For the same reasons that China has hesitated to invade Taiwan, fearing a securitization of its neighborhood and a catalyst for the alliance of interests hostile to its expansion, Russia is similarly unlikely to invade Ukraine for fear of inadvertently triggering the expansion of NATO.

In recent days, officials in the UK and US have suggested that a Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine could be a pretext for a destabilization and a coup in Kiev, followed by the institution of a pro-Russian puppet regime, for which the intelligence services even named Moscow’s ideal candidate.

While still a strong claim, this seems far more likely than what was expected: a cheap imitation of the USSR’s set of invasions of Warsaw Pact states following their own short-lived democratizations in the last century, with tanks streaming across the border, for one simple reason, the USSR is no longer.

Russia may not be a totalitarian state, but it highly authoritarian governance structure relies on Putin’s patronage of elite groups whose power is becomingly increasingly threatened. Western sanctions regimes, a sputtering economy, and slowly extinguishing social structure as Russia fades from the map are all largely due to Putin’s self-serving missteps that have been meant to cement United Russia’s grasp on the organs of state power, while propping up the economic extractive apparatus, organized crime, and the orthodox church who are all complicit. An invasion would expand the sanctions regimes, economic restrictions, and would likely shelf Nordstream.

Further, while there are serious questions regarding the fairness of Russian elections, and Putin is sure to crush nearly any serious electoral competitor who arises, there are still elections with some semblance of civil society in existence, more than can be said of the Soviet Union. An invasion right now would not be popular. Also, largely due to years of Russian propaganda about a greater “Slavic nation,” Russians themselves also seem to have little appetite for a war against what they now conceive as their ethnic compatriots, perpetrated to simply subjugate them under the same disappointing rule of an aging autocrat.

Add in Russia’s other concerns regarding propping up other embattled autocrats in the CSTO, exemplified in the invasion of Kazakhstan to preserve the rule after the dictator there after an apparent coup, which was far more reminiscent of a classical Soviet move, and you have a jumpy Putin with threats on all sides.

Even a light destabilization on the border and a coup in Kiev could lead Sweden, Finland, or even Georgia to seek NATO membership, all of which are far more likely to happen than the fabricated pretense for the conflict, fears of Ukraine’s accession.

This all begs the question then, why the buildup?

The likeliest answer is a desperate attempt to distract its populus and preserve political stability.

Russia’s COVID cases, not unlike those in Europe, have hit all time highs in recent days. The low vaccination rates, well below 50% despite pushing a local vaccine as well as Western alternatives, signal very poor trust in the state and institutions. Putin expending Russian state resources to prop up Kazakhstan’s new dictator after a popular coup there appear as another example of Putin’s interests fundamentally misaligning with those of average Russians. The economic situation in Russia itself is dismal, and fertility rates are at historic lows. What better way to rile up nationalism dormant since the annexation of Crimea than with a little bit of no-cost saber rattling, extract geopolitical concessions from the West, and remind the world that Russia may be dying. but still has the world’s largest arsenal of aging nuclear weapons?

It is possible that Moscow had grand designs to destabilize Ukraine and covertly foment a coup and install a supportive puppet government, but it seems more likely that they are aware that any breach of Ukraine’s borders, for the second time in a decade, will trigger a response far costlier than that of their invasion of Crimea.

For all of their inane talk about being threatened by NATO encroaching on their borders, despite themselves positioning a stockpile of nuclear weapons in their enclave of Kaliningrad, a painful relic of their bloody post-WWII occupation of all of eastern Europe, having Sweden (and therefore Gotland) and Finland join NATO as a result of their actions poses just as large if not a greater supposed threat to the country that alternatively describes itself as both vulnerable, but also a superpower who demands respect.

The simplest answer is that they have taken a page out of Pyongyang’s book and learned that invading a country is far costlier than simply stockpiling a horde of nuclear-tipped ICBMs, and then oscillating between conciliatory and threatening postures to extort sanctions relief from the terrified West.

Staff writer: Ari B