Despite the almost daily barrage of threatening moves and belligerent rhetoric, Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t intend to invade and occupy Ukraine. The Russians love it when Putin wins fast, and with few casualties. “On the enemy’s territory and with little blood,” as former Soviet premier Joseph Stalin used to say. As World War II victor, Stalin is celebrated in Russia today as he never was in the Soviet Union after his death, and, alone among post-Stalin Soviet and Russian leaders, Putin has appropriated Stalin’s rank — “verkhovnyi glavnokomanduyushchiy,” or supreme commander in chief.
According to a recent poll, one in three Ukrainians is ready to take up arms against the invaders, and Putin’s compatriots would sour quickly on a repeat of the Soviet Afghanistan quagmire, which surely would follow an initial Russian victory. As he gears up for what could be, in effect, presidency-for-life in Russia’s 2024 election, this would be the last complication Putin needs.
Why, then, the militarized drama that Putin is enacting on the border with Ukraine? As a judoka, or judo enthusiast, who once was the Leningrad champion, he surely remembers that one rarely wins by a decisive throw, the ippon (100 points). Far more common is a victory by the gradual accumulation of points: waza-ari (10 points) and yuko (1). In this virtual judo match with the West, Putin is far ahead by points — and likely to score more.
The largest number of points has accrued from the two moves that please the audience that matters most to him: the Russian people. They have been convinced by incessant television propaganda that, armed and egged on by America, Ukraine planned to attack Russia, or Crimea, or the Russian de facto protectorates in Luhansk and Donetsk. In this tale, Putin stood up to them, scared them by a display of Russia’s military might, and made them turn tail. With his popularity — and his regime’s key claim to legitimacy — founded largely on his role as defender of the Motherland, this narrative is bound to play well at home.
The other domestic crowd-pleaser was the sight of the U.S. president — ultimately the only person in the world, other than the president in the Kremlin, who counts to the Russians — “listening” to Moscow and “hearing” it, to use some of Putin’s favorite terms. And then some! By my count, President Biden held at least eight summits with Putin — in person or virtually — during his first 12 months in office. That’s a record frequency in the history of U.S.-Soviet or U.S.-Russia relations. And as always has been the case, every such encounter, every instance in which the Russian leader appears to be treated as an equal by the leader of the West, results in a high domestic political “bounce” for the Kremlin’s occupant. More points will come once Putin begins to negotiate the price of Russia’s troop withdrawal. He likely will get an agreement on the mutual limitations of middle-range missiles in Europe, perhaps including the missile defense systems in Romania and Poland, which Russia insists could be reprogrammed almost instantly to aim at Russia. Another likely agreement will address Russia’s concern about the scale and frequency of NATO exercises in Eastern Europe.
A more distant, but not improbable, concession to Moscow could be a push by France, Germany and the United States to force Ukraine to implement the Minsk-2 Agreements that effectively curtail Ukraine’s sovereignty by legitimizing the Donetsk and Luhansk pro-Russian enclaves as part of Ukraine, thus making it a perennially bleeding, if not indeed failed, state.
Finally, among the most portentous outcomes of Putin’s exercise in blackmail is an in vivo test of NATO: of its cohesion, its ability to forge timely and effective response, and of its solidarity with the struggling democracies in Russia’s shadow. Much to his delight, Putin has found the alliance wanting in every item on this job description. So, in the next instance of brinkmanship, which he surely will engineer before 2024 for another rally around the flag, he is almost certain to go further.