk than a ground invasion. Ukraine’s Javelins and other short-range weapons would be of little use if Russia decided to rely on its standoff weapons, and Russia possesses a significant advantage in long-range fires capabilities. More limited use of force likely would not incur the maximum response from NATO. Would Washington be willing to pursue its strongest sanctions against the Russian economy if Russia shot down a Ukrainian TB2 or narrowly targeted specific Ukrainian units? The problem with these more limited options is that they likely would not solve Russia’s primary problem: a hostile Ukraine that is increasing its conventional deterrence capabilities. So a more aggressive option is more likely.
Russia is in a strong position to force the issue now. The Russian military’s Southern and Western Military Districts, which share the border with Ukraine, have completed the previous two annual strategic command-staff exercises, Kavkaz 2020 and Zapad 2021, that rotate every year and focus on fighting a high-intensity conventional conflict. The rearmament of the Black Sea Fleet since 2014 has largely been completed, with the commissioning of more than a dozen diesel submarines and surface ships capable of carrying Kalibr cruise missiles, and the Russian Ground Forces have been reequipped with twelve Iskander-M brigades since 2010. The Russian military continues to rearm and will remain more powerful than Ukraine’s in absolute terms. Still, its relative strength vis-à-vis Ukraine will likely decline over time, given Ukraine’s current modernization efforts, incentivizing a Russian military operation now.
Additionally, Russia has girded itself for confrontation. Its economy is in a far stronger position today — international reserves are currently at an all-time high —than when Moscow invaded Ukraine and intervened in Syria in 2014–2015 during a severe economic downturn. Moscow’s crackdown on domestic opposition has also reduced the threat of serious protests. The most recent poll from the independent Levada Center indicated that half of Russians blame the U.S. or NATO for the crisis, but only four percent blame Russia. Domestic approval likely is not much of a restraint for Putin if he decides to escalate against the Ukrainian military. However, this could change if Russian forces damage Ukrainian cities like Poltava and Kharkiv or cause civilian casualties. This is another reason why a limited punitive raid targeting the Ukrainian military is a more attractive option.
It is impossible to be sure what Putin is thinking, but Moscow’s current behavior is far from routine. Russia has deployed nearly an entire combined arms army from Siberia and is sending a large force from the Eastern Military District to Belarus. The scope of this deployment of ground combat power is unprecedented for post-Soviet Russia. Ultimatums accompanied by Russian officials publicly committing to a military response mean Russia will suffer a credibility cost if it does not act or achieve concessions. President Putin likely accepted that Russia might need to use military force if NATO and Ukraine refused to back down when he authorized a second buildup this fall. Moscow is signaling that it believes the costs of inaction are higher than the costs of employing force now. Given the failure of Russia’s previous attempts to deter NATO from expanding support for Ukraine, we should not underestimate the likelihood that Russia will conduct a significant military escalation in Ukraine if some of its demands are not met. However, this might not happen immediately. The COVID-19 Omicron variant is now spreading in Russia, and the Olympics are set to begin in China in two weeks. The Russia-Georgia War in 2008 occurred during the previous Olympics held in China, and Moscow likely wants to avoid drawing attention away from Beijing again. The upcoming joint exercise with Belarus is set to end on February 20, the same day as the closing ceremony for the Olympics. In addition, equipment is still enroute from the Eastern Military District and Russia has yet to commit most of the Airborne Forces near Ukraine. However, once the equipment arrives from the Russian Far East, Moscow will likely need to decide whether to use force over the next few months given the readiness costs.
Misinterpreting Russia’s political goals and its most likely military options can lead to poor policy advice. Many arguments about deterring a Russian invasion assume Russia intends to occupy large parts of Ukrainian territory for long periods of time and suggest further deliveries of Javelin anti-guided missiles or Stinger MANPADS, which could be effective as part of an insurgency. However, if Russia does not plan to occupy population centers, these weapons will have little impact and they wouldn’t be effective at deterring these Russian military options. If the U.S. attempted to deliver the kind of weapons that could alter the military balance between Russia and Ukraine, such as long-range missiles or missile defense systems, Moscow would almost certainly preempt their delivery with a military escalation. Better deterrence options would not take effect unless Russia conducted a significant escalation, making Moscow the initiator. Such an approach would worsen Russia’s security situation, potentially negating whatever security benefits it hoped to achieve by escalating in Ukraine. These options could include a commitment to deploy long-range missiles or missile defense systems to the Baltic countries in the event of an expanded Russian invasion.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.