Crossing the Dnieper: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and the West’s Response

War in Europe //

With the Russian invasion now underway the question has to be asked. What will Moscow settle for? And can, or should, the West respond?

1. Geography

To answer this question let us first review what are some of Russia’s possible strategic goals in the Ukraine. The first considerations one should have, especially with regard to military action, are geographic. Russia aims at reducing the length of it’s immense and flat European border, especially around it’s exposed Volgograd Gap, a path striking through southern Russia both vulnerable to attacks as well as crucial to Russia’s power projection and autonomy in the region. Readers will be familiar with the region through Stalingrad (modern day Volgograd) in World War II, one of Germany’s major targets then. The second geographic concern centers the Azov and Black seas. An important economic route as well as a security boon due to the Crimean peninsula’s forward position. It is likely that Russia feels threatened by two agents in the Black Sea, a rising Turkey with it’s own military power projection and potentially Romania & Bulgaria through their connection to the Trimarium Initiative. Though for now Russia is certainly uncontested.

Fig. 2 – Map of Europe

2. Alliances and Economics

Besides geographic concerns there is also the matter of political alliances and economics. I will be glossing over NATO expansion because it has been talked to death but suffice it to say that to Russia, NATO’s eastward expansion is seen as a “broken promise” of the post-Cold War “consensus”. With the country being essentially “under siege” both by NATO and potentially in the future by the aforementioned Trimarium Initiative.
On the economic side of things, Russian fossil fuel pipelines move through Ukraine, most notably Soyuz (Figure 2). These pipelines are a major asset for Moscow in it’s diplomatic efforts in Europe. It is likely that any peace treaties, should Russia come out of this conflict victorious, will also focus on the continued operation of these pipelines. Finally, Russia, as all players of Grand Strategy, needs to minimize it’s costs, both economic and political by avoiding a long war which seems quite possible as reports are coming in as I write that Russian helicopters have moved to Kiev.

Fig. 2 – Russian Natural Gas Pipelines

3. Possible Scenarios

Out of all these objectives and considerations a few can be struck off the list, if Russia wins the pipelines will be likely a fast issue to resolve. The real question is, how will Moscow choose to resolve it’s geographic problems? For that a few possible scenarios are imaginable.

  1. Forcing the Kiev government into a federation with the DNR and LNR, allowing for those regions to veto Ukrainian involvement in NATO or other alliances.
  2. The incorporation of the Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR) Republics into the Russian Federation, potentially including land along the Azov and Black Sea coasts.
  3. The complete annexation of Ukraine to be either incorporated in the Russian Federation or becoming part of a Union, possibly with Belarus.
  4. The partition and annexation of Ukrainian lands east of the Dnieper river.
  5. The creation of one or two independent states, potentially as vassals to the Russian Federation.

The first scenario appears to be dead at arrival with Putin having officially recognized the independence of the Republics from Ukraine. Though that seems to preclude the possibility of the second scenario that is not the case, it would simply require a referendum at a later stage in order to legitimize the change in rhetoric, something initiated easily and with a history of ballot stuffing, Putin would certainly have no difficulty from getting the result he wanted.
The third and fourth scenarios are more difficult to implement, as mentioned in Section 2, Moscow needs to minimize it’s costs, a protracted war would itself mean high costs through losses, sanctions and political fallout, but having to then also hold a state where Anti-Russian sentiment has only been mounting since 2014 is begging for a grueling insurrection and resistance, the third scenario minimizes Russia’s flat border by a lot, anchoring by the Carpathian mountains, while the fourth minimizes the area that needs to be held, anchoring Russia at the Dnieper river which, when not included in the “flat border” also reduces the vulnerable front Russia has to defend significantly . Out of the two, the partition appears to me as a better compromise though Moscow might believe it is not worth keeping an even more hostile Ukraine around.
Finally the fifth scenario is the one that I consider the smartest. Through small land grabs along the coast Moscow can solve the Crimean Water Crisis and properly secure the Azov sea. Keeping the Republics independent would also likely incur lower diplomatic and economic sanctions. But the real benefit comes from the political Mehrwert that having a separate but dependent state creates. A vassal being de jure independent means that any invading forces would require at least some additional justification to attack the Volgograd Gap through Ukraine, circumventing the geographic problem. Not only that but such “independent” agents can act as proxies for diplomatic purposes allowing Moscow to maneuver around certain bans and sanctions. Though such an “independence” would still likely come with high level integration into the Russian Federation the Moscow government would have the possibility to “cut off” aid if times were tough.

4. The Western Response

With all that in mind, what should the rest of the world do?
Though the invasion of a sovereign nation should be condemned it seems unlikely that the western powers will assist Ukraine militarily likely spelling defeat for Kiev. My belief is that the line needs to be drawn at the Dnieper, that is a Rubicon that cannot be crossed. In a world interested in peace we must accept at least to some extent the security concerns of each state and while any kind of compromise neglects Ukraine’s concerns it seems unavoidable at this point. In order to ensure that both countries’ concerns are at least partially satisfied the West needs to guarantee the continued existence of Ukraine as a state by denying Moscow the third scenario even at high costs. Even better, the Western powers could try to negotiate Moscow into the first or fifth scenarios, keeping Ukraine hopefully neutral in either sphere of influence which would secure Russia’s south at a relatively low cost for both sides. The issue remains leverage, Nordstream 2 can only be dangled in front of Putin for so long before the bluff breaks, greater military support needs to be at least considered even without other countries joining the war. In any case though the future needs to be considered deeply, while the Dnieper should not be crossed it is impossible to rule out that scenario or even the possibility of future aggression. This likely means a pivot towards the Baltics and perhaps Central Asia for a more concerned NATO. This war, just like the Yugoslav wars or the recent Artsakh war will certainly shake liberal notions of the current world order and is a lesson that prevention and compromise are necessary.

Further Reading:

https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/how-ukraines-armed-forces-shape-up-against-russias-2022-02-01/

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