Three scenarios for Russia in Ukraine

Russia has just crossed its Rubicon: its troops are now officially present in eastern Ukrainian territory, in addition to Crimea.

Vladimir Putin has indeed just recognized the independence of the two secessionist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, which adjoin Russian territory. He then sent Russian troops to “protect these territories against a Ukrainian military attack”. The fiction that Russia was not a party to the conflict in eastern Ukraine has therefore been shattered: it is explicitly belligerent.

Now, Russian power has three very different options before it:

  • a “Georgian” scenario, which would freeze its military positions and permanently mutilate the unity of Ukrainian territory;

  • a revisionist and maximalist scenario of invading Ukraine from the north, east and south;

  • an “Azovian” scenario, in which Russia would only invade the territory that adjoins the Sea of ​​Azov to establish territorial continuity with Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

Scenario 1: a “Georgian” freeze

In 2008, Russia and Georgia went to war, on the initiative of the Georgian government of the time, led by Mikheil Saakashvili. The conflict ended with the defeat of little Georgia and the secession of two territories: Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coast, and South Ossetia, on the mountainous border with the Russian Federation (the ‘North Ossetia being a “subject” (a federated territory) of the Russian Federation). This secession had been followed by recognition by Moscow of the independence of the two “states”. Only a few regimes friendly to Russia had followed her in recognition, notably Syria and Venezuela.

Today, the Russian Federation can still choose a “Georgian” scenario for the territories of Lugansk and Donetsk, therefore stopping at their recognition, without seeking to go further into Ukrainian territory. This would present, for her, several advantages: to increase her hold on the territory of Ukraine without having officially launched an invasion or even fought; count its allies by counting those who will follow it in the recognition of these States (Kazakhstan? Belarus? China?); and perhaps prevent the West from taking very heavy sanctions against its economy.

However, after that, in his speech of February 21, Vladimir Putin vilified Ukraine, presenting it as an artificial state and subject to the West, this position would be difficult to understand for a Russian public opinion persuaded by many media and by its president himself that the Ukrainian nation does not exist and that the authorities in kyiv are about to commit genocide against the Russian speakers in the east of the country.

Scenario 2: a maximalist campaign

To push his advantage, Vladimir Putin might be tempted to initiate a full invasion of Ukraine.

In his speech on February 21, he did not rule out this option. If the West is an existential threat to the Russian Federation and Ukraine is an artificially constituted colony of it to prepare for the weakening of Russia, then the consequence is inevitable: Moscow must reconstitute in Ukraine a “buffer state” belonging to its sphere of influence.

Until recently, several hypotheses were open: a neutralization of Ukraine, a “Finlandization” or even the installation of a pro-Russian government in kyiv. Today, the presence of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory polarizes Ukrainians: they define themselves to a large extent in opposition to Russia. Since rallying Ukraine to its sphere of influence seems impossible and since the West does not wish to give Russia the guarantees it demands, it remains to seize these guarantees itself, arms in hand. .

Read more: How Russia can attack Ukraine and how kyiv can resist

For Moscow, this conquest scenario would have several advantages. First of all, if the West refuses to intervene militarily in Ukraine, Russian military success is assured. The campaign would be launched from the north from Belarus, from the east from Russia, from the south from Crimea and from the west from Transnistria. Then, the capture of Ukraine would put Russia back in a position of strength in Eurasia, both in its face-to-face with the European Union and in the very competitive partnership with China. Finally, it would give the Putin regime, from the point of view of domestic public opinion, an undeniable nationalist impulse.

A military victory would strengthen Russia strategically while weakening it politically (it would find itself even more isolated than today on the international scene) and economically (the West would not fail to adopt particularly heavy sanctions).

Scenario 3: an “Azovian” vision

The third military option available to Moscow is the conquest of the provinces which separate, on the mainland, these self-proclaimed republics from the Crimea annexed in 2014.

Russia would push its advantage with a lightning campaign from Lugansk and Donetsk, to establish continental continuity between two parts of its territory. This scenario presents advantages of another order for Moscow: if the Russian presidency considers that the sanctions decided today by the West are maximum anyway, it might as well push its advantage and achieve a de facto partition of Ukraine ; moreover, this “limited” conquest could be justified by the protection of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, since the populations in this area (around Mariupol in particular) are turned towards Russia.

Russia stands at a crossroads with these three scenarios. The dosage of sanctions by the Europeans will be decisive: if they are perceived as maximum, the Kremlin will be tempted to pocket an additional gain through conquest. But if they are considered too weak, he will read this reaction as a sign of weakness…

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