The world is spellbound at Ukraine’s border with Russia. NATO insiders allegedly fear a major attack, including against NATO countries. How realistic is such a scenario?
The situation on the Ukrainian border remains tense. For weeks, Russia has been assembling troops in the border area. Ukraine fears an attack. The border region has become the site of a major conflict: while Russia wants to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and thus from moving closer to its own border, the western alliance states insist on letting the country decide for itself whether to join.
Negotiations for a peaceful solution have ended without result. Meanwhile, the “Spiegel” reports that Nato fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin could even seek an armed conflict with the West beyond Ukraine. According to insiders, Russia could use its increased presence in the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic and the Arctic to strike on several fronts – even against NATO countries. Gerhard Mangott is a political scientist and professor of international relations at the University of Innsbruck. He sorts the reports.
t-online: It was reported that NATO insiders fear attacks against other countries, including NATO member states, in addition to the attack on Ukraine. How realistic do you think such a scenario is?
Gerhard Mangott: I think a multi-front attack is a relatively absurd scenario. Russia will not attack the Baltic states because that would trigger the coalition fall in the North Atlantic alliance. That would mean that NATO is actually fighting Russian troops. Neither the western nor the Russian side want such a direct military encounter. No one can know whether such a dispute will not escalate to a nuclear level. There is also no evidence that Russia is concentrating forces on the border with the Baltic States. The same applies to an attack on Poland.
So a conflict with Ukraine is still more likely. What would a Russian attack look like in concrete terms?
The honest answer is: we don’t know. Only Putin knows that. I’m sure that not even the negotiators who conducted this week’s talks know exactly what Putin’s ultimate intention is. But I don’t expect a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. The troops on the ground are too small for that. It could be a limited military operation accompanied by a cyber operation against critical Ukrainian infrastructure. An expansion of the area controlled by the separatists in Donbass is an option. The maximum I can imagine would be the creation of a land bridge between Donbass and Crimea.
How did the quoted NATO insiders come to their assessment that an attack by Russia is imminent?
That’s hard to understand. Information is available about the deployed equipment and the mobilized soldiers. From this it is derived whether and, above all, which military operation would be possible with it. In order to gain this information, the US regularly conducts reconnaissance flights over Ukraine. Satellite data are also part of this reconnaissance.
However, what cannot be clearly determined are Russia’s political intentions. We can only note that Russia has threatened a military response if the negotiations fail. Russia has been using this martial rhetoric for the past two months, presumably to reinforce demands on the West. Whether Putin is actually serious now, if he fails with his demands – and he will – only he knows. Maybe the decision hasn’t even been made yet.
They say the threat level is assessed based on the troop presence on the ground. There were reports of more than 100,000 soldiers, but in the meantime there have also been withdrawals again. What are the current numbers?
Estimates range from 95,000 to 115,000. The Ukrainian government reported earlier this morning that there were 106,000. It’s in that range of variation.
And what would NATO have to do in the event of an attack?
NATO will do nothing militarily, even if Russia attacks Ukraine on a large scale. There is a cynical saying: NATO will defend Ukraine to the last Ukrainian soldier. No NATO state, and certainly not the alliance itself, will send troops to Ukraine to support the Ukrainian armed forces. This is the very volatile security situation in Ukraine.
In the event of an invasion, however, massive economic sanctions would probably be imposed, as announced. In addition, NATO would also increase its troop presence and military infrastructure in the Eastern European member states.
What’s your prognosis? Will there actually be a military conflict or is it just saber-rattling by Russia to get into a strong negotiating position?
If NATO does not meet Russia’s demands, what will the Russian side do? Is Putin satisfied with the attempt and back to business as usual? Then he loses face inwards and outwards. The alternative would be military escalation. As an observer, one can only say: the probability of a military escalation is high. I would therefore place it at around 75 percent.