In 2014, Russian imperialism manifested itself with the occupation of Crimea in an attempt to create what in Moscow is called Novorossiya ("New Russia"), an area north of the Black Sea conquered by the Russian Empire. Yet, Russia considers its expansion into Ukraine an unfinished enterprise. The so-called Minsk agreements were masterfully designed by the Kremlin to lead to the "federalization" of Ukraine and consequently have these territories indirectly and forcefully governed from Moscow. Not long ago, Vladislav Surkov, former aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, confessed that he still cannot believe that the Ukrainian delegation accepted the conditions of the Minsk agreements.
The Minsk agreements soon appeared to be non-viable, but Russia nevertheless tried to convince Western leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to express their support for the Kremlin agenda, calling it the one and only way toward reconciliation. According to Moscow, Ukraine – which has been transformed into a battlefield between the Kremlin and the West – is not a sovereign country, but a sphere of Russia's privileged interests and therefore an integral part of the "Russian world."
Putin Insists That Russians And Ukrainians Are "One People"
Putin insists that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people" (read: the Ukrainian nation simply does not exist), and his junior partner Dmitri Medvedev argued that Moscow should not even talk with the current authorities in Kyiv, since they are "puppets" of the Western governments and are unwilling to engage in a "constructive dialogue" with Russia.
Many experts and policymakers believe that Moscow is just looking for the best moment to attack Ukraine and reintegrate it into "historical Russia," a term used by Putin to describe the areas ruled by Russian Empire or under the Soviet Union. From time to time, Russia and Ukraine approached the brink of war, as happened in late 2018 when the Russian navy seized a couple of Ukrainian vessels heading through the Kerch straight. Yet, what is happening now on Ukraine's eastern border looks more perturbing.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said nearly 100,000 Russian regular troops with heavy ammunition and weaponry are positioned between 30 and 100 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. U.S. intelligence has briefed both the White House and European governments about the possibility of a Russian attack launched simultaneously from Crimea, the occupied territories in Donbass, Russian western oblasts, and even Belarus. Commenting on the possibility of a Russian attack, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated: "Now, we don't know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know that he's putting in place the capacity to do so in short order should he so decide. So despite uncertainty about intentions, and time, we must prepare for all contingencies while working to see to it that Russia reverses course."
If An Invasion Of Ukraine Went Wrong, Putin's Propaganda Would Be Unable To Compensate For This Failure
Putin surely wishes to conquer Ukraine and to make it a Russian province, but will he really invade Ukraine now or in the near future? Most probably no, he will not.
Personally, I never believed those who argued that Russia would attack Ukraine in the spring of 2021, or in early autumn, or that he will attack immediately after the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline becomes operational. Putin's former aide Andrey Illarionov, who toured Ukraine in recent months, opined in almost all of his recent TV appearances discussing a Russian aggression that he is not expecting such an invasion to happen soon. The following are the reasons why not to expect an imminent Russian aggression against Ukraine.
First, Putin's actions have not changed for decades. He is more of a special "service operative" rather than a traditional politician or a general. Putin looks at politics as a series of plots leading to a desired result. He wants to be in control of the situation, meaning that he wants to be able to get out of an operation at any given time (as might have been the case if the Ukrainian army resisted in Crimea or as happened in Syria, from which Putin announced a Russian "withdrawal" at least three times) or to pretend that Russia is not responsible for the aggression, even while all evidence shows quite the opposite (as happened with the unrest in Donbass or every time an enemy of the Kremlin is murdered at home or abroad).
However, to move at least 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border is not the same thing as sending a couple thousand vezhliviye lyudi (Russia's masked soldiers, known by the euphemism "polite people") without any banner to the semi-autonomous Crimean republic. Such a move cannot be hidden, and there is no chance that Putin would not be seen as the one and only person responsible for such а decision. Hence, the Kremlin may be looking for Ukraine to attack first or to create another significant casus belli. If Russia attacks first, it would lose much more than it can gain, and Putin knows it.
Second, though his supporters claim he is a true hero, Putin usually behaves like a coward, as he hates to be accountable for his own actions. For example, he never met with an angry crowd of the families of the victims of a terrorist attack or the August 2000 Kursk submarine disaster. Putin also never admitted the Russian regular army's engagement in Donbass. The same goes for the presence of Russian mercenaries in Syria, Libya, and other conflict zones. Even when up to 300 Russians were killed by a U.S. airstrike in Deir ez-Zor in 2018, no one in Moscow commented. The only announcement about Russia's troops crossing the border of a country for a full-scale modern military operation was made by then-President Dmitri Medvedev during the 2008 Georgia War, while Putin enjoyed the opening of the Beijing Olympics.
Third, there is an important issue of the operation's possible cost. In 2014, Moscow dared an invasion because it had the backing of a part of the population in Ukraine and also because Russia hoped that the West would behave again as it did during the Russian intervention in Georgia. In fact, in 2008, the United States not only failed to respond, but even launched the "Reset" policy to improve relations between the Washington and Moscow. Today, however, if Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border, the West's response would be much more radical. Indeed, Western leaders recently warned that they would use "high impact economic measures" against Russia.
No one has yet seen the Russian army in action, except against the betrayed Ukrainians in 2014 and 2015. Hence, a Russian invading army may not be as strong as one may think and could be defeated. This scenario would be a true nightmare for the Kremlin, which largely bases its approval on having seized Crimea without bloodshed. It must be said that even in the case in which the Russian army would emerge victorious, no one knows what consequences Moscow would have to bear.
The fourth and most important point is that if the invasion of Ukraine went badly, Putin's propaganda would be unable to compensate for this failure. In Russia, Ukraine has been depicted as a failed state for so long that any kind of problem the Russian military encountered in a possible invasion would destroy Putin's Potemkin village (i.e., the facade that the Kremlin built in order to fool Russians and the outside world into thinking that Putin has created a strong Russian army).
Hence, it is too big a risk to put the Kremlin's credibility at stake for a prize that cannot be considered useful enough for such a tremendous effort (the very fact such reasoning appears now in the Russian media indicates a considerable change in the Russian elite's sentiments). The result of a successful war would be only a full reintegration of Ukraine into Russia, but Putin cannot afford to annex more than 40 million angry people with no warm feelings toward Moscow.
Putin Needs The West's Attention To Survive
If Russia has no intention of launching a full-scale war, why is the Kremlin intensifying its maneuvers and propaganda efforts against Ukraine, causing increasing concern in the West?
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The Russian leadership is irritated by the West's efforts to help Ukraine and by Washington's reluctance to press Kyiv for more action under the framework of the Minsk agreements. Putin wants to be a world leader, but no one is listening to him in Washington or Brussels. A bipartisan Congressional Resolution was even introduced to end recognition of Putin as president of Russia after 2024 if he remains in power.
In order to remain relevant, Putin needs to be perceived as a threat so that he can press the West to adopt new rules of conduct toward Russia. Indeed, the White House confirmed plans to hold a secure video call between Biden and Putin on December 7, though Russia would have preferred a face-to-face summit.
Russia most of all wants to be treated as an equal partner and wants guarantees from the West. Moscow is actually pushing for a new European security treaty in order to stop NATO's eastward expansion with the goal of making sure that the Ukraine will never be a NATO member or become home to military bases that may endanger Russia. However, these demands do not translate into a quid pro quo. The Kremlin does not want to become more cooperative in cybersecurity issues, did not release from jails a single U.S. citizen, and has no willingness to show progress in its human rights records.
To summarize, Putin is bluffing. He is the first to fear the consequences of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and therefore he will not give an order to start it.
If the Ukrainian forces try to reconquer Donbass, in the same way the Georgians tried to take South Ossetia back in 2008, Russia will not send its regular army to help. Moscow may either send some "volunteers" or just condemn the Ukrainians and the West. The Russia of today is not the Russia of 2008. It cannot afford a political and economic setback. Russia may not only fail to reunite itself with Ukraine (which is an impossible mission), but also fail to get any guarantees from the West.
At this point, the West's best possible response to Russia would be complete disinterest. Russia organizes its maneuvers on the Ukrainian border and provokes a migrant crisis in Belarus only because it wants to bring the West to the negotiating table, having the upper hand.
The West should not react to Russia's hysteria, while continuing to send more ammunition and military technology to Ukraine and follow through with a formal security pact with Kyiv. In this way, Moscow would lose its own "hybrid war," considered by the Kremlin as its most comfortable domain to act within. The "Great Game" – that some analysts are nowadays calling "in-between" nations – became more political than military, and therefore it should be played consequently.
A couple of years ago, I argued that Putin would not be seen as an omnipotent leader if the West would not have treated him as such for so long. Now the perfect time has arrived to allow Putin to demonstrate if he is really so "bold." The Ukrainian authorities should refrain from any provocations in Donbass, and Western powers, continuing to support Ukrainian army, should unexpectedly agree with the Moscow officials, who repeatedly insist that Russia has no intention of launching an offensive.
Yes, we trust Russia that it will not invade Ukraine, and of course Ukraine itself poses no threat to Russia, so for what do we need so many talks with Putin or his envoys? Leave him alone for a while – this would be the most sophisticated strategy for dealing with the Kremlin. The concerns about a Russian attack on Ukraine should be simply put aside for a bit. Putin cannot afford to launch a formal war against any country and become an outcast without support from a strong country. Russia is under too many sanctions, economically weak, and faces a looming perspective of a full-scale military defeat. Let Putin broil with anger for a while – this time nothing critical will happen.
*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor
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