By William Tucker
In 1957, Gordon Dean, former chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, made a particularly insightful statement about Russia. He stated, “There are those who believe that the principal objective of this generation should be peace at any price. For such people the capacity of the Russians to bring on an atomic holocaust should not be particularly disturbing since peace can probably always be secured – on Russian terms.”
On the surface, this quote from Dean may appear as nothing more than a slight against a country with whom he disagreed. However, it also cuts to the heart of the Russian negotiating position, which often seems outrageous to anyone outside Russian borders. Moscow typically asks for the absurd, because Russian leaders sometimes get the absurd.
Unfortunately for Russian ambitions, that may not end up being the case this go-round. Russian president Vladimir Putin has issued a draft treaty of sorts, calling on the West to stop NATO expansion and impose limits to military bases and weaponry in NATO member-states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. If the West refuses or takes too long in responding, Putin issued a veiled threat of Russian military action against Ukraine.
NATO responded by stating that it would not allow Moscow to set the defensive posture of Europe, while the U.S. didn’t dismiss the proposal out of hand. But there is little reason to believe that Washington would accept this treaty.
Russia and a Ukraine Invasion
It’s unlikely – though not impossible – that Russia would invade Ukraine. But Moscow needs security guarantees from the West, and it will go to great lengths to get those guarantees.
Russia has been wargaming on its shared border with Ukraine. There are currently over 100,000 Russian troops in the area, sparking concerns that the games are just a smokescreen for an imminent invasion.
While the potential for military action by Russia is possible, it would have to be limited in scope. Ukraine is a large nation of 45 million people. Russia would need a larger force to take Ukraine and a significantly higher number of troops to occupy the nation.
Many NATO members have stated individually that they will not defend Ukraine, so Kiev would be on its own against a Russian invasion. It appears that Russia would have every incentive to force Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit, but the situation is not that simple. While Ukraine may not have foreign forces willing to defend them against a potential invasion, the West has provided advanced weaponry to Ukraine that would certainly cause Russian casualties.
Also, Russia could launch a limited invasion with the goal of securing the Donbas region. But any military operation against Ukraine still presents the potential for significant losses, even if Russia wins the war.
Russia Is Not Able to Replace Any Ukraine Casualties with New Soldiers
Russian actions over the past 13 years have demonstrated Moscow’s willingness to seize territory, making the threat against Ukraine anything but idle. However, Russia is operating under a significant time crunch regarding the age of potential fighters.
The demographics of Russian citizens suggest that any protracted war where Russia would suffer casualties means that Moscow could not replace those soldiers. The nation simply does not have enough young people to serve in the military and conduct other state-related functions.
Russian life expectancy is woefully low, so drawing on older generations to be used as troops is not an option either. Russia means to extract as many security guarantees as possible now, since it cannot match the military or economic prowess of its European neighbors.
The West has been slow to respond to Russian demands and unwilling to take action beyond sanctions for some rather egregious Russian behavior. Russia is running out of time to secure security guarantees from the West, which is why Moscow has been more than willing to heighten the tension of numerous situations. Over the next decade, this behavior by Russia will continue to worsen.