Putin’s choice | The interpreter
Whatever steps Vladimir Putin takes in the coming days will have profound consequences for the security of Russia and Europe.
What does Putin want?
First, he wants to bring Ukraine back into the Russian orbit. This is partly for emotional reasons of national identity and imperial nostalgia: Putin, like many Russians, does not really accept Ukraine as a separate country and people, and resents its post-Soviet independence .
But more than that, Putin has a larger geopolitical goal. He wants to redesign the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe.
In particular, he wants to prevent and reverse NATO’s eastward expansion. And as a corollary, restore Russia’s sphere of influence around its western borders, to give it strategic depth.
It is also a question of political insecurity. The Kremlin is fearful of open democracies flourishing on Russia’s doorstep (whether in Ukraine or Belarus), providing a useless model for its domestic opponents and vectors of foreign influence.
The larger context is Putin’s overarching goal of reasserting Russia’s position and influence globally as a great power, especially in its close neighborhood, and rebuilding Russia’s hard power – a strong Russian army – to support this ambition.
If this crisis is to be resolved peacefully, then it will require very difficult compromises from all parties – especially if Putin’s tactical successes to date blind him to the longer-term risks.
So far, coercive diplomacy seems to have worked for Putin. It has the West’s attention – in buckets. Russia’s security guarantee demands, accompanied by belligerent rhetoric and the threatening buildup of more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders (and more in Belarus), have forced Western leaders to engage with Moscow on Russian terms.
By limit gas supplyRussia has reminded European leaders of the leverage it enjoys through Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.
And he took steps to reaffirm and deepen relations with Chinato ensure that Beijing supports Moscow in any crisis with the West.
Tactically, then, the threat of force has proven effective for Putin, securing high negotiating ground and the ability to escalate pressure on Ukraine and the West.
But if, as Western leaders warn, Putin now decides to invade Ukraine, this could prove to be a strategic mistake, proving counterproductive in the longer term for Russia. Far from bringing Ukraine closer to Russia, such an intervention would alienate the Ukrainian people and bring them closer to Europe. Invading Russia would be fiercely resisted by Ukrainians and inflame nationalist sentiment among the 43 million population.
Second, it would galvanize cohesion and a sense of common purpose within NATO, strengthening the bonds between the United States and its European allies. This would lead to far-reaching sanctions against Russia. This would seriously damage the Russian economy and worsen the livelihoods of ordinary Russians (whom a war now with Ukraine should not play as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014). And that would probably lead Russia to greater dependence on China.
Moreover, energy dependency works both ways. While Europe needs Russian gas, Russia also needs to sell it, and Europe is Moscow’s biggest customer. Cutting the gas supply would ultimately be counterproductive for Russia.
What is the probability of an invasion?
Russia certainly has the capability, but Putin’s intentions remain unclear. All of this can be bluffing and deception: Russian saber thrusts to destabilize Ukraine and extract concessions from the West. But it is worrying that Putin has yet to accept any of the diplomatic exit ramps offered to him by Western leaders.
The risk is therefore real – underlined now by information that Moscow could design a “false flag“crisis in Russian separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine to provide a pretext for such military intervention.
Russia has a range of options to destabilize Ukraine short of a full-fledged invasion – including a limited military incursion ostensibly to protect Russian citizens in breakaway Donbass regions in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine, launching cyber-attacks against Ukrainian institutions and infrastructure, and cutting off gas and electricity supplies to Ukraine. Or any combination thereof.
Is there a way out of the crisis?
It won’t be easy. The challenge is to find a negotiated settlement that gives Putin enough to persuade him to defuse tensions and return his troops to their barracks, without however rewarding Russia’s belligerence by weakening the security of eastern member states. NATO or Attack on Ukrainian Sovereignty.
Unfortunately, Moscow has already fired as inadequate Western offers to discuss with Russia ways to bolster European security, including mutual limits on missile deployments, greater military transparency around exercises, and expanded political and military dialogue.
France has propose intensify negotiations on the status of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine to defuse tensions, although initial contacts last week under the Minsk 2 format were disheartening. It’s hard to see Moscow and Kyiv coming to a lasting deal anyway given their fundamentally different goals: Kyiv aspires to regain full authority over Ukrainian territory, while Moscow essentially wants to use Minsk 2 to hamper Ukrainian sovereignty.
Some suggest that NATO could declare a deadline moratorium on new members, but this will probably not satisfy Russia, while upsetting Ukraine (as well as currently neutral Sweden and Finland).
If this crisis is to be resolved peacefully, it will require very difficult compromises from all parties – especially if Putin’s tactical successes to date blind him to longer-term risks – both abroad and at home. interior – that his current situation entails.
The West is set to settle into a long stalemate with Russia.