PGI INSIGHT: Ukraine/Russia – May 2021
Large-scale conflict between Moscow, Kyiv unlikely in near-term
- In April, Russia deployed the largest number of troops to the border with Ukraine since it annexed Crimea in 2014.
- Moscow is unlikely to launch a large-scale conflict with Ukraine in the near-term due to the high economic cost, and low domestic support.
- Tensions are likely to remain heightened in the coming months and could increase if Kyiv further attempts to reduce pro-Russian influence in Ukraine.
Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv have worsened in recent months. EU officials estimated in mid-April that Moscow deployed 100,000 troops and large amounts of military equipment to the border with Ukraine and into Crimea. This was the largest troop build-up in the region since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
The deployments could be long-term. In late April, Russia said it would withdraw its forces from the region but around 80,000 remain, including some permanently relocated forces. This signals an intent to maintain pressure on Ukraine.
Moscow’s escalation of tensions is likely a response to Kyiv’s moves against pro-Russian influence since late 2020. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has overseen the closure of Russian media outlets and a crackdown on pro-Russian politicians in the country. Moscow likely perceived these actions as aggressive and likely aimed to signal to Kyiv its ability to influence an ongoing conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
High economic cost of conflict
Moscow is unlikely to intentionally launch a large-scale conflict with Kyiv because of its high economic costs. Russia’s currency, the rouble, has weakened in the past year due to falling oil prices, the impact of COVID-19, and tensions with the US. Moscow has already spent large amounts of money supporting the annexed territory in eastern Ukraine, which experiences severe problems relating to water irrigation.
Large-scale conflict with Ukraine would likely leave Moscow further isolated diplomatically and threaten its commercial interests, such as the German-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline. US President Joe Biden voiced support for Zelensky and proposed a summit to Putin to de-escalate the situation. The European Parliament passed a resolution in late April calling on EU members to reduce dependence on Russian natural resources, and to freeze the assets of Kremlin-linked oligarchs if Moscow launches further military action against Ukraine.
Limited domestic support for conflict
There is limited support in Russia for a protracted, large-scale military campaign in eastern Ukraine. The Russian military is better equipped and around four times larger than that of Ukraine. However, a land warfare campaign would likely involve high casualty rates and a protracted conflict, given Ukraine’s size and experienced troops.
The annexation of Crimea boosted Putin’s popularity because it did not involve large-scale violence. Therefore, Putin is unlikely to risk a large number of Russian casualties and a drawn-out conflict given that his popularity rating has continuously declined in recent years and parliamentary elections are expected to take place in September 2021.
The risk of large-scale conflict remains low. However, tensions between Moscow and Kyiv are likely to remain heightened in the coming months as Kyiv has not indicated willingness to adopt a less confrontational stance to Moscow. It is also possible that Moscow will not significantly reduce tensions ahead of the September elections in an attempt to not be perceived as weak. Tensions could escalate further if Kyiv launches more moves against pro-Russian influence, deploys more troops to the border with Russia, or pursues closer ties with NATO.
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