Vladimir Putin sees the current security architecture as both unacceptable and dangerous to Russia. It is unacceptable because it manifests a series of tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West, and Putin sees the West as fundamentally hostile to Russia. The current set-up is dangerous, in Putin’s eyes, not so much because of what these relationships amount to in the winter of 2021–2022, but because of what they have the potential to become, which is a combined force capable either of countering Russian interests in its neighborhood or of destabilizing Russia itself by modeling a different kind of regime. Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO symbolizes the security dilemma Putin perceives on his Western border, but the dilemma itself runs much deeper than the unlikely prospects of NATO membership for Ukraine.
What Putin wants is to unwind the tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West. He realizes that this aim cannot be accomplished through persuasion alone. Russia has little non-coercive leverage over the West, and NATO will not change its open-door policy. The West sees Ukraine as a model for change in the region (including in Russia). Bereft of non-coercive options (in his view) to halt Ukraine’s path of integration into Western institutions, Putin has begun exploring coercive options beyond the annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas, neither of which has given him what he wants.
Putin has begun exploring coercive options beyond the annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas, neither of which has given him what he wants.
Putin may not be able to achieve precisely what he wants—a neutral Ukraine or a Ukraine under Russian sovereignty. He may settle, then, for trying to block outcomes he does not want, alternating between the use of military force and threat of military force to compel the West to minimize its commitment to Ukraine and/or to eliminate the Ukrainian state’s capacity to obstruct Russia’s regional interests.
The current environment is perceived as compelling as well as conducive by Moscow. Nonetheless, the urgency and hastiness of Russia’s demands is surprising. After all, complaints about the West exploiting Moscow’s weakness had been Russian talking points for many years. Now, though, the matter is seen as exigent. In the words of foreign minister Lavrov, “legally binding guarantees” are necessary now “within a reasonable time,” otherwise “Russia will be forced (…) to eliminate unacceptable threats to our security.” (According to the Russian president, Moscow has “nowhere further to retreat to.”)
Different factors contribute to the sense of urgency as well as opportunity in Moscow.
Internationally, Russia has strengthened its position in the neighborhood in Belarus, Armenia, and now also in Kazakhstan. Domestically, the Russian president secured himself the constitutional right to re-run in 2024, followed by a wave of repression, with no domestic opposition to his course expected. Some Russian commentators view it as part of his personal legacy to “solve” Ukraine11In an article from July 2021, the Russian president argued that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” (http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181). and re-order European security before re-election in 2024.
At the same time, Moscow became frustrated with the Minsk process, as it hoped for far-reaching concessions from newly elected President Zelensky. Ukraine’s increased military cooperation with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Turkey is depicted as equally threatening to Russia as formal NATO membership, “transforming Ukraine into a military foothold.” In Moscow, an intervention now could be perceived as less costly than an intervention later.
Across the Atlantic, the establishment of a long overdue strategic stability dialogue in June 2021 meant, for Moscow, that the United States was finally listening to some of Russia’s grievances. The Russian leadership took this as an opportunity for an all-or-nothing strategy with its package of not-to-be-untied demands, which could be used as a pretext for war in case of refusal. Moscow is well aware that Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West, and that the priority of Biden’s presidency was meant to be China.
At the same time, Europe is in the midst of leadership changes, with a new government in Berlin and presidential elections in France. Russia’s refusal to increase gas flows to Europe was a demonstration of Europe’s vulnerability. This adds up to a likely perception in Moscow that it is the right time to pursue a course of military threats and ultimatums to achieve its goals—and that the potential benefits outweigh the costs.
This adds up to a likely perception in Moscow that it is the right time to pursue a course of military threats and ultimatums to achieve its goals—and that the potential benefits outweigh the costs.
But there is another thought to keep in mind regarding Moscow’s sudden urgency: we simply might not know nor anticipate why certain decisions are taken at the top level. Political leaders do not necessarily follow the “rational actor model” (Graham Allison) but can instead be driven by internal decision-making processes impenetrable to the outside observer. This is a useful reminder of blind spots: unimaginable options for one side might present themselves as rational to the other.
What’s the Strategy to Achieve these Aims?
Putin has given himself an array of options to achieve a neutral or an incapacitated Ukraine. The foundation of his approach is Russia’s military power and as backup economic statecraft and espionage/cyber interference. In the short term (the next few weeks), Putin will threaten the use of such power to secure European and US acquiescence to his preferred terms of settlement, which may be less maximalist than his rhetoric often suggests.
He will ascertain whether there is any room for a reversal of the trends that have led him to take such radical action. This phase of diplomacy is also important to Putin in preparing Russian public opinion for the possibility of a major war between Russia and Ukraine. Perhaps war is the course Putin has already chosen. If so, it cannot be a minor war. A minimal objective would be to topple the Ukrainian government—not necessarily through overt military force—and to install a puppet leader.
A more ambitious objective would be to divide the country in two, with the line between Russia and a rump Ukrainian state one of Putin’s choosing. The most expansive goal would be to conquer Ukraine entirely and then either to occupy it or to demand that its independence be negotiated on Putin’s terms. A fourth option, mirroring some of Russia’s strategy in Syria, would be to make a failed state of Ukraine through military intervention and internal subversion, precipitating a migrant crisis that would become Europe’s headache.
Putin, reviewing his options, need not succeed at nation building or at colonialism in Ukraine. He is focused on getting Ukraine in its current contours —with its Western-leaning, pro-American, pro-NATO government—to fail and may construe the possibility of such failure as the foundation for the success of Russian policy.
What Are Moscow’s Calculations vis-à-vis Europe and the United States?
Europe and the United States have already provided the answer to Moscow’s most important calculation: the West will not fight and die for Ukraine. With 100,000 troops amassed at the Ukrainian border, this gives Russia the upper hand in negotiations, as the West relies much more on a diplomatic outcome of the situation than Russia does.
Russia also expects that Europe and the United States will not risk the “military-technical” response threatened by Putin. Although the West’s response will be limited to economic sanctions, support for Ukraine, and reassurance for eastern NATO member states, the threat of far-reaching sanctions has made enough of an impression on Moscow that it has threatened “a complete breakdown in Russia-US relations” if the sanctions threat is implemented.
Moscow might hope to be able to withstand the impact of sanctions, as it has done since 2014 with much softer sanctions. It will also certainly cooperate more closely with China in economic and financial areas, knowing this makes Washington nervous.
But there will be wider geopolitical repercussions in Europe, and first signs are that Finland and Sweden are rushing to underline their independent choice of alliance, and eastern member states are demanding reassurance measures by NATO.
But there will be wider geopolitical repercussions in Europe, and first signs are that Finland and Sweden are rushing to underline their independent choice of alliance, and eastern member states are demanding reassurance measures by NATO. If the larger goal is to weaken European and transatlantic cohesion, a short-term tactical win in Ukraine can become a long-term strategic loss to Moscow.
Even if Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West: the post-Cold War European order and the alliance with the United States does matter to Europe, and vice versa.