How big is the risk of a Russian-Ukrainian military conflict?

The United States and its Western allies expressed concern about the risk that Russia was about to launch a military attack on Ukraine, while Russia asserted that the United States and Ukraine deliberately escalated tensions.

Russia-Ukraine relations collapsed in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.  Tensions have lasted for 7 years without end, so far they have escalated again with the risk of Russia attacking Ukraine militarily. Reuters news agency recently published a detailed analysis of the situation in Ukraine and Russia.

What do Russia and Ukraine say about the risk of military conflict?

Russia denies threatening other countries and insists it has the right to send troops anywhere within its territory if necessary. Russia accuses Ukraine and NATO of exaggerating tensions.

Russia also questioned the possibility of Ukraine launching a military operation to recapture the Donbass region currently controlled by the separatists.

Russia’s intelligence services reported this week that the situation in the region has escalated to the equivalent of the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict.

Ukraine denies Russia’s accusations, saying that it is Moscow that is about to launch a military operation with nearly 100,000 troops concentrated on the border.

Risk of Russia’s military attack on Ukraine

Reuters interviewed multiple sources, including Western and Russian intelligence officials. Nearly all believe that the possibility of impending conflict is not high.

The most likely scenario is that Russia uses force to deter the West about the “red lines” in Ukraine. The current situation is the same as it was at the beginning of the year, when Russia escalated tensions with Ukraine and then de-escalated it by withdrawing its troops.

In this way, Russian President Vladimir Putin makes it impossible for the West to know for sure when Russia will actually strike militarily.

If a conflict broke out, what would the scenario look like?

Russia now has 900,000 regular troops compared with 209,000 on the Ukrainian side, or four times as much, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Samir Puri, an IISS expert, says Russia’s advantage is in eastern Ukraine. Russia could align itself with eastern separatists, helping the separatists expand their control over Ukraine.

In the event of a large-scale conflict, Russia can simultaneously attack from Belarus, from the east or south, through the Crimean peninsula and land to capture the two strategic Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Mariupol.

How can Ukraine defend?

Last month, Russia aggressively mobilized troops and weapons close to the border with Ukraine.
Last month, Russia aggressively mobilized troops and weapons close to the border with Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military is much stronger today than it was in 2014, when it lost the Crimean peninsula to Russia. Ukraine has significant US support.

Over the years, the US has transferred to Ukraine many modern lethal weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles. The US also provides Ukraine with the latest military intelligence.

But Russia’s ground attack capability is very strong, with the ability to launch thousands of main battle tanks into the battlefield.

“For Ukraine, the problem is trying to hold out as long as possible, and wait for support from the West, then find a way to counterattack,” said Mathieu Boulegue, a researcher in London, England. “If Russia attacks with all its might, it will only be a matter of how much Ukraine causes Russia to suffer.”

What can deter Russia?

The US and the West have imposed sanctions on Russia since the events of 2014, causing the Russian economy to plummet. The US may impose a series of new sanctions, especially preventing gas from Russia from flowing through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany.

Russia also risks damaging relations with the West if it attacks Ukraine. It is not clear whether NATO will send troops to support Ukraine, because it increases the risk of an all-out conflict.

“The leadership of NATO and Russia will have to calculate carefully if they escalate tensions. If NATO sends troops to fight, Russia may be taken by surprise,” Puri said. “If so, Ukraine will become a battlefield for Russia and NATO.”

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