Only one person knows whether the Ukraine crisis will lead to war, the man who started it: Vladimir Putin. But so far the Biden administration has reacted to Putin’s military escalation intelligently, with an appropriate mix of deterrence and diplomacy. It has rallied European countries to stay together, provided more weapons to Ukraine and put some troops on heightened alert to signal greater resolve. It has also publicized the kinds of hybrid warfare Russia is engaging in and signaled the sanctions that Russia would face if it went ahead with an invasion.
But Washington has also held out the offer of diplomacy, outlining ways that the United States and Russia can work out better confidence-building measures regarding security arrangements in Eastern Europe.
Last week, I outlined Russia’s interests and strengths in this crisis. It is vital to understand its weaknesses as well. “When Putin took Crimea in 2014, he lost Ukraine,” as Owen Matthews writes in a thought-provoking essay. After it declared independence in 1991, Ukraine was divided between an unabashedly pro-Russia segment of its population and a more nationalistic one. But by annexing Crimea and plunging eastern Ukraine into open conflict, Matthews writes, Putin has energized Ukrainian nationalism and fed a growing anti-Russia sentiment. And the math does not help. Putin took millions of pro-Russia Ukrainians in Crimea and Donbas out of the country’s political calculus. (Those in Donbas don’t vote in Ukrainian elections because the area is too unstable.) As a result, a Ukrainian politician estimated to me that the pro-Russia seats in Ukraine’s parliament have shrunk from a plurality to barely 15 percent of the total.
In retrospect, if Putin’s aim were to keep Ukraine unstable and weak, it would have made far more sense to leave those parts of Ukraine within the country, supporting the pro-Russia forces and politicians in various ways so that they could act as a fifth column within the country, always urging Kyiv to forge closer ties with Moscow. Instead, Ukraine is now composed mainly of a population that is proudly nationalist and that has become much more anti-Russia.
Putin’s aims are probably twofold — to make Ukraine weak and more dependent on Russia but also to divide the West and render NATO less effective. As far as the latter is concerned, the opposite is happening. NATO, long searching for a post-Cold War purpose, has been energized by the Russian threat. Denmark is dispatching a frigate to the Baltic Sea. The Netherlands is moving fighter jets to Bulgaria. France has offered to put troops in Romania under NATO command. Spain has also offered to move warships east. The United States has put 8,500 troops on heightened alert in case they need to be deployed to Eastern Europe. Some in Finland and Sweden are even reconsidering their long-established neutrality.
The most significant success for Putin has been in Germany. The new German ruling coalition has expressed doubts about arming Ukraine, placing Russia under serious sanctions or canceling Nord Stream 2, the pipeline through which Russia could send more natural gas directly to Germany and Europe, bypassing Ukraine.
This approach reflects a longstanding German desire to have a special relationship with Russia — an attitude expressed during the Cold War by an approach the Germans called “Ostpolitik.” More recently, former chancellor Angela Merkel, who as an East German lived under communism, was more tough-minded in her dealings with Putin. In the wake of her departure, Germany appears to be returning to its more traditional search for a middle ground between East and West. The Biden administration has been alert to this problem, sending CIA Director William J. Burns to Berlin and inviting Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, to Washington for a meeting with President Biden.
Matthews points out that Putin would not benefit from a war, especially if the sanctions being discussed are put into place against Russia. While Putin has built formidable foreign reserves, constraining Russian gas and oil exports would devastate the Russian economy. Most young adult Russians — those who would be called upon to fight — are not gung-ho for war against Ukraine, which they regard positively. Putin’s approval ratings have fallen considerably.
This doesn’t mean that war is impossible, even unlikely. Wars can happen because of misperceptions, misunderstandings — and even because, backed into a corner, countries can’t find a path to de-escalate. The Russian foreign minister has said that the West’s recent written responses to Russian demands do not address the “main issue,” by which he means Ukrainian membership in NATO. The truth is that Ukraine is unlikely to become a member of NATO anytime soon. NATO runs by consensus, and there is little agreement on the issue. Germany and Hungary have deep reservations about its accession.
And yet, the United States cannot — and should not — forswear the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO at some point in the future. Between those two realities lies a narrow corridor, a space for creative diplomacy to avert a war that could consume the energies of both sides for years.