Over Christmas there was much talk about an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine. Headlines described “perfect storm” conditions and Russia seeking to catch the West off guard while everyone was away on holidays.
Then Ukraine’s one month state of martial law expired as planned after the November 25 Kerch Strait incident, and the talks about a Russian invasion faded somewhat. After all, why would Ukraine reduce the alert state if a Russian attack was expected?
The speculations bordered on hysteria from the beginning. In this Newsweek article, for example, Christina Maza argues that Christmas is a distraction for the West that leaves an opportunity for Russia to attack Ukraine. Maza quotes former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst for saying that “Moscow likes to commit aggression when the world is not paying attention. It invaded Afghanistan during the Christmas season in 1979 and attacked Georgia during August vacation season”.
— Newsweek (@Newsweek) December 24, 2018
Herbst’s two examples hardly prove anything about Russian predilections for starting wars at particular points in time. In 1979 they invaded a Muslim country during Christmas, and in 2008 they engaged in a war during summer time. If anything, the Georgia war caught Russia off guard. It was initiated just after Putin had arrived to the Beijing Olympics when Georgian military forces engaged South Ossetia.
The notion that Russia needs to catch the West on Christmas vacation before attacking Ukraine is militarily nonsense. The West would not commit forces to the fight anyways, so delaying the Western reaction by a few days would not be a factor. To catch the Ukrainians off guard makes sense, but Christmas in Ukraine is not until 7 January.
It is puzzling that the Christmas argument could get so much attention in the news. Frankly, it reflects an overblown Western self-perception. We are just not important enough in this conflict to dictate anything for Russia about the timing of tactical events.
Will Russia attack Ukraine this winter? I don’t know. There certainly are tensions, and it may escalate into something larger. But as Michael Kofman points out, false alarms are often sounded in this conflict, and actual points of escalation are rarely predicted. The concern that there would be an increased likelihood of a Russian attack during the Western Christmas holidays was unfounded. However, as Kofman notes, a sizable artillery duel often takes place in January after the Orthodox Christmas. So that may be the event to look for.