Ukrainian servicemen patrol Verkhnotoretske village near the front line with Russia-backed separatists in the Yasynuvata district of the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine on Dec. 27. (Andriy Andriyenko/AP)
On the fertile plains of Ukraine, the resurgent echoes of a Cold War with Russia is in danger of becoming a killer frost. Washington is sounding the alarm over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops massed at the border, and a potential strike against the western-gazing government in Kyiv. As the stakes soar to the risk of war in Europe, one question is at the heart of the crisis: What does Putin really want?
The possibilities are myriad and — especially for the hopes of an independent, thriving and democratic Ukraine — range from bad to worse. To force the West into broad security concessions in Eastern Europe? To effectively eliminate any future path to NATO membership, and long-term security, for what remains of Ukraine? To formalize the grip of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, invaded by Moscow’s “little green men” in 2014 and stuck in a near-constant state of armed conflict ever since? Or is Putin really intent on flying the Russian flag over Kyiv’s Maidan Square to complete his vision of Ukraine as a fundamental part of the Russian state?
Long-brewing concerns over Russian designs in Ukraine, which had calmed following a similar crisis last spring, have leaped back into the public eye in recent weeks as U.S. officials warned that intelligence signaled the growing risk of a Russian invasion. President Biden has ruled out one core Putin demand — a guarantee that Ukraine will never join the NATO alliance. But Putin has already succeeded in at least one thing: making the West pay attention.
In an attempt to defuse the crisis, the United States and Russia are set to hold bilateral talks in Geneva on Sunday and Monday, followed by more talks next week at the NATO-Russia Council on Jan. 12 and negotiations at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes Ukraine, on Jan. 13. Those talks come after Biden and Putin last week held their second call in a month, and as Washington and Brussels have both warned Moscow of tough new sanctions if Russia crosses a red line.
In their most recent call, my colleagues reported, Putin countered that any new sanctions from the Ukraine crisis would trigger “a complete rupture of relations” between Moscow and Washington.
The intervention of Russian troops in Kazakhstan on the request of its pro-Kremlin government following the eruption of broad protests may yet influence the Kremlin’s military calculus or timing in Ukraine. On the back of the violent quashing of dissent in Belarus, the uprising in Kazakhstan underscores the challenges facing Russia in maintaining is sphere of influence.
But the challenge now is to game Putin’s bigger strategy in Ukraine.
In a captivating piece in the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum writes of two schools of thought in Kyiv. “The skeptical school essentially thinks this whole situation might be a huge bluff: The Russians have deliberately set out to ‘scare the Americans,’ ” she said, “in order to create pressure on Ukraine to change its constitution as the Russians would like, or to put Putin at the center of international attention, or to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence inside old Soviet borders.”
For them, Putin’s goal seems to have “chalked up some wins” by focusing the attention of the White House and NATO not on the Ukraine crisis per se, but on Russia’s attempts to force the West to engage it over trumped-up claims of Western aggression.
But there’s also a more worrying pessimistic view. In July, Putin published a 5,000-word essay in which he effectively asserted a historical and cultural basis for his claims in Ukraine, questioning the legitimacy of its modern borders and, as the Atlantic Council’s Peter Dickinson noted, arguing that much of it occupies historically Russian lands. “Russia was robbed,” Putin bluntly wrote.
Back in Kyiv, Applebaum said the pessimists fear this: “If Putin believes that Ukraine must be destroyed sooner or later; if he believes that historical wrongs must be righted; even if he just wants to gain back some of the popularity he has lost to covid, corruption, and a poor economy, then he might have reasons to think that this is a good moment to do it.”
The United States is a house divided. The E.U. is pandemic-weary and distracted. What better moment could Putin get?
A better assessment of Russian motives and goals could be the most useful takeaway from the high-stakes meetings in Europe next week.
“I think Putin wants a couple of things out of the crisis he has created, one of which is a settlement of the [conflict in eastern Ukraine] on Russian terms, with heavy autonomy for the Donbas region,” Defense Priorities Policy Director Benjamin H. Friedman told Today’s WorldView this week. “And secondly, he wants the U.S. to take the lead of saying no NATO in Ukraine, and no Ukraine in NATO.”
Andrew Lohsen, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me he expects the talks to start off strong in the bilateral with the Russians and Americans, before losing steam when the forum shifts to NATO. Moscow would be making the point that it feels Washington is the decider, and thus, wants to deal directly with the White House.
The question is not only whether Biden may ultimately budge on some sort of pledge to Putin on Ukraine, but how much Washington is willing to discuss a broader revamp of the security paradigm in Europe. Putin, though, has generated so much buzz over the crisis at home that he may have gone too far to simply back down now. If he gets no concessions, he has various options. They could include missile strikes, cyberattacks, a broader intervention in Donbas or, as some fear, a full on invasion.
“Russia needs to come out of this crisis with some kind of victory; it needs some kind of concession from the U.S. or NATO,” Lohsen told me. “Limiting military deployments near Russian borders could be sufficient, but I’m not sure if that’s going to be enough. This could very well be a pretext” for aggression.
But Putin has also succeeded in something else too: Raising the price for Western support in Ukraine. Even if Russian boots never march on Kyiv, the continuing threat of an invasion could yet compel Washington and the E.U. to tread more lightly there, and concede a measure of Russian influence, whether the Ukrainians like it or not.
“The conversation has shifted from how to resolve this crisis in Ukraine to how we prevent a war in Europe,” Lohsen told me. “I think the terms are much broader now, and I think whatever happens, Ukraine will end up a worse position than before.”