Brief n.19, February 2022

While international media continue to rave about the imminence of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and western embassies evacuate their staff from Kiev, no one seems to know what precise purpose such an invasion would serve. Most importantly - what would Russia gain by invading Ukraine and how sustainable such a gain, if any, would be in a mid- and long-term perspective?

A successful and sustainable Russian operation in Ukraine would have to meet certain conditions. These conditions are:

  1. political crisis in Kiev;
  2. pro-Russian "Fifth Column" in Ukraine;
  3. ability to “restart” Ukraine in a politically acceptable manner;
  4. economic/financial resources to subsidize the new puppet government;
  5. ability to minimize short- and long-term effects of Western economic sanctions;
  6. Russian domestic support for the war or at least an understanding of the necessity of war.

Unless these conditions are met, an invading force, after the initial success, will not be able to sustain its victory in the long-term.

Let us consider each of these conditions:


Unlike the 2014 Maidan crisis, there is no political crisis in Kiev today. Legal wrangling between former president Poroshenko and president-in-office Zelensky does not amount to a political crisis. In fact, a Russian invasion would only consolidate different Ukrainian political forces that may be at odds with each other otherwise.


Unlike in the Crimea and Donbas in 2014, Moscow agents of influence and Russian sympathizers in Ukraine today represent a minority. According to January 2022 Ukrainian polls, over 50% of Ukrainians back openly anti-Russian political parties, while the pro-Russian parties gathered around 17%.1 According to a June 2021 poll, if a referendum on Ukraine's independence was held in June 2021, 89.8% of voters would vote for a act of independence, and only 10.2% - against.2


Theoretically Russia could invade Ukraine and secure a military victory within a few weeks. But such an operation would require much more than 120.000 troops gathered at the border now. Most importantly, a Russian-installed regime in Kiev would lack legitimacy and would need an important military backing. Russian forces would face guerilla war, particularly in the Western part of Ukraine.

Democratically elected president of Ukraine and his government might take refuge in a neighbouring country and continue to be recognised by the West as the proper government of Ukraine, thus denying any puppet regime in Kyiv international recognition, the UN seat, etc. Moscow would have to keep a substantial number of troops on the western border of Ukraine in order to prevent the inflow of weapons and fighters. During a guerilla war fought by Ukrainian nationalists against Soviet occupiers between 1945 and 1956, Soviet losses were estimated at 25.000 military personnel and 30.000 local communist activists. Back then Poland was a communist state and did not provide any assistance to the Ukrainians. Protracted guerilla conflict with high level of casualties would have negative consequences for Putin domestically. Pacification of Ukraine may take years, with no tangible political solution in sight.


Once Ukraine is controlled militarily, Russia would have to invest in rebuilding the Ukrainian economy to secure Ukraine politically. However, the outcome of this investment is uncertain. In December 2013 Putin agreed to invest $15 bn in Ukraine, (plus a 33% natural gas discount between 2014 and 2019), to facilitate its integration into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Prior to this agreement, Russia invested more than $33 bn in the Ukrainian economy. However, as the events of February 2014 demonstrated, Russia was unable to convert its investments into political and public relations benefits.


Following the annexation of Crimea, Russia was hit by Western economic sanctions. The negative effect of sanctions on the net capital inflow is estimated at $160-170 bn and on gross capital flow – $280 bn. Sanctions have directly affected state-controlled banks, oil, gas and arms companies by severely constraining foreign funding. They also indirectly affected non-sanctioned companies by reducing inflows of foreign funding and causing funding conditions to deteriorate. The total net capital inflow losses due to the sanctions from 2014 through 2017 amount to 8% of Russia’s 2013 GDP. In the fall of 2014, following the oil price collapse, the Russian currency lost half of its value and has been unable to return to the pre-2014 levels since.

This time, Western sanctions will be more severe and could target Russian private savings and investment overseas as well.3 The Russian economy is smaller than the economy of South Korea. Sanctions will have a crippling effect on Russia and will lead to a domestic political discontent. Given that Russia has the coming presidential elections in 2024 and must deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Putin simply cannot afford to expose Russia to new economic sanctions that may endanger the 2024 electoral outcome.4


Russia is lacking domestic support for an invasion. Despite the fiery rhetoric of the state propaganda, Russian public opinion does not support a war. Very few Russians – only 3% – consider a war to be inevitable, while 53% consider it improbable. Most importantly, as of December 2021, 52% of Russians have a positive view of Ukrainians, and 31% - a neutral view. Only 12% consider Ukraine as a source of threat for Russia.5 To invade Ukraine in these conditions will be to shoot yourself in the foot.


Taking all these considerations into account and unless Putin got completely detached from reality, the chances of a Russian invasion of Ukraine are minimal. Russia cannot afford to have a full-blown war now, since its consequences are unpredictable and the benefits are uncertain.

Putin is seeking a political and diplomatic solution to the potential NATO enlargement, and backing his position by military might. He also needs to distract his domestic audience from the COVID-19 pandemic political and economic fallout, as well as to justify his repressive policies towards members of the opposition and the independent media. Presidential elections of 2024 are fast approaching. The propaganda noise about the enemy-at-the-gate may appear as an old-fashion decoy, but given the state of intellectual decline of the Russian ruling elite, this is the best option they can come up with.

Back in 2008-2014 Putin was persuaded that creating territorial conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine would guarantee their non-adherence to NATO. Now he is not so sure. Putin knows all too well that force is the only thing the United States and its NATO allies respect. Already in November 2021 he stated that Russia's “recent warnings to the Western countries are making themselves felt and are producing a certain amount of tension, and we need to keep this condition as long as possible.”

Moscow’s political goals in this confrontation are 1) to force Ukraine to implement the Minsk II agreement 2) to make the US and NATO to talk to the Kremlin. Both goals are interrelated. Putin wants to secure Russia’s western (and north-western) borders with buffer territories, neutral and free of any American influence or military presence. He regularly recalls James Baker’s assertion made to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that “not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.” Putin believes Russia, just like the United States, has its own vital interests and he feels cheated. He is determined to prevent the expansion of NATO eastward; if he has to concentrate the entire Russian army, navy and air force on the Ukrainian border to secure his bargaining position, he will.


  3. According to Alan Riley, energy expert with the Atlantic Council, Russian private offshore wealth is estimated to range from $800 bn to $1.3tn.
  4. According to the October 2021 Levada Center public opinion poll, 47% of Russians want to see Putin president after 2024, while 42% do not. However, in the age group 18-39, the majority - 52,5 % - do not want to see Putin president after 2024, while only 36% want him. In November 2021, Putin’s rating was the lowest since 2014 – only 32%.