As western governments and intelligence services attempt to figure out what comes next amid growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, whatever escalation materializes is unlikely to be a traditional war, says one Canadian expert.

While diplomatic channels are flowing back and forth to prevent what the U.S. characterized as a possible imminent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, many questions remain about Moscow’s next steps.

The Biden administration and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) informed Russia on Wednesday there would be no concessions on their demands in the quest to cool the current crisis. On the same day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada will extend Operation UNIFIER, the Canadian Armed Forces training and support mission in Ukraine, for another three years and with an additional 60 personnel.

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov said in rebuttal that the U.S. and NATO’s formal response does not address Russia’s main concern about the alliance’s expansion eastward, but that it gave hope for “the start of a serious conversation.”

But despite thousands of troops and tanks amassed along Ukraine’s borders, Royal Military College and Queen’s University security analyst Christian Leuprecht told in a telephone interview Thursday that any escalating conflict won’t resemble a traditional war.

“We’re dealing with a leader who assassinates people on foreign soil, who gratuitously carries out many vicious cyber attacks on other countries, who violates basic norms of international law,” Leuprecht said of Russian president Vladimir Putin. “This is why I don’t think there will be a formal declaration of war, because that would mean they would actually need to play by the rules.”

“Declaring war triggers a host of international obligations, including the application of the Law of Armed Conflict and the UN Declaration on Human Rights,” Leuprecht said in a follow-up email to “Putin is unlikely to declare war precisely because time and again has been intent on eschewing his international obligations.”

Leuprecht said Russia “banks on a grey zone conflict,” where combatants operate under a certain threshold of aggression to avoid outright war being declared and the various human rights obligations that come with it.

Leuprecht said there may be an invasion of some kind, but it would most likely follow theories from U.K. intelligence that suggest a smaller operation to install pro-Russian Ukrainians in government.

“They'll stage a counter-revolution in Kyiv using their GRU intelligence operatives that are already embedded in across all the Ukrainian institutions,” he said, characterizing them as “deeply beholden” to Russian intelligence and “deeply compromised.”

“To stage a counter-revolution, you'll probably need to draw away security assets from Kyiv centre, and stage all sorts of border skirmishes across the country.”

“Then he'll [Putin] send in special ops into Kyiv to install a new government…I think everybody's looking for the war that Putin never intends and the war that isn't going to come. This is going to be a quick and dirty counter-revolution. The troops around the borders are sort of an insurance policy in case things don’t go as planned.”

The U.K. intelligence Leuprecht cited has been denied vigorously by the Russian government, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova calling it “disinformation spread by the British Foreign Office.” asked the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) whether Leuprecht’s theories align with its assessments of the situation in Ukraine. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said that CSIS doesn’t “publicly comment, or confirm or deny the specifics of our investigations, operational interests, methodologies or activities, in order to maintain the integrity of our operations.

“CSIS works closely with its domestic and international partners on understanding the threat environment so that it is positioned to provide assessments and advice to the Government of Canada,” the statement said.


The advancement of technology in the past decade has seen the implements of war change drastically from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and Leuprecht said Canadians’ mindsets about military conflicts abroad also need to change in light of the Ukraine-Russia crisis.

“They think a conflict in Ukraine is thousands of kilometres away, we’ve had this mentality since the end of World War Two that in North America, you’re safe and thousands of kilometres away from the troubles of the world,” he said. “We talk about generations of warfare, we think warfare was people in trenches and it was military shooting at each other.”

Leuprecht said the essence of the changes in warfare can be boiled down to this: “the line between the military and civilians has become ever more blurred…there is no middle ground, we are on the front lines of this conflict.”

“You and I are on the front lines when I receive an email from the associate deputy minister cautioning all members of national defence about Russian cyber activity and to be vigilant not just on our defence networks but on all of our online interactions, our personal emails,” he said, citing the recent bulletin from the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security warning operators of critical infrastructure in Canada of Russian cyber threats.

When asked about allegations from anti-war factions that the bulletin feeds into “Red Scare” hysteria or the perceived threat posed by Communism or former Communist countries to western nations, Leuprecht said the notice has to be looked at in two ways.

“One is that the CSE has a good intelligence relationship with large corporations, with the provinces and so forth, what’s more difficult for them is to reach the small and medium sized enterprises and quasi-public entities like hospitals, health authorities and public transit systems…this is a way to communicate in a wholesale fashion,” he said, characterizing it as a pre-emptive and preventative measure.

On the other hand, Leuprecht said sending the bulletin is also a signal to Moscow.

“It’s also a signalling exercise to the Russians that we know what you’re on about, we’re tracking you, we’re watching you and you don’t stand a chance,” he said, adding that while western countries have been “extremely reticent” to deploy cyber measures, the capabilities of the U.S. and the Five Eyes are formidable enough to “give the Russians a run for their money.”

However, Leuprecht warned that the current crisis “isin a very dangerous place.”

“This can quickly get out of hand, anybody who thinks that we can contain this conflict to Ukraine is clearly delusional, this is a very dangerous game,” he said.