In the aftermath of Russia’s illegal 2014 seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, I had a chance opportunity to ask a senior Russian official what President Vladimir Putin’s objectives were in Ukraine. The response was one word, and memorable: “Kiev.”
Putin had taken the opportunity to annex Crimea at a time when conditions made it relatively easy. The Putin-backed president of independent Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, had fled to Russia as months of street protests in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv (the Ukrainian transliteration vs. the Russian-language Kiev) reached a crescendo. The protestors had been outraged at Yanukovych’s decision to reject a potential association with the European Union and turn to Moscow instead, so the demonstrations signaled not only a political realignment but also a cultural shift to the West that likely further spurred Putin’s ire. There was chaos and confusion. And Putin probably was confident of public approval at home for a seizure of Crimea, an approval that he in fact received. Even some Westerners made arguments along the lines of, “Well you have to understand, Crimea is part of the essence of Russia.”
The United States and the EU were caught off guard, and only months later began to muster some weapons and intelligence support for the Ukrainians in the war in the east. But the U.S. and its allies never seriously entertained applying their own military force in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.
In that regard, today seems similar: a direct Western military response isn’t seen as likely, despite U.S. and EU sanctions rattling. President Joe Biden is preparing for a virtual meeting with Putin tomorrow and said on Dec. 3 that he is preparing what “will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to do what people are worried he may do,”
But Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, had helped Russia on Ukraine by stirring uncertainty with his threat to withhold U.S. military aid that had finally become more robust. Biden has withdrawn U.S. forces from Afghanistan, ceding control to the Taliban, and has signaled a distinct disinterest in military ventures abroad, though Congress has allotted $400 million this fiscal year for military aid to Ukrainian forces. Furthermore, Biden’s Democratic majority in Congress is highly vulnerable to a resurgence of Trump’s Republicans in the 2022 midterms. And that’s not to mention a potential return to the campaign trail for Trump himself for the 2024 presidential elections. Biden is nearing Trump’s lows in public approval ratings, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight of multiple poll results as of Dec. 3. So Putin would appear to have little to fear in terms of military consequences.
The Russian official’s description to me of Putin’s goal was echoed recently by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius in a Nov. 18 column: “Putin’s goal seems to be restoration of Moscow’s Soviet-era hegemony over Kiev.” Hegemony over Kiev – and possibly a large chunk of Ukraine more broadly – could come to Russia in one of two ways, by invasion or via a coup that topples Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and establishes a puppet regime. Zelenskyy recently cited signs of such coup planning, but such signs also might stem from Russian dezinformatze to distract the West from a focus on a direct military threat.
One might think the Western response to an invasion might be stronger and less controversial than responding to a coup. But that may not be the case – both scenarios are complicated. U.S. and European diplomats have been warning Putin for some time to pull back what looks like an invasion force – now said to be plans and movements geared for launching an all-out attack on Ukraine as soon as early next year, with 175,000 troops backed by armor and artillery units. The U.S. and European diplomats threaten “harsh consequences from a U.S.-led coalition,” as Ignatius put it. This sounds reasonably strong, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed to suggest a firm response on Nov. 10 in a joint press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Saying he was speaking for Biden, Blinken declared, “Our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, to its independence, to its territorial integrity is ironclad.”
CIA Director William J. Burns also had paid a visit to Moscow earlier in November to meet with senior Russian officials, and warned them that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would prompt the United States to impose serious economic measures and eliminate any hope of better relations with the West. Blinken then reiterated the threat of “high-impact economic measures” during meetings of NATO foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia, earlier this month, though he gave no details. The reference might signal the possibility of ejecting Russia from the SWIFT banking system, which manages international transactions in dollars. This indeed would be a severe penalty, one that the West considered but declined to impose on Russia in 2014. And Germany might balk this time, too, if Russia proclaims in turn that it would be unable to provide its usual gas supplies.
Yet, it could be that more economic sanctions, even the prospect of expulsion from SWIFT, would not deter Putin from attempting to win back Ukraine, which Russian nationalists consider their jewel in the crown. Putin once declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geo-strategic catastrophe of the 20th Century.” And he might think that U.S. and EU political conditions are ripe for a weak response.
In addition to the above-mentioned factors constraining Biden, the U.S. president appears to want to continue holding high-level talks with Russia to improve relations overall and to revive the arms control process. For his part, Putin has floated a variety of security assurances that he suggests might ameliorate his supposed sense of threat from NATO. Some, such as a formal agreement that NATO would forego any further expansion and that Ukraine will never join NATO, are nonstarters because they would amount to a Russian veto over NATO and Ukrainian decisions in the future and because it is exceedingly difficult for one U.S. administration to bind future administrations on such issues. Some analysts also have noted that Ukraine in the 1990s gave up its nuclear arsenal, the third-largest in the world, after the breakup of the Soviet Union in return for assurances from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom in what was known as the Budapest Memorandum, a pledge that Putin reneged on when he invaded Ukraine just 20 years later in 2014.
Further evidence that Putin has an even larger invasion in mind includes a long article he published on the Kremlin’s website in July, in which he expounded that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people — a single whole.” He argued that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” This, of course, would come as a surprise to Ukrainians, considering Russians never considered them to be anything more than an inferior people in either the former Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. And as far as sovereignty with Russia, Ukraine would recall the terrible purge of Ukrainians under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev on Stalin’s orders in the late 1930s. The fact is that Russians have never treated Ukrainians equally since the fall of the Kievan Rus and its incorporation into Russia in the 17th Century.
Putin Talks About Ukraine Like China’s President Xi on Taiwan
It is notable that Putin speaks of Ukraine in much the same way as Chinese President Xi Jinping does of Taiwan when demanding reunification. To add to Putin’s ominous exposition, former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin tool, published an article in the Russian news outlet Kommersant in October excoriating Ukraine as a “vassal” state and its president, Zelenskyy, as “`weak,’ `ignorant’ and `unreliable’,” according to the Moscow Times.
And now Belarus is in the picture. The highly unpopular longtime dictator who has been in office since 1994 and consolidated his own power just a few years later, Alexander Lukashenko, played Putin off against the West for decades until succumbing to Putin’s influence entirely in desperation last year, when his rule appeared threatened by months-long protests in the wake of another rigged election. Taking lessons or direction – it’s hard to tell which — Lukashenko has since waged an unprecedentedly violent crackdown on his opponents, even going so far as to intercept a Ryanair passenger plane mid-flight last spring, forcing it to land in Belarus so his goons could abduct an opposition journalist who was living in exile in Lithuania.
Now Lukashenko has expressed support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, signaling that he could deploy Belarusian forces to his own border with Ukraine to help out. If Putin incorporates both Ukraine and Belarus along the way, his mission to reestablish the Russian Empire might begin to look vaguely practical. In any case, forces coming from Belarus as well as Russia could complicate things further for the West.
If new Russian troops do cross the Ukrainian border and start moving toward Kiev and Odessa and if troops start coming from the north – Belarus — as well, NATO will need to make important decisions very quickly. The United States and NATO are talking as if they are foreclosing any direct military action and instead plan to rely on economic sanctions alone. This could set a bad precedent for other adventures that Putin and Xi might have in store for Europe and Asia, including Taiwan.
In the worst-case scenario of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine that reaches the Dnieper River and Kyiv, the U.S. could consider not only imposing severe sanctions but also sending a contingent of special operations forces to Western Ukraine and announcing that it would not cross the Dnieper River but would stay in Western Ukraine until Putin is prepared to make a deal. Putin seems to care little about Western Ukraine, perhaps largely because it wasn’t under Russian influence before it was pulled into the Soviet Union with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. That also might provide a safe haven for the legitimate government of Ukraine, should it be forced out of Kyiv.
But the United States should never let Russia seize Ukraine or successfully overthrow the government from within. As the Washington Post’s editorial board says, American diplomacy will succeed only if it is “backed up with political, economic and military strength” The United States will have many such challenges in the years ahead, primarily from Russia and China — they are not going to change into peaceful partners. So the U.S. and its partners will have to learn how to suppress moves like the one Putin apparently is contemplating.