The view in Ukraine: How likely is it there will be a Russian invasion? 

Local residents train close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022. Russia's foreign minister claims that NATO wants to pull Ukraine into the alliance, amid escalating tensions over NATO expansion and fears that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine. In comments on state television Sunday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also challenged NATO's claim to be a purely defensive structure. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Local residents train close to Kyiv, Ukraine Credit: AP

There are no tanks on the streets of Kyiv, no barricades around government buildings, nothing which would suggest this is a European capital under imminent threat of attack. 

But if you have read the constant stream of headlines about Ukraine over the last few weeks, you could be forgiven for coming to a different conclusion. 

At a recent lunch in Kyiv with a Ukrainian official, I asked him whether he thought there was going to be a war. "I don’t know, you tell me," he said, slightly irritated. "You [the media] are the ones who keep saying there is going to be a war."

That frustration has now bubbled over publicly. President Zelensky of Ukraine suggested at a recent press conference that world leaders are over emphasising the threat from Russia. "I am not saying an escalation is not possible… [but] they are saying tomorrow is the war. This means panic," Zelensky said. 

If and how you think Russia will make another move into Ukraine, depends on who you listen to - the Ukrainians, the Russians, or the British and Americans. 

 Why are the UK and US warning of war?

Privately, some Ukrainian officials are convinced a Russian invasion is unlikely. "I am 90% certain there will not be a direct invasion," an official in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence said speaking on the condition of anonymity, adding that it would be politically and economically disastrous for Russia.  

The US, meanwhile, has made a series of increasingly grim and urgent warnings, with President Biden telling President Zelensky that an imminent invasion is a distinct possibility according to White House officials. The US first warned of a large scale build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine’s border in December 2021 and the UK recently claimed Russia wants to replace the government in Kyiv with a pro-Moscow ally. Vladimir Putin has said Russia has no plans to invade Ukraine, but more than 100,000 troops remain massed at various points on Ukraine’s borders. 

Ukrainian's drive in an armoured personnel carrier near front line position in the Luhansk area, in eastern Ukraine. Credit: AP

What is the the view in Ukraine? 

Ukrainians, said President Zelensky, have "learned to live" with threats from their giant and powerful neighbour. For eight years, a war which has killed thousands of people has been grinding on in the east of the country, separating families and destroying lives.  

"Part of the reason we don’t really understand what is going on here is because the situation is similar to what it was before," a Ukrainian Defence Ministry official recently told me in Kyiv. "There are always Russian troop movements to and from the Ukrainian border. In 2020 there were 80,000 troops. This time last year there were around 110,000 troops, then there were fewer, around 90,000 and now there are approximately 120,000."  

The increasingly public differences of opinion between the US, UK and Ukraine over the likelihood of a Russian invasion reflect concerns three Ukrainian officials privately share that the country may be being used as a geopolitical football in a game between the United States, the UK and Russia. 

 Is Ukraine a pawn in a bigger geopolitical game? 

"The US is very concerned about a possible invasion and strike operation," said a second Ukrainian military official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "They say it is very likely. We perhaps do not assess the threat to be so big. They may have more information and intelligence. We know we cannot underestimate Russia.

"At the same time, maybe there is a strategy here to make the enemy more threateningThe bigger the enemy, the more it unties their hands to do what they want and unite other countries in the face of Russian aggression." 

Ukraine's deputy defence minister says the military are closely watching Russian troops on the border

President Biden said last week that he would place 8,500 troops on alert and will move a small troop deployment to eastern Europe. The order is politically significant, reinforcing the United States’ support for Ukraine’s Nato neighbours, some of whom share a border with Russia.  

At the same time, the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, is considering doubling the number of British troops in eastern Europe to "send a clear message to the Kremlin". Privately though, one Ukrainian military official questioned if this would get the agreement of all Nato members and said British statements of strength could do "more harm than good" if not backed up by quick action. The official also wondered whether the prime minister’s upcoming visit to Ukraine is less about taking "leadership in Europe" and more about the fact that "he wants to distract from internal problems" as investigations take place into parties held at Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdown.  

A boy makes a snowball while local residents in the background take part in military defence training in Kyiv, Ukraine Credit: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

While Anglo-American support for Ukraine and eastern-European Nato allies appears solid, it contrasts with other countries which may have more to lose from sanctioning Russia. As the UK and US have sent more deployments of military hardware to Ukraine, Germany has said, for historic reasons, it cannot send lethal weapons into conflict zones and has instead offered Ukraine 5,000 military helmets - an offer dismissed as "a joke" by the mayor of Kyiv. Berlin has also grappled with Washington over sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which will bring Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing gas pipelines in Ukraine.  

"There are a lot of internal problems in Europe and there is no united opinion," the Ukrainian military official said. "Maybe they [the United States] want to use this opportunity to unite Europe in the face of the threat from Russia."

What are the possible scenarios for a Russian assault on Ukraine? 

The current Ukrainian military assessment is that Russia’s forces are not assembled in the correct format for an attack although they remain a "threatening presence". The ground in eastern Ukraine is also not frozen, meaning any invading tanks may get bogged down in mud. Defence Ministry officials anticipate the ground will freeze in the second half of February but warn if there is warm weather, Russia can still conduct an operation.

"They will expect that everyone is not expecting them and could go anyway," one military official said.  

Although the Ukrainians appear to be comparatively calm about the threat of an attack, one official said part of the problem with calculating the likelihood of an invasion from Russia is that there are "multiple scenarios and they are all on the table. That is how Russia works". 

Current and former Ukrainian officials have said they think the least likely scenario is that of a full-scale invasion of Kyiv.

One scenario is that Russia could try to consolidate its hold over the pro-Russian regions of eastern Ukraine by formally recognising them as independent states. Another could see Russian troops re-enter the south-east of Ukraine to take the strategic port of Mariupol which was fought over by pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government in 2014. From there, a Ukrainian military source suggested Russia could create a land corridor to Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014, and currently only accessible directly from Russia via a bridge, recently built over the water of the Kerch Strait.  

Local residents receive military defence training in Kyiv, Ukraine Credit: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Crimea: The war the West forgot

In yet another flashpoint in its relationship with Ukraine, Russia has accused the Ukrainians of "genocide" over plans to build a permanent dam over the canals which supply Crimea. Crimean residents already face water shortages and one scenario Kyiv is preparing for is that a Russian assault may have the objective of securing water for Crimea from the nearby Dnipro.  

Even if Russia does not carry out a large military attack, Ukrainian officials believe President Putin has already secured a big victory. 

"Russia has already won. The goalposts have moved and nobody is talking about Crimea anymore. The Russians have started another big threat and everyone has forgotten about what happened in 2014," the Ukrainian military official said.  

Frustration that the West’s eyes are now back on a war that Ukraine has been fighting for the last eight years appears to be common among people on the streets of Kyiv, in the Defence and Foreign ministries and in the presidential administration. Earlier this month, the Ukrainian deputy foreign minister, Emine Dzhaparova, told ITV News that Ukraine has been "ringing the bells for eight years" about Russia, warning that more aggressive policies need to be taken in respect of Moscow.

What is President Putin’s long term goal? 

Vladimir Putin once described the break-up of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century". Russia has recently deployed troops to several of its former Soviet neighbours including Kazakhstan, to help shut down protests, and to Belarus where the Russian military is currently preparing for joint exercises. 

Two Ukrainian military officials said they expect the vast majority of the Russian troops in Belarus to remain once the exercises are over. "There has been Anschluss with Belarus," one said, "they will withdraw around 10% of troops after the exercises and 90% will stay there".  

Russia is actively consolidating its influence over former Soviet neighbours but Ukraine is key to rebuilding Vladimir Putin’s vision of a new Soviet Union. In a 5,000 word essay published last summer entitled ‘on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’ Putin railed against Soviet leaders who allowed parts of the USSR to secede and warned that Ukraine is being used as a "springboard against Russia," by the West.   

Since the publication of the essay, Russia has demanded Nato stop its activities in former Soviet states, effectively redrawing its borders to those of 1997. President Putin said a written response received from the US and Nato last week to those demands had not addressed Russia’s key concerns which include stopping Nato expansion and not deploying offensive weapons near Russia’s borders.  

The reality is that Ukraine, with Crimea annexed and a grinding conflict in its east, is unlikely to join Nato any time soon. Ukrainian officials, however, are wary of "unofficial agreements" which could be made to halt the threat of war, stopping Ukraine from joining Nato in the decades to come. While less bullish than the US and UK about a full scale military invasion, they are also keen to ensure that the threats from Russia are not misjudged. 

Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces, volunteer military units of the armed forces, train in Kharkiv, Ukraine Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

"We should not underestimate Russia. We did that in 2014 and we paid a big price for that," one Defence Ministry official said.

"Ukraine is crucial to European security and if Putin achieves his aim the world will never be the same. If we lose this war, there will be another war. It is now or never."

Although opinions differ between Ukraine and the US and UK on the likelihood of an attack, the three nations are united in their desire to call out threats from Russia. Newly armed with Western military hardware, the Ukrainian Army is also highly motivated to defend the country. If Russia does decide to invade, one official said: "It will be a disaster for them. A lot of them will be going home in body bags."