Is Putin calculating correctly on Ukraine?

With Russian troops deployed to Russia’s border with Ukraine and Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinRussia cannot 'tolerate' NATO's 'gradual invasion' of Ukraine, Putin spokesman says Fears of Russian invasion of Ukraine rise despite US push for diplomacy Overnight Defense & National Security — US says Russia prepping 'false flag' operation MORE’s rhetoric escalating, the possibility that Russia will invade Ukraine seems increasingly likely. What is odd about the situation is that, until now, Putin has been careful to keep Russian force commitments — and casualties — limited in previous interventions to avoid the sort of quagmire that is unpopular with the Russian public, as Soviet involvement in Afghanistan (1979-89) and the First Chechen War (1994-96) became.

In conflicts that Putin has engaged in — the Second Chechen War, 1999-2009; Russian-Georgian War, 2008; seizure of Crimea, 2014; support for secession in eastern Ukraine, 2014; and intervention in Syria, 2015 — Moscow fought for limited goals that were quickly achieved or relied on allies to do much of the fighting in more extended conflicts. This prevented domestic unrest that could threaten Putin’s leadership. 

Why would Putin now risk this with a possible invasion of Ukraine? I doubt that anyone but Putin himself knows what his calculations actually are, but based on his behavior with conflicts in the past, it would appear that he believes he could win any fight quickly and decisively, or that he could sufficiently weaken Ukraine even without resorting to invasion.

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What would lead him to think this? Two things he can be certain of: Russian forces are much stronger than Ukrainian forces, and Western governments are not prepared to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. Putin also knows there is nowhere near the consensus among NATO members that would be required for admitting Ukraine to the alliance. Thus, while the U.S. may not be willing to promise that Ukraine never will be admitted, as Putin is demanding, Moscow really does not need to make any such demand to prevent what is unlikely to occur anyway.

So why do it? One explanation is that what Putin really fears is not that Ukraine actually will join NATO but that Ukraine may evolve into a successful democracy with a market economy that will be all too attractive to Russia’s citizens, who will want something similar and see ending Putin’s rule as necessary for this to occur. In addition, Russia’s projected population decline and likely economic stagnation — especially if the world moves away from dependence on petroleum, a main source of Russia’s income — means that Putin sees Russia as stronger now than it will be going forward. For Putin to seize Ukraine, then, it may either be now or never.

Putin also may hope that NATO members are so desperate to avoid a war in Ukraine that they are willing to reach an agreement with Moscow that the Ukrainian government is not a party to or is forced to assent to. Just as the Trump administration’s negotiating with the Taliban without the presence of the U.S.-backed Kabul government gravely undermined the latter’s willingness to fight the Taliban alone, Putin may anticipate that any Russian-Western agreement over Ukraine undermines Kyiv’s willingness to fight against Russia by itself. Perhaps Putin even anticipates that once the Ukrainian leadership and public at large realize they are on their own, they will be willing to sell out to Moscow for a place in the “new order” that is coming no matter what.

Of course, Putin may not be interested in making a deal with America and NATO over Ukraine, but instead is making demands he knows will not — indeed, cannot — be met as a pretext for an invasion against which the West will not defend Ukraine. In other words, Putin seeks to demonstrate the weakness of America and the West just as much as he seeks to acquire control over part or all of Ukraine.

He may also calculate that he can survive the West’s most likely response to Russian use of force in Ukraine: the imposition of more economic sanctions against Russia. Putin understands that, while the U.S. conducts little trade with Russia and is not negatively impacted by imposing sanctions on it, European countries that trade heavily with Russia are negatively affected by sanctions and don’t want to impose more. 

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There could be ways to work around the Biden administration’s reported consideration of cutting Russian banks off from SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications). Putin might not even be disturbed by Germany’s refusal to approve Nord Stream 2, the recently completed gas pipeline from Russia under the Baltic Sea. While Moscow sought to avoid how an independent Ukraine could affect sales of Russian gas to Europe via Soviet-era pipelines crossing its territory, Moscow would be indifferent to whether Europe buys its gas via Nord Stream 2 or via pipelines through a Ukraine under Russian control. Even if Europeans object to buying Russian gas via a particular pipeline, Moscow can be reasonably sure they won’t stop importing Russian gas for which they cannot find a full-scale replacement.  Moscow may even offer them a price discount to discourage them from importing gas at higher cost from sources farther away — especially the U.S.

If this is how he thinks, Putin’s calculations about America and the West being unwilling to fight over Ukraine are undoubtedly accurate. The biggest risk of miscalculation for him, though, involves how the Ukrainian population might react. Instead of “being sensible” and not resisting intervention from Russia, enough Ukrainians might put up a long, drawn-out resistance — with or without Western support — that causes significant Russian casualties. A quagmire for Russian forces in Ukraine also may be seen as an opportunity for Chechen and other aggrieved Muslims in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia to rebel. The Syrian opposition — and their Turkish backers — may then seize the opportunity of Moscow being distracted from assisting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in suppressing them. 

Whether or not this occurs, an unpopular war in Ukraine may lead to the revival of opposition to Putin among Russians — perhaps including some in the security services who would bear the brunt of a war in Ukraine.

Russian intervention in Ukraine, then, is a high-risk, high-reward proposition for Putin. While he appears to appreciate what the rewards might be, he may not be paying sufficient attention to the risks. And even if he is right that the Western response likely would be ineffectual, Putin still may be underestimating the strength of resistance from inside Ukraine — and how this could negatively impact his own political strength inside Russia.  

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.