There was so much skepticism from pundits, much of it justified, towards American/Western foreign policy and media that U.S. and British intelligence reports of an imminent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces were being brushed off as alarmist and hawkish. Many (myself included) believed Russia was simply flexing its military muscle to force negotiations and exact diplomatic concessions from Ukraine and the West. After all, the world knew Putin as a menacing autocrat, but also a careful one who made efforts to control the political narrative and was strategic and calculating in his use of force. We now know that intel reports of imminent large-scale war were unfortunately not exaggerated. After the shock, the questions followed: Why did Putin resort to this degree of force and scale of invasion and why now? How will this continue or end? What are Ukraine and the West’s options? To understand how Russia’s offensive may play out and what scenarios we are faced with, it is important to get a sense of why Putin decided to invade given the heavy stakes he likely estimated, and to look back at how this operation is different or similar from his previous operations.
The grim reality is that only Putin can know the full reasons behind this fateful decision. The justification he gave to the Russian people and the world for this “special military operation” was to “protect people who have been abused by the genocide of the Kyiv regime for eight years” and with the immediate goal of “demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine”. Specifically, he was referring to the protection of Russians in the separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, which he had recognized as independent a few days earlier and who his own chief spy nervously agreed should be annexed to Russia. However, the most significant grievance that Russia has pointed to over the years, which many agreed was a reasonable security concern, is the prospect of Ukraine’s admission to NATO as it strengthens its ties to Western Europe.
Putin has been adept at influencing the internal politics of his neighbors and propping up puppets like Lukashenko in Belarus, but he has also shown willingness to use force in the past when his influence is compromised. In 2014, when Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was deposed and Putin’s grasp over Ukrainian politics was weakened, he took decisive steps to annex Crimea, a gas-rich peninsula in the Black Sea of key importance for Russia. For this venture, however, Putin was much more methodical than in his current one. For starters, the military operation was fully concentrated on the Crimean Peninsula. Moreover, although the playbook was similar to the current invasion, it was more gradual and mindful of the political narrative abroad and at home: Russia planted ideas about autonomy and independence referendums, began training exercises and amassing thousands of troops on the Crimean border to support separatists and use Russian Special Forces for internal takeover, and finally, moved in swiftly to capture strategic military targets “to protect civilians and stabilize the situation”. Although the territorial dispute continued, Russia quickly asserted its military dominance over Crimea and was able to weaken and destabilize Ukrainian politics through its influence in separatist regions. And so, a direct catalyst for the invasion of Crimea was Russia’s loss of influence over Ukraine with the fall of Yanukovych, preceded by the discovery of huge reserves of oil and natural gas in the Black Sea and elsewhere in Ukraine.
On this occasion, it is far more difficult to identify an immediate catalyst for invasion, much less a military operation of this magnitude. Although there had been no guarantees that Ukraine would not join NATO, the prospect still seemed complicated and distant, especially with the ongoing territorial dispute over Crimea. There is no question that Putin’s ability to coopt Ukraine politically had been steadily diminishing since 2014, and Ukraine’s discovery of large natural gas and oil reserves in 2012 coupled with its proximity to European markets made it a potential competitor and weakened Russia’s economic and geopolitical position. But Putin had been eyeing and destabilizing the Donbas region for some time, which is why many analysts believed this event would be a repeat of Crimea centered on this territory; to invade the entirety of Ukraine seemed an unthinkable leap.
Regardless of how the world perceived Putin’s pretexts for war, in contrast to Crimea, Russia’s propaganda strategy for this massive invasion was far more disjointed, hasty, and inconsistent. Even Russia’s allies have struggled to accept or defend Putin’s actions; China and Israel, for example, which have typically been charitable to Russia’s position rebuked the aggression. In fact, a visibly distraught Putin undermined his own Ukraine-NATO grievance in his national address defending the invasion by focusing on more dubious historical grievances, denying Ukraine’s right to exist as a nation and dwelling on Russian ethnonationalism and restitution of its former geopolitical status. Meanwhile, Russian media internally reinforced Putin’s imperialist vision that minimized Ukrainian sovereignty, raising questions of whether this could have been avoided with guarantees of Ukraine’s non-inclusion into NATO. Further, the eyes of the world were upon Putin’s military movements since November; so much so that Western powers and Ukraine made several last-ditch diplomatic attempts for peace, giving Putin less arguments that he exhausted all other routes. It appeared Putin had made up his mind to invade months beforehand, and the sheer scale of this invasion and brazen use of military force dwarfs anything Russia had done since the Cold War. With its assault on Kyiv, Russia laid bare its intentions to depose the entire Ukrainian government and to capture the whole country and not just the Donbas. Putin’s aggression was followed by a stay-out-of-it-or-else bravado to the West, estimating that without military intromission from other nations, Kyiv would fall quickly, but this could prove to be one of his worst strategic blunders.
The curse of authoritarian power is that it is built on yes-men and fearful subjugates which can hardly provide honest advice and prevent the leader from acting on his worst impulses. Indeed, there are many reports that Putin had been increasingly isolated during the pandemic. The visible nervousness of his close advisors during internal deliberations suggests that even they were uncertain of these actions, not least because Russia’s crucial economic ties with the West and rest of the world would undoubtedly suffer (already, the ruble and Russian stock market are in a free-fall). Russia’s oligarchs, although dependent on Putin, are also only loyal to the point that it serves their interests, and they must also realize the costs they will face in becoming a pariah state. His close circle understands that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine like the kind that is underway can quickly spiral out of control and lead to massive casualties on both sides, shifting Russian popular support which already appears split and has protested by the thousands. Even in the event of a Russian military victory in Ukraine, Russia’s political and economic outlook will take years to stabilize.
So, despite his known interest in overpowering Ukraine and maintaining his sphere of influence, what compelled Putin to act this decisively now? Proximate factors for his timing are the economic slowdown brought on by a dwindling global pandemic or the start of a Biden administration that is more antagonistic to Russia and amenable to NATO and European alliances than the previous administration. It is possible that Putin’s invasion came as a strategic challenge to the West, but an overconfident miscalculated one. Given the risks involved, it is unclear whether a full invasion was his intention from the outset or if he felt he was called on a bluff and decided to see it through, but surely Putin must be aware of how fragile Russia’s position is politically, economically, and even – to the world’s surprise – militarily.
It is likely no coincidence that Putin did not carry out this invasion while Trump was president, because not only could that have forced the two on a more direct and public course of confrontation, but it could have sabotaged a U.S. presidency that was generally favorable to Russian interests and divisive among European allies. An invasion of Ukraine at the time with no U.S. response would have solidified the idea that Trump was Putin’s puppet and potentially complicated his re-election. Putin probably expected Trump to be re-elected for a second term, which would have allowed him to continue to achieve politically what he is now attempting by force.
Now, by contrast, Putin sees Biden as a clear antagonist, and he knows the American public (and much of the Western world) is tired of war, skeptical of the reliability or importance of American influence abroad, politically polarized, and economically sensitive. Putin placed the same pressure on Obama in 2014 with the invasion of Crimea, and emerged relatively unscathed, keeping control of Crimea and suffering only modest economic sanctions while Europeans mediated the “peace” with Ukraine. This aggression is of a whole other proportion. There is no easy response for Biden and the West: on the one hand, doing nothing makes them look weak as allies and renders the international order ineffective as a force for peace, and on the other, going overboard with a response can easily lead to escalation of devastating proportions. Moreover, Russia’s aggression can and will be used by Republicans as an argument for Trump’s thesis that Putin would have never done this were he in charge, and that it is Biden and Democrats’ perceived weakness abroad that invites Russian aggression (this narrative has, in fact, made the rounds in conservative media over the past few days). From that perspective, it is not a bad time to rattle the West. He also banks on the West’s aversion to close-to-home instability and human losses since, unlike autocracies, democratic governments are always electorally vulnerable. Ultimately, Putin is an authoritarian who sees an advantage in demonstrating the effectiveness of the use of raw power and in exposing the weakness of other democracies and institutions that restrain them. It is no coincidence that Putin has nurtured relationships and even financially supported Western far-right, ethno-nationalist movements under the likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria, or Donald Trump in the U.S. (the irony of Putin’s “de-Nazification” argument is not lost here). To prevent democratic success and continuity, especially in his vicinity, he has repeatedly found ways to inject noise and chaos and prop up his like-minded allies.
With this scale of invasion, however, he may have gotten a greater response than he bargained for, and Putin has passed a point of no return. Regardless of the outcome, this event will significantly damage Russia’s soft power and status in the international community, especially while Putin remains at the helm. His domestic support, now pressured with heavy economic sanctions and the prospect of a costly war, might also erode. Russian police has had to clamp down on anti-war protests and Russian celebrities (including some oligarchs) are calling for a halt to hostilities. Moreover, Putin has fulfilled Ukraine’s and the West’s greatest fears. Before the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Ukraine’s public was split on joining NATO, and after, support for joining grew significantly. At this juncture, Ukrainian support for joining NATO will likely be overwhelming and justified. Unfortunately, this also means Putin has little incentive to retreat and simply accept both his material and reputational losses. A way out of this conundrum that does not involve the fall of Kyiv would likely require some significant concession that allows Putin to save face and claim victory.
To understand the greater picture, we ought to remember that Russia’s governmental structure is that of a criminalized state, with Putin at the top of the pyramid sustained by his close circle and powerful oligarchs that control vast resources. One thing that is often misunderstood about criminal organizations is how strategic they tend to be to preserve their influence and how effective they are at using corruption to exert and expand that influence. When corruption fails, they tend to use force in a targeted way. After all, they have little incentive to blow up the very system they dominate, but even strategic actors sometimes overplay their hands and make fatal mistakes. Moreover, their rational considerations can quickly go out the window if they feel their entire position is in jeopardy – this is called “gambling for ressurection”. Ironically, Putin’s hubris, paranoia, or miscalculation in attempting to expand his reach may well land him in his most perilous position yet. His war on Ukraine, even if won by Russia, will come at an exceedingly high cost and will continue to place political and economic stress on his regime. On the plus side, these vulnerabilities and mistakes can be exploited to undermine his influence over time, but on the darker side, these actors tend to be destructive in their desperation to hold on to power. One with a nuclear arsenal at his disposal must be managed carefully, as even the prospect of Putin’s eventual decline or removal by his own can lead to unthinkable scenarios.