Is Russia-Ukraine Large-Scale War (Im)possible?

The war with Russia has shaped Ukraine’s internal politics for the last five years. Needless to say, this issue will guide in one way or another how Ukrainians vote as they weigh who among the presidential candidates can best stop or win the war in the east.

Observers often formulate their answers to this intensively discussed question based on differing perceptions of scale. What Russia’s leadership considers a limited military operation may have a large-scale impact on its target. Any significant escalation of the conflict, or even the perceived threat of such an escalation, may put significant stress on both the processes and outcomes of Ukraine’s presidential election.

For instance, Mikhail Hodarenok, Col. Ret. of the Russian General Staff and military commentator for RT, recently discussed “the possibility of a large-scale armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine.” Hodarenok is a military journalist and a leading “hawk” on the topic of the war in Chechnya. After presenting a number of strong arguments, he concludes that “a large-scale war between Russia and Ukraine is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future, and all we might continue to see is a series of small incidents in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait…”

Additionally, attempting to gauge the likelihood of a large-scale war between Ukraine and Russia entails a potentially insurmountable challenge: predicting Putin’s logic.

The author is unconditionally correct that a Ukrainian first strike on Russia “looks so unrealistic that it’s hard to believe the Ukrainian military are even discussing it, let alone making some real plans on paper.” Despite that, Russia uses the possibility of such an attack to justify the ongoing militarization of Crimea and the regions bordering Ukraine.

Col. Hodarenok also argues that “the idea of Russia invading Ukraine is just as unrealistic, first and foremost for … the absence of any good reason… to do so.” He then supports his position by noting the potential consequences for Russia’s international image and economy: “States going through a serious economic crisis are very unlikely to engage in a war.”

All of that is completely logical. But what were President Putin’s calculations regarding the consequences for Russia’s international image and economy before the Russian invasion of Crimea in February 2014? His desire to punish Ukraine and an eagerness to seize the opportunity likely prevailed over the conventional logic of military-political calculation.

It is still unclear what lessons Putin learned from 2014. What is clear is that his desire to punish Ukraine has not weakened since then. Putin sought to reverse the success of the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 by sending forces first into Crimea and then to The Donbas. As such, he might consider disrupting a successful presidential or parliamentary election in Ukraine by sending in more forces to finish what he started five years ago.