Ukrainians are waiting to see whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, having wrested Crimea from Ukraine, will continue his advance. The outward signs point to yes. Tens of thousands of Russian troops and hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles are amassed along Ukraine’s borders. The Kremlin insists that they are conducting military exercises, but that seems unlikely. Ukrainian armed services have caught Russian agents, tasked with gathering military intelligence and fomenting unrest, in several of Ukraine’s southeastern provinces. And border guards have stopped thousands of armed Russian “tourists” from entering Ukraine. Pro-Putin militants have seized government buildings and violently attacked peaceful demonstrators outside of Crimea, in Donetsk and Kharkiv. Meanwhile, Russia’s state-controlled channels whip up anti-Ukrainian hysteria as Putin and the Kremlin insist that the government in Kiev illegitimate.
No one can fully know Putin’s intentions. One’s best guess depends on one’s assumptions of his rationality. If he is irrational -- unable to correctly judge the costs and benefits of invading Ukraine because he is in thrall to some ideology or the pursuit of power -- then it is safe to assume that he will continue on his current course. Lilia Shevtsova, a liberal Russian analyst, and Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s former economic advisor, make that case. “He believes that he is chosen by divine providence to punish liberated Ukrainians,” Illarianov writes, “He believes that now there is a unique historical situation: Ukraine is in [a] state of severe crises, its authorities and institutions do not function effectively. He dreams that providence demands him to fulfill this mission.” If Illarionov and Shevtsova are right, nothing can stop Putin from launching a massive land war against Ukraine, regardless of how much it would cost in human life, property, and prestige. Such a Putin could conceivably keep marching up to the Atlantic, as Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian political scientist and Putin’s ideological mentor, believes Russia must. “If we win,” he recently wrote, “we will begin the expansion of liberational (from Americans) ideology into Europe. It is the goal of full Eurasianism -- Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Great Eurasian Continental Empire.”
If, alternatively, Putin is rational -- and thus capable of weighing costs and benefits and associating effects with causes -- then there is reason to hope that he will stop somewhat short of destroying Ukraine and the world order. To make such an assumption is not to suggest that Putin is a benign leader. Quite the contrary, he probably possesses all the qualities he was trained to have as a KGB agent: ruthlessness and arrogance. But that doesn’t mean he can’t understand risk or won’t respond to punishment. In this telling, the occupation of Crimea was a grand and glorious little war that raised Putin’s popularity with hyper-nationalists in Russia, cost no lives, and transpired quickly and relatively inexpensively. It might have turned Russia into a rogue state, but Putin could reasonably argue that “Russian glory” was worth that price, the full effects of which would not be felt immediately but sometime in the future.
Seen in this light, a full-scale assault on all of Ukraine -- or even on Kiev -- would be extremely risky and costly. And it would offer few or no tangible benefits to Putin or to Russia. The Ukrainian army, newly formed National Guard, and militias would put up a fight, and it is by no means certain that Russia could easily advance in Blitzkrieg fashion. A subsequent occupation would entail the deployment of several hundred thousand troops, who would be the targets of a popularly supported resistance movement. And the West would be livid. It could provide significant military assistance to Ukrainian partisans, and it would certainly impose sanctions on the Russian economy as it searches for immediate alternatives for Russian energy. Russian casualties would likely reach the thousands, and the hyper-nationalist hysteria in Russia would diminish as the body bags start arriving home. Dugin might not be fazed by these prospects, but a rational Putin should be.
Less risky and possibly less costly would be the annexation of one or more of Ukraine’s southeastern provinces. They border Russia, they’re smaller than all of Ukraine, and they’ve been the targets of agitation and subversion by Russian special forces, “tourists,” and thugs for months. But even that occupation wouldn’t be as easy as invading Crimea. Ukrainian armed forces with tanks and heavy weaponry are already positioned along the eastern border. There would be fighting and Russian casualties could be high. The occupation would be less costly, but resistance would still be likely and pacifying the population would require a long-term commitment. All in all, these provinces would be an enormous drain on Russia’s economic resources.
In all likelihood, Putin is motivated by some combination of Duginite ideology, geopolitical interest, and self-interest. All leaders in all countries are. The ideology provides a set of ultimate goals (freedom, democracy, socialism, Lebensraum) and informs policy choices. But it rarely serves as the sole motivating force. Lenin, for instance, believed in world communism but agreed to a peace with imperial Germany in order to save the revolution. Stalin went even further, abandoning world revolution for “socialism in one country” in 1925 and becoming an ally of Nazi Germany in 1939. Putin might want to teach Ukraine and the West a lesson even as he remains responsive to Western and Ukrainian behavior.