Under Putin’s rule, Russia has invaded Ukraine before, occupied Crimea, invaded Georgia in 2008, sent troops to Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. It also intervened in Syria to support the regime of Bashar Assad. In each case, Western governments were taken by surprise. And in each case, the threat of sanctions failed to dissuade Putin.
Given Putin’s track record, there is no reason to rule out another invasion of Ukraine, according to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at the CNA think tank.
The case of Russia’s invasion in Georgia 14 years ago offers a rough analogy for a similar operation in Ukraine, he said.
“Sanctions are an incredibly weak deterrent and have consistently failed to deter Russia from the use of force in Ukraine and elsewhere,” said Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at the CNA think tank.
With more than 100,000 Russian troops deployed on Ukraine’s border, President Vladimir Putin is keeping the West guessing: Will he opt for a full-scale invasion, a more limited operation or simply keep Russian forces in place to maintain pressure on Kyiv and the West?
Enjoying an overwhelming military advantage over Ukraine’s smaller, less advanced forces, Russia has a range of options if Putin decides to launch an attack, depending on what Moscow wants to achieve, the price it is willing to pay and how the West responds, experts say.
With Russia’s formidable air and naval power, any offensive would most likely feature bombing raids, missile strikes and cyber attacks that could decimate Ukraine’s military infrastructure, disrupt communications and pin down ground troops.
“There’s an incredibly large force that’s on the border,” much larger than the one used to invade and annex Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, said Philip Breedlove, a retired four-star US Air Force general who served as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO from 2013 to 2016.
“You have a Ukrainian land army that has gotten much better, much more capable” since 2014, said Breedlove, now at the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank. “But the Russians would own the air and the sea.”
It’s still possible Russia could pull back its troops, though Moscow’s tough language suggests otherwise. After talks with US diplomats on Monday and with NATO members on Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russia’s RTVI that there was no reason to schedule more talks with the Americans and NATO because of what he called their refusal to meet Moscow’s demands to return to a 1997 status quo in European security.
Short of a full-blown invasion and occupation of all of eastern Ukraine, Russia could choose to take more limited actions that could increase its leverage over Kyiv and test Western resolve and transatlantic unity, Breedlove and other experts say.
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