Just three months ago, the world seemed to be going President Vladimir Putin’s way.
In May, the United States dropped sanctions on the Russian state gas company Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, opening the door to yet more European customers being locked into Russian gas supplies.
In June, a three-hour summit in Geneva between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden had been cordial — far more so than might have been expected given Biden’s campaign rhetoric about Russia. Biden asserted (whether or not he believed it) that Russia “did not want a new Cold War.” And Putin praised Biden’s “experience” and said that the two leaders “spoke the same language.” They agreed to cooperate on cybercrime and terrorism and set up working groups on strategic arms control.
The anti-Kremlin posture of the Democratic Party also appeared to have diminished. A year ago, senior Democrats were blasting Putin for allegedly suborning the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan and warning of continued Russian interference in U.S. elections — a finding consistent with the incoming Biden administration’s own intelligence assessments. But by late September, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov were elbow-bumping after talks on “strategic stabilization” in Geneva. U.S. officials described the negotiations as “detailed and dynamic.” Ryabkov called them “the start of a journey … there are no unbridgeable gaps.” That same month a visit by Putin’s archenemy, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to the White House yielded warm words but a gentle yet firm rebuff to Kyiv’s continued pleas to join NATO. True, Biden announced a $60 million military aid package to Ukraine in September, added to a prior $125 million subvention from March — but the combined total is still 335 times smaller than Russia’s 2020 military spend of $62 billion.
That mild thaw in bilateral relations was still a long way away from another full-scale U.S.-Russian reset — the memories of Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and 2016 interference in U.S. elections were too fresh. And Putin’s continued support for pro-Russian separatists in the Eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas and an alarming buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border in April and May were clear signals that Russia remained dangerous. But “all in all, the relationship was going better than could have been expected,” said a senior British official who sees Prime Minister Boris Johnson daily. “Especially as [Biden] had been so hostile during the campaign. We were sanguine.”
Then, in October, something went abruptly wrong.
Satellite images showed a massive buildup of Russian ground troops, armored units, tanks and self-propelled artillery massing outside the town of Yelnya, close to Russia’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine. Moreover, intelligence determined that orders had been given to Russian military planners to prepare detailed tactical plans for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, according to Western security sources.
Planning, of course, doesn’t necessarily signal intent. But the White House immediately sent out its top officials to issue a stern warning to Putin. “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 told reporters last month. “We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions, but we do know its playbook.” The U.S. also began briefing European allies about the massive reinforcement of Russian troops around Ukraine’s borders and warning that an assault could be ready in January or February. As one senior European intelligence official told New Lines, “The military units being deployed to the various places in the vicinity of Ukraine are all out of pattern. As of now, the Russians lack the firepower and manpower to launch large-scale operations. It could be a different situation within weeks, but full readiness is probably two months away.”
The question is why Putin chose to inexplicably raise the temperature rather than build on American goodwill. Fear of encirclement by NATO and hostility to expansion of the alliance have been staples of his foreign policy for years. So has his obsession with regaining Ukraine as a Russian satellite. But what prompted his sudden change of tack from engagement and conciliation to aggressive military buildup, just as the makings of detente with the West were coming together?
One explanation could be a series of what Moscow has dubbed “provocations” by NATO over recent months, starting with U.S. and British warships cruising off the coast of Crimea, waters Russia regards as its own, and culminating in a buildup of NATO forces on the Belarusian-Polish border in response Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s manufactured migrant crisis. But that alone seems flimsy justification for such a major policy pivot.
Putin’s buildup of both troops and rhetoric seems to have taken many in Russian policy making circles “by surprise,” according to Mark Galeotti of the University of London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Galeotti speculates that Putin may have acted on intelligence reports of talk in Kyiv military circles of retaking the separatist territories. “Those who advocate a retaking of Donbas are few and insignificant,” said Galeotti. “But they are certainly being monitored by Russian intelligence. That chatter could have been reported to Putin as a serious plan.”
In truth, we’re unlikely ever to know what prompted Putin’s about-face. So the more urgent question is whether he actually intends an invasion, or whether the current escalation is just a saber-rattling bluff to scare Ukraine and test Western resolve.
As a lifelong KGB officer, Putin has an instinctive understanding of the strategic value of dissimulation and dezinformatsiya — or ‘deza,’ in the jargon of the trade. The world-class, weaponized deza spun by the Kremlin is the backbone of his power at home and the secret of Russia’s ability to punch above its weight abroad, particularly in the absence of an empire, which once encompassed a sixth of the earth. Putin himself is a glib and cold-blooded public liar. See, for instance, his initial denial of any Russian troops in Crimea in April 2014; before his acknowledgement in a Russian documentary a year later that these were indeed responsible for the hostile seizure of the peninsula.
Despite his tortuous relationship with the truth, Putin has been outspokenly clear about one thing: what he wants from the West and is prepared to get, at gunpoint if necessary. This week he spelled out his demands once more in a speech to newly accredited diplomats in the Kremlin. Russia, he said, was acting only in response to a “growing threat on our western border.” To accuse Moscow of escalating tensions would be “laying the blame at the wrong door.” On the contrary, Putin continued, all Russia wants is to be “granted reliable and long-term security guarantees … precisely legal, juridical guarantees because our Western colleagues have failed to deliver on verbal commitments they made. Specifically, everyone is aware of the assurances they gave verbally that NATO would not expand to the east. But they did absolutely the opposite in reality.”
Those “assurances” that NATO would never expand are actually a myth invented (and later denied) by Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin, however, clearly continues to buy it and complains that “Russia’s legitimate security concerns were ignored and they continue to be ignored in the same manner even now.”
So far, so familiar. Putin has been banging his anti-NATO expansion drum for 20 years; so far, the only effect has been to scare his neighbors further into NATO’s embrace. But will a massive land invasion of Ukraine of the kind suggested by his significant mobilization actually get him what he wants?
According to the military journal “Jane’s Defence Weekly,” the forces massing on Ukraine’s border include some of Putin’s most modern units, including the elite 1st Guards Tank Army and Russia’s 4th Tank Division, both equipped with T-80U main battle tanks and self-propelled artillery. The units began moving from their bases around Bryansk and Kursk in central Russia in late September, apparently on regular exercises, then pivoted to a concentration and location that “marks a clear deviation from the 1st Guards Tank Army’s standard training pattern.”
The scenario reported by the U.S. military to NATO allies is of 100 Russian combined-arms mechanized units known as battalion tactical groups consisting of some 90,000 troops sweeping into Ukraine along multiple axes from Belarus, south Russia and Crimea. The multi-front attack would be supported by long-range airstrikes against Ukrainian airfields. Targets would include the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and the city of Kharkiv, both fewer than 30 miles from the Belarus and Russian borders, respectively.
A senior official in Ukraine’s military intelligence agency explained Kyiv’s assessment of the Russian threat in three scenarios, ranked in order of likelihood.
The first, and most probable, is a “creeping occupation” that would take place in the region of Donbas, in Ukraine’s east, held since 2014 by Russian-backed local separatists and imported Russian soldiers and intelligence officers. This envisages a combined effort by Russian spy services and agents of influence to first foment political unrest in Kyiv and other major cities — a so-called third Maidan protest movement in order to provoke Ukraine into a military response. “As of now, Russian has handed out passports to around 650,000 Ukrainians living in the Donetsk and Lugansk areas,” the Ukrainian official told New Lines. “So Moscow would view any action by Kyiv in these areas as an attack on its ‘citizens’ and therefore couch an incursion in defensive terms, similar to their pretext for taking Crimea.” Under this scenario, the official elaborated, Russian forces would move into industrially developed regions of Ukraine along the southeastern coastline. The Kremlin would then wait to gauge the international response before deciding its next moves.
The second scenario would be a multi-pronged but limited offensive launched from western Russia and the occupied regions of Donbas and Crimea, and Belarus, which in September conducted the joint Zapad (“West”) military exercise with Russia. This would fall short of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine but would instead aim at seizing the North Crimean Canal and critical infrastructure all along the southeastern coastline, including Mariupol, Kherson and Zaporizhia. It would also block Ukraine’s maritime access to the Sea of Azov, an inlet of the Black Sea. The notion of Lukashenko as a co-belligerent is based on noises he has lately been making about recognizing Crimea as sovereign Russian territory and joining with Russia upon the outbreak of any open conflict with Ukraine. The end goal of this scenario would be to force Kyiv to accept a political settlement to the war on terms favorable to Moscow.
The third and least likely scenario, Ukrainian military intelligence assesses, is indeed a full-scale invasion, “the goal of which would be nothing short of the full ruination of Ukrainian statehood.”
In reality, any of these contingencies would amount to a hard fight for Moscow.
Russia’s army is numerically superior to Ukraine’s, but only just. After nearly eight years of war, Ukraine boasts a standing army of some 250,000 strong, most of whom are ground forces with recent battle experience in Donbas. Thanks to U.S. military aid, Ukraine is armed with Javelin antitank and Stinger antiaircraft missiles. Nor is there much chance of a pro-Moscow fifth column appearing from among Russian-speaking Ukrainians. In 2014, Kremlin-backed separatists were able to carve out and hold less than half the notionally “Russian” provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. The rest, despite being populated by Russian speakers, stayed under Kyiv’s control. Russian soldiers would be fighting in a foreign country against a people with whom many have cultural and family ties. Ukrainian troops, on the other hand, “would also be defending their homeland, and would be supplemented by volunteers and militias,” according to Galeotti.
The cost to Putin in casualties would be enormous — not to mention it would trigger crippling economic sanctions that could shut down not just Nord Stream 2 but all of Russia’s exports of gas, oil, steel, aluminum and nickel. “We don’t see any plausible way in which Putin could actually win a war if he started it,” the British official told New Lines. “It’s not very clear what his war aims would even be.”
Though it is becoming clearer what the costs to Putin would amount to. The European intelligence official quoted earlier said that “U.S. warnings since October have been a wake-up call in European capitals regarding the Russian threat. Some took longer to wake up, but the situation has been taken more seriously over the past weeks. The main goal now for the European Union and NATO is preemptively presenting Putin with the bill for his actions before he’s had a chance to implement them.”
But is the master of the Kremlin aware that the juice won’t be worth the squeeze? It all depends on what those closest to him are advising. Key among them is ally and current Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who has supervised a massive upgrade in Russia’s military strength and sophistication, largely on the back of interventions in Ukraine and Syria. Shoigu is a political player and an undoubted Russian nationalist, but he is also seen as a hard-headed realist who’s likely to warn the boss of the high cost of any kind of invasion.
True, Shoigu and Putin’s inner circle have been wrong before. A blow-by-blow account by Kremlin pool reporter Andrei Kolesnikov shows that they were collectively convinced that Kyiv’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity was a Western-backed fascist coup and that NATO had imminent plans to take over the Black Sea naval base of Sevastopol. Those faulty premises led directly to the invasion of Crimea. Mustafa Dzhemilev, the Crimean Tatar leader, confirmed to New Lines that in a phone call he had with Putin around that time, the Russian president certainly sounded like he believed his own propaganda.
Putin and his inner circle remain very publicly obsessed with — and very deeply ill-informed about — Ukraine. In July, Putin published a long treatise arguing that Ukraine “is not and has never been an independent state,” claiming that Ukraine is an “inalienable part of Russia” that lacks a distinct ethnic identity, culture, religion and language, that Ukraine has always prospered when part of Russia and suffered when not and that Ukraine’s independence has always been inspired and sponsored by “enemies of Russia.” Such barbed commentary certainly sounds like the throat-clearing before a declaration of war. Also, according to the European intelligence official, “lately there has been a more intense Russian intelligence collection against Ukraine.”
This week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova complained that Ukraine has mobilized some 125,000 personnel in what she called the “conflict zone” near Donbas. Zelenskyy told his Parliament that the return of Crimea to Ukraine “should be the country’s main goal,” prompting more howls of outrage from the Kremlin, which considers any threat to the annexed peninsula as fighting talk. “We see this as a direct threat to Russia,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Interfax. “Such wording means that the regime in Kyiv intends to use all available possibilities, including force, in order to encroach on a Russian region.”
Putin may be angry, and he may live in a bubble of skewed information. But is he stupid? Unlike 2014, there can be no plausible deniability about “little green men” (the euphemism Ukrainians gave to Russian soldiers masquerading as domestic pop-up militiamen in Crimea) being responsible for hostilities once Russian bombers enter Ukrainian airspace. Starting a massive land war in Europe in the dead of winter against a neighbor that has spent the past seven years amassing international sympathy, diplomatic capital, and vastly improving its own war machine seems like the height of folly. Then there is the KGB case officer’s appraisal of the one man he can’t afford to misread.
Whatever his outstretched hand of conciliation in Geneva, Biden is no admirer of his Russian counterpart, whom he has publicly characterized as a “killer.” The American president has his own foreign policy obsessions: ensuring the transatlantic relationship and realizing the guiding U.S. principle of the post-Cold War era, a Europe “whole and free.” Can Biden’s presidency afford to see that decadeslong project come to dust by abandoning an ally to a gruesome war of attrition?