When 100,000 Russian troops are lining the border with Ukraine, an invasion must be imminent, right?
Well, not so fast. There is no guarantee that developments in Eastern Europe are the prelude of a war. Russia’s military moves could also be a giant distraction from the Kremlin’s true intentions and strategies.
You have to give it to Vladimir Putin that he keeps everybody guessing: Guessing about the likelihood of a military conflict. Guessing about the Russian President’s further plans. And guessing about the goals he wants to achieve.
This climate of radical uncertainty has only one beneficiary: Putin himself. And maybe that is the real purpose of what is currently taking place around Russia and Ukraine.
Angela Stent is the director of Russian studies at Georgetown University and one of the best international experts on Russia. She has repeatedly argued that Putin’s goal was not to revive the Soviet Union but to have the Russian Federation treated as if it were the Soviet Union. As Stent explained in a recent NPR interview, Putin wants the West to accept a Russian sphere of influence.
From this perspective, Russian actions around Ukraine make sense. Putin has already made significant gains without firing a single shot.
Let’s start with the most obvious point: Ukraine has no chance of joining NATO anytime soon. Putin no longer needs to invade Ukraine to prevent it from joining the military alliance of the West.
How so? Well, if there had ever been a chance for Ukraine to join NATO after Poland and the Baltic states, that chance went away after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
NATO had signalled in 2008 its willingness to accept Ukraine (and Georgia) into the alliance. The organisation, however, cannot, by its own rules, accept new members with open border disputes. Thus, Putin effectively blocked Ukraine’s entry into NATO by creating such a dispute.
If Russia’s military mobilisation is thus unnecessary to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, what is it about?
The mere potential of a military crisis enhances Russia’s international standing. And orchestrating such a crisis when European domestic politics are in flux has the added benefit of triggering a response on the other side of the Atlantic.
During the 2014 Crimea conflict, the Europeans dealt directly with Russia in what is known as the Normandy Format. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met for negotiations, aiming to resolve the conflict.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, had a special relationship with Putin. Not necessarily a good one, but Merkel, fluent in Russian, had direct access to Putin, who fluently speaks German.
France and Germany are now actively working to revive the Normandy Format. But without Merkel, such efforts have not progressed beyond the level of foreign office officials. Besides, Germany’s new government is still figuring out what position to take on Russia, and France’s President Emmanuel Macron will soon have to focus on his re-election campaign. These are not the best positions to be in when you want to face – and confront – Putin.
And why would Russia even be interested in such high-level talks? Russia has already gained a much bigger prize: direct talks between Putin and US President Joe Biden.
If Russia’s goal is to become a superpower akin to the Soviet Union, then direct talks between Washington and Moscow, bypassing the Europeans, will advance that goal. And if Biden keeps stumbling through his press conferences as he did the other day (almost inviting Russia to make “small incursions”), that will further strengthen Putin’s position.
It also serves Russian intentions to see what political divisions the threat of conflict generates within Europe.
Once again, Europe is split in its response to Putin – just as Putin would like it.
Ukraine has asked for military help from Western Europe. Germany turned it down. Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s new Green foreign minister, has offered Kiev a new ‘office for hydrogen diplomacy’. Well, that is unlikely to deter an external aggressor.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has offered Ukraine weapon systems. That the British did not even ask Germany for permission to fly these weapons through German airspace is telling. Instead, they chose to fly them over Denmark.
Additionally, German politicians are dithering over potential sanctions against Russia in the event of a military escalation. New opposition leader Friedrich Merz, for example, warned against cutting Russia off from the international SWIFT payment system, arguing it would hurt German exporters.
Meanwhile, the governing Social Democrats are divided over the prospect of war halting the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. As if this project would still be globally acceptable under such circumstances. And as if the German government had not already made a deal with the US to stop Nord Stream 2 in the event of a conflict while avoiding US sanctions against German companies involved with the project.
Behind the Kremlin’s walls, one can imagine the Russian President amused. It must be incredibly entertaining to watch Europe’s countries fight over the mere possibility of a Russian invasion.
Without waging a hot war, Moscow has exacerbated new divisions within Europe. Europeans have been sidelined, and Moscow’s relations with Washington have been restored to eye level. The Russians need not even worry about NATO expansion eastward, either. It will not happen. From Putin’s perspective, it must be tick, tick, tick: all goals achieved.
It is probably even better for Putin since who knows what else Russia is up to under the shadow of Ukraine?
The Russian military will be conducting other activities to destabilise its neighbours while everyone talks about the soldiers at the border. These activities may include cyber-attacks, sabotage, and misinformation. In normal circumstances, they would receive much attention, but not under the threat of a full-scale military invasion.
None of the above is to say that Russia will not invade Ukraine in the end. As mentioned before, Putin keeps us guessing about his ultimate goal – and that may include annexing Ukraine.
But it is worth asking if Putin may have just built up the threat of an invasion as a bluff. And why would he now want to risk economic sanctions following a war when he has already achieved his major objectives without one?
The coming weeks will give us an answer, one way or the other.