Press release

Opinion: What will happen in Ukraine?


By Bruno Lété, Senior Fellow, Security and Defence, The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Diplomacy is on a lifeline. The West has engaged with concrete proposals and now the ball is in Putin’s camp. We are not out of options. Next week Chancellor Scholz will visit Moscow. In parallel, France and the United States are still in dialogue with Moscow as well. However, it is quite unsure if we can avoid a dead-end. 

Meanwhile Russia continues to build up and develop a military option. Invasion plans are in place. Despite many warnings from the West for imminent incursion, I don’t think Putin has made up his mind to launch an attack yet.

But in case Russia does attack, we must consider a mix of conventional and hybrid actions. A sea blockade of all Ukrainian seaports, the use of Donbass territory to launch artillery attacks on Ukrainian territory and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure all together form a minimum scenario.

If Russia escalates further is also has capabilities in place to launch airstrikes on infrastructure and perform targeted land incursions. For instance, surrounding or imposing a blockade on major Ukrainian cities (e.g. Kharkov, Kyiv) constitute other worrying scenarios. A full-scale invasion of Ukraine is unlikely.

Any military incursion of Ukrainian land will come at high cost for Russia. Ukrainian armed forces are well prepared, battled-hard, and better equipped compared to 2014.

Europe and U.S. are united on the need to impose sanctions on Russia if the Kremlin uses military might. But the transatlantic partners, and EU member states, are still in dialogue on how far such sanctions would go. It is unlikely Russia would be cut from SWIFT banking system. Yet it is also unclear if North Stream 2 would be targeted. Given that Russia seems prepared to bear a considerable cost to back its behaviour, the West will have no other option than to issue sanctions that are far-reaching and may also hurt its own economy in return. If the West is divided on this issue, sanctions are likely to be water downed and will bear little impact on Russian behaviour.