Russia's end games and Putin's dilemmas

As warnings from Washington and London intensify, the period of maximum danger in the Ukraine standoff has begun. Even if conflict is avoided, the status quo has gone.

Expert comment Published 14 February 2022 3 minute READ

There are several reasons to believe conflict over the Ukraine is imminent. The military build-up is complete. Russia has added tactical support elements, including medical units, to its already large and comprehensive array of troops and equipment deployed to the east, north, and south of Ukraine.

Additional naval units have entered the Black Sea, military exercises with Belarusian forces have begun and, along with those on Russian territory, these can all provide cover for an intervention of some sort.

Far from being comforting, comments by Vladimir Putin and his entourage that it will not be Russia provoking a conflict are ominous. Russian media has ramped up domestic programming about the ‘imminent Ukrainian fascist threat’ to the motherland. And a recent US intelligence briefing alleges sophisticated preparations by Russian intelligence include releasing a video of a staged attack on Russian-speaking civilians in northern Ukraine.

Reincorporating Ukraine into a ‘greater Russia’ would underpin his now constitutionally-mandated opportunity to reign until 2036, as well as being his biggest legacy.

Should Russia attack, its ‘fortress economy’ could weather a new round of sanctions for several years, not least given the growth in Russia’s hard currency reserves to $630 billion, under 20 per cent of which are now held in US dollars, and the high demand for – and global price of – oil and gas.

What does Putin really want?

Diplomacy is in high gear but, as Putin and other senior Russian figures have made clear, the US and European offers of new security confidence-building measures do not address Russia’s two core, stated demands – namely to withdraw US and NATO forces close to its borders in former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states, and to end NATO’s ‘open door’ policy to future enlargement.

For the Kremlin, enlargement to Ukraine would remove a critical buffer between Russia and the NATO alliance. If Putin’s objective, therefore, was simply to put down an unambiguous marker that Ukrainian membership of NATO is a red line, he has made progress.

He has reminded the world and Ukraine’s leadership of that country’s strategic vulnerability. US president Joe Biden and his European counterparts have stated NATO will not commit forces to defend Ukraine if it is attacked. And although they remain resolute on the ‘open door’ policy, there have been reminders NATO does not accept new members who risk importing a pre-existing conflict into the alliance.

If another Putin objective was to refocus US and, to a lesser extent, European attention away from China and back onto Russia and its security interests, he has succeeded. NATO has offered some new confidence-building measures around the conduct of military exercises and deployment of forces, while the US may be willing to enter negotiations for a new treaty with Russia to limit nuclear missiles deployed in Europe.

This would mean setting aside the growing threat posed by Chinese missiles that had partly motivated the Donald Trump administration to withdraw unilaterally from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

But there is another scenario to consider – that although these two issues are both important, neither are Putin’s core objective, which instead is to right once and for all the historical ‘wrong’ of Ukraine’s separation from Russia in 1991.

As Putin made clear in a lengthy essay in July 2021, he sees an independent, sovereign Ukraine as a historical aberration, and he blames the US for the deepening discord and animosity between ‘brotherly’ Ukraine and Russia.

Not stated in the essay is that the emergence of a more democratic and functional Ukraine poses an existential threat to Putin’s own control over Russia. In contrast, reincorporating Ukraine into a ‘greater Russia’ would underpin his now constitutionally-mandated opportunity to reign until 2036, as well as being his biggest legacy.

The problem is it seems impossible to bring Ukraine permanently back into Russia’s sphere of influence without some form of new military intervention.

Putin’s options

Putin’s strategy to date has been limited to ensuring the breakaway Ukrainian portions of Donetsk and Lugansk gain a legal right to block any future efforts by the central Ukrainian government to join either the European Union (EU) or NATO.

If another Putin objective was to refocus US and, to a lesser extent, European attention away from China and back onto Russia and its security interests, he has succeeded.

The Kremlin sees expansive interpretation and implementation of the 2014-15 Minsk protocols allowing self-governance for these areas currently under Russian military control as a potential route to this outcome. But for Volodomyr Zelensky or any future Ukrainian president to accept this would be political suicide, and Kyiv has already resisted French and German pressure to make this concession under the Normandy Format of meetings they share with Russia.

If Putin has now decided to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty more explicitly, he can order a limited military intervention further into these occupied territories – and perhaps areas adjacent to them and Crimea – under the pretext of ‘protecting’ Russian-speaking communities there.

This would be relatively easy to achieve and, combined with a blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, could successfully destabilize the government in Kyiv. But such steps would trigger international economic sanctions and drive Ukraine even further towards the West.

A 21st century ‘blitzkrieg’ to take Ukrainian territory as far as the Dnipro River including Kyiv and all points east, would come closer to achieving Putin’s territorial and historic legacy. And this is now a feasible option given Russia’s military superiority. But how easily Russia could then hold the territory and consolidate its political control would be doubtful, and these moves also bring high-risk, long-term economic and diplomatic costs to Russia and to him personally.

No return to the status quo

On balance, Russian military intervention in the coming days or weeks is still less rather than more likely. Putin may yet accept a new, visible, bilateral accommodation with the US on the future of European security.

Russia's possible end games and Putin's dilemmas 2nd part

Even with this, there would be no return to the status quo. The military stand-off over Ukraine will remain intense as Putin seeks to use sustained external pressure to undermine Ukraine from within, and because Putin cannot stand his forces down fully without at least the prospect of Ukraine’s subjugation.

However, just because military intervention is high-risk and potentially counterproductive today does not mean it will never happen. The longer Putin spends in the Kremlin surrounded by his court of securocrats and billionaire childhood friends, the more self-referential his decision-making becomes.

What he writes and says must be taken seriously, which means the US and UK governments’ decision to be equally explicit and stark about the risks posed by Russia’s current actions is correct. It would be a dereliction of political duty to compound being powerless to stop an attack with also being unprepared for one.