Would Vladimir Putin really order Russian troops into Ukraine? From an outside perspective, the idea seems irrational: the ultimate high-risk, low-reward proposition. The Russians would face a determined adversary that’s had plenty of time to prepare. Casualties would be high. Moscow would be hit with more Western sanctions and potentially lose access to lucrative European energy markets. The Russian president would risk all this to punish a smaller, weaker neighbor that — while perhaps an ongoing irritant — poses little real threat to Russia’s security or sovereignty. More than that: Putin’s aggressive stance has to date been counterproductive, only pushing Ukraine closer to his adversaries.
None of this means he won’t do it.
Over the last few months, Putin has deployed more than 100,000 Russian troops along the Ukrainian frontier, accompanied by a range of heavy weaponry, including battle tanks and ballistic missile systems. The buildup is hardly a secret — few such shows of force can be in this day and age; satellite imagery first showed signs of the buildup in November. It came at a moment of higher-than-normal violence between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists, including a Ukrainian drone attack on rebel forces that prompted the Russians to scramble fighter jets. A U.S. intelligence document obtained by the Washington Post in December detailed Russian plans for a “multi-front offensive” against Ukraine in the coming months, “involving up to 175,000 troops.” U.S. and Russian diplomats have held several rounds of talks since mid-January, along with parallel negotiations involving NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Tensions between Russia and the West were already high before the current crisis. Russia has objected to what it says is an uptick of military activity by the U.S. and its allies on the Black Sea, while European Union officials have accused the Kremlin of helping Belarus to orchestrate a migrant crisis on its borders. It’s a dangerous moment for Ukraine, and an increasingly tense one for Europe and the NATO alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters, in advance of this week’s NATO-Russia meetings: “The risk of conflict is real.”
We don’t know exactly what Putin is planning in Ukraine. In all likelihood, he hasn’t yet made up his mind. But this much we know: The man who has led Russia since the dawn of the century is animated by a desire to restore Moscow’s sphere of influence over the areas once controlled by the Soviet Union, a determination to reduce U.S. and Western European influence in the region, and a desire to stay in power.
Unfortunately, from what we know of Putin’s worldview, war may have a certain logic. And so the possibility of invasion cannot be dismissed.
How did we get here?
The Russia-Ukraine showdown is the latest flare-up in a military conflict that began in 2014. That’s when a Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president was forced from power amid mass protests by Ukrainians supporting closer ties to Europe. In the West, this “Revolution of Dignity” was seen as a democratic triumph over a corrupt leader; for Putin, it was a double offense — a blow to his regional ambitions and to his wish to push the West out of his neighborhood. In Russia, the events were portrayed as a Western-backed coup, akin to U.S.-led regime-change wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the chaotic days following the revolution, Russian special forces — with almost no opposition — seized and annexed Crimea, a largely Russian-speaking peninsula that belonged to Ukraine. Sanctions and statements of outrage from the Obama administration and other Western governments did nothing to stop them.
Russian troops then entered Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, helping to create two separatist enclaves. (The Russian government has consistently denied that the “volunteers” who entered Ukraine from Russia were actually active-duty troops.) Though a series of peace deals known as the Minsk agreements were signed in 2014 and 2015, the conflict, which has taken more than 13,000 lives, stills sees periodic violence. Seven percent of Ukraine’s territory remains under de facto Russian control.
Ever since, the government in Ukraine has sought closer ties to Western Europe to escape Russian influence and to recover its lost territory. And ever since, Putin has looked for opportunities to expand Russian influence in the country. The conflict continues. This may be its most fraught moment yet.
In response to the latest Russian provocations, the Biden administration has launched a diplomatic offensive and set forth a mix of economic and military penalties that amount to what some in Washington have called a “porcupine strategy” for Ukraine — as in, making the country too painful for Putin to swallow. While President Joe Biden has ruled out sending in U.S. troops to defend Ukraine, the U.S. has stepped up its military assistance to the country. The U.S. and EU have threatened a range of new sanctions that would limit Russian access to global financial markets, and export controls that could prevent Russia from importing smartphones as well as aircraft and automobile components. The U.S. is also pressuring Germany to use a controversial new pipeline, which if put into operation would carry Russian gas directly into Western Europe, as leverage against Russian military aggression.
Such warnings have been aired publicly, and often. Putin must be made aware, said Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Jan. 7, that there would be “massive consequences” should he move his forces across the Ukrainian frontier.
Putin once served the Soviet state as a KGB agent, and he has described the breakup of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe.” Time and again he has returned to this theme — the idea that 1991 was a moment of shame and humiliation for Moscow, and for Russia, and that every effort ought to be made to repair the damage. In his two decades in power, he has intervened in different ways in Ukraine but also in the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Armenia and Georgia. In January, when violent protests roiled the ex-Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, Putin quickly answered a call from the Kazakh president to send troops.
But for Putin, the post-Soviet separation of Ukraine and Russia is a particular tragedy.
He once told President George W. Bush, on the sidelines of a NATO summit, “Ukraine is not a country.” He elaborated on this in extreme length last summer, in an article published on the Kremlin website that claimed that Russia and Ukraine occupy “essentially the same historical and spiritual space,” dating to Kievan Rus in the late ninth century. Putin blamed the idea of Ukrainian independence on the nefarious designs of Polish elites, Austro-Hungarian colonialists and the Bolsheviks.
Ideas like these are not exactly outside the mainstream in Russia. Even Putin’s fiercest and most influential critic, the jailed activist Alexei Navalny, has suggested that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was logical — even if he didn’t approve of the way it was done.
While Putin accepts that Moscow is unlikely to directly rule all of Ukraine again, he believes that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” Thus, Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” and the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity,” both of which forced Russia-backed leaders from power, were, in his view, infringements on Ukraine’s true geopolitical destiny and threats to Russia’s own sovereignty.
Any expansion of Western influence and military power into Ukraine is viewed as a threat to Russia, a continuation of NATO’s enlargement and spread into post-Communist Eastern Europe which — according to the Russian narrative — have gone against assurances given to Moscow at the end of the Cold War. All these must be countered.
The situation in Kazakhstan was in some ways utterly different. Most important, the Kazakh president asked for reinforcements from Moscow, and it seems the Kazakh protesters were motivated primarily by economic factors rather than objections to their government’s geopolitical orientation. Still, the Kazakh example underlines Moscow’s willingness to use military force to control events and help its allies in what it calls its “near abroad.” It was an easy win for the Kremlin and for Putin in his broader ambition. Certainly far easier than an invasion of Ukraine.
Overplaying his hand?
Can Putin win at this game? As the crisis moves from the Russia-Ukraine border to the meeting halls of Geneva and Brussels, the Russian foreign ministry has published a series of demands for “legal security guarantees from the United States and NATO.” These included a pledge to never admit Ukraine to the NATO alliance and to refrain from deploying any military forces into any country that was not a NATO member as of 1997 — i.e., Poland, where the U.S. now has around 4,500 troops stationed, and all of post-Communist Eastern Europe.
From Washington’s point of view, the Russian fixation on Ukrainian NATO membership looks a little odd. It’s true that at that 2008 summit NATO, at Bush’s urging, promised eventual membership to Ukraine and fellow post-Soviet state Georgia, but it offered them no concrete roadmap for membership, and there is little chance of it happening in the foreseeable future. (Asked earlier this year if Ukraine should join NATO, Biden responded, “School’s out on that question” and “they still have to clean up corruption.”)
None of this mollifies the Russians. “Ukraine de facto is already a NATO member,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Wall Street Journal pointing out that NATO members train Ukrainian forces and conduct military exercises in the country. Indeed, Ukraine was the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. military aid last year and the largest outside the Middle East.
“From the perspective of the paranoid old men in the Kremlin, they do feel that the West is fairly implacably hostile,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told Grid. “This fear that Ukraine could become some kind of NATO advanced base, it’s easy to dismiss using logic, but logic doesn’t necessarily apply.”
Meanwhile, in Ukraine itself, the Putin approach has backfired, at least in terms of public opinion.
“Ukraine is much more pro-European and much more unified today than it ever was before the events of 2014. And Russia’s aggression is the sole, the most important factor in that development,” Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, told Grid.
In 2013, roughly 43 percent of Ukrainians approved of the Russian government; in 2018, the figure was 7 percent. Some 64 percent of Ukrainians now favor NATO membership compared with 15-25 percent before the war. When Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was elected on a platform of ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, some feared he would make too many concessions to Russia. Given the current state of public sentiment in Ukraine, he couldn’t make many concessions even if he wanted to.
“Russia’s capacity to misunderstand Ukraine is hard to overstate,” says Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at Crisis Group. “When they look at what’s happening in Ukraine, they don’t see it as Ukraine making choices. They see it as Western influence. They see it as Western pressure. There’s this belief that there’s a silent majority in Ukraine that actually loves Russia, and that the Ukrainian government is acting against their interests.”
Meanwhile, Putin’s aggressive stance on Ukraine has emboldened hard-line anti-Russian positions in other parts of the world. It has driven NATO and the EU to threaten punitive measures; it has made it more likely, not less, that NATO forces move closer to the Russian frontiers; and it has even driven longtime neutral states Sweden and Finland to say they would consider joining NATO were Putin to attack Ukraine.
What happens next?
For now, the best outcome in the Ukraine crisis may be that this current round of talks leads to … more talks. Biden and the NATO allies are unlikely to agree to the demands the Russian government has put forward, but those demands haven’t been dismissed out of hand, and it’s possible Russia could win some concessions.
Angela Stent, director emerita for the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, tells Grid she reads Russia’s list of demands as them “starting off with a maximalist position … and hoping that by the time the negotiations are through, they will have gotten at least some of what they what they want.”
In the lead-up to the Biden-Putin summit during a Russian troop buildup last April, the Biden administration put a hold on a proposed $100 million military aid package to Ukraine. In recent days, it has indicated a willingness to put disarmament measures in Eastern Europe on the table. Some reports have also suggested Biden might pressure Ukraine to grant more autonomy to the country’s Russian-speaking eastern regions. The Ukrainians agreed to this as part of the 2015 peace deal but haven’t been in any hurry to do so since then.
Of course, all of this depends on the notion that Russia is serious about finding any form of negotiated solution. And notably, the Russians don’t seem to be offering any concession of their own (abandoning support for the eastern separatists, say, or even turning over Crimea) other than not invading Ukraine. There are also reasonable concerns in the U.S. and Europe that giving further concessions to Moscow at the point of a gun would only encourage further aggression.
Perhaps just being at the table with the Americans, being taken seriously as a peer superpower, would be enough. Perhaps not.
This much is clear: The U.S. and its allies are not going to formally endorse a Russian sphere of influence or definitively rule out Ukraine ever joining NATO. So if that’s really Putin’s price, it’s going to be hard to find an outcome acceptable to both sides at the negotiating table.
If it comes to war
If Putin decides war is the only option, there is a range of scenarios for how it might unfold. In a recent analysis, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a D.C.-based think tank, laid out three potential Russian military actions: deploying Russian forces into neighboring Belarus under the pretext of defending against NATO military action, deploying troops into areas of Ukraine currently controlled by Russian-backed militias and sending troops into unoccupied Ukrainian territory.
The ISW says the latter all-out invasion scenario is the least likely. Any military incursion beyond already-occupied areas wouldn’t be an easy fight. The Ukrainian military, while much smaller than Russia’s, is in far better shape that it was in 2014, and the Russians wouldn’t have the benefit of surprise this time. Again, this being a very 2022 conflict, the entire Russian buildup has happened in full view of satellites.
Once Russian forces pushed beyond Ukraine’s eastern regions, they would find their supply lines stretched and the local population deeply hostile. As the Ukrainian defense analyst Illia Ponomarenko writes, “The costs of subduing such a big and hostile nation would be extreme. Occupying it would be almost impossible. The stream of soldiers’ coffins that would flow back to Russia would shock its population.”
And yet, from Putin’s perch at the Kremlin, the risk may still look manageable. Russia has already been under heavy Western sanctions for years, and while they have had an adverse impact on Russia’s economy, they’ve done little to threaten Putin’s grip on power. (Russia’s agriculture sector may actually have gotten stronger and more self-sufficient in the sanctions era.) Russia’s substantial gold and dollar war chest and its ever-closer economic relationship with China could also help blunt the impact of more sanctions. Past events have probably done little to disabuse Putin of the notion that military interventions are a good option for increasing Russian power and influence abroad. Its invasion of Georgia in 2008 drew little more than expressions of outrage from Western countries. With the annexation of Crimea, it pulled off the largest seizure of territory in Europe since World War II. And it has used its military to help keep its ally Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria.
None of which means things would go smoothly for Russia this time around. Nor is it clear that an invasion would actually accomplish any of its goals. But this wouldn’t be the first time that robust warnings from the West failed to prevent Putin from rolling the dice. And Putin would hardly be the first world leader to delude himself into an ill-advised war.
This article has been updated.