Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Ominous signs indicate that Russia may conduct a military offensive in Ukraine as early as the coming winter. Moscow has quietly built up its forces along the Ukrainian border over the past several months, which could be a prelude to a military operation that aims to resolve the political deadlock in Ukraine in its favor. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin may once again be engaging in coercive diplomacy, this time around Moscow may not be bluffing. If no agreement is reached, the conflict may renew on a much larger scale.
Why would Putin risk geopolitical and economic upheaval by reigniting the military confrontation with Ukraine? After all, he has good reason to be invested in the regional status quo. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, walking away with one of the largest land grabs in Europe since World War II. Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion have not bitten particularly hard, and Russia’s macroeconomic situation is stable. Russia also retains a firm hold on the European energy market: the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will cement German dependence on Russian natural gas, marches toward activation despite legal snags. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia are in the midst of strategic stability talks. Putin met with U.S. President Joe Biden in June as part of the effort to build a more predictable relationship between the countries.
Below the surface, however, Russia and Ukraine are on the trajectory toward renewal of this unresolved conflict, which may redraw the map of Europe once more and upend Washington’s efforts at stabilizing its relationship with Russia. Year by year, Moscow has been losing political influence in Ukraine. The government in Kyiv took a strong stance on Russian demands last year, indicating it would not compromise for the sake of working with Putin. European nations appear to have backed Ukraine’s position, and Kyiv has simultaneously expanded its security cooperation with Russia’s American and European rivals.
As Moscow has been growing more confident politically and economically, Washington’s shift of attention and resources to its competition with China may have convinced Putin that Ukraine is now a peripheral interest for the United States. Russian leaders have signaled that they have grown tired of diplomacy and find Ukraine’s growing integration with the United States and NATO intolerable. The stage is set for Moscow to reset this equation through force—unless Moscow, Washington, and Kyiv are able to find a peaceful resolution.
Russia’s force posture does not suggest that invasion is imminent. Quite possibly, no political decision to launch a military operation has been made. That said, Russian military activity in recent months is well outside the normal training cycle. Units from thousands of miles have deployed to the Western Military District, which borders Ukraine. Armies from the Caucasus have sent units into Crimea. These are not routine training activities but rather an effort to preposition units and equipment for potential military action. Furthermore, many of the units appear to be moving at night to avoid closer scrutiny, unlike the previous buildup in March and April.
The scenario of a wider war is entirely plausible. Should it come to pass, Putin’s choice to expand a simmering conflict will not be impulsive. The legacy of the 2014 Ukraine crisis remains more conducive to escalation than to the freezing of this conflict into an uneasy peace.
What has changed over the past year? First, Russian strategy in Ukraine has not yielded a political solution that Moscow can accept. After a 2018 campaign that suggested some openness to dialogue, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hard turn away from seeking a compromise with Russia a year ago eliminated any hope that Moscow can achieve its objectives through diplomatic engagement. Moscow sees no path out from Western sanctions, and talks between Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine are going nowhere. As these political and diplomatic efforts flounder, Moscow knows that previous efforts to use force have paid dividends.
At the same time, Ukraine is expanding its partnerships with the United States, the United Kingdom, and other NATO states. The United States has provided lethal military assistance, and NATO is helping to train the Ukrainian military. These ties are a thorn in Moscow’s side, and Russia has slowly shifted from considering Ukraine’s membership in NATO as a redline to opposing the growing structural Ukrainian defense cooperation with its Western adversaries. From the Kremlin’s point of view, if Ukrainian territory is to become an instrument against Russia in the service of the United States, and the Russian military retains the ability to do something about it, then the use of force is a more than viable option.
Russia may have leverage over Europe, owing to surging gas prices.
Zelensky’s administration also appears weak and increasingly desperate to find domestic support. He has not done much to reduce corruption or to separate Ukraine from its long tradition of oligarchic rule. His October 2021 approval rating, according to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, stands at 24.7 percent. Russian officials have made clear that they see no point in negotiating with Zelensky and have spent the year actively delegitimizing his administration. If Moscow has dispensed with even the pretense of diplomatic engagement, this suggests that the use of force is growing ever more likely.
Russia’s domestic position and broader geopolitical developments are no less important. Putin’s regime appears secure and the opposition is heavily repressed. Moscow has rebuilt its financial position since the onset of Western sanctions in 2014 and currently has some $620 billion in foreign currency reserves. Russia also may have considerable leverage over Europe this year, owing to surging gas prices and energy supply shortages. Meanwhile, Europe has been mired in handwringing after the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and is still struggling to define its goal of “strategic autonomy.” The Biden administration is focused on China, signaling that Russia is lower on the agenda and Europe is not a top policy priority. Ukraine thus represents a secondary interest within a secondary theater.
Over the course of the past year, the Russian leadership has used stark rhetoric, drawing attention to its redlines in Ukraine. Moscow does not believe that the United States has been taking it seriously. In October 2021, Putin noted that although Ukraine may not formally be granted membership into NATO, “military development of the territory is already underway. And this really poses a threat to Russia.”
It is doubtful that these are empty words. Russian leadership sees no prospect for a diplomatic resolution and thinks Ukraine is slipping into the U.S. security orbit. It may for this reason see war as inevitable. Russian leaders do not believe using force would be easy or cost free—but they perceive that Ukraine is on an unacceptable trajectory and that they have few options to salvage their preexisting policy. They may also have concluded that resorting to military options will be less costly now than it will be in the future.
Russia won a peculiar victory during its 2014–15 military offensive in Ukraine. It forced unfavorable cease-fire agreements on Kyiv. Ukraine’s military has improved considerably since then, but so has Russia’s. The margin of Russian quantitative and qualitative superiority remains substantial. Russia’s success on the battlefield, however, did not translate into diplomatic success in 2014 or thereafter. The agreement that emerged from the war was called the Minsk Protocol, after the city in which it was negotiated. It proved to be a lose-lose settlement: Ukraine never regained its territorial sovereignty. The United States and its European allies, which avoided a potentially escalating conflict with a nuclear power, failed to compel Russia to withdraw through sanctions. And Russian influence over Ukraine—apart from the territories it either annexed or invaded—has since 2015 been steadily diminishing.
Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union in 2014, which brought it into the fold of European regulation. This was the very outcome Russia had been trying to prevent. Kyiv has continued to press for NATO membership, and even though it has no immediate prospect of entering the alliance, its defense cooperation with NATO members has only deepened. Although Zelensky ran on a platform of negotiations with Moscow and attempted some diplomatic engagement after taking office, he reversed course in 2020, shutting down pro-Russian TV stations and taking a hard line on Russian demands. The Zelensky administration has placed Ukraine on a path to “Euro-Atlantic integration,” the phrase that American diplomats consistently use to describe Ukraine’s strategic orientation—the road that leads away from Russia.
Although the fighting in eastern Ukraine subsided after 2016, the simmering conflict has obscured an unstable state of affairs in Europe. Russia and the United States, whose influence overlaps in eastern Europe, are set to be adversaries in what Washington now terms a “strategic competition.” But since 2014, the gap between U.S. rhetoric and action in Ukraine and elsewhere remains open to exploitation.
Putin could realistically try to divide Ukraine in two.
The Syrian conflict exposed a lack of American resolve with regard to its stated goal: “Assad must go.” Washington did not push back against a Russian military presence, allowing Moscow to expand its influence across the Middle East. The messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the dustup over the AUKUS (Australia–United Kingdom–United States) submarine deal with Australia, which left out and angered France, have revealed serious problems of coordination within the transatlantic alliance. Washington appears war weary, and Russia likely questions whether its declarations of political support for Ukraine are backed by credible resolve.
If Putin assesses U.S. officials’ support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity to be insincere—and there is not much to suggest otherwise—he will not be deterred from changing the regional balance of power through force. It would be foolish for him to attempt to conquer all of Ukraine, an enormous country of more than 40 million people, but it would not be unrealistic for him to try to divide the country in two or impose a new settlement that seeks to reverse Ukraine’s slide into “Euro-Atlantic integration” and security cooperation with the United States.
Moscow has long sought to revise the post–Cold War settlement. Russian leaders might imagine that rather than yielding further efforts at containment, a war on this scale would over time compel a conversation on Russia’s role in European security. Russia’s goal has long been to restore a regional order in which Russia and the West have equal say on security outcomes in Europe. It is doubtful that Putin believes he can achieve such a settlement through persuasion or conventional diplomacy. Russian military action could scare leading European states—some of whom see themselves relegated to a secondary place in U.S. strategy and wish to position themselves between China and the United States—into accepting a new arrangement with Moscow. This is not to say that such an outcome is likely, but it may be the possibility on which Russian leaders are focusing.
The United States should draw two conclusions from Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine. The first is that this is not likely to be merely another coercive display, despite mixed messaging from Moscow. “Our recent warnings have been noticed and are having an effect,” Putin declared on November 18. One day earlier, the Russian Foreign Ministry published private letters from France and Germany on diplomacy related to Ukraine, an insult to Russia’s Minsk partners. The key to Washington’s response will be to prepare for the possibility that a war could unfold in 2022, to conduct anticipatory coordination with European allies, and to make clear the consequences of such action to Moscow. By acting now, the United States can work with its European partners to raise the economic and political costs for Russia of military action, possibly decreasing the likelihood of war.
The failure to develop a coordinated response to Russian aggression has previously cost Ukraine dearly. In 2014, it was not until Russian-backed separatists shot down a civilian passenger jet in July—long after the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas region—that Europe got onboard with sanctions. The United States must avoid that ruinous precedent of piecemeal and reactive policymaking this time around. While Washington may wish to preserve certain covert options, it should publicly describe the basic outlines of its support for Ukrainian sovereignty in tandem with its European allies, and well before the outbreak of major military conflict. That would require a detailed articulation of Western resolve and Western redlines in the next few weeks. The humanitarian and strategic magnitude of a large-scale Russian invasion calls for nothing less.
Although on November 18 Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland characterized the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as “ironclad,” the language of treaty allies, the United States extends no formal security commitments to Ukraine. Such statements are eerily reminiscent of political support signaled to Georgia in the run-up to the Russia-Georgia war in 2008. Not only is Russia unlikely to be deterred by diplomatic terms of art that lack credibility, it will try to injure the United States’ reputation when Washington appears so overextended. The United States must act, but it should take care not to mislead Ukrainian leadership into expecting support that will not materialize. If the White House does not see a military role for itself in Ukraine, as was the case in 2014, it should tell this privately and candidly to Kyiv so that Ukraine’s leaders can operate with a full awareness of the geopolitical reality.
Secondly, whether or not a war breaks out in Ukraine in the coming months, the United States and its European allies need to be more honest about the current diplomatic cul-de-sac in which they find themselves. Russia is not in a geopolitical retreat, and Ukraine is unlikely to yield. A continued contest for influence in Ukraine is unavoidable and will get worse before it gets better. However, that does not preclude the search for a diplomatic solution that reduces the risk of the rivalry spiraling out of control.
Ukraine is at the center of that solution, and these conversations must reflect Ukrainian agency. But paradoxically, it is not Ukraine but Washington that has been visibly absent from the diplomatic process. The ongoing conflict is the single most important source of instability between Russia and the United States—Washington needs to tackle it head on. The search for strategic stability will struggle to coexist with conflict. But as competition between the world’s two major nuclear powers intensifies, it is not a luxury or a mirage. It is a necessity.
Talk With Putin, but Keep Him Guessing