The US must go back to first principles on Russia and Ukraine

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The present crisis between Russia and Ukraine is prompting breathless speculation as to what is going to happen, what President Vladimir Putin may or may not do, and what the build-up of forces along Ukraine’s border means. As of late, this debate has resulted in fairly — by think tank standards — vicious back-biting and intellectual sniping. That this present crisis has prompted such vitriol and venom is, perhaps, unsurprising, but it speaks to a core analytical problem — what we know and what we don’t know. 

This is not merely an epistemological question but speaks to the base level of analysis. Going back to first principles on Russia, Ukraine and the present crisis is critical if policymakers are to get a handle on it. 

What do we know? We know that Putin, like President Joseph Biden and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a rational actor within his political system — a personalist autocracy, according to Timothy Frye’s book, “Weak Strongman.” Putin will put his interests and that of Russia, first, even though these may not necessarily align, and even if the West doesn’t fully understand or appreciate either. He is neither madman nor master strategist pulling strings across Europe. He is constrained by politics just as Biden and Zelensky are. This does not mean that these leaders cannot or will not make mistakes or misinterpret intentions. Assuming something to the contrary or mirror-imaging leads to faulty analysis and policymaking. 

We know that Russia has already invaded and illegally annexed part of Ukraine — Crimea — in 2014, and is presently waging a proxy war in the eastern part of the country. Ukraine is a sovereign state and very much has a say and interest in the present crisis, despite what some analysts suggest, or simply overlook. 

Militarily, we know that Russia is building up forces near the Ukrainian border. The exact number is subject to debate — Ukraine says there are upwards of 94,000 Russian troops near the border, the United States says 70,000 as of early December. We also know, based on current battlefield engagements, that the Ukrainians would resist an invasion of its country by Russian forces, and can infer that this would be the case both in a near-term invasion and in a long-term occupation, should it come to pass. 

We also know that a Russian invasion of Ukraine proper would be politically and diplomatically unacceptable to the United States and NATO and that it would almost certainly result in significant economic costs and geopolitical isolation. We do not know, however, what this would fully entail. Following Biden’s call with Putin, the White House issued a readout saying that the president “made clear that the U.S. and our allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation”, but beyond that, it is unclear what Washington would do in practice. The White House has threatened “high impact” economic sanctions, but beyond that, it is unclear what Washington would do in response. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned that Washington would work with its allies “to impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, for his part, cautioned that a Russian invasion would carry a “high price” for Moscow. 

By contrast, there is a lot that we do not know. We do not know Russia’s or Putin’s immediate intentions or thinking. Perhaps there is a well-placed agent in the Kremlin with access to the Russian president’s inner thinking, but that is something we may never know. We also do not know the reason for the military build-up. We can speculate about it being an effort to pressure Ukraine or the West, to demonstrate force, or as a prelude to an invasion, but we do not know for sure. 

Again, we also don’t know how the United States and NATO would respond, ignoring the fact that it is possible this situation could have been prevented in the first place by more robust NATO actions in years past. Equally, we do not know how Moscow would respond to or perceive increased U.S. and NATO involvement in Ukraine such as the deployment of forces, increased arms transfers (advanced or otherwise), or other potentially escalatory actions. 

More broadly, we don’t know what Russia wants as a result of this activity. Is it a prelude to a fait accompli invasion, an effort to force the West to accept Moscow’s sphere of influence, or something else? We simply don’t know. We can infer based on this statement, and others, that Russia is concerned about its territorial integrity, the enlargement of NATO, and believes that the West is at war with Moscow. 

We can also infer Putin’s view of Ukraine through his public statements and his curious 5,000-word essay “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, an interesting, if historically suspect, reflection on the relationship between the two countries. We know what Putin has said on the present crisis, but we cannot know for sure if this is what he wants or is merely another gambit on the geopolitical chessboard. Speaking at a ceremony at the Kremlin Putin said that Russia will seek “reliable and long-term security guarantees.” According to Putin, “In a dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on working out specific agreements that would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.”

Going back to first principles is critical if we are to make smart policy. It is imperative that we recognize our assumptions, admit what we know (which is not much) what we don’t know (which is considerably more) and accept that there are things we don’t know we don’t know. Recognizing the extent and limits of our knowledge isn’t a panacea, but it will help cut through the growing noise to see the relevant signals. 

The West has a hard time understanding Russia at the best of times, assuming we can divine Moscow’s intentions in a crisis is the height of strategic folly. 

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a George Mason University National Security Institute Visiting Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.

Tags Mike Rogers Russia–United States summit Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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