Russia Conflict Part 1: Global and Regional Threats
By TorchStone Senior Analyst, Ben West
Since a series of major Ukrainian counter-offensives in the fall of 2022, the front lines in Ukraine have seen little change. The Center for Strategic International Studies has recently described the conflict as “a war of attrition characterized by dug-in forces, trenches, human-wave attacks, artillery barrages, and high casualties on both sides.”
Despite the inertia on the frontlines, Russia’s conflict against Ukraine and its broader rivalry with Kyiv’s western supporters remains dynamic. We can see evidence of spillover effects everywhere from coup attempts in neighboring Moldova, to energy infrastructure sabotage in the North Sea, to espionage campaigns in Australia. Most of these threats long pre-date Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, but the tempo and breadth of operations appear to have increased over the past year.
The collapse of Russia’s relations with the West has also incentivized previously more neutral countries to publicize and call out Russian threats that they may have dealt with more quietly before the invasion.
This series of reports will outline ways that Russia threatens stability and business continuity based on scope. This article focuses specifically on Russian tactics observed since February 2022. While most western companies have either reduced their presence in Russia if not abandoned the market entirely, Russia still poses a threat to business continuity around the world.
Part 1: Global and Regional Threats
While mostly limited to rhetoric, Russia continues to pose a threat of an expanded military conflict.
Even if Russia has few resources to spare due to its war of attrition in Ukraine, we cannot rule out an act of desperation or accident expanding the conflict beyond its current lines in Ukraine.
Given the poor state of Russia’s conventional forces due to heavy losses in Ukraine, Moscow may rely more on its nuclear forces in future conflicts.
Reducing the threshold for using nuclear forces either in Ukraine or in a broader conflict would have devastating consequences for the region and the entire world.
Even if the war remains contained, the conflict is undermining global food security in a way that threatens political stability in countries around the world.
Russia’s Rhetorical and Physical Threats
Russian leaders regularly issue threats against Ukraine’s western supporters and have substantiated those threats with military exercises and provocative intrusions.
Rhetorical threats tend to claim that western countries are legitimate military targets due to their support for Ukraine.
These threats typically reference back to President Putin’s February 2022 threat warning countries who interfere in Ukraine will face “consequences you have never seen.”
President Putin intentionally left the definition of “interference” vague but Russian officials have regularly pinned blame on western counties and called for military action against them.
On Jan 10, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev accused NATO of trying to “rip Russia apart and ultimately wipe it from the political map.”
Other Russian leaders, from former President Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian ambassador to the UK and President Putin himself have proven comfortable issuing grave rhetorical threats on a regular basis.
There is a wide gulf between the rhetorical threats from Moscow and concrete actions, but there are signs that Russia is willing to provoke western allies with aggressive military maneuvers.
In January 2023, Russia’s 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade conducted live-fire exercises in an area only 7 miles east of NATO member Norway.
The exercise included howitzers and grad rockets, which put Norwegian territory in range.
Blue Shaded Countries are NATO members. Sweden and Finland are currently seeking membership.
NATO members regularly report engagements with Russian military aircraft threatening protected airspace.
There were three reported incidents during the first half of February alone.
While engagements are routine and usually do not lead to any significant threats, Russian pilots have engaged in unsafe behavior before, raising the potential for accidental conflict.
Accidents and Mistakes
Russia’s aggressive rhetoric against countries supporting Ukraine is likely meant for the domestic Russian audience.
There are no indications that Moscow intends to expand its current conflict in Ukraine to the much more formidable NATO alliance.
However, given the proximity of Russian military activity to NATO territory and declining professionalism of Russia’s military due to attrition, we cannot rule out an accident igniting a broader conflict.
Russia’s operations in Ukraine have led to some close calls in NATO territory.
The most alarming incident so far was the Nov 15, 2022 explosion in the Polish village of Przewodow (4 miles W of the Ukrainian border) that caused the death of two Polish nationals and the destruction of a grain processing facility.
The incident occurred during one of Russia’s missile barrages against western Ukraine, raising fears that one of the missiles flew off course and struck NATO-protected territory.
Western leaders convened an emergency meeting to discuss next steps in what was likely the closest NATO got to directly engaging Russia since the invasion of Ukraine.
However, NATO determined that the missile had come from Ukraine’s air-defense response against the Russian attack, and it flew off course, landing in Poland.
Before the lethal Poland incident, in March 2022, just two weeks following Russia’s invasion, Croatian authorities retrieved a Soviet-era reconnaissance drone that crashed in Zagreb.
The drone was carrying ordnance that detonated when it crashed.
Investigators could not determine the origin of the drone but since Croatia is a NATO member, the incident had the potential to trigger collective defense clauses if the drone had been clearly linked back to Russia.
In a more recent incident, in early February 2023, Romania tracked a missile fired from a Russian warship in the Black Sea toward Ukraine that flew within 20 miles of Romanian airspace.
Future Russian missiles that fly through NATO airspace (whether intentionally or not) have the potential to trigger a response.
Dangerous Russian provocations are not limited to NATO. Russia and Japan have also seen heightened tensions since the Ukraine invasion that tend to play out in the disputed Kuril Islands.
In early March 2023, Russia carried out air defense exercises over the Kuril islands, which both Moscow and Tokyo claim as their own.
Similar to Russia’s hostilities towards NATO, neither Russia nor Japan is eager to engage in conflict, but provocative missile tests or engagements over unresolved territorial disputes have the potential to cause accidents that could trigger a larger conflict.
The United States and Japan are similarly allied partners, so an attack on Japan could quickly implicate US forces.
In summary, the longer Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, the more opportunities there will be for mistakes or accidents impacting its neighbors.
While Ukraine’s western supporters have demonstrated patience and a preference to avoid direct military engagement with Russia, an egregious accident could leave the alliance no choice but to respond and expand the conflict beyond Ukraine.
Such an expansion would almost certainly impact business operations in Eastern and Central Europe.
Depending on the severity of the conflict, it could include Western Europe, North America, and even Northeast Asia.
Despite Russia’s failure to seriously follow through with most of its rhetorical threats, NATO members are taking the threat of an expansion of the conflict very seriously.
Estonia, a NATO member that borders Russia and was under Soviet control during the Cold War, assessed in Feb 2023 that Russia remains capable of exerting “credible military pressure” in the Baltic region, presenting a medium- and long-term security risk.
The report concludes that “Russia’s belligerence and foreign policy ambitions have significantly increased security risks for Estonia.”
Swedish authorities have responded to the threat by pledging to increase military spending and double the number of conscripts by the next decade.
NATO has increased troop levels in Eastern Europe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, announcing the formation of four additional battle groups consisting of 40,000 soldiers in October.
Among these troops are the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, stationed in Europe for the first time since the end of World War II.
The NATO alliance and individual member countries are clearly preparing for an expanded war scenario, even if it appears unlikely in the short term.
Increased Nuclear Threat
There is broad concern that the attrition Russia has suffered from its invasion of Ukraine has considerably weakened its conventional forces, making it more reliant on its nuclear forces as both a deterrent and a response to a conventional attack.
In a Feb 2023 report, Norwegian intelligence officials assessed that the degradation in Russia’s conventional forces increases the likelihood that Russia would use nuclear weapons in a crisis.
Norway also assessed that the Russian Northern Fleet’s surface warships are patrolling with tactical nuclear weapons for the first time since the Cold War.
Additionally, Norway has observed an 80% decline in the number of Russian units positioned in northwest Russia since the start of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, suggesting a degradation in Russia’s conventional capabilities.
Without conventional forces to provide standard deterrence along Russia’s border with NATO members and partners, Norwegian intelligence assesses that Moscow likely has a lower threshold for deploying and even using nuclear weapons in the event of a crisis.
As if to reinforce Norway’s concern over Russia’s willingness to resort to nuclear weapons, President Putin announced Feb 21 that he was suspending Russia’s involvement in a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the United States known as New START.
The suspension undermines an agreement meant to reduce the threat of nuclear war.
In addition to capping the number of nuclear weapons on each side, New START also allows each country to verify adherence to the treaty through independent inspections and constant communications to avoid misunderstandings or accidents that could trigger a devastating nuclear exchange.
The United States and Russia (and the Soviet Union before that) have had some sort of treaty limiting nuclear weapons arsenals since 1972.
If the agreement collapses, there would effectively be no limitation to the size of either country’s nuclear arsenal, potentially triggering an arms race reminiscent of the Cold War era.
The current New START agreement expires in 2026 but with US-Russia relations at a low point, talks to refresh New START appear unlikely.
Disruption to Global Food Markets
Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine was jarring to markets around the globe, proving particularly painful as countries were struggling to contain rising costs of living due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food markets were hit hard as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine severely disrupted shipments of Ukrainian grain and agricultural products.
By July 2022, the UN-backed Black Sea Grain Initiative freed up shipping routes for Ukrainian grain deliveries, but the ongoing war continues to threaten global food markets and general social stability.
Ukrainian grain exports in 2022 were approximately 30% lower than the previous year due to the invasion, which removed 7.7 million tons of grain from international markets.
So far, grain exports are continuing in 2023, but Ukrainian authorities said that grain shipments leaving Ukraine in January were nearly half of what they were in October 2022 and blamed an intentionally slow Russian inspection process for holding up shipping traffic in the Black Sea.
As recently as March 1, Russia threatened to pull out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative unless Ukraine’s western supporters eased sanctions that Moscow claims are making it difficult for Russia to export its own agricultural products.
The current deal has been extended to May 17 and if the sides can’t work out a long-term solution, grain exports could plummet again, jeopardizing food supplies and threatening unrest.
2022 saw abrupt fluctuations in Ukrainian grain exports due to Russian interference.
Rising food prices, or lack of access to food, is a major driver of social unrest and the countries that rely most heavily on Ukrainian agricultural exports already tend to be politically fragile.
The estimated 13% increase in food prices from February to March 2022 due to Russia’s invasion triggered unrest around the world.
It deepened a cost-of-living crisis in Sri Lanka, contributing to months of protests that eventually toppled the government.
In May 2022, Egypt’s finance minister warned that millions of people could die due to the global food price crisis exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Wary of a repeat of the 2011 Arab Spring that triggered social upheaval across the Middle East over, among many things, the price of staple foods, Egypt’s leaders redirected funds in 2022 to maintain food subsidies and avoid unrest.
Disruption to grain exports also worsened the food security situation of countries facing ongoing draughts, including Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Burkina Faso.
While the situation in Europe was not as dire, the sudden rise in food prices contributed to cost-of-living protest movements in the UK, France, and Germany.
A collapse of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and limitations on Ukrainian food exports risks increasing political uncertainty around the world.
Even if the United Nations manages to renew the Black Sea Grain Initiative beyond May 17, the invasion still undermines global food security.
According to a November 2022 survey, nearly 40% of the rural population in frontline areas of Ukraine reported that they had reduced or halted agricultural production.
The US Department of Agriculture estimated that Ukrainian grain production fell by 40% in 2022.
Additionally, dozens of countries maintain export restrictions on agricultural products to protect their own supplies, tightening the global food market. So even if Ukrainian exports continue unimpeded (an unlikely scenario given Russia’s opposition) Ukraine is simply producing less grain to export due to the conflict.
And other countries are stockpiling their grain in case of a crisis, further restricting markets.
Even if Russia ended its conflict in Ukraine tomorrow, it would take years to remove ordnance and make farmland safe and usable again.
Despite the inertia on the frontlines of the Russia-Ukraine war, the broader conflict remains quite fluid and has the potential to cause crises that could severely impact business operations.
While neither Russia nor Ukraine’s western supporters appear to be seeking to expand the conflict, there are multiple points of failure that could force a conflict.
The attrition of Russian conventional forces increases its reliance on nuclear forces should the conflict expand, increasing the risks associated with expanded conflict.
Finally, even if the war remains contained to Ukraine, the tenuous situation in the Black Sea risks cutting off Ukrainian food exports from overseas markets, which would likely increase political unrest around the world.
Part 2 of the series will address national and localized threats, including Russia’s use of terrorism, sabotage, and other forms of interference to intimidate its enemies from supporting Ukraine.