Putin’s previous attacks on Ukraine followed two distinct scenarios. The Crimea annexation was a dazzlingly sudden grab. The Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine was, by contrast, reactive and perhaps even somewhat reluctant. It followed an attempt by armed groups of Russian nationalists with some initial backing from hawks in Putin’s own entourage to break the region away from Ukraine; after Ukrainian forces pushed back with surprising panache, Russian troops were sent in to save the secessionists.
It would be reasonable to assume that Putin is weighing some kind of sudden onslaught scenario in case his “red line” in relation to Ukraine is crossed. On Nov. 30, he laid down the “red line” explicitly at an investment forum:
If some kind of strike capabilities emerge in Ukraine, flight time to Moscow will be seven to ten minutes, and with the deployment of hypersonic weapons it goes down to five minutes.
In other words, what Putin fears is U.S. missile deployment in Ukraine, along the lines of the anti-missile defenses placed in Eastern European member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As Fyodor Lukyanov, the most clear-sighted of the Kremlin’s foreign policy explainers, wrote recently in the journal he edits, Russia in Global Affairs, Ukraine wouldn’t even need to join NATO to become a de facto U.S. military beachhead. Lukyanov’s suggestion was that Russia is seeking some kind of neutrality, or “Finlandization,” guarantee for Ukraine — but, since it’s unclear what form such a guarantee could take, it’s safe to assume Russia is preparing to use military force if Putin finds his “red line” is about to be crossed.
It’s just as safe to assume that such preemptive action will not be semaphored beforehand, and that its very threat is meant to be effective, forcing Ukrainian leaders to think twice before expanding their military cooperation with the U.S. That Putin is making the threat explicit is part of the game.
In the meantime, Putin knows that if he attacks without a clear provocation, or on the pretext of some artificially created incident, he stands to lose more than he gains. In addition to the obvious costs of war, such a move would bring back the currently eroded resolve of European countries to back up any U.S.-initiated sanctions on Russia, including bans on hydrocarbon exports, bond issuance and cross-border financial operations. With a new German government promising to pursue a much more activist foreign policy, Russia would find it impossible to avoid heavy economic punishment. Increasingly dependent on China, it would have no one else to turn to and would thus face a threat to its sovereignty. The only potential winner in such a situation would be the U.S., which would be able to weaken its adversary and strengthen its alliances. The U.S. would likely then step up its military presence in any part of Ukraine that Russia cannot win or hold, as well as in other neighboring countries — the worst possible outcome for Putin.
Attacking in response to real, provable hostile action, however, likely would not entail such consequences, even in a post-truth world where any event can be spun as its exact opposite. The 2008 Georgian-Russian war provides a relevant example.
An independent international fact-finding mission set up by the European Union in 2008 and headed by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini determined that Georgia started the conflict by shelling the city of Tskhinvali in breakaway South Ossetia. A Georgian general declared early on, the mission’s report pointed out, that his country was moving to retake its lost territory, and though President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration immediately took a different line — that it was acting to preempt a Russian aggression — those first words were never quite erased.
Though the mission’s report also called the Russian response — a lightning-fast attack that stopped just short of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi — disproportionate, no real international consequences followed for Russia, and a few years later, a far more cautious Georgian government took and held control of the country.
This precedent establishes Putin’s best-case scenario in relation to Ukraine. As Lukyanov wrote in his commentary, “The gambit that led to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia could well be replicated.” Although he made it sound as a warning to Ukraine against overestimating Western support as Saakashvili did, it’s likely the Kremlin’s hope. If it can be established with iron-clad clarity, as in the Tagliavini report, and not just broadcast on the RT propaganda channel, that Russian military action is responsive in nature, U.S. threats of “serious consequences” could well turn out to be empty; without a credible pretext, as when Russia used the fig leaf of deniability in Eastern Ukraine in 2015, tougher sanctions are inevitable. An attack that most outsiders will see as unprovoked is the last resort for Putin.
The situation along the contact line between the Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces heated up in November, with observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reporting a median of 403 ceasefire violations a day in the Donetsk region, up from 218 in October. The Kremlin may well be looking for a Ukrainian attack on the separatists that could be sold as a casus belli; then the troops it has been massing on Ukraine’s borders to maintain the impression that it’s serious about its “red line” could jump into action. Clearly, however, no such pretext has been found. Not even Ukraine’s highly publicized use of an armed drone against the separatists in late October was deemed convincing enough as a reason for a counterstrike.
The Biden administration, which has been talking up the threat of a Russian invasion, apparently is ready to start erecting new fences around Russia if it strikes unprovoked — but it has never promised any military backstop for Ukraine. And for Putin to attack without inordinately painful consequences, a strong provocation is a must. As many times before in its post-2014 history, Ukraine finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It falls to the Ukrainian authorities to keep their country from suffering further devastation — no one else can. Can President Volodymyr Zelenskiy keep calm enough to avoid the worst? Unclear. On Nov. 26, he gave a wild press conference, alleging that a coup would be staged against him on Dec. 1 or Dec. 2 — Ukrainian officials do have a penchant for pinpointing doomsday scenarios on the calendar — and that the wealthiest Ukrainian, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, was being approached to back this coup.
Yet even in Zelenskiy’s inexperienced and scandal-prone administration, the survival instinct is likely strong enough to avoid Saakashvili’s ruinous example. Ukraine, after all, would unquestionably be the worst off in case of a Russian attack. And after his bruising experiences with the previous U.S. administration, Zelenskiy — unlike Saakashvili — won’t overestimate Western support. His realism offers the best hope that, barring some kind of catastrophic accident, Ukraine will keep trying to wait out Putin, and Putin will keep trying to keep NATO out of Ukraine by threats rather than by sending in tanks and bombers.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell’s “1984.”
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