What is Vladimir Putin Really Up To?
(Originally published on AMAC)
What does Putin want? It seems to be the question bewitching the Western world. Debate rages in the media, driven on by leaks from governmental sources which alternatively assert “no certainty” and imply the most wild suggestions that Putin is after not just part of Ukraine, but Kiev, the entire country, or maybe even the Baltic States or Poland. Biden poured fuel on this speculative fire in his press conference Wednesday, saying he “guessed” Putin would probably invade Ukraine, and proceeded to make comments interpreted around the world as a “green light” for a Russian invasion.
Ironically, it is the efforts that both Washington and Moscow seem to be going to persuade everyone that Russian aggression is imminent—and that there is little the West can do to stop it—which suggests that both sides might actually be after a deal. A deal that would not herald a new frozen conflict or cold war, but that instead would end the state of tension which has existed since 2014.
Under this interpretation, Putin’s actual aim is not to conquer Ukraine, depose its government, or gain “guarantees” from Western capitals that are not worth the paper they are printed on. In the latter case, Putin’s own focus on “broken” verbal assurances regarding NATO expansion by former Secretary of State James Baker shows he is fully aware of how little any democratically elected official can do to bound their successors.
The cause of the tensions between Russia and the West for the past 8 years lies in the status not of the entirety of Ukraine but of Crimea. As a practical matter, the West cannot—and has no intention of—reversing the Russian seizure of Crimea, and Russia has no intention of leaving. Neither Putin nor any plausible post-Putin government could sustain that. Even Putin’s nemesis Alexei Navalny, if he took office, would be politically unable to surrender Crimea. It’s not going to happen. Yet the Russian occupation of Crimea is used in Europe and America to justify indefinite sanctions against Russia, Russian companies, and individual Russians. In turn, these sanctions and the requirement that they remain in effect until Russia fulfills conditions it will never fulfill mean that Russia has no choice but to rely on China as its major diplomatic partner. Because Russia cannot engage with the West, Moscow lacks any leverage or room to maneuver in the relationship with China, even if they would prefer a Chinese to a Western alliance. Thus under the status quo, Russia is doomed to be not just a junior partner to China, but a satellite and human shield, which China can, theoretically, push into confrontation with the West in Ukraine whenever it needs to distract attention. This is an intolerable position for Russia. It is strategically disadvantageous for the West.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian regions Donetsk and Luhansk (which declared “independence” from Ukraine the same year as the Crimea crisis) are financial and political black holes for Russia, but Russia cannot withdraw from them or return them to Ukrainian control without concessions, and definitely not with the appearance of doing so under pressure. At the very least, conceding them to a Ukraine which still claims Crimea and states an intention of retaking it would vindicate the Ukrainian nationalist position. Yet Kiev cannot make any sort of “grand bargain” that might concede Crimea in the face of domestic opposition when the West still insists it is illegally held—despite the fact that absolutely no one has a realistic plan for how that could be reversed.
One very rational theory of the current Ukraine crisis, then, is that Putin’s objective is to break this impasse and move beyond it, not exacerbate or prolong it. Whether it be seizing Kiev, threatening the Baltic states, or occupying territory where a resistance movement would arise, all of these would worsen the trap, and leave Russia worse off strategically. But if the result of a Russian operation was to force Kiev and the West to formally recognize Russian control of Crimea in exchange for a withdrawal and guarantee of autonomy for the rest of Ukraine, the frozen conflict would be ended. There would no longer be any pretense for sanctions on Russia, which means they would rapidly fall. With sanctions gone, there would be a path to cooperation. The major threat of Ukrainian NATO membership, namely Kiev’s desire to retake Crimea, would be taken off the table. With those obstacles out of the way, the natural incentives for cooperation between Russia and the West – in the Middle East, in East Asia, and elsewhere – would take precedence over a conflict which makes little strategic sense for either side. And Putin would have successfully resolved the issue rather than leaving it “hanging” for a successor.
There are hints from the Russian side that this is indeed the idea. Sergey Karganov, seen as close to Russian Foreign Policy hardliners, implied as much in a recent interview conceding that NATO expansion was a fact that little could be done about, and that Russia’s goal had to be to consolidate its relationship with the West now as a prelude to friendly relations in a decade.
How does this factor into the behavior of the Biden Administration? Various American figures have cautiously floated the idea that Crimea’s status might be a settled issue, and that the U.S. might benefit from recognizing Russia’s seizure in exchange for something. Such suggestions always hinged on what that “something” would be—which was hard to define, not least because it was always as much a matter of image as substance. They struggled to articulate what they would have wanted. And after the Russiagate hysteria consumed Trump’s presidency, it became dangerous for any Republican to voice such thoughts, and unthinkable for a Democrat. But the conclusion is too logical for the notion to have vanished entirely.
As improbable as it may seem, it may be that Putin is in fact offering the answer with his present actions. The United States has painted his moves as the prelude to World War III, and his ambitions involving not just all of the Ukraine, but potentially the Baltics as well. An eventual settlement in which Ukrainian independence is preserved, and all that it “costs” is recognition of the status quo ante (i.e., acknowledging the obvious reality in Crimea) would look like a massive victory given the buildup of the last few months. It would mean Putin abandoning most of his demands, and conquests which the United States seems at pains to suggest they can do nothing to stop him from making.
In this scenario, there are two distinct issues at play. First is whether the Biden Administration believes that Putin actually is planning to invade and potentially go for Kiev. The second is whether or not they would want to promote that idea. Experts can speculate over the first. What is most interesting is the contrast between the public statements of the Biden administration – alarmist, warning of an imminent military threat – and their actions, in which they not only seem to be taking few if any steps to respond, but in some cases doing the opposite, ruling out options for retaliation and leaking that they might not even aid the Ukrainian resistance to a Russian occupation. If the Biden administration did believe the Russian threat was real and wished to deter it, doing the opposite would make the most sense. Even if they did not in fact intend to fight a proxy war in Ukraine following a Russian invasion, implying they would or at least keeping their intentions ambiguous would serve to heighten the costs of Russian intervention and keep them guessing. By contrast, what purpose does it serve to leak discussion about abandoning Ukrainian insurgents in the event of a successful Russian invasion?
Usually a propaganda war, like any other sort of war, is adversarial. But this informational war is oddly collaborative. The goal of both Russian and American messaging is to convince the wider world that a Russian invasion is imminent, it will involve overwhelming force, that Russia’s ambitions are vast. So that brings up the question: why?
The answer does not appear to be that either or both sides want a fight. Both Russian and American messaging is counterproductive to their nominal goals – deterring any Russian moves in the case of the U.S., gaining a secure borderland in the case of Russia. But there is one possible benefit of raising the stakes in public consciousness to this degree: It makes any eventual compromise look much better.
While this theory is of course speculative, there is reason to believe that Putin’s real objective here is indeed a “reset” of relations with the West. He intends to threaten war and the total destruction of the Ukraine to showcase the dangers a continuation of the post-2014 status quo will entail for all involved. That in turn will pave the way for a justification of ending the frozen conflict through Western recognition of his 2014 gains. The White House, by embracing his saber rattling, is effectively agreeing with Putin that the status quo is untenable, which will justify their agreement to his terms, and perhaps even allow Biden to claim a great diplomatic “victory”.
This would not bring “friendship” between Russia and the West. The Russian leadership does not believe friendship with the liberal elites who currently govern the West is possible because they do not believe those elites are capable of genuine friendship or even equal relationships with those who do not share their values and worldview. They look at the efforts to exclude not just Viktor Orban from the West, but the Polish government as well due to its positions on abortion. If there is no place for Poland or Hungary in Biden’s “alliance of democracies” what place could there be for a Russia?
However, nothing is forever, and many of those around Putin seem to suspect that the liberals who rule the West may not rule forever, and even if they remain in power, within five to ten years the rise of China will force them to realize that “purity” is a price they can no longer afford when it comes to allies. When that happens, when the West needs Russia, then there might be the chance for a real reset. But for that to happen, Russia needs to end the Cold War over the Crimea, the sanctions which come with it, along with the “poison” it has injected into American and European discourse. Only then can time do its work.
Does this mean war won’t break out? No, there is a reasonable chance of a Georgia 2008-style operation in which a Ukrainian military defeat would provide the justification for the settlement. But it is hard to see what Putin has to gain from an occupation of tens of millions of hostile Ukrainians which would worsen his dependence on China. It may very well be that rather than being on the brink of war, the West and Russia, they may be on the brink of a genuine reset in their relationship.