EXPLANATOR: Russia’s risky options beyond full attack on Ukraine

But Russia denies it is preparing to invade and Putin’s intentions remain a mystery.

Russia, which is seeking to commit to NATO not expanding into Ukraine, has options it could pursue barring a full-scale invasion, and other means of s take on the United States and its allies. All carry risks in varying degrees, for Russia and the world.

A look at some of them:


In 2014, Russia took the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. That year he also began arming rebels in the eastern region known as Donbass, sparking a low-boil conflict that killed more than 14,000 people. Many Russian observers believe that the recent buildup of Russian troops and naval forces is the next chapter in a larger effort to reduce Ukraine, perhaps taking advantage of the fact that the United States and its allies in Europe are distracted by COVID-19 and other issues. Possible scenarios include providing additional support to Russian-backed rebels or launching a limited invasion just enough to destabilize Zelensky and usher in a pro-Kremlin leader.

Stopping before a full-scale invasion would give Russia more time to field more forces and test the commitment of the United States and its allies to the punitive sanctions promised by Biden, the lieutenant general said. retired Ben Hodges, former commander of the United States. Armed forces in Europe. “He’s going to keep doing what he’s doing right now, keep putting maximum pressure on Ukraine and trying to destabilize the government to alarm people,” Hodges said. “There is plenty of capacity in place to do more, should the opportunity arise.”

It could still end up triggering sanctions that could harm Russia’s economy and hurt Putin at home. There is also the risk that limited action will not be enough to achieve the Russian president’s goal of undermining European security by rolling back, or at least halting, NATO expansion, says Dmitry Gorenburg, analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, Virginia. . “I don’t think it gives him what he wants,” he said. “It hadn’t done this to them before. So why now?


Russia is a major player in global energy, the third largest oil producer after the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the source of around 40% of the natural gas used in Europe. It is also a major wheat exporter, particularly to developing countries. Any decision to reduce the flow of energy could be painful for Europe in winter, with gas and oil prices already high. Likewise, rising food prices are a problem all over the world.

Putin has some economic leverage, but there are no signs he would use it and it could end up hurting Russia in the long run, said Edward Fishman, a former State Department official who is now a senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center. Any move by Russia to cut off gas shipments would push European nations to find alternative sources for the future. “It’s a weapon you can only use once,” he said. “You do this once and you lose that leverage forever.” The Biden administration is already working with Qatar and other suppliers to replace Russian gas if needed.


There is no doubt that Russia has the capability to carry out significant cyberattacks in Ukraine and around the world, and would almost certainly do so again in any operation against its neighbour. The Department of Homeland Security warned law enforcement on January 23 that Russia would consider launching a cyberattack against the United States, including possible actions against critical infrastructure, if it perceived that the response to a invasion of Ukraine “threatened its long-term national security”. ”

Russia is the suspected culprit of a 2015 hack against Ukraine’s power grid. This month, hackers temporarily shut down government websites in Ukraine, underscoring how cybersecurity remains a key concern in the standoff with Russia. “No matter the size, scale and nature of their ground and air attacks, cyber will be a big part of everything they do,” Hodges warns.

The risk to the world is that hostile activity against Ukraine could spread, as the cyberattack known as notPetya did with devastating effect in 2017. The downside for Russia is that the United States United and other nations have the power to fight back, as Biden warned Putin in June. “He knows there are consequences,” Biden said.


China is not a direct player in the impasse over Ukraine, but it does play a role. Observers have warned that Moscow could respond to Washington’s rejection of its security demands by strengthening military ties with China. Russia and China have held a series of joint war games, including naval drills and long-range bomber patrols over the Sea of ​​Japan and East China Sea.

US officials have said they do not believe Russia will launch an invasion as President Xi Jinping presides over the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. “The Chinese won’t be happy if their Olympics are disrupted by war,” Gorenburg said. Putin plans to travel to Beijing to watch the opening of the games, as US and European leaders sit down to protest human rights abuses.

One theory among Russia watchers is that China is closely watching the US and European response on Ukraine to gauge what might happen if it were to act against Taiwan. Hodges sees this as a risk. “If we, with our diplomatic and economic might combined with our military might, cannot stop the President of the Russian Federation from doing something that is so blatantly illegal, wrong and aggressive, then I don’t think President Xi will be too impressed with anything we say about Taiwan or the South China Sea.


Senior Russian officials have warned that Moscow may deploy troops or military assets to Cuba and Venezuela. The threats are vague, although Russia has close ties with both countries as well as Nicaragua. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan dismissed the idea, and experts in the region and around the world view it as a strategy that would likely accomplish little except divert needed Russian forces elsewhere. , and is therefore unlikely to occur.

A more likely scenario is that Russia steps up its already extensive propaganda and disinformation efforts to sharpen divisions in Latin America and elsewhere, including the United States.


It is not won in advance that the stalemate ends in an invasion. While the Biden administration has said it will not give in to Russia’s security demands, there still seems to be room for diplomacy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that the US response “gives hope for the start of a serious conversation on secondary issues.”

France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia have agreed to sit down for talks in two weeks, an effort to revive a 2015 agreement to ease the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Some fear it will complicate US and NATO efforts to show a united front against Russia.

A stand-down may be good for the world but could come at a cost for Putin, Russian journalist Yulia Latynina warned Friday in a New York Times essay. She said the Russian president may have used his troop buildup as a bluff, hoping to coerce the United States and Europe into abandoning any intention of closer ties with Ukraine. “Instead of tricking the United States, Mr. Putin tricked himself,” she wrote. “Caught between an armed conflict and a humiliating retirement, he now sees his room for maneuver being reduced to nothing.


Isachenkov reported from Moscow.

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