Is Russia planning war in Ukraine with its increasing military presence in Dombass? 

Last week, I had the opportunity to write my column on a very sensitive topic for all of us who are concerned about geopolitics and international affairs. 

This topic was the European Union’s supply of energy, as the block imports 41 percent of its natural gas consumption from Russia, while only 16 percent comes from Norway, 8 percent from Algeria, and 5 percent from Qatar.

In that piece, my argument is that Europe’s geopolitical strategy of “strategic autonomy” cannot be achieved as long as Europe maintains its dependency on Russian energy. Because under the current situation, Putin has tremendous leverage to advance its interests in the region, such as militarizing the Black Sea and its coastal states through controlling Crimea.

Moving one week forward, I think that there are already signs that Putin understands this leverage over the region, signs that are in no other place than Ukraine, a country under Putin’s radar for a long time. 

The main one of these is the increasing combat readiness of Russia’s military forces in Eastern Ukraine, in the Russian-controlled region on Dombas (Donetsk and Luhansk).

This is a situation of concern for both the Ukrainian people and the international community, as Putin has manifested in the past that Ukraine belongs to the Russian sphere of influence, which hints at the idea that Russia will try to keep advancing further into Ukraine’s territory.

From the international community’s perspective, United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warns that a Russian incursion further into Ukraine would be a strategic mistake on part of the Russians. 

“We will support Ukraine and stability in the Western Balkans, to safeguard their security and build their economic resilience. We have seen this playbook from the Kremlin before when Russia falsely claimed its illegal annexation of Crimea was a response to NATO aggression. NATO is an alliance forged on the principle of defense, not provocation. Any suggestion that NATO is provoking the Russians is clearly false. Any action by Russia to undermine the freedom and democracy that our partners enjoy would be a strategic mistake,” Truss said.

Since I have never been to Kyiv or in Ukraine in general, I got in touch with Maria Chaplia and Tetiana Rak to understand the situation from a Ukrainian point of view. Both Maria and Tetiana are alumni of my NGO, Students For Liberty. 

On this issue, Maria (now a researcher at the Consumer Choice Center) told me that in Ukraine, “people are scared that this time Russia might actually attack.” 

She added that while “there’s some skepticism about whether Russia will dare to cross the line, Putin actually wants Ukraine. You can check out his essays where he claims that historically Ukraine is part of Russia and that we are two brotherly nations. And so he sees Russia’s occultation of Crime and parts of Donbas as a liberation of Russian people.”

Tetiana believes that Putin could go on the offensive as soon as during the first quarter of 2022. 

“Russia’s main goal is destabilization and a possible military offensive in January-February or early spring 2022. The sentiment may also be preceded by the economic and energy crisis in Ukraine, efforts to complete the certification of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, increased sentiment in the DPR and LPR, and the situation on the Belarusian border, which is becoming a source of instability,” Tetiana argues.

Based on this, Tetiana believes that a Russian invasion in Ukraine is “unlikely” and that Putin’s intentions are more related to destabilizing the eastern region as well achieving other geopolitical objectives not related to Ukraine, but the west.

“While a full-scale invasion is unlikely … we can expect an aggravation of the situation in the eastern regions – that is, the intensification of DPR / LPR groups. The probable overthrow of Russian troops as a disguised strengthening of army corps, tactical breakthroughs, and expansion of lines of contact. The goal is to destabilize the border areas,” Tetiana said.

Overall, I think that no one really knows whether Putin will dare to “cross the line” and invade Ukraine. From a pragmatic point of view, there are reasons to believe that he will not. But from an ideological perspective, who knows. In any case, it is still worrisome that Russia is able to do these kinds of military escalations in eastern Ukraine without any international repercussions. This shows how vulnerable the international community really is, especially the European Union.