Russian forces are massing on the eastern border of Ukraine in numbers not seen since the outbreak of hostilities between the two states in 2014. Resources have been brought in from units as far away as Siberia, and open sources have logged and analysed significant increases in personnel and equipment in bases close to the Russian border with Ukraine. Western leaders have pledged ‘unwavering support’ to the Ukrainian president whilst complaining about aggressive actions to Vladimir Putin.
Whether the military build-up is posturing or preparation for action is unknown. However, Russian military activity and Western responses over the last 15 years have set a pattern which may suggest what could happen if the Russian military does re-enter Ukraine.
Following the announcement in 2008 that NATO intended Georgia and Ukraine to begin the process to join the alliance by December Georgian relations with Russia worsened. Russia cited clashes between Georgian forces and pro-Moscow separatists in the areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and sent ‘peacekeeping’ forces into the regions and Georgia proper. Georgian forces were defeated within days resulting in an EU brokered ceasefire. Russian troops withdrew from Georgian territory, but not from the two separatists states. Both breakaway regions were recognised as independent by Russia, whose troops have remained in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Diplomatic ties were temporarily worsened and a number of EU sanctions were applied.
In 2014, the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine resulted in the pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, leaving office. Less than a month later, Russian troops invaded and annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine, citing the need to protect Russian speaking separatists in the area. Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern ‘Donbass’ region began hostilities soon after and were engaged by Ukrainian troops. The Russia-backed separatists succeeded in taking large parts of Ukrainian territory, including the newly rebuilt Donetsk airport. Again the EU brokered a ceasefire which came into effect some months later. Russian military equipment is reported to have remained with the separatists following their self declared independence, and Russia routinely releases statements supporting the separatist entities. Crimea is now formally part of Russia and has a new bridge linking it directly with Russian territory. Diplomatic and economic relations with Western countries were again temporarily damaged.
Both ‘Frozen Conflicts’ have resulted in Western sanctions and much political activity over the years. Russia has either gained new territory or a troop presence in newly recognised (by Russia) independent states. These conflicts have sat, unresolved, for years. Despite sanctions and political condemnation, relations between Russia and the West follow a fluctuating course which appears to have not overly harmed the reputation of Russia. One year after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Winter Olympic Games of 2014 were held next door to Abkhazia in the Russian city of Sochi. No Western state boycotted the event.
As time moves on Western and world leaders deal with de facto situations on the ground. Democratically elected leaders change regularly and economic issues come to the fore. It is clear that as Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine become increasingly distant in time, their significance becomes diluted for western leaders in their dealings with Russia. After a period of chastisement they engage once more with Russia, ignoring the outstanding conflicts. This appears to be a key point in the longer term strategy of Russia in the creation and use of a ‘frozen conflict’ model.
The Long Game
Vladimir Putin remains at the helm of Russia, and is likely to do so well into the 2030’s. Frozen conflicts can be seen to be a coherent strategy benefiting a leader who does not expect to leave their post in the short to medium term. This is in direct opposition to the shorter terms in office which are the norm for democratically elected leaders of Western states. Putin has the advantage of continuity of policy and strategy which is not available to his Western peers.
If Russia does choose to re-enter Ukrainian territory, the pattern of the frozen conflict model is instructive. The model suggests a potentially swift Russian military victory, followed by international outcry, then an EU brokered peace deal. Then a removal of Russian troops from contested Ukrainian territory back to red lines in newly annexed Donbass or ‘peacekeeping’ Russian troops supporting the newly ‘independent’ states. This would result in a smaller Ukraine and worsened diplomatic and economic ties between the West and Russia. But for how long? As Putin has just ensured his political future, he can afford to create another frozen conflict to his benefit, whilst the West goes through its democratic cycle, and other issues become the priority over time.
The ability and willingness of Putin to wait-out the West has allowed him to use frozen conflicts to create a political and military ‘Frog Soup’, in which the world accepts Russian short term incremental actions without appreciating or comprehending the longer term strategy. Putin can then turn up the heat some more. Will Western leaders realise this scenario in Ukraine and jump out of the water before it boils?
Frog soup anyone?