Russia-Ukraine War: Moscow Could Launch Armed Attack Over Christmas While the World Is Distracted, Experts Warn

As people in Western Europe and the United States get comfortable for the holidays, the chances increase that Russia will take advantage of the distraction to launch attacks against its neighbor Ukraine, experts said.

On Monday, when the millions of Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar celebrate Christmas Eve, the Russian foreign ministry warned "it is quite possible" that Ukraine will launch military action against Russia in the next few days. Kremlin spokeswoman Maria Zakharova even suggested that Kiev was planning to stage chemical weapons attacks in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for launching an attack.

But experts and Western military analysts said it was Russia that was likely to launch an attack on Ukraine.

"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," ambassador John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006, told Newsweek.

A Ukrainian army reservist rides a tank during military exercises on December 19. Tensions between Ukraine and Russia spiked on November 25, when Russian forces seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and their crews. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

The conflict between the two neighbors has been simmering for exactly five years, but the past month has been especially tense after Russia seized three Ukrainian naval ships and detained 24 sailors on November 25. The Ukrainian detainees still have not been released.

Ukraine has since instated martial law in parts of the country believed to be vulnerable to Russia and warned of an imminent ground invasion by Moscow. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned in early December that Russia had around 80,000 troops stationed in parts of occupied Ukraine.

The international community, meanwhile, accused Russia of aggression and called on Moscow to obey international law. But experts said that the holidays, combined with the recent resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Washington, could create the perfect scenario for a Russian offensive.

"The weak Western reaction to Moscow's escalation of its war against Ukraine by seizing its ships also raises the odds of a further Kremlin strike," said Herbst. "So does the disarray in Washington, with the Mattis resignation and early departure."

A Santa Claus takes part in a parade in Ukraine on December 22. Alexei Pavlishak/TASS/Getty Images

On Saturday, Russia sent additional warplanes into the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Meanwhile, Ukraine's navy signaled over the weekend that it would be ready to fight back if Moscow once again tried to stop Ukraine from using key ports around Crimea. International law dictates that Russia and Ukraine must share access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, and analysts said that Moscow was determined to solidify its control of the waters around the Crimean peninsula.

"The Russians are seeking complete dominance over the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov, and the Ukrainians aren't willing to surrender control of their territorial waters or freedom of passage through the strait, as is their right. So the potential for escalation is high," Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, told Newsweek.

"I worry the Ukrainian navy is far too small to assert its rights in the face of the much larger [Russian] Black Sea fleet, so if I were advising Ukraine I wouldn't attempt another passage through the strait right now," Carpenter continued. "The creation of the mosquito fleet, as foreseen in Ukraine's naval development plan, is the right strategy, but it will take years to get all the assets in place, and meanwhile a crisis is looming in the coming weeks and months."

A training session for the military reserve at the 169th Desna Training Centre in northern Ukraine, on December 19. TARASOV/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Some analysts also warned that Russia may be aiming to unite some of the territories that surround Ukraine in order to create a Russian-controlled protectorate north of the Black Sea that resembles a military frontier once held by the Russian Empire. The new attack jets sent to Crimea and the deployment of Russian ground troops along the border with Ukraine are signs of such military ambitions, analysts said.

"This is consistent with pervasive rumors of a military operation by Russia to establish a land 'bridge' from the Russian-controlled territory along the coast of the Sea of Azov into the Crimea. I also heard a discussion of Russia reviving the 2014 'big war plan' and going all the way to the borders of Moldova, connecting to the Transnistria pro-Russian exclave, which is legally a part of Moldova," Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council, told Newsweek.

Moldova, a tiny country located between Ukraine and Romania, gained independence from the Soviet Union and was formally recognized by the international community in 1992. But the people of Transnistria, a strip of land with around 500,000 Russian-speaking inhabitants, fought Moldova for a country of their own.

Moscow continues to support Transnistria's independence, and Russian troops have been stationed there since the 1990s. Russia's military presence there makes Ukraine even more vulnerable to a ground invasion, military experts noted.

"Taking into account the resignation of the secretary of defense, Mattis, and the isolationist mood in the White House, Russia may decide that the time to act is now, to accomplish what they call the Novorossiya [New Russia] program, which includes the dismemberment of Ukraine," said Cohen.

The threat of armed conflict did not appear to have dampened the holiday spirit, however. Over the weekend, in Ukraine's southern port city of Odessa, people dressed as Ded Moroz, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus, marched along the seafront.