Author: Nikola Lunić Executive Director of Council for Strategic Policy
Nothing can disturb the comfort of life as the thought of the impending war and its consequences. And that is why we avoid confrontation, even though the war is on our doorstep, and one such that could have unforeseeable consequences for Europe, but also for Serbia.
DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS: Recent events regarding the Ukrainian crisis impose a justified fear of whether the brutality of military force and the foreign policy aggression of Russian diplomacy will affect our new European security architecture. Past talks between Russian representatives and the US administration in Geneva, NATO in Brussels and the OSCE in Vienna, were aimed at the de-escalation and reduction of tensions, but the opposite things happened. Neither the West agreed to Moscow’s ultimatum nor did Russia soften the rhetoric of its high-ranking officials. Although the West has expressed readiness to continue talks on arms control, ballistic missile deployment and confidence-building measures, Russia has insisted on two draft security agreements focusing on NATO’s non-expansion into the East and the withdrawal from the territory of new members.
In addition to the mentioned meetings, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense of the EU also met in Brest, emphasizing that it was unacceptable for the EU that Russia questioned the right of every state to decide on treaties and alliances, territorial integrity of all states as well as principles of refraining from the use of force. Besides the reconstruction of geopolitical influence in Europe, EU representatives were convinced that Moscow’s strategic goal was to minimize the EU’s role with the termination of the strategic partnership with the United States. With a return to the general principles of the security architecture, the EU will remain committed to establishing more effective crisis management mechanism, and to that end, will intensify work on combating disinformation and cyber threats from Russia, strengthen the energy security resilience and support for Ukraine as well as its sovereignty. As an irrelevant military factor, it is important that the EU showed unity in Brest in defending its own security interests and the interests of Europe as a whole.
In order to reach a peaceful solution, Ukrainian President Zelensky also called on Biden and Putin for trilateral talks on the security situation, but they are not likely at this time because each side expects a response to its proposals. The statement of the Russian official after the Brussels talks explicitly announced a threat of using force if Moscow did not get what it wanted. It is interesting that after the statement of the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov about his suspicion of talks continuation, the Russian ruble fell by more than 2% against the dollar, and government bonds were selling more intensively. This only confirms that big capital always reacts quickly to instability.
CRISIS ESCALATION: It is obvious that not all cards are shown in this poker drama, but the Kremlin is definitely raising the stakes. Immediately after the negotiations, a massive cyber-attack on Ukrainian government institutions followed, without any doubt who was hiding behind it. Obviously, the whole spectrum of hybrid, psychological and subversive offensive activities against Ukraine is underway. Journalist Yuri Butusov gave details about the explosion of the Ukrainian strategic ammunition depot in Ichnia on October 9, which is only the third of six depots destroyed in the last 19 months. In that way, 95% of stored ammunition or 69 thousand tons were lost, and it is indicative that stockpiles where ammunition for export to Ukraine exploded under suspicious circumstances in the region (Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Serbia).
It is also indicative that the concentration of forces on the border with Ukraine, which is constantly increasing and has exceeded the number of 100,000 soldiers mostly deployed from other garrisons in Russia. At the same time, railway transports of units with equipment to the west, even from the Far East of Russia, are in progress. We should not ignore the fact that the CSTO peacekeeping operation in Kazakhstan, in which Russian forces showed an enviable ability of fast and massive air transport, was abruptly stopped, and it is logical that the most capable troops with war experience will also be engaged in intervention. Moscow did not want to confirm or deny the media speculation about sending Russian troops to Cuba and Venezuela. The latest intelligence information says that Russian specialists in this situation could easily, under false flag and in Ukrainian uniforms, “provoke” the Russian side to start a large-scale military operation with devastating consequences.
A full concentration of forces of up to 200,000 soldiers with appropriate combat systems is expected to begin the attack. It is estimated that the attack could start during February, when the ground is frozen and perfect for the passage of armored mechanized units. It is unlikely that Moscow would decide to occupy larger cities, because that would require significant counterinsurgency forces, with inevitable great sacrifices. The main goal of the intervention will be to inflict strategic losses on the Armed Forces of Ukraine in manpower, equipment and infrastructure. The most probable scenario is the provision of a land corridor to Crimea, which would solve their strategic problem of water supply. However, the influence of political hawks in the Kremlin could easily use the initial strategic supremacy in a maximalist way and capitalize it through the conquered territory. Thus, Moscow could potentially define the Dnieper River as a new border with NATO, and perhaps even revive the New Russia project, which would unable Ukraine the access to the sea.
MOTIVE: Electoral autocracies, as a rule, easily attract the majority of the electorate, promising efficiency, stability and the rule of law, but with continuous arming and generating crises and virtual enemies. Only in this way they can justify their autocracy and impose themselves as irreplaceable. Despite that, Putin is less and less popular and the question is whether that trend will change with the launch of a new pseudo-external threat. With the unchanged level of internal repression and censorship as well as the failure to improve Russia’s living standards, it is uncertain whether the upcoming military intervention will suppress growing discontent and preserve Putin’s regime. According to Putin, the collapse of the Soviet empire has always been the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, and that is why he would like to restore the glory of “historical” Russia with the autocracy of the Soviet model. The army, whose budget the country simply cannot afford, also serves this purpose.
A survey made by the independent Levada Center shows that up to 20% of Russians support unification with Ukraine, but 62% fear a global conflict. When it comes to the popularity of the president, only 32% of Russians would now vote for Putin, which is a 50% drop compared to 2018. After the conquest of Crimea, Putin managed to reverse the declining trend of his rating and probably still hopes for a cohesive approach of the Russian public.
Russia’s internal political context raises the legitimate question of whether NATO enlargement is the Kremlin’s primary problem. Moscow knows that neither Ukraine nor Georgia will join NATO, nor will the mechanisms for their membership be opened in the foreseeable future, primarily due to the unchanged attitudes of France and Germany. But it is also aware that the danger of Ukraine’s approach to the EU is even greater, and thus the loss of the sphere of geopolitical influence, but also the close influence of democratic processes on Russian voters.
CONSEQUENCES: A long-term conflict in Ukraine would definitely be too expensive for Russia, starting from comprehensive sanctions to the unsustainable costs of the war. The US and EU sanctions would take effect practically immediately after the eventual invasion of Ukraine, and would include technological measures, financial isolation, a ban on the export of consumer goods and targeted sanctions against top Russian officials, including President Putin. At the same time, security aid to Kiev worth at least $ 500 million would be approved, and Europe is already working on an alternative provision of energy resources. With such an approach, Russia would be one step closer to the collapse of the entire economy with an unacceptable number of human victims and an uncertain outcome of desire to redraw European borders. However, given the level of reserves, Putin could assess that the consequences of sanctions could pose an acceptable risk to geopolitical, strategic, and possibly personal political profits.
With this brutal diplomatic approach, Moscow raises Europe’s perception of the need for collective security, and NATO’s popularity is growing even in military-neutral countries such as Sweden and Finland.
There should be no doubt about the superiority of the Russian army over Ukrainian potentials and the ability to conquer large parts of Ukraine, but managing the occupied territories and securing supply lines would be a big, almost unsolvable problem. In order to ensure the ability of asymmetric warfare, Ukraine will be supplied with all mobile weapons and communication systems that could inflict large, unacceptable losses for the Russian public. At the same time, they will probably work on a continuous information campaign that will inform the Russian people about the mass corruption of the establishment, about their capital in the West and members of the closest family who enjoy the privileges of Euro-Atlantic countries. Because the victims from Ukraine will certainly not be from Putin’s privileged environment.
Despite the fact that Moscow denies plans to invade Ukraine, war is likely. This is supported by the changed diplomatic rhetoric of the Kremlin, which constantly disavows Ukrainian sovereignty, and which is, according to them possible “only in partnership with Russia”. Any concession by the West to Moscow before an ultimatum based on military force would set a precedent that would encourage a series of demands in frozen conflicts. Although Kiev is definitely perceived as a partner, the West is not able to offer it too much at the moment. Financial assistance would not have a quick effect, the upcoming reforms for EU integration will be long and difficult, and the security guarantees of NATO membership are currently an unacceptable risk for some members of the alliance.
SLEEPING SERBIA: It is interesting what Serbia is doing and how it is preparing in a situation of close, potentially the biggest conflict in Europe after the Second World War. The dilemma of whether Serbia can continue to balance between the transatlantic bloc and geopolitically strengthened Russia is justified. Also, the fear of the citizens who lead our security and energy sector in anticipation of the crisis and its consequences is understandable.
The relationship between Russia and Serbia has always been a relationship of a great imperial power in accordance with its own interests in order to project its influence globally. Such capital could often be traded on the geopolitical market of powerful powers, but as a rule exclusively to the detriment of “small” nations. Working on sabotaging Serbian history and fetishizing the past, Russian propaganda is dedicated to molding us into the role of a bargaining counter on a global level. And we should not blame Moscow for that because it only pursues state policy, but we must ask ourselves whether we want to sacrifice the future to incomprehensible delusions, foreign policy blindness and civic indifference.
Serbia has enabled the compromise of strategic documents in the field of defense through the party approach of the line minister, who decided on behalf of the entire nation that one of the vital national interests is “to preserve the existence and protect the Serbian people wherever they live”. By such approach and the lack of a defined foreign policy orientation of the country we promote mistrust and unreliability in international and regional relations. The proclaimed military neutrality of Serbia, which we are increasingly promoting as foreign policy neutrality, can only be sustainable if we impose trust in international relations as a system of values, primarily in the regional security context.
It should not be emphasized that the harmonization of foreign policy positions with Brussels, i.e., with the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU, would clearly show the value criteria we strive for and the commitment to the integration we hope for. In the security context, we essentially need a reliable alliance with powerful and influential countries or integration into a collective security system that guarantees us a peaceful future. If someone thinks that despite the war, comprehensive sanctions and hybrid and subversive actions, we could maintain a balanced policy between the EU and Russia, then he is making a mistake which can cost the entire nation dearly.
In such crisis situations, it should be noted that there is only one worse thing than war with the allies, and that is war without them (Churchill). If we bury our heads in the sand, take an interest in TV reality shows and declaratively “expand and deepen cooperation with the CSTO”, we have neither earned a sustainable future nor the respect of young generation.
Source: Novi Magazin