War in Donbas

Why There Won’t Be a People’s Republic of Left-Bank Ukraine Just Yet

November 23, 2021
Simon Saradzhyan

Evidence of recently resumed movements of Russian troops in the vicinity of Russia’s border with Ukraine (as well as farther afield) have reignited the debate about Kremlin intentions to order another military intervention on its neighbor’s territory, with some Western Russia watchers warning that a Russian invasion could be “imminent.”

Renowned Western analysts who believe an invasion is increasingly probable include Andrew Weiss and Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace whose nuanced commentary has made waves in the Transatlantic community of Russia watchers: “A careful review of the Russian leader’s record with respect to Ukraine suggests that almost all of the requisite components and justifications for military intervention are either in—or moving into—place,” they wrote earlier this month. Putin “is thinking about his legacy” and the “one major piece of unfinished business that is still missing from Putin’s roster of accomplishments ... is the restoration of Russia’s dominion over key parts of its historic empire,” none “more important—or more pivotal—than … Ukraine.” The two Carnegie Endowement experts argue that Putin has a “tendency to act emotionally and to lash out precipitously in ways that don’t always make ‘sense’ to outside observers” relying on cost-benefit analysis to try to divine the Russian leader’s actions. Putin’s “patience with Kyiv is running out,” they warn. Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council concurs. In her Foreign Affairs piece, Haring lists Putin’s desire to ensure a great legacy and his loss of patience with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy among the factors suggesting “that Putin will strike Ukraine again, and soon” (underscore mine).

While I agree with the proposition that Putin cares about the impact of major foreign policy decisions on his legacy,1 I disagree with the idea that Putin would let emotions prevail in a decision about sending troops to Ukraine. In fact, my research on Putin’s past choices about possible military interventions indicates that his decisions to send troops to foreign countries have been rational rather than emotional, shaped by a confluence of three conditions. First, Putin had to be directly motivated by a clear, acute threat to one or more of Russia’s vital national interests as he and his team see them (or a clear opportunity to advance some of these interests). Second, he had to have a reasonable hope that military intervention would succeed in warding off this threat. Third, he had either to have run out of non-military (i.e., less costly) options of responding to the threat or to lack the time needed to exercise such options due to the threat’s urgency.  

In the case of Ukraine, Condition 1—the perception of an acute threat—already exists, in my view, while Condition 2 seems to be materializing and only Condition 3 is absent for now. Putin has recently signaled that Western efforts to anchor Ukraine and strengthen it militarily constitute a major threat to Russia’s vital interests (see Item 2 in Table 1), which he won’t tolerate much longer even in the absence of a NATO Membership Action Plan, or MAP, for Kyiv; his goal, in my view, is a neutral Ukraine. Condition 2—the feasibility of military success—is apparently being created as I write this, with reported reinforcements of Russia’s military presence in the vicinity of Ukraine. However, while the pre-positioned and newly positioned Russian military units would probably be sufficient for limited territorial gains in eastern and southern Ukraine, they may not be enough if the aim is to march all the way to Kyiv and, perhaps, further west. For Russian units to succeed in such a strategic offensive, advancing beyond initial gains once the element of any surprise vanishes, the Russian Army’s quantitative superiority over the Ukrainian Army would have to be 3:1 at a minimum, per a popular rule of thumb, and it is not (see Table 2)—even if Russia’s entire ground force were employed in the offensive, along with the Donbas separatists’ forces, estimated at 50,000. When calculating the correlation of forces, one should also factor in that parts of the Ukrainian armed forces have been trained by NATO instructors extensively in the past several years and  acquired some advanced systems, such as U.S. Javelin anti-tank missiles and counter-battery radar, that would definitely make life, or, rather, combat, more difficult for the attacking ground force. Finally, Condition 3 is absent as Putin appears to believe he has not exhausted opportunities for less costly, non-military options for defending Russia’s vital interests vis-à-vis Ukraine. Otherwise, the Kremlin would not be in discussions with the White House on holding two meetings between Putin and Joe Biden (one virtual this year, one in-person early next year) during which the Ukraine crisis will be high on the agenda. It will be the results of Putin’s upcoming negotiations with Biden—whom the Kremlin views as Ukraine’s “overlord,” making all major decisions for his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy—that play a key role in determining whether the Russian leader feels that his non-military options have been exhausted.

Table 1: Russia’s vital national interests as seen by the Russian leadership (in order of importance)2

  1. Prevent, deter and reduce threats of: secession from Russia; insurgency within Russia or in areas adjacent to Russia; and armed conflicts waged against Russia, its allies or in the vicinity of Russian frontiers;
  1. Prevent emergence of hostile powers or regional hegemonies or failed states on Russian borders, ensure Russia is surrounded by friendly states, among which Russia can play a lead role and in cooperation with which it can thrive;3
  1. Establish and maintain productive relations, upon which Russian national interests hinge to a significant extent, with core European Union members, the United States and China; 
  1. Ensure the viability and stability of major markets for major flows of Russian exports and imports; 
  1. Ensure steady development and diversification of the Russian economy and its integration into global markets;
  1. Prevent neighboring nations from acquiring nuclear arms and long-range delivery systems on Russian borders; secure nuclear weapons and materials;
  1. Prevent large-scale and/or sustained terrorist attacks on Russia;
  1. Ensure Russian allies’ survival and their active cooperation with Russia.

 

Table 2: Correlation of Russia’s and Ukraine’s military potential4

 

Russia

Ukraine

Ukraine’s as % of Russia’s

Ratio (rounded to whole numbers)

Military budget in national currency

3,087 bn rubles

117.8 bn hryvnia

n/a

n/a

Military budget in USD

$40.7 bn

$4.3 bn

11%

9 : 1

Active military personnel, including:

900,000

209,000

23%

9 : 2

Army

280,000

145,000

52%

56 : 29

Navy

150,000

11,000

7%

150 : 11

Aerospace Forces/Air Force

165,000

45,000

27%

11 : 3

Airborne

45,000

8,000

18%

45 : 8

Reserve personnel

2,000,000

900,000

45%

 20 : 9

Emotions Have Not Been the Prime Driver of Putin’s Decisions on Use of Force So Far

As Putin’s statements on Ukraine consistently reveal, he can be, as Weiss and Rumer argue, quite emotional about relations between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, whom he sees as one people. However, in spite of these emotions, he did decide against an “all-out Russian military invasion” of Ukraine when this prospect was debated by his Security Council in April 2014, according to the book “Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine.” Apparently, the Russian leader did so as Western leaders warned of imposing painful costs on Russia. Putin also displayed high emotion during an earlier inflection point, when he (and his then interim caretaker in the Kremlin, Dmitry Medvedev) were deciding whether to have Russian forces advance to Tbilisi during the August 2008 war with Georgia. Putin reportedly promised France’s then President Nikolas Sarkozy to capture Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili and hang him “by the balls.” Yet he chose to stop the Russian troops’ advance about 60 kilometers from the Georgian capital where Saakashvili’s official residence was located.  

Restoration of Dominion Over Ukraine Would Be Too Costly for Russia

In their article, Weiss and Rumer also cite “some analysts” as predicting that “the Kremlin could stage a rapid military onslaught to break the back of the Ukrainian military and force it to retreat behind the Dnieper River. This would position the Kremlin to control what is commonly referred to as ‘left-bank Ukraine,’ including the historic part of Kyiv, which in Putin’s estimation makes up an inalienable part of the great Russian state.” In my view, however, such an ambitious operation is unlikely, at least in the short term, because it will incur very significant human, financial and other costs for Russia, the combination of which would easily outweigh the benefits generated by occupation, such as advancing Moscow’s vital interest in preventing NATO expansion to Ukraine.

Figure 1: Regions of Ukraine

Map of Ukraine's regions
Map shared by Peter Fitzgerald under a CC 4.0 license. 

First and foremost, given how small the Donbas separatists’ armed forces are, they would not be sufficient to establish control over “left-bank Ukraine” (or, to recall another Ukraine-related toponym popular with Putin since 2014, “Novorossiya”), even if reinforced by private Russian military companies like the Wagner Group. Instead, such a large-scale military operation would require many tens of thousands of troops from the Russian armed forces. It will be difficult for the Kremlin to conceal the resulting casualties among the advancing units, and that could seriously damage Putin’s popularity.

Second, Russian troops could expect an enduring insurgency in the Ukrainian regions north of Crimea and west of Donbas where anti-Russian sentiment has been running strong. This insurgency would not only result in additional casualties but would also make administering the occupied regions difficult.

Third, if the “restoration of Russia’s dominion” over Ukraine entails not only occupying lands on the left bank of the Dnieper (plus the western half of the Ukrainian capital) but incorporating them into the Russian Federation, as was the case with Crimea, then Moscow would incur significant financial costs. Among these, it would have to ensure minimally acceptable living standards in these regions, on par with those in Russia, which would include paying similar pensions and wages to public servants. If we were to infer the costs of such integration from the example of Crimea, a region of about 2 million people, they would fall between about $22.5 billion and $64.5 billion. At the high end, according to estimates by renowned Russian economist Sergey Aleksashenko, Moscow in 2020 spent about 375 billion rubles ($5.1 billion at the current exchange rate5) on various projects in Crimea; these integration costs average about $2.6 billion per every million residents annually. The population of the 12 regions partly or fully located on the left bank of the Dnieper—excluding Crimea (already incorporated into Russia), but including the Donetsk and Luhansk regions—adds up to some 27 million people (Table 3). If per capita expenditures on these regions are comparable to those on Crimea, as estimated by Aleksashenko, Moscow would have to spend $70.2 billion a year incorporating left-bank Ukraine into Russia—significantly more than Russia’s 2020 defense budget. If we were to rely on a narrower estimate of federal subsidies to Crimea in 2020—134 billion rubles or $1.8 billion—as published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, then subsidizing left-bank Ukraine (minus Crimea) would cost Russia’s federal budget about $24.3 billion a year.

Even if no formal incorporation occurs, Moscow’s spending on existing Russian-backed separatist regions in Ukraine suggests that occupation would cost billions of dollars. One Ukrainian official estimated this year that Moscow annually spends up to $5 billion total on the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. Since these breakaway regions have a combined population of 3.73 million, maintaining a separatist People’s Republic of Left-Bank Ukraine could be expected to cost Russia about $36.2 billion per year.  

Table 3: Gross regional product and population of regions of Ukraine with some or all of their land located on the eastern bank of the Dnieper with the exception of Crimea

 

 

GRP, billion USD, as of 2019

Population, millions as of 2001 census

1

Chernihiv

3.03

 

1.25

2

Cherkasy

4.01

 

1.40

3

Dnieper

15.15

 

3.57

4

Donetsk

7.95

 

4.84

6

Kharkiv

9.61

 

2.91

7

Kherson

2.40

 

1.18

8

Kyiv and Kyiv region

45.32

4.44

9

Luhansk

1.56

2.55

10

Poltava

7.27

1.63

11

Sumy

2.94

 

1.30

12

Zaporizhia

6.02

 

1.93

 

Total

105.3

27

Fourth, Russia’s taking of left-bank Ukraine would lead to a re-freezing of Russia’s relations with the West. The consequences of such a development would include additional and, probably, qualitatively tougher sanctions on Russia (such as exclusion from SWIFT and a ban on trading of all Russian debt outside Russia). These could cost the Russian economy tens of billions of dollars annually, while further constraining Russia’s access to the advanced technologies it badly needs to diversify its economy and avoid falling further behind more technologically advanced countries. In this scenario, Russia would also find it more difficult to avoid greater dependence on China, and even a full alliance with China, which some of its leading foreign policy influentials have warned against.

Fifth and sixth, whatever parts of Ukraine are left unoccupied (e.g., “right-bank” Ukraine, west of the Dnieper), its government may choose to redouble rather than abandon efforts at integration into Western clubs. And the Kremlin will not be able to use the newly annexed regions of Ukraine as leverage vis-à-vis that government, just like it can no longer use Crimea as leverage because it has already been incorporated into Russia.   

Seventh, while recent polls show that many residents of eastern and southern Ukraine continue to have favorable views of Russia,6 and these sentiments help explain the continued pro-Russian presence in Ukraine’s parliament and politics (e.g., the Opposition Bloc and Viktor Medvedchuk), an occupation of Ukrainian lands east of the Dnieper would erode such constituencies. Moreover, such an occupation could make it difficult for voters who remain pro-Russian to cast ballots for candidates in whatever part of Ukraine remains outside Moscow’s control, solidifying the influence of pro-Western entities on that part’s geopolitical orientation. (It is a widespread but false claim that NATO regulations preclude the acceptance of members involved in territorial disputes.)

Eighth and last, the incorporation of Ukrainian lands east of the Dnieper would ultimately leave Russia without a buffer zone between itself and NATO, which Moscow views as a hostile alliance, along that part of its western border.7

Does the Largest Country Really Need More Land? And Does It Matter Whether Putin Has Lost Patience With Zelenskiy?

When it comes to Haring’s propositions on what can drive Putin to order an invasion of Ukraine, I agree with her claim that “greatness in Russian history is measured by territorial conquests,” but with one important caveat about verb tense. The proposition held true for much of Russia’s past, but not so much now, in the cyber age, which makes it difficult to conceal significant casualties and other major costs from the population. When it comes to incorporating lands that the Kremlin views as historically Russian into the Russian Federation, Putin can count on significant numbers of his compatriots to view him as Vladimir the Great only if the move comes at little or no human cost. This includes not substantially increasing financial and other burdens on the population, as was the case, initially at least, with Crimea. The conquest of further parts of Ukraine east of the Dnieper would be viewed by many in Russia as a return of historical Russian lands, but, as explained above, it would come at a much greater net cost than Crimea, making many view the Russian leader as Vladimir the Not So Great, perhaps. As Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin observed sometime before the Crimea operation, the last thing the largest country in the world needs is more land. I say that observation continues to hold true, in spite of Crimea, unless that additional land comes at an acceptable cost (or, ideally, becomes a net “profit”).

Finally, while I agree with Haring, Rumer and Weiss’s proposition that Putin has already lost patience with Zelenskiy, I don’t think that makes Russian intervention in Ukraine imminent, as Haring and some other Russia watchers claim. For one, anyone who cares to keep tabs on opinion polls in Ukraine (and I am confident that the people advising Putin on Ukraine do) will find that, despite the enduring east-west divide in Ukrainian public opinion, the share of Ukrainians who prefer a foreign policy oriented toward the West rather than Russia is growing. That alone suggests that, as long as elections in Ukraine remain relatively free and fair, the next elected leader of Ukraine will be no Viktor Yanukovych. More important, if Ukraine’s ruling elite are “absolutely not independent … vassals” who obey the orders of their “overlords” in the U.S., as Medvedev claimed in his recent essay on Ukraine, and it is these “overlords” with whom Russia must resolve Ukraine-related issues, then does it really matter who occupies the presidential residence in Kyiv? It follows from Medvedev’s op-ed that in the Russian leadership’s collective view of non-military options for solving the Ukraine conflict, only a deal with the “overlord” can lead to the satisfaction of Russia’s minimum security requirement vis-à-vis that conflict: guarantees of a Ukraine that is neutral both de facto and de jure. (I have described earlier how that requirement can be reconciled with those of Ukraine and the West to peacefully resolve the conflict.)

Putin’s Pending Meetings With Biden Suggest That No Russian Intervention Should Be Expected Until Next Year

Considering Moscow’s perception of Washington’s influence in Kyiv, it probably won’t be until Putin loses patience with Joe Biden on Ukraine that he will decide whether to send troops into Ukraine and, if so, how far. The Kremlin and the White House are discussing plans for Biden and Putin to meet via video-link this year and then in-person next year. When it comes to Ukraine, I expect Putin to try to attain two objectives during these meetings in pursuit of Ukrainian neutrality. First, he would like Biden to convince his “vassals” in Kyiv to start implementing Minsk-2. Second, he will try to convince the U.S. leader and his allies in Europe to refrain from further increases in programs to equip and train Ukrainian armed forces, which, as Putin has recently begun to assert, amounts to crossing a Russian red line even in the absence of a NATO MAP for Ukraine, as it makes Ukraine “less neutral.” The Kremlin’s high hopes for Putin’s ability to convince Biden to accommodate Russia’s arguments on Ukraine are reflected in Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s Nov. 21 comments, describing the importance of the planned summit as "huge." Moscow must explain to the U.S. “in detail what is happening," Ryabkov was quoted by RFE/RL as saying.

Should, however, Putin’s meetings with Biden either get cancelled or fail to produce progress toward attaining these two objectives, then Putin may indeed conclude that he has exhausted the non-military options vis-à-vis Ukraine and that use of force is necessary to defend Russia’s interest in a neutral Ukraine. Given the timing of Putin’s planned meetings with Biden, it is likely that Putin will not finalize his decision on sending troops into Ukraine until next year (unless, of course, Zelenskiy makes a first major military move on the ground—or in the air, for instance, by employing all the attack drones his armed forces have to strike targets in separatist-held Donbas).

If Putin does make a choice in favor of sending troops across the Russian-Ukrainian border, their mission will likely be far less ambitious than the “restoration of Russia’s dominion” over left-bank Ukraine, given the aforementioned net costs of doing so. It is much more likely that he would seek to use Russian troops to expand control over some of the other eastern and southern parts of Ukraine on behalf of the separatists on a scale that would keep costs limited but would still sufficiently increase Russia’s leverage vis-à-vis Ukraine and its Western backers to send a strong signal that these actors need to accommodate Russia’s desire for guarantees of a neutral Ukraine. When and if Putin makes the decision to order such a limited military operation, he may indeed be thinking about his legacy and feeling emotional, as Weiss, Rumer and Haring posit, but, as my research indicates, the primary driver of his decision would be his conclusion that he has exhausted less costly, non-military options of defending Russia’s vital interests combined with his hope that use of force would succeed in providing such a defense.

Footnotes

  1. Putin probably does not think about the impact of major foreign policy decisions on his legacy as much as some might imagine, given that he is still in his 60s and has secured the right to get reelected for another term in 2024 and thus to stay in power until 2030.
  2. The author has synthesized descriptions of Putin’s Russia’s vital interests—which he defines as conditions that are strictly necessary for Russia’s survival as a viable and successful state—from Russian leaders’ statements and strategic documents.
  3. Recent rhetoric by the Kremlin suggests that Putin has shifted his red line for NATO’s relations with ex-Soviet republics: While previously he saw the granting of NATO MAPs to more post-Soviet states as unacceptable in terms of Russia’s national interests, more recently the Russian leader has objected to “military absorption [osvoyenie] of the territory” of Ukraine by the alliance, even without formal membership. Likewise, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said recently that, while Russia may not be able to prevent Ukraine’s eventual membership in the alliance, it can act to minimize the negative fallout of the “alignment” of Ukraine and NATO before the former formally joins the latter. According to TASS, “Peskov said [in October] that no harm would come from Moscow's refusal to continue relations with NATO.”
  4. Data from The Military Balance 2021, International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Chapter 5: Russia and Eurasia,” pp. 164-217.
  5. Calculations in text rounded to first decimal.
  6. A 2021 poll of residents of 24 major Ukrainian cities (not including any in separatist-controlled Donbass) found that the share of respondents with a warm or very warm attitude toward Russia is highest in the following four cities (the first three in eastern Ukraine): Mariupol (52%), Severodonetsk (47%), Kharkov (39%) and Odessa in southern Ukraine (40%).
  7. In the words of Graham Allison, “Having been invaded by Napoleon and Hitler, Russians are neuralgic about threats from their western front.”
Correction: This article identified Andrew Weiss, the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Eugene Rumer, senior fellow and the director of Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program, as former intelligence officers. In fact, Mr. Weiss is not a former intelligence officer. Rather, Mr. Weiss previously served as director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council staff.
Author

Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of the Russia Matters Project.

Photo shared by Viktoria Pryshutova under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The opinions expressed in this issue brief are solely those of the author.