Oh, the grand old Duke of York

He had ten thousand men

He marched them up to the top of the hill

And he marched them down again

There’s a fair amount of bemusement about the news that Russia is scaling down its troop build up around Ukraine. As ever, this provides an opportunity for everyone to spin their favoured line. For some, it’s that Putin “won” by getting Biden to offer a summit. For others, that Putin was deterred by US sanctions. The former has some merit, the latter much less so. I think it’s a little more complex.

Defence Minister Shoigu himself announced the spin-down: “I believe that the goals of the snap inspection have been fully achieved.” Given that “the troops demonstrated the ability to reliably defend the country” then “I have decided to complete the Southern and Western military district reviews.”

Of course, the exercises and snap inspections to which he is referring where actually retroactive justifications for the concentration of forces, so we ought not to give this too much credit.

However, there was never a great likelihood of a major offensive by the Russians. (Lest this sound like I am being wise after the event, here’s something I wrote for BNE Intellinews at the start of the month.)

First of all, there were questions about the adequacy of the logistics present – there was a lot of front-line hardware, very ostentatiously assembled, but armies march on their stomachs, fuel bowsers, ammunition depots and field kitchens, too. Secondly, with the Ukrainian military now numbering some 250,000 men and woman, and having gone through quite an effective reform process, while no one could doubt the Russians’ capacity to make local or even major advances, there would be serious casualties. With a distinct lack of enthusiasm at home, and elections looking, why would Putin risk the backlash from a bloody and unpopular conflict? Those who talked about Putin trying to provoke a crisis to generate a rally-round-the-flag effect thoroughly misunderstand Russia’s mood, I think.

But most fundamental of all, what would the political aim of any major escalation be? Wars are fought for a reason. The perennial talk of driving a land bridge to Crimea, or seizing the North Crimea Canal, or degrading the Ukrainian military, none of them were credible, especially when offset against the inevitable and massive costs of sanctions, let alone military reversals. Even Berlin, that has so resolutely fought to keep the 95%-complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline unconnected from the political scene, would have been hard-pressed to maintain this stance if Russian tanks were driving into Ukraine, and Russian aircraft in Ukrainian skies.

So what was this about? I felt this was about a concatenation of three factors

  1. Late April is when the campaign season always starts, as thaw muds dry, and each year we get then “OMG, Russia’s going to invade” chorus, especially from certain quarters in DC. Sure, this concentration of forces was unusual, but some escalation is normal.
  2. Zelensky’s new shift towards attacking “pro-Moscow” forces at home, not least to shore up his flank from the nationalists, was perceived as a hostile move in the Kremlin, and one that demanded punishment
  3. The Kremlin is unhappy with the Donbas status quo, and has been for a while, and the operation was an attempt to push Kyiv towards renewed negotiations on Moscow’s terms. We probably would have seen this kind of move last year, had COVID not disrupted everything.

As is, there has been no such renewal of negotiations – to be blunt, that was never on the cards, but Moscow is both optimistic and often misreads Kyiv. However, the Russians tend to be flexible in their iterative assessments of costs and benefits. By now

  1. Kyiv is clearly not going to shift
  2. Biden has offered Putin a summit, which speaks to a primal need to be treated as the US’s equal or at least a necessary interlocutor. The Kremlin probably feels it forced this on him, just as the 2015 Syrian intervention pushed Obama into meeting Putin at the UN.
  3. Russia has made the point that it can quickly assemble massive forces in-theatre, and at a time when Ukraine’s requests to join NATO are likely to be met with the most polite of rain checks, it emphasises to Kyiv that what didn’t happen this time, could easily happen next time
  4. The hawks are left off-balance, and next time they start predicting Russian aggression, whether in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia or wherever, Moscow can point to the 2021 Ukraine Offensive That Never Happened, whether to defang them, or to keep people guessing in case there is a real attack planned that time

As is, Moscow likely feels it got enough out of the operation compared with the costs of either extending the build up or moving onto the offensive, that it can be satisfied with the result. And the 58th Army of the Southern Military District, the 41st Army of the Central Military District, and the 7th and 76th Airborne Assault and 98th Airborne Divisions all got a good workout.