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BERLIN — Will he or won’t he?
Reading Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s mind has never been easy.
And that’s just how he likes it.
In his standoff with the West over Ukraine, the Russian president has taken the guessing game to a whole new level, however. Depending on whom you ask, Putin is about to plunge Europe into its most serious military conflict since World War II or is staging an elaborate bluff to show the West that he’s as dangerous as ever.
If attention is what he’s after, he’s got it. At stake is not just the future of a free and democratic Ukraine, but Europe’s entire post-Cold War security architecture.
After amassing more than 100,000 troops and military equipment along Ukraine’s border at strategic points from Belarus to Crimea, Putin has put Russia in a position to attack and occupy its southern neighbor within weeks. Ukraine’s armed forces, however determined, would be no match for Russia’s well-equipped and battle-tested military. The question is not whether Ukraine could repel an attack, but rather how long it could keep the Russians at bay — and what happens next.
“The Russians might not have much difficulty declaring victory after a few weeks, but that’s when the real war will begin,” said Maximilian Terhalle, a German war studies scholar and visiting professor at the London School of Economics. “The difficulty would be to hold it and the Russians could very quickly be looking at a brutal guerrilla war.”
Despite such risks, a set of maximalist demands that Kremlin negotiators delivered to American officials at a meeting in Geneva this month suggests Putin isn’t looking for a diplomatic settlement.
Moscow’s conditions for pulling back — a ban on further NATO expansion, the end of cooperation between the alliance and nonmembers and a halt to NATO activity on the territory of its Central and Eastern European members — were obvious nonstarters. One theory is that with his unrealistic wish list, the Russian leader was simply trying to create a fig leaf for the history books, in the hope that he won’t be the only one blamed for what comes next.
“About the only thing not on the list was a request to return Alaska,” said Michael Kofman, a leading expert on the Russian military and director of the Russia studies program at CNA, a Washington-based think tank. “I think he wants a U.S. refusal to justify a use of force and for the historical record.”
But what’s Putin’s endgame?
It’s no secret that he’s bitter about the loss of Russia’s Soviet empire, which he once called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Many veteran Russia-watchers believe his goal is to reverse that history — to the degree possible — by bringing Ukraine back into the Russian fold, an aim he’s already achieved with Belarus. Such a course would remove the possibility that Ukraine could join either the EU or NATO, which Putin regards as a threat to his own hold on power, and reestablish a significant buffer between Russia proper and the Western alliance.
“I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” Putin wrote in an essay published in July, in which he also referred to Russians and Ukrainians as “one people.”
For Putin, a keen student of history who loves symbolic flourish, 2022, the centenary of the founding of the Soviet Union, would be the perfect time to move against Ukraine.
Though neither Washington nor Europe is giving up hope for a diplomatic resolution, it’s difficult to see what the West could possibly offer the Russian leader in lieu of control of Ukraine.
It’s also worth remembering that Putin hasn’t exactly shied away from using force in the recent past, catching the West off guard every step of the way, from his invasions of Georgia and Ukraine to Russia’s military deployments in Syria.
What’s more, if Putin were to back down without firing a shot after redeploying thousands of troops across the length of Russia (at massive expense), he would look like a leader whose bark is worse than his bite — not a good reputation for an authoritarian. His own elites might begin to question his sanity.
That’s why U.S. President Joe Biden and many NATO allies believe some type of armed conflict is inevitable, if for no other reason than to justify the buildup and give Putin more leverage over Ukraine’s future at the negotiating table down the road.
But what would it look like? Scenarios range from establishing a “land bridge” to Crimea to a wholesale occupation of all of Ukraine. Many consider the former option inadequate for Putin to realize his goal of controlling Ukraine’s political future and the latter too complicated over the long term.
To better gauge the Kremlin’s strategic thinking, POLITICO spoke to military analysts and defense officials on both sides of the Atlantic. While they disagree on many of the details, there was consensus that Putin’s ideal scenario would be a partitioned Ukraine that leaves him with control of the country east of the Dnieper River, which flows roughly down the middle of Ukraine, from the Belarusian border to the Black Sea.
In a prelude to an invasion, Moscow would manufacture some sort of justification for an attack, such as protecting the security of Russian citizens in the Donbass region. It might begin with skirmishes before mushrooming into what the U.S. has privately told its allies is likely to turn into “all-out war.”
With thousands of troops stationed in Belarus, which is less than 200 kilometers to the northwest of Kyiv, as well as along Russia’s borders with Ukraine and in Crimea, Russia could mount a multipronged, simultaneous attack, sending mechanized forces across the country’s flat frozen countryside. A key target would be Kyiv, which the Russians could attack from both sides of the Dnieper, as well as from the air.
Russian forces would take a similar approach to other key urban centers, such as Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, located in the northeast of the country less than 50 kilometers from the border. In addition to regular forces, the Russian buildup also includes units of the Russian national guard, whose mission would be to help manage an occupation by ensuring order in the cities and helping Russian intelligence round up suspected dissidents and anyone else they suspect would resist them. Those arrested would be sent to prison camps, either in Ukraine or back in Russia.
A big question is how much resistance the Russians would face. Moscow appears to be betting on Ukrainians in the east, where Russian is the dominant language, to roll over and accept a union with their northern cousins, an assumption some observers think is a big mistake.
“The Russians are underestimating the Ukrainian resolve,” said Gustav Gressel, a Russia analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, who thinks the Ukrainians would put up a fierce fight.
But that would leave the Russians with two options: to pull back and accept a diplomatic settlement, or to double down.
“My gut tells me Putin will double down because the only way he can achieve his political goal of asserting control over Ukraine is to subjugate the country and occupy it,” Gressel said.
That would mean substantial casualties on both sides, including many Ukrainian civilians.
Even if Russia were to quickly take Kyiv and assert control over the eastern half of the country, the risk of a prolonged insurgency, supported by the West, would remain. But it’s far from certain that regular Ukrainians are prepared to go that route. For one thing, a flat country doesn’t lend itself to guerrilla tactics.
“It could well be that the Russians have concluded that an occupation is manageable,” CNA’s Kofman said.
Indeed, Russia has a record of subduing insurgencies, most notably in Chechnya. One look at Grozny, the Chechnyan capital that Russia all but razed to the ground, would give anyone pause about taking on Russian forces. Whether Russians would accept such treatment of Ukrainians is another question.
With a Moscow-friendly puppet government in place in Kyiv and control of eastern Ukraine, the western, predominantly Ukrainian-speaking half of the country, would become a kind of rump state, a buffer between Russian and NATO spheres.
If that happens, Putin might have removed the threat that he believes a free Ukraine poses to his rule, but the costs would be huge on all sides.
A Russian attack and occupation of the east would trigger a refugee wave to western Ukraine and Europe. Ukrainians are allowed visa-free travel to the EU, making it likely many would travel there to apply for asylum.
The West, which has so far been divided when it comes to further sanctions against Russia, would be more united than at any time since the Cold War.
Even in Germany, where the political establishment has bent over backward to give Putin the benefit of the doubt, the tide would turn. If there’s one thing the German left won’t accept, it’s armed conflict, especially when civilians are killed.
“An invasion would bring NATO together like never before,” said one senior German defense official.
That would likely lead to more U.S. troops in Europe and the suspension of the West’s agreement with Russia not to establish permanent NATO bases in the Baltics or in Central and Eastern Europe. Discussions in Finland and Sweden about joining NATO would intensify.
Germany’s resistance to spending more on defense would evaporate.
The U.S., whose forces would be stretched thin between Europe and Asia, would demand the Europeans take on more responsibility for their security.
Europe’s security environment would have fundamentally changed, likely putting simmering conflicts elsewhere on the Continent, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, back on the front burner. Russia could use its influence there and elsewhere in the Balkans, especially Serbia, to trigger further divisions in Europe.
A big question is whether Putin is prepared to stomach the massive hit the Russian economy would take in the wake of an invasion.
The West would impose much tougher sanctions on Russia than anything currently in place. Beyond initial steps such as canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and suspending Russia from the international financial payment system known as SWIFT, the U.S. could impose crippling sanctions on Russian banks, making it all but impossible for them to operate internationally.
Those moves would make Russia even more dependent on China, opening Putin up to pressure from Beijing.
But Russia, which is a major gas and oil supplier to the West, wouldn’t be the only one feeling pain. Sanctions on the country’s energy sector would likely send global commodity prices higher, something consumers would feel almost immediately at the gas pump and on their heating bills.
While some worry another Russian invasion of Ukraine would vault Europe back to the Cold War, that may only be half right. For much of the Cold War, relations between East and West were stable, governed by an array of arms-control agreements and other treaties. What may lie ahead promises to be much more unpredictable. And unlike during the Cold War, the U.S. has to split its attention between Asia and Europe.
Another big concern is that China could use a crisis in Ukraine to try and take Taiwan by force, a step that would thrust the world into an even deeper crisis.
“It’s definitely going to get a lot darker and worse before it gets better,” Kofman predicted. “We’re going to return to a very old world that some of us were hoping not to see again.”