Putin’s Wager in Russia’s Standoff with the West
A large war in Europe is likely in the coming weeks. The current security architecture of the continent, the future of NATO, and America’s role in shaping security outcomes there are all at stake. Beyond Europe, this conflict would have profound implications for U.S. defense strategy, and may upset America’s best-laid plans to focus on the eroding military balance with China. Ukraine, whose fate hangs in the balance, may be at the center of the crisis, but Moscow has a greater goal in mind: the revision of Europe’s security order. The Russian armed forces have conducted a substantial buildup around Ukraine, with Moscow threatening unilateral military measures if it is not able to achieve its goals at the negotiating table. President Vladimir Putin has been coy, but the threat is use of force on a large scale against Ukraine, including the possibility of regime change. Even if force does not get Moscow any closer to the wide-reaching concessions that it seeks from the West, Russia’s leadership likely judges that it will secure its influence in the country, deny Ukraine any hope of getting into NATO, and end NATO’s defense cooperation with Ukraine.
The unfolding events of the past year and the crescendo of the current crisis have been widely interpreted as a classic case of coercive diplomacy: threats, signals, and demands backed by a show of capability and resolve. However, it is more likely that Moscow was leaning towards a military solution. Russia’s diplomatic overture offered few prospects for success at the negotiating table. There is an eerie calm as Russian forces continue to position equipment and units around Ukraine. At this stage, Russia’s military retains operational surprise and could launch an assault on short notice. There will not be further strategic warning ahead of an offensive.
Prediction is always a fraught business, but it seems plausible that Russian forces would seize Ukraine’s eastern regions, as well as the southern port city of Odessa, and encircle Kyiv. The Russian goal would be regime change, perhaps via constitutional reform, and a settlement that would secure Russian influence over Ukraine. From a position of leverage, Russia would try to attain a U.S. commitment to give it a free hand in this part of eastern Europe. With Belarus firmly in Russia’s orbit, Moscow is eyeing using force to change Ukraine’s strategic orientation in an effort to create its own cordon against Western influence. An expanded invasion of Ukraine may not herald a prolonged occupation, but Russia appears prepared for that contingency. Russian force posture can enable a range of choices, but it is difficult to see how Moscow accomplishes any lasting political gains without having to resort to maximalist options.
How to Interpret Russian Demands
This crisis is not about NATO or Ukraine, but about NATO and Ukraine. Russia wants Washington to agree to a revised European order in which Russia has a veto over security arrangements and in decisions over security outcomes. By closing NATO’s open door, and halting defense cooperation with non-members, Washington would be acknowledging that Moscow’s security considerations supersede the right of its neighbors to choose their strategic orientation, and that security in Europe must be negotiated with Moscow.
Yet Russian demands for legally binding guarantees raise questions. On the one hand, Putin has railed against successive rounds of NATO expansion, encroaching military infrastructure, military exercises, and defense cooperation with countries like Ukraine. But he has also said that he does not believe in U.S. security assurances, and according to him Washington easily withdraws from treaties with or without explanation. So, why pursue such agreements with urgency when he believes that Washington may just bin them one day anyway?
There is also the nagging problem that no U.S. Congress, or any legislature in Europe, is likely to ratify a legally binding agreement with Russia based on such demands. Perhaps Moscow still assesses that the United States and its European allies might sign politically binding agreements that fall short of a treaty. While not legally binding, such agreements would hold strategic implications for European countries that are not NATO members. Those states would find their room for maneuver shrinking and would seek to hedge or to pursue a foreign policy that includes balancing relations between Europe and Russia.
Russia’s demands for a halt to NATO expansion, a rollback of defense cooperation with non-NATO members, and a return to force posture prior to 1997 (essentially a “go back to Germany” clause) seem to have little relationship to the deadlock over Minsk II implementation. These demands won’t secure a say over Ukraine’s domestic policy, or even get Russia out of the current sanctions regime. Furthermore, why didn’t Moscow make any of these demands during the spring buildup? The timing was no less auspicious. Why wait until the end of 2021 to come up with rushed proposals and demand rapid progress?
The diplomatic effort appears improvised, while the central demands were obvious non-starters for the West. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, often the last to know what is happening, was unsurprisingly surprised to find out it that was supposed to be coming up with these draft treaties in late December. Moscow has not only been asking for things that it knows it cannot attain, but it has been doing so in a manner that will ensure that it cannot attain them. Serious negotiations are usually done behind closed doors. By publicizing its demands and refusing to unbundle them in ways that might achieve compromise, Russia has made its diplomatic effort appear more performative than genuine.
Perhaps Moscow is just fishing for what it can get, but the political demands do not align with the military side of the equation. Settling for minor modifications to the already existing strategic stability agenda would appear to be a political retreat after releasing such ostentatious demands. Persistent references to internal time constraints, demanding “answers urgently,” suggest that Putin has been leaning towards using force all along. At Geneva, it became clear that Moscow views U.S. counteroffers for an expanded strategic stability agenda with much lower significance than its irreconcilable demands.
A dramatic expansion of the war is now the most probable outcome. In the spring the Russian leadership issued red lines, but if they really were interested in deterring an expansion of U.S. defense cooperation then such a demand would have been made at the June presidential summit, and they would have given the effort a bit longer than a few months to produce results.
Putin may see diplomacy as a last-ditch effort to avert war, but Russia’s posture suggests that he is leaning towards a unilateral solution. While some commentators may view this as a bluff, it hard to see how Putin imagined bluffing his way to a wholesale revision of Europe’s security architecture.
There are two overlapping issues: The first is Ukraine, where Russia desires to have a firm say over its foreign policy as well as aspects of its internal governance. The second is to block further NATO expansion and to roll back Ukrainian defense cooperation with NATO members. Moscow perceives its strategy in Ukraine as having generally failed, with diplomacy over the Minsk ceasefire agreement at a deadlock, while Ukraine is increasingly treated as a de facto NATO member. In statements, essays, and articles, Russian leaders have made clear over the course of 2021 that they believe that Ukraine and its territory are being used as an instrument against Russia by the United States, and if they cannot compel a policy reversal, they will seek military solutions. As Putin said in December, “if our Western colleagues continue their obviously aggressive line, we will take appropriate military-technical reciprocal measures and will have a tough response to their unfriendly steps.” What is remarkable about this crisis is how well it has been signposted over the course of 2021, with Russian political statements and military activity in close alignment.
Although the crisis has structural roots in the post-Cold War settlement, the proximate cause of this standoff is a series of political turns in 2020 and early 2021. After initially being open to dialogue, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration took a hard turn away from pursuing compromises with Moscow. Zelensky arrested Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk and banned three pro-Russian television channels in the country. Putin has also railed against a discriminatory language law passed in 2019, which has just entered into force. Not only has Ukraine continued on a westward trajectory, but Zelensky has also chosen to take a hard line, and has begun to actively eliminate Russian influence in Ukraine. This turnabout dashed any hopes that Russia had of achieving a desirable political settlement and removed a path for Russia to get out from under Western sanctions. Russian officials have publicly made clear that they see no further point to negotiating with Zelensky, viewing his administration as a marionette of the United States, and have instead approached his patron — Washington.
European capitals and Washington have backed Ukraine’s position. Moscow is thus faced with a choice between accepting that Ukraine is slipping away, or escalation. Moscow judges that it has to act in order to prevent a fixed reorientation of the country and the destruction of the key pillars of its influence. Among Putin’s grievances is the belief that Ukraine will become a platform for U.S. power projection along Russia’s southwestern flank and he cannot tolerate this prospect (recalling Moscow’s fears that led it to invade Afghanistan). Last fall he remarked “what if tomorrow there are missiles near Kharkov — what should we do then? We do not go there with our missiles — but missiles are being brought to our doorstep. Of course, we have a problem here.” Whether genuine, or instrumental, Russia’s leadership have often used this threat to link Ukraine to broader grievances on European security.
Washington’s effort to launch a strategic stability dialogue has also played a role. The Biden administration sought predictability in the relationship, perhaps so it could focus on China and pressing domestic concerns. The administration was right to launch this initiative and see if Moscow was willing to engage, but as Oscar Wilde quipped, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Moscow has now made clear what the price of predictability in relations is, and it is clearly one that the United States is unwilling to pay. Given that Washington has signaled that it sees Europe as a secondary theater, the price Russia would ask was inevitably going to be high.
Russia’s elite may believe that they are in a good position to conduct a military operation and weather the storm of Western economic punishment. Having stabilized the Russian economy, established a war chest of reserves (over $620 billion), and tightened the screws on its opposition, the regime is more confident economically and politically. Moscow has greater leverage over Europe due to surging gas prices and energy supply shortages. Putin might also judge that the Biden administration is reticent about enacting the most severe financial sanctions in its arsenal because these would cause ripples in the global financial system, a rise in U.S. gasoline prices, not to mention the impact on energy prices in Europe.
It also merits considering that Russian assumptions may be colored by war optimism. Moscow might believe that much of the Ukrainian public quietly holds pro-Russian attitudes and Russian forces might be greeted as liberators. Russian elites see Ukraine as a manipulable oligarchy with corrupt elites. Such assumptions and narratives run deep in Putin’s statements and writings. The Russian elite is deeply chauvinistic and has little regard for Ukrainian military capabilities. Moscow may judge the use of force to be preferable relative to the mounting costs of inaction, and the potential risks of having to use force later. Leaders talk themselves into war, imagining that the situation is imposed upon them and rationalizing that a conflict is inevitable so it is better to fight now than later. Russia would not be the first country to invade another, misjudging the socio-political dynamics, and the costs of occupation.
Can Putin Back Down?
The United States and its allies have made clear that while they are willing to discuss an expanded strategic stability agenda, they will not shut NATO’s open door, constrain military cooperation with non-member states, remove military forces and infrastructure from the territory of NATO members who have joined since 1997, or compel Ukraine to accept a form of neutrality. While a discussion on future missile placement, mutual reductions in military activity, and other measures might count as a diplomatic success for Moscow, it is unlikely that this is enough to satisfy Putin. If it were, why has he not pocketed the deal already?
After the meeting in Geneva, the United States was unable to determine if the Russian diplomatic effort was genuine or cover for a planned military operation. The head of Russia’s delegation, Sergey Ryabkov, didn’t appear to know either.
It is doubtful that the Russian leadership can back down without external and internal audience costs. Over the past month, the West has also been arming Ukraine in anticipation of a Russian attack, hardly a policy success for Moscow. If Putin backs down with nothing, the domestic and international perception will be that he was either bluffing or, even worse, was successfully deterred. Putin will end up with the worst of both worlds, seen as simultaneously aggressive and resistible. Also, while an authoritarian state may care less about domestic audience perceptions, the elites, or the so-called “selectorate,” are another matter. Authoritarian leaders like Putin can find their ability to manage political coalitions diminished if elites perceive them as reckless, incompetent, and increasingly unfit to rule. Putin certainly has options, but this is not a contest in which he can afford to back down cost-free.
A More Dangerous Mobilization
While the military deployment may appear overly visible, lacking in initiative or surprise, in fact the opposite is true. Russia is indeed assembling this force in a manner designed to conceal its operational aims. To some extent it retains surprise and initiative. The Russian military is deploying a large force slowly, and deliberately, with equipment that can be parked in the field for months. Troops can be quickly sent to these encampments, fall in on equipment, and begin dispersing. This conceals the final disposition of forces, and the timing and scope of an operation. With large numbers of Russian forces having arrived in Belarus, and more on the way, a large-scale military operation in the coming weeks seems probable.
Ukraine finds itself in a mobilization trap. Kyiv might be reluctant to conduct large force shifts — if Moscow is spoiling for a fight, then a mobilization order could be used as a pretext by the Russian leadership, claiming that Ukraine intends to retake the Donbas by force. It is also expensive and economically disruptive. Yet on the brink of all-out war, the calm among Ukrainian elites is jarring. Rumors swirl that Zelensky thinks that this is a bluff, and even believes that the United States is exaggerating the threat intentionally to force him into concessions. Ukraine’s leadership appears to be more worried about the impact that this threat has on the economy and public sentiments, than about preparing the nation for the war.
Since 2014, the Russian military has shifted formations to Ukraine’s borders, resulting in roughly 55,000 to 60,000 ground troops permanently stationed in the region (a 250 to 300-kilometer range). The forces normally stationed on Ukraine’s border can generate about 25 to 30 battalion tactical groups and the forces that have been mobilized in recent months to join them represent another 35 to 40 battalion tactical groups. Recently arrived forces from the Eastern Military District might bring this figure to a total of 65 to 70. A battalion tactical group is a task-organized combined-arms maneuver formation, averaging 800 personnel per unit (though it can be as small as 600 and as large as 1,000). It is essentially a battalion plus enablers such as artillery, logistics, and air defense. These formations are an imprecise but useful unit of measurement when talking about Russian offensive maneuver potential.
Total estimated end strength is therefore already north of 90,000 personnel. These figures do not include airpower, naval units, or additional logistical components that are likely to support this force. Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region might account for another 15,000 troops, but they have considerably lower combat effectiveness than Russian regulars.
The force gathered from other Russian regions largely consists of prepositioned equipment, but it is already sufficient for a military operation. There are indications that Russia has begun sending personnel. The current force is largely within the self-deployment range, which means they can move to the border in a matter of days once personnel arrive. Russia retains considerable force-generation potential and can surge units to the area on relatively short notice. Publicly available estimates suggest Moscow might gather a force of 90 to 100 battalion tactical groups, together with reserves, and auxiliary forces for a total of 150,000 to 175,000 troops. The Russian military is not yet in position for such a largescale operation, but it could have the requisite forces and elements placed in the coming weeks.
What are Russia’s Options?
A Russian military campaign could range from standoff strikes to a largescale invasion of Ukraine’s eastern regions, the encirclement of Kyiv, and the taking of Odessa along the coast. The question is not what Russia can do militarily in Ukraine, since the answer is almost anything, but what kind of operation might attain lasting political gains. Consequently, most scenarios seem illogical and politically counterproductive.
Given the stakes, and likely costs, any Russian military operation would have to attain political gains that give Moscow the ability to enforce implementation. In short, just hurting Ukraine is not enough to achieve anything that Russia wants. While some believe that Russia intends to compel Ukraine into a new Minsk-like agreement, the reality is that nobody in Moscow thinks that a Ukrainian government can be made to implement any document they sign. Such a settlement would be political suicide for the Zelensky administration, or any other. Russia has no way to enforce compliance with its preferences once the operation is over. This is, at least, the lesson that Moscow seems to have taken from Minsk I and Minsk II. Why would Minsk III prove any different? Russia has not struggled in getting Ukraine to sign deals at gunpoint, but all of these have resulted in Ukraine’s continued westward march and a decline of Russian influence in the country. It’s not clear how Moscow achieves its goals without conducting regime change, or a partitioning of the state, and committing to some form of occupation to retain leverage.
Those who think that Russia might simply conduct an airstrike campaign have an even bigger problem in explaining what possible political aims Moscow could attain via this type of operation. Most likely, the initial war effort will involve the use of artillery, precision fires, and airpower. Then ground forces would conduct a multi-axis attack from Belarus, Russia, the Donbas, and Crimea. A ground operation would entail the occupation of Ukrainian territory for some time to secure lines of communication and critical infrastructure, which requires follow-on forces and potentially reserves. The Russian military has been developing a sizable reserve and conducting partial callups to test it.
Russia could leverage the offer of an eventual withdrawal from Ukraine in exchange for a deal, figuring that the United States might prefer a broken Ukraine to a hard redrawing of the map of Europe. But this arrangement would undoubtedly combine current demands made to NATO with sovereignty impositions on Ukraine, including federalization to increase regional autonomy, and a rollback of defense ties with NATO members along with promises that NATO will never admit Ukraine. It is possible that Putin believes he can get such a deal, to be enforced externally by the United States, but only if he holds the bulk of Ukraine’s territory in his hands.
The increasingly likely scenario is that Moscow intends to install a pro-Russian government backed by its forces, which aligns with recently released claims by the United Kingdom. Alternatively, Russia may consider a partitioning of Ukraine. This would not be a total occupation of the country, but would include most of the country sans the Western regions. It would be terribly risky, and costly, but it would make Putin the Russian leader who restored much of historical Russia, and established a new buffer against NATO. A de facto occupation of most of Ukraine may be the only way that Russia can impose its will on the country if it cannot install a pro-Russian government. In launching an offensive, one of Moscow’s riskiest decisions will be whether to stay largely east, or to venture west of the Dnieper river.
Whether Russia intends to partition Ukraine or not, war is highly contingent. Russian forces may end up controlling large parts of Ukraine for a prolonged period either way. Indeed, this is how Russia originally ended up with the Donbas in the first place, having never sought to hold it indefinitely. Similarly, the Russian operation to seize Crimea shows little evidence that annexation was a premeditated outcome. Consequently, once an operation is launched, beyond the initial move it is difficult to predict how it might end.
Why not something lesser in scope? A smaller campaign, perhaps seizing the rest of the Donbas, would have high costs and risks. What does this gain Moscow in Ukraine, or in terms of revising its position in Europe? If anything, it worsens Russia’s current predicament. Russian leaders have acknowledged that their strategy of trying to leverage the Donbas has failed to deliver and are unlikely to double down or repeat something that they concede won’t work. The logic of a Russian military operation suggests that the best way in which Moscow could attain lasting political gains is to use force on a large scale and commit to an occupation for some period of time.
The Unfinished Business of Europe
If Putin’s aim is to see what he can get, then he may well take the low-hanging fruit of an expanded strategic stability agenda, pocket the win, and close out this gambit. Europeans would breathe a sigh of relief and U.S.-Russian relations would stagger on until the next crisis. This looks terribly unlikely. Alternatively, if Russia uses force on a large scale, Washington would have to make major shifts in force posture, reinforce deterrence on NATO’s flank, and reinvest in its ability to defend European allies, likely to the detriment of its aim to focus on the Indo-Pacific. The ensuing cycle of sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, and various forms of retaliation might escalate to the use of larger-scale economic and political instruments.
If Ukraine is unfinished business for Russia’s leader, then European security should be unfinished business for the United States. This is a defining moment. Russia may be able to temporarily set the agenda, but it has thus far not shown itself strong enough to make the United States and its allies in Europe restructure the current order to accommodate Russian preferences. There are fundamental disagreements in outlooks on international relations and which principles should govern them. Despite periods of cooperation, Moscow has long interpreted this as an order of exclusion, created and expanded during a time of Russian weakness. This not just a phenomenon under Putin. Missed opportunities, choices made and not made, cast a long shadow over European security.
This crisis reveals a problem in U.S. strategy. European security remains much more unsettled than it appears. The most militarily powerful state on the continent does not see itself as a stakeholder in Europe’s security architecture. There’s little evidence that without the United States, European powers can deter Moscow or lead their way out of a major crisis. The European Union is nonexistent in the conversation, begging for relevance. Yet the United States is materially constrained, seeking to focus on the Indo-Pacific and redress a deteriorating military balance vis-à-vis China. Washington’s dream of making the Russia relationship more predictable via a narrow strategic stability agenda appears to be dissipating. The United States will have to manage China and Russia, at the same time, for the foreseeable future. For U.S. strategy, it was never going to be China only, but it will prove exceedingly difficult to make it China mostly — not as long as Russia gets a vote.
Michael Kofman (@KofmanMichael) is director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA and a fellow at the Wilson Center, Kennan Institute.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defence