Briefing: Why did Russia attack Ukraine really?

This article was first published on January 23rd 2022

For people who don’t already know this due to both personal and professional reasons, my network in Ukraine is extensive, and having spent the last week there have identified the following. Interesting reading I hope. Feel free to post questions if you have any, will do my best to answer.

When historians come to analyze the 2022 conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it may well be that this is the first instance of major conflict triggered by water shortages.
Indeed it is a little known fact that prior to the 2014 war, Crimea was connected to a canal network spanning Ukraine which would mean in times of drought, water for agricultural purposes would be guaranteed. Post invasion, the canals were sealed, resulting in Crimea being wholely dependent on rainfall, wells, and reservoirs.
Then in 2021, there was a drought in Crimea. This has forced Russia to reconsider its approach to Ukraine and can be argued to be the catalyst for what has subsequently transpired. So what does this mean?

War is inevitable.

For the Russians, Crimea has significant strategic importance, so it is too important to be allowed to fail. While the potential penalties from the west are not to be dismissed, given Crimea is now running out of water, failing to secure access to the canal network is now a bigger problem.
With that, once we understand war is inevitable and there will be penalties to absorb, it becomes quite obvious that for the Russians, along with the immediate issue regarding securing water for agriculture, there is also the wider point around the sea of Azov.
Consider that Russia is now leading the world in submarine technologies. Indeed submarines that could easily be armed with nuclear weapons have been recorded as surfacing in the Hudson bay, undetected up to that point. For the Russians, the black sea is where the fleet is being organized, equally the fact that Bulgaria is a NATO member means that any R&D done can be tracked.
However, with the sea of Azov, the Kerch straight acts to restrict any foreign vessel from accessing it where the Russians have been moving to do exactly that. Following the 2014 conflict, the Ukrainian fleet operating in Crimea was taken and as a result, the Russians have a hold on the region in terms of naval power. Equally to create a land bridge between the Crimea and the rest of Russia also acts to secure the area of Azov for military purposes with then no threat of observation from NATO powers.

What this means is that it is probable the objective will be to connect Crimea to Donetsk.

Also, factor that for the Russian army spring is the worst time for an offensive due to the impact on the terrain of melting ice. Russian tanks are optimal on the frozen ground meaning that any offensive is likely to be this winter.
However, Putin also understands that the Ukrainian army is being helped and supported by the west, where that support is only getting greater, eg through drones, so the biggest advantage Russia has if they invade is not technological prowess but manpower where delay has the potential to neutralize that advantage.
The Ukrainian army has heavily fortified the Eastern front, meaning to seek to go through it would result in heavy losses. While Putin is not someone who concerns himself with opinion polls, it is estimated that 70%+ of people oppose further conflict with Ukraine.
Crimea was broadly bloodless and also historically had been Russian anyway, so that conflict was treated quite differently by Russia. With all this in mind, the best way to minimize casualties is to split the Ukrainian army and force them to fight on battlegrounds where fortifications have not been set up in the same way.
With this in mind, Belarus is now about to commence a joint military training drill with Russia. It is anticipated that the training drill with Belarus will result in a concentration of troops and firepower in the north, that exceeds the build-up in the East as the Russian army is shifting their Eastern brigades to Belarus.
Factor the troop concentration will be on the southern border of the country, which is only 200k from Kyiv. Indeed the Ukrainian border with Belarus spans 1500 km and if Ukraine is forced to defend a northern front, touching distance from the capital, it would mean the only option would be to concede ground elsewhere.
For this reason, it is now being reported that personnel in the American embassy in Kyiv are being withdrawn.

So what are the projected timeframes?

The drills between Belarus and Russia are scheduled to run until the 20th of Feb, which coincides with the date of the end of the winter Olympics being hosted by China.
Also while it is winter Russia retains leverage regarding a European response due to the need on the continent for their gas.
Therefore it is forecast there is a narrow window to organize a settlement or there will be a war.
The pretext is likely to be a chemical spill in Eastern Ukraine where the Russian army mobilizes on humanitarian reasons, where any resistance triggers a full-scale invasion. Saboteurs are in place already and it is estimated Russia already has 30k in troops in Ukrainian territory, not including occupied areas.
For context, the entire Ukrainian army is approx 200k, where there is then a build-up in place of 100k+ in the east and another 100k+ in the North potentially.
It is also worth remembering Putin’s ambition to create a trade block incorporating the former members of the soviet union. The Eurasian Economic Union, first established in 2014 was what triggered the beginning of the conflict as Viktor Yanukov signed terms for Ukraine to join, against the will of the people, leading to what was a revolution.
For Putin, the formation of the EEU without Ukraine has been a blow to the prestige and importance of the project. The stretch goal would be therefore for the formation of a new Ukrainian government that is pro-Russia which turns away from the west and aligns east instead.
Therefore it is not to be discounted that the real war objective is to seize eastern Ukraine all the way up to and including Kyiv, which would result in the territory quite literally being split in two down the middle, with a pro-Russian govt in situ.
Equally, war can only result in permanent peace if the occupation results in the residents accepting the new status quo, otherwise, the cost of occupation over time exceeds the resource benefit. This is the calculation the Russians will be making now. They know that the pro-Russian factions in the east are sizeable, meaning once the border shifts, it is likely to be permanent. With that, it is a little known fact that under the soviet union families would be moved between regions to result in better integration.
Expect something similar if Eastern Ukraine falls. Equally western Ukraine is fiercely independent to the point where right now men and women are registering for military service and engaging in weapons training. They see the 20-year progression of Poland which looked west compared to Belarus which stayed with Russia and honestly there is no comparison. The Ukrainian diaspora in Poland alone now exceeds 1 million people. For the people who have not left, they will fight for the right to choose their destiny.

What kind of settlement could prevent a war?

  • 1. Crimea is recognized internationally as being Russian territory, including by Ukraine and it is reintegrated into the canal network.
  • 2. Similar to Finland in the 1950s, Ukraine signs a treaty stating they will not join nato.
  • 3 Ukraine joins the EEU which acts to bind the Ukrainian economy to Russia.

In truth those terms are not acceptable to the Ukraine which is why now the only real questions are:

  • 1 what will the new borders look like once war has stopped. Will Kyiv fall?
  • 2 what will the European and American response be?

One final observation.

Russia is now constructing a pipeline connecting the gas field that services Europe, to China. The end game is clear. Be able to disconnect Europe with no fiscal impact. With that in mind, the EU needs to utilize their gas leverage while they still can and apply maximum pressure on Russia. Possibly the only way Russia can be pushed away from invasion is if the EU unilaterally and unequivocally states that an invasion of Ukraine will result in no further gas purchases. The Chinese pipeline will take ten years to be operational and Putin can’t afford 0 gas exports for the duration. In contrast for the Europeans, while gas prices would go up if forced to import from the USA or Qatar, they do have that option. The question is can the EU unite to preserve peace on the continent? My money says no, unfortunately, but in the next month, all will be revealed.
About the author: James Chaplin
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