Russia’s sudden escalation around Ukraine has taken some by surprise, but the logic behind it may be deceptively simple: This winter could be Russia’s last chance to attack Ukraine.
Russian military forces are amassed to Ukraine’s east, north, and south, and Ukraine’s leadership is making preparations for war.
The Biden administration believes that an invasion is imminent, evacuating the U.S. embassy and readying forces to be deployed. The greatest logistical barrier to Russia’s advance is mud, and that may be frozen over before long.
If Putin acts he will be inviting a cavalcade of sanctions and even military resistance from the West. But he may never have a better opportunity.
The European Union is in the midst of an energy crisis, making it more vulnerable than ever to Russian energy exports. Ukraine is becoming more costly to invade by the day, as it builds up its defensive capabilities, and will only continue to do so with time. There are also divisions within NATO on how best to deal with the Russia-Ukraine conflict now.
The more Russia delays, the more leverage it stands to lose.
Europe is currently suffering an energy crisis, with gas prices doubling in December. The continent has experienced high prices since the end of last summer, and uncertainty over both Nord Stream 2 and Russia’s actions in Ukraine has made price hikes in the energy markets even worse. About a third of Germany’s natural gas comes from Russian pipelines, with other European nations also reliant on their Eastern neighbor. Though Russia has continually stressed that it is not using its oil and natural gas as a weapon against Europe, we should naturally remain skeptical of this kind of messaging.
It is worth asking why Europe is experiencing high energy prices, especially after periods of unprecedented low energy prices. The answer is relatively straightforward: the coronavirus pandemic suppressed demand for energy consumption. Energy producers reduced their supply in order to meet reduced demand. Several European countries enacted green energy mandates and began closing coal-powered plants. Though France has leaned heavily into nuclear power, this has not been the case for other major European powers, like Germany. When energy demand bounced back and alternative sources of energy were not yet ready to fill in the gap, the price of energy skyrocketed. Old coal factories needed to be reopened, and natural gas imports rose in importance to ensure that Europe is able to keep homes warm this winter.
Russia is thus in a position of unprecedented influence over Europe’s energy markets, but that will only last for a short window. Green energy will eventually get off the ground. Solar is performing well in the continent, and the wind drought cannot last forever. Other energy producers have increased production, including the United States, to meet higher energy demand. Europe is also conscious of just how helpless it is to Russian energy exports, and is no doubt pursuing further strategies to ensure this period of vulnerability never happens again. What all this means is that Russia’s leverage over the continent is peaking now. If Russia invades Ukraine tomorrow, Europe cannot afford to put too much pressure on Russia without risking its own energy security. However, if Russia were to wait a few years, Europe would be in a much better position to support harsh punitive measures against Moscow.
Every effort is being expended to ensure that Ukraine is able to defend itself from a Russian invasion. Ukrainian air defenses have been established as a deterrent to Russian aggression. The U.S. and NATO are providing arms sales to Ukraine. Ukraine itself is preparing its citizens for sustained national resistance and guerrilla war, and has made the first step to instituting a draft for Ukrainian women. The country is also increasing its capabilities using drone weapons, and has expressed a desire to receive more training from the U.S. In the long run, Ukraine will develop defenses so hardy that the cost of a Russian invasion would be particularly steep for Moscow. Not only will they lose considerable military equipment and manpower during the initial invasion, irregular resistance could well make the Russians bleed in their attempt to hold the country. While Ukraine is not in a position to win an armed conflict with Russia alone, with every passing day its ability to inflict greater losses on Russia’s forces increases.
There is an argument that Putin’s aggression is making NATO more powerful. When Kori Schake argued in the Atlantic last month that Russia’s actions were strengthening Ukraine and uniting NATO, I found her remarks incredibly persuasive. But looking back, I have since become increasingly concerned. Though the Baltic countries and Poland are strongly in favor of supporting Ukraine, Germany has been more reticent about how to deal with Russia. France has signaled a desire for “the European Union to pursue its own talks with the Kremlin,” which caused some consternation among NATO’s Eastern European countries. This division appears to get worse with Italy’s Prime Minister doubtful that NATO can even deter Russia in Ukraine. It is unclear that NATO is truly united on Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The United States is thus in an awkward position of stressing unity, while not necessarily being able to guarantee it on matters of substance.
While Europe has been clear that it opposes aggressive Russian actions in Ukraine, what that means seems to differ from country to country. The United States, for instance, has promised punishing sanctions against Russia. Recently, sanctions have been placed on “pro-Russian agents.” There are no shortages of alternative options, including the so-called “nuclear option” of cutting Russia off from the banking system, for potentially ruinous sanctions against Russia, but it is uncertain if and how they will be acted upon. Indeed, Germany seems to have taken the most powerful among them—excluding Russian Access to SWIFT—off the table. It is therefore uncertain exactly what will happen should the Russians invade. Regardless of what happens, in order for U.S. action against Russia to be truly effective, it must have the support of the European Union. Thus far, it is possible that the U.S. is far out ahead on these issues, with several European partners lagging behind.
As Europe becomes more energy secure, its reluctant member states may be more willing to take escalatory action against Russia and risk losing access to its energy markets. Likewise, as Ukraine increases its ability to defend itself, European countries may be more willing to endorse and support its defensive capabilities. As such, division in NATO should prove to be transient. As Schake noted in her Atlantic piece, “Democratic societies are slow to align but durable once committed.” Our unity and commitment will end Russia’s Ukrainian ambitions.
Therefore, if Russia wishes to act on Ukraine, it will feel pressure to do so immediately or risk losing its chance forever.