Putin does not need to invade Ukraine to get his way

World leaders must not let images of tanks panic them into forgetting Russia has other options than invasion – and none of them mean its demands must be met.

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Published 21 December 2021 Updated 10 January 2022 3 minute READ

Russia’s proposed new security treaties with the US and NATO are so unrealistic that it is widely suspected they are designed to be rejected out of hand to give Moscow an excuse to escalate its war on Ukraine.

But the Kremlin may have entirely different outcomes in mind. Based on past performance it is reasonable for Moscow to hope that at least some of the treaty proposals will be accepted. And there are plenty of options for attacking Ukraine that are less costly, and more manageable, than another land invasion.

It is true the draft treaties should be emphatically rejected because even though some may superficially appear reasonable, the way they would be implemented (and breached) by Russia means nothing in them should be acceptable. The clauses on rolling back US and NATO security guarantees for Europe resemble a criminal gang on the edge of town demanding houses in their neighbourhood remove their locks and alarms, cancel their home insurance, and declare the area a no-go zone for police.

This should not be the subject of negotiation without counter-proposals to Russia that would instead foster genuine peace and security on Russia’s periphery. But the danger is that, although unacceptable, some of what Russia asks may nevertheless be granted because conflict-averse Western leaders have a track record of accepting Russia’s demands through being terrified of the alternative.

By constantly driving home warnings of nuclear escalation – repeated even in the texts of the treaties – Russia is trying to panic the West into rolling back its own security as a preferable alternative to open warfare.

This should not be the subject of negotiation without counter-proposals to Russia that would instead foster genuine peace and security on Russia’s periphery

This is part of the reason for intensive efforts by Moscow to force the pace, accompanied by further threats. Russia does not want its demands punted off into the long grass of lengthy negotiations – the last thing a con-man wants is for his victim to have time to go away and think about it.

But the urgency also reflects the limited time Russia can keep large numbers of troops on the Ukrainian border pretending to be about to invade. And that is an essential component of keeping Europe and the US focused on a need to de-escalate – deterring themselves instead of Russia.

By presenting all its demands at once, Moscow could get traction with at least some of them. Russia may be hoping for ‘middle ground’ between its proposals and the status quo – and will get it if short-sighted politicians consider it a success that some are rejected but Russia still goes away temporarily satisfied.

Invasion by default?

Russia is holding the West mesmerised with the prospect of a new land invasion of Ukraine after a trial run in the spring confirmed the highly gratifying effect for Moscow of troop build-ups on the border.

It seems likely the troops opposite Ukraine – and others on the move across the country – are ready for a fight if necessary. But it is hard to see how rolling tanks across the border would serve Russia’s aims when far cheaper and more controllable options exist for inflicting damage on Ukraine.

For now, the biggest incentive to Russia to mount a land operation against Ukraine is provided by Ukraine’s friends when they point out they will not support Kyiv militarily

Overrunning a substantial area of Ukraine is widely dismissed as unfeasible, but even a limited land grab would serve little purpose when Russia can already exert political leverage through its control of parts of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia could instead be considering a temporary incursion – raiding, destroying, and then withdrawing – but much the same effect could be achieved from across the border.

Stand-off strikes using missiles, or potentially a destructive cyber onslaught, could target military command and control systems or civilian critical infrastructure and pressure Kyiv into concessions and its friends abroad into meeting Russia’s demands.

And removing the troop concentrations from the Ukrainian border need not be a climbdown by Russia, especially if they move west to form a permanent contingent in Belarus – directly threatening not only Ukraine’s northern flank, but also NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

For now, the biggest incentive to Russia to mount a land operation against Ukraine is provided by Ukraine’s friends when they point out they will not support Kyiv militarily. Both the US and now the UK have publicly ruled out direct support.

It is baffling why leaders do this – for all it may be unrealistic to expect US or British troops to arrive to defend Ukraine, advertising this fact to Moscow only provides comfort, confidence, and encouragement to Russia’s planners by instantly removing a wide range of worst-case scenarios from their risk calculus.

The message must be about more than Ukraine

Both Russia’s threats and its demands should be considered coolly. It may not be planning a new invasion of Ukraine except as a last resort, and so treating invasion as the first option distorts responses and plays into Russia’s manipulation.

But also the demands should not be entertained and legitimized through negotiation. Most of all, the conversation must be about more than Ukraine. The West tells Russia “do not escalate in Ukraine”. But it omits the broader message that Russia does not have rights over other countries either, because the age of empires in Europe is over.

Russia’s current leadership has no aspiration to develop into a normal country which co-exists peacefully with its neighbours. Instead, it clings to a notion of great power rights and status incompatible with 21st century Europe. For too long the criminal gang on the edge of town has been treated as respectable members of the community – after all, they hold seats on the town council, shares in local businesses, and inconveniently control much of the town’s energy supply.

Putin does not need to invade Ukraine to get his way 2nd part

But Moscow’s atavistic fetishising of its Soviet past is just the outward symptom of a mindset from a different age, and one regressing still further from what the West should find tolerable. When Russia kits out its hockey team pretending to be the USSR, this should be no more acceptable than if the German national football team took to adorning its kit with Nazi heraldry.

The terms of the conversation must be changed and, when stating its core principles, the West must, for once, mean it. Russia may well see this as an invitation to a trial of strength. But the sad fact is there may be no other way to resolve the vast gulf between what Russia and the West consider an acceptable security architecture in Europe.

It is normal, natural, and human to hope there must be a resolution that does not involve a bloody, messy, tragic, and senseless confrontation. But it would be a dangerous mistake to turn that hope into an assumption, and for all decisions to be driven by it. Once Russia has made the choice to attempt to force the issue through military intimidation, the rest of Europe does not have a wide choice of how to react – it must either respond in kind, or surrender.