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On the recent transformation of Russia's military and gas transit risks for Ukraine

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

Pavel Baev is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings. He specializes in Russian military reform, Russia’s conflict management in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and energy interests in Russia’s foreign and security policies, as well as Russia’s relations with Europe and NATO.

Baev is the author of several books, including "The Russian Army in a Time of Troubles" (SAGE, 1996) and "Russian Energy Policy and Military Power: Putin’s Quest for Greatness" (Routledge, 2008). Some of his most recent reports include Russian Nuclear Modernization and Putin’s Wonder-Missiles: Real Issues and False Posturing (IFRI, August 2019), An Ambiguous Partnership: The Serpentine Trajectory of Turkish-Russian Relations in the Era of Erdoğan and Putin (Brookings, September 2017).

1. Today, there are so many often confusing or overlapping terms used to describe Russia's involvement in Ukraine (e.g., asymmetric warfare, hybrid warfare)? Can we speak of the emergence of new Russia's new modern warfare doctrine displayed in Ukraine since 2014, or techniques and methods used by Russia in Ukraine have deep roots in traditional Soviet approaches?

The term "hybrid" is certainly abused in describing the Russian aggression against Ukraine, but it has many unexpected and unique features, which have roots in the traditional ways of waging wars but still are innovative. What is the most striking is that Russia is able to attack its neighbor, annex a part of its territory, separate forcefully other parts – and all this without any declaration of war or breakdown of diplomatic and economic relations. For that matter, the gas keeps flowing through the Ukrainian pipelines no matter what.

2. Have there been any substantial changes in Russia's military and informational capabilities influencing its overall strategic approach towards Ukraine since 2014? Where do you think Russia has failed and succeeded in Ukraine, and what lessons Ukraine could learn from that?

Russia has succeeded in annexing and integrating Crimea, but this success has come at a steep price. The main failure is in uniting Ukraine against the aggression and for asserting its European identity.

The first part of your question is about different matters, and I think the main changes in Russian military capabilities since 2014 have happened in the airpower (which was not used in this aggression) and in the nuclear weapons (which are mostly irrelevant to this confrontation). In the realm of information warfare, Russia had some success in 2015-2016, but is now losing ground and cannot find (and fund) the means for gaining new advantage vis-à-vis the West, which has invested much effort in countering Russian propaganda and disinformation.

3. Have Ukraine's armed forces undergone positive transformation since 2014? What else should Ukraine do to strengthen it?

Yes, the Ukrainian armed forces have gained much strength since the disaster of 2014, but there is still much to be done. A possible new spasm of fighting might be different from the battles of Ilovaisk and Debaltsevo, and the main threat is Russia's airpower, against which the reformed Ukrainian army has no defense – and this is the main deficiency in the reform.

4. What does the future hold for Ukraine's gas transit route, whose role has been steadily declining? What can Ukraine do to minimize losses, and how can Europe and the US help?

The problem of gas transit may experience a new aggravation already this winter because the new agreement is not ready – and the positions are far away. Ukraine needs to secure a long-term arrangement, and Russia is not going to give it one, since its two new pipelines are going to become operational in two years. The bad news for Ukraine is that there is nothing it can do about it – and the European gas consumers will accept Russian deliveries via the Nord Stream and the TurkStream.

5. How do you see the situation developing in Ukraine in the near future? In this regard, what do you think Russia's ultimate plan as to Ukraine?

Russia's plan for pulling Ukraine back into its orbit has very little chance of coming true – and the future of Ukraine is basically in the hands of its people (unlike Russia's near future, for that matter). The dynamic and popular Zelensky is not just an irritant but a huge political challenge to Putin, who personifies stagnation and corruption. The possibility of a forceful Russian move against Ukraine, following perhaps the new gas war, remains high and underestimated by many European politicians.

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