Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
This past spring, Russia amassed 100,000 troops and a host of military equipment near the Ukrainian border in a transparent bid to threaten Kyiv; it seemed that an invasion might be imminent. Then, Russia withdrew most of its forces, claiming they had completed a training exercise, and the crisis was averted.
Fast-forward six months, and the situation has once again turned dire. Roughly 100,000 Russian troop have gathered at the border, along with tanks and artillery systems. U.S. officials have warned that Russia may be about to launch an attack. “Our concern is that Russia may make the serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014 when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory, and did so claiming falsely that it was provoked,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month, referring to Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.
The situation feels familiar, yet it is not clear which direction Russia will go. Will it withdraw as it did in April? Or is Russia planning something more ominous this time around? As Blinken put it: “We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions, but we do know its playbook.” No Western observer really knows why Russia has boosted its troop movements on the border. No one looking at only open-source information can answer these questions definitively, and even those with access to secret intelligence cannot predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior. The United States and its European allies are at a disadvantage: Putin’s inner circle is tight, and Western intelligence probably has not penetrated it, so even the best Russia hands are guessing at the strongman’s plans.
But it is safe to say that something has changed since April. The flare-up in the spring came as Russia made aggressive moves out in the open, often in daytime hours. This time around, the movements have been more furtive, often taking place at night. Russian special forces and intelligence operatives are in motion, suggesting that Russia isn’t bluffing and may be readying for a hybrid war. What happened in April may have been intended to spook Washington and its allies and test President Joe Biden’s commitment to Ukraine. This time, however, Putin may be looking to affect more than just perceptions, and it will be up to the United States and its European partners to make sure he doesn’t.
Washington is concerned enough about the latest movements of Russian forces that it recently dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Moscow to warn Russia over its troop movements. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried was also on that trip and then traveled to Kyiv to brief Ukrainian officials. Last week, the United States gave two top Ukrainian officials an intelligence briefing that changed the official tone in Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had been at pains to adopt a position of studied indifference, began warning about the Russian troop buildup. Europe has woken up to the threat, too. Berlin, Brussels, London, and Paris appear to share Washington’s concerns. Indeed, the French and German foreign ministers issued a joint statement saying that “any new attempt to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity would have serious consequences.”
Military experts such as Michael Kofman have suggested that Russian forces might be preparing to carry out an operation during the upcoming holiday season. Kofman wrote that he cannot divine “innocuous explanations” for the spike in military activity, which is out of cycle and cannot be written off as routine drills or certification checks. Moscow claims that it has no plans to invade, complaining that NATO is increasing tensions by holding drills on the Black Sea, a classic distraction technique the Kremlin has employed for years.
But Ukraine is not the only light on the geopolitical dashboard that is flashing red. The pressure is also being dialed up elsewhere in eastern Europe. An artificially created crisis over migrants is intensifying on the border between Poland and Belarus. Since June, Belarus has encouraged thousands of desperate people from the Middle East and Africa to fly to Minsk, the country’s capital. Once they arrive, Belarusian authorities have transported them to the border with the EU, cutting through fences at night to clear a path for them into Lithuania and Poland. Those countries have declared states of emergency, and the EU unveiled an additional round of sanctions on Belarus this week. Russia, meanwhile, denies any involvement but flew two nuclear-capable bombers over Belarus last week. The Kremlin has also declared its readiness to step in as a mediator in the crisis.
Ukraine is not the only light on the geopolitical dashboard that is flashing red.
Could Russia have moved its troops near Ukraine to snap up Belarus? That prospect would have some merits from Putin’s perspective. The Russian president’s polling numbers have dipped to historic lows, and annexing Belarus might temporarily buoy Putin’s nationalist base, as the surprise annexation of Crimea did in 2014. But Putin’s true obsession is Ukraine, which continues to resist him, and not Belarus, where he has reached a modus vivendi with the strident but ultimately supine Alexander Lukashenko. Kyiv is in the cross hairs.
Another European crisis is cooking in Bosnia, a place where Russian meddling is inflaming tensions and leading the country toward violence. If Russia wants to distract the West in the event of a big move, Bosnia could prove useful to the Kremlin. And the biggest move, of course, would be to snap up another chunk of Ukraine.
A number of factors suggest that Putin will strike Ukraine again, and soon. First, the aging autocrat wants to shore up his legacy as one of the great Russian leaders. Greatness in Russian history is measured by territorial conquests, not GDP or international standing. In the fifteenth century, Ivan the Great secured his place in Russian history by reclaiming lands that the Mongols had taken and held for two centuries. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the empire of Tsar Nicholas II dissolved. The Bolsheviks, who had seized power after the revolution, reconstituted the Russian empire in a series of bloody conflicts, including a war with Poland. Joseph Stalin, who played a key role in that effort, also beat back the Nazis from Moscow in World War II, going on to enlarge the Soviet empire by subjugating half of Europe. No one has reunited what Putin and his court ideologists consider to be Russia’s historical lands after the collapse of the Soviet empire, an event Putin has described as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Putin is thinking about a thousand years of Russian history and his place in it.
The Russian leader also knows that he would likely get away with invading Ukraine. As the Russia experts Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss have suggested, Putin had a very good year. He had a summit with Biden in June; the United States and Russia restarted talks on nuclear arms control and cybersecurity; construction of Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline that will run from Russia to Germany, was completed (although it hit a recent snag when Germany’s energy regulator halted the project); and high oil prices have filled the Kremlin’s coffers. Putin may not feel invincible, but when he looks at a leaderless Europe and the domestic chaos in the United States, he’s confident that he has a free hand in eastern Europe. He sees Biden’s declining popularity numbers, U.S. distaste for further foreign adventures after the helter-skelter withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Washington’s fixation with China. Europe doesn’t have the defensive forces to stand up to him, and Washington will not go to war over Ukraine, despite what Blinken described as an “ironclad” commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence. The most the West will likely do is scold and sanction.
Reflecting this confidence, Moscow’s bellicose rhetoric toward Ukraine has skyrocketed in 2021. In July, most observers groaned at the revanchist drivel in Putin’s 5,000-word treatise about the unity of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. Months later, with Russian troops poised on the Ukrainian border, the long-winded essay may have laid the groundwork for an invasion. “I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kyiv simply does not need Donbas,” Putin wrote in the essay about the region in eastern Ukraine. He also questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine’s borders, positing that modern Ukraine sits on Russia’s historical lands. He concluded the piece by rejecting Ukrainian sovereignty.
Putin’s essay wasn’t all. In September, the Kremlin declared that NATO expanding to include Ukraine would represent a redline for Putin. In October, Putin made headlines by claiming that an aggressive nationalist minority controls Ukraine and that it doesn’t matter who holds the presidency. Even if the president is a native Russian speaker hailing from southeastern Ukraine, he is not legitimate. Putin was hinting at his previous rhetoric that fascists and “anti-Semitic forces” run Kyiv and that Russian speakers are under threat in Ukraine again, an argument that he used as a pretext to invade the Donbas in 2014. Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin ally who served as president and prime minister, recently chimed in with an anti-Semitic essay arguing that it is “meaningless” to engage with Ukraine’s leaders, since Ukrainian identity isn’t real and the country is under foreign control. He called Zelensky, who is Jewish, “a person of certain ethnic roots” and then likened him to German Jews forced to collaborate with the Nazis.
Finally, Putin doesn’t think that he can manipulate Ukraine’s leadership anymore, and he has lost patience with Zelensky. Moscow initially reckoned that the inexperienced Ukrainian president would be easy to push around, but Zelensky has held his ground when it comes to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. After trying very hard but failing to end the war with Moscow, Zelensky embraced the idea of Ukraine joining NATO with the zeal of a convert. In 2021, Zelensky even had the chutzpah to ask why Ukraine isn’t already a member of NATO and pushed the issue aggressively during his September visit to Washington. Plus, Zelensky’s poll numbers have tanked, and Putin smells weakness.
The Biden administration has sought stability and predictability with Moscow, but the White House has begun to change course in light of Putin’s increasingly aggressive moves. The United States has sent additional defensive military assistance to Ukraine and shared satellite intelligence with the Ukrainians. If Moscow escalates, the next step would be obvious: Washington should levy sanctions in tandem with the Europeans.
But sanctions aren’t the only arrow in the U.S. quiver. The United States can help Ukraine make itself the most hostile place on earth for a potential occupier. Ukraine’s conventional forces have already come a long way from the ragtag army that confronted Russia in 2014. Biden should direct U.S. Special Operations Command—which has the capacity to take on a fresh challenge now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over and the United States is shifting to strategic competition with Russia and China—to initiate a new kind of partnership with Ukraine’s armed forces. The job would be to use every bitter lesson learned in recent years as the targets of insurgencies to make the Ukrainians the most lethal insurgents in the world.
To be clear, the training would not involve morally reprehensible tactics such as indiscriminate suicide bombing, which insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq used to tear apart their own societies. Rather, it would seek to impart the more mundane insurgent skills of organizing, communicating, leveraging the support of the population, and using the media to undermine the legitimacy and political will of the occupier that together made for a devastatingly effective strategy against the United States.
U.S. special operators won’t be fighting in Ukraine. That’s a job for the Ukrainians. But the United States can make sure they have the tools they need to make the Russians think twice about an occupation. Moscow has followed the United States’ misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan closely, observing the outcome when large numbers of conventional forces are deployed as occupiers; that is one of the reasons why Russia opted for a light footprint when intervening in Syria’s civil war. Moscow has no appetite to conduct counterinsurgency operations, so Washington should make clear that another Russian invasion of Ukraine could lead to an intense guerrilla war.
On the diplomatic front, the Biden team should be working overtime to resolve the dangerous standoff on the Belarusian border by helping the EU repatriate the migrants and cutting off additional human trafficking flights to Minsk. This won’t solve the bigger problem of Russia’s designs on Ukraine, but it will free up European decision-making bandwidth and send a signal that the United States intends to defuse the diplomatic and humanitarian bombs that Putin and his proxies are planting on the road to a stable, prosperous continent.
Putin wants to dismember Ukraine and prove once again that the country resides in his sphere of interest. No one can know how far he wants to go, but he wants to block Ukraine’s European aspirations, full stop. The Biden administration must do all that it can to de-escalate the situation in Belarus, bolster Ukraine’s defenses, and raise the costs facing Putin if he opts to embark on a major territorial expansion. And if Putin does decide to invade Ukraine, Washington and its allies should make clear that he has bitten off more than he can chew.
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