The world is spellbound at the border between Ukraine and Russia. NATO insiders would fear a major attack, including against NATO countries. How realistic is such a scenario?
The situation on the Ukrainian border remains tense. For weeks, Russia has been gathering troops in the border area. Ukraine fears an attack. The border region has become the scene of a major conflict: while Russia wants to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and thus from getting closer to its own border, the states of the Western alliance insist on letting the country decide for itself whether to join.
Negotiations for a peaceful solution ended without result. Meanwhile, the “Spiegel” reports that NATO fears Russian President Vladimir Putin is even seeking armed conflict with the West beyond Ukraine. Insiders say Russia could use its increased presence in the Mediterranean, North Atlantic and Arctic to strike on multiple fronts – even against NATO countries. Gerhard Mangott is a political scientist and professor of international relations at the University of Innsbruck. He sorts the reports.
t-online: It has been reported that NATO insiders fear attacks on other countries, including NATO member states, in addition to the attack on Ukraine. How realistic do you think such a scenario is?
Gerard Mangot: I think a multi-pronged attack is a relatively absurd scenario. Russia will not attack the Baltic States as this would trigger the downfall of the coalition in the North Atlantic alliance. This would mean that NATO is actually fighting Russian troops. Neither the Western side nor the Russian side want such a direct military encounter. No one can know whether such a dispute will not degenerate to the nuclear level. There is also no evidence that Russia is concentrating its forces on the border with the Baltic States. The same goes for an attack on Poland.
A conflict with Ukraine is therefore even more likely. Concretely, what would a Russian attack look like?
The honest answer is: we don’t know. Only Putin knows that. I’m sure even the negotiators leading the talks this week aren’t quite sure what Putin’s ultimate intention is. But I don’t expect a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The troops on the ground are too small for that. It could be a limited military operation accompanied by a cyber operation against critical Ukrainian infrastructure. An extension of the area controlled by the separatists in the Donbass is an option. The maximum that I can imagine would be the creation of a land bridge between Donbass and Crimea.
How did the cited NATO insiders arrive at their assessment that an attack by Russia is imminent?
It’s hard to understand. Information is available on the equipment deployed and the soldiers mobilized. We deduce if and especially what military operation would be possible with him. In order to obtain this information, the United States regularly conducts reconnaissance flights over Ukraine. Satellite data is also part of this reconnaissance.
However, what cannot be clearly determined are Russia’s political intentions. One can only note that Russia threatened a military response if the negotiations failed. Russia has been using this martial rhetoric for two months, presumably to reinforce its demands on the West. If Putin is really serious now, if he fails with his demands – and he will – only he knows. Maybe the decision hasn’t even been made yet.
Russian President Vladimir Putin: is he serious? (Source: Kremlin swimming pool/imago images)
They say the threat level is assessed based on the presence of troops on the ground. More than 100,000 soldiers were reported, but in the meantime there were also withdrawals again. What are the current numbers?
Estimates range from 95,000 to 115,000. The Ukrainian government announced earlier this morning that there were 106,000. It’s in that range of variation.
And what should NATO do in the event of an attack?
NATO will do nothing militarily, even if Russia attacks Ukraine on a large scale. There is a cynical saying: NATO will defend Ukraine to the last Ukrainian soldier. No NATO state, and certainly not the alliance itself, will send troops to Ukraine to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This is the very volatile security situation in Ukraine.
In the event of an invasion, however, massive economic sanctions would likely be imposed, as announced. In addition, NATO would also increase its troop presence and military infrastructure in Eastern European member states.
What’s your prognostic ? Will there really be a military conflict or will it simply be a saber cut by Russia to put itself in a position of strength in the negotiations?
If NATO does not meet Russia’s demands, what will the Russian side do? Is Putin happy with the attempt and back to business as usual? Then he loses face inward and outward. The alternative would be military escalation. As an observer, one can only say: the probability of a military escalation is high. So I would put it at around 75%.