KYIV – With more Russian forces continuing to arrive on Ukraine’s northern, southern and eastern borders, I visited Kyiv to assess the mood in the country and speak to officials, politicians and civil society figures about the threat.
I found a city preparing for the worst – many Kyivans are contemplating how to leave the city in the event of an attack, and even packing “go bags” with essential items such as money, batteries and documents in case they need to flee – but also strikingly sanguine about the situation. On the whole, everyday life continues as normal.
One explanation for the calm is that Ukraine has been at war since 2014. It has been a brooding, background presence for Kyivans for almost a decade now. Another explanation is that the Ukrainian government does not want to cause panic (the last thing the country needs is runs on banks and shops).
But the calm also reflects a different assessment of Russia’s options and probable next moves from the one prevalent in Washington DC and London. Put simply: though worried, and under no illusions about Vladimir Putin’s belligerence, Ukrainian assessments of the size and imminence of any attack tend to be more conservative than those of partners such as the US.
Maryan Zabblotskyy, a government MP, told me he put the chance of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine at no more than 10 per cent. Other well-connected figures also questioned how soon any action could come. There were expressions of irritation at what they deemed the alarmist tone of some international governments and media outlets. Recent moves by the American and British embassies to extract some staff, for example, were considered wildly excessive.[See also: Instead of panicking, Ukraine prepares for Putin]
The contrast in outlooks was further highlighted on Thursday (27 January) in a long phone call between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and his US counterpart Joe Biden. According to CNN, Biden said that an invasion was “now virtually certain” and “may be imminent”. Zelensky reportedly retorted that the threat was “dangerous but ambiguous”. A senior Ukrainian source claims that the two leaders were so far apart on the level of risk that the call “did not go well”, which the White House strenuously denies.
Whichever view you take, the gap in thinking is alarming. Either the US is over-hyping the danger of a massive invasion, risking panic, undermining Ukraine’s economy and thus playing into Putin’s hands, or Ukraine’s government is underestimating imminent danger.
To be clear, Ukrainian leaders are not ruling out the chance of a major Russian attack. Some moot concentrated action expanding Moscow’s de facto occupation of much of the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. Another idea is that Putin prefers cyberattacks and air strikes to significant additional boots on the ground – one of the reasons that anti-aircraft missiles are top of the list of Ukrainian requests from allies willing to deliver deterrent weaponry.
One specific historical precedent came up repeatedly in my conversations in Kyiv: that of the Russian war with Georgia in 2008. There are obvious differences in the circumstances, of course. Relations between Russia and the West are now much worse, Russia’s military has been significantly modernised and Ukraine today is much larger and stronger than Georgia now or then.
But there are also certain circumstantial similarities. Putin in 2008 wanted to halt and reverse Georgia’s apparent drift towards the West, consolidate Russia’s de facto footholds within the country (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), set a wider international precedent and do all this without incurring crippling reprisals from the West. His goals today, on Ukraine, appear be similar.
Over the summer of 2008, Russian troops were deployed to the Georgian border and in the breakaway regions. Georgia was hit by waves of disinformation, cyberattacks and provocations by Russian-backed separatists. Its then-president, the pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili, was goaded into making the first move with an attack on South Ossetian targets on 7 August. Russia responded by sending an overwhelming force of 70,000 troops, supported by air strikes and a naval blockade, deep into Georgia, stopping only about 30 miles short of the capital, Tbilisi.
A ceasefire was agreed after just five days, on terms widely deemed favourable to Russia. Talk of Georgia joining Nato cooled. Not long after, the incoming Obama administration attempted to “reset” relations. As Peter Dickinson of the Atlantic Council has written: “Many in Moscow interpreted this accommodating approach as an informal invitation for further acts of aggression in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.”
It is not hard to see why the template of the Georgian war might be an attractive one to Putin: a swift, targeted, devastating strike; preferably framed as a defensive response to provocation by the other side; short-lived enough to avoid the most severe international reactions but stark enough to send a message, consolidating a foothold and thus effectively a geopolitical veto in a country drifting westwards.
It is one of the reasons why Ukrainians fear that even a brief and focused Russian attack may threaten Kyiv itself, just as the 2008 one briefly threatened Tbilisi. (Some Russian strategists subsequently deemed it a mistake not to rush the capital itself and try to topple Saakashvili’s government – a debate that might conceivably bear on Putin’s thinking now.) It is also why the coming Beijing Winter Olympics is considered a factor in the possible timing or any attack; the Russia-Georgia War erupted on the day of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics, also in Beijing.
Times are, of course, different now. The West has learned that Putin does not take yes for an answer. But it should be alive to the motivating force that the Georgian example may be exercising in Moscow – and clear that any such incursion into Ukraine would beget a reaction orders of magnitude more severe than that in 2008.[See also: Can Europe tame pandemonium?]