The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Putin bluffing on Ukraine? Allies in the U.S. and Europe are divided.

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When it comes to assessing the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a major geopolitical divide. The United States, along with its ever-close foreign policy ally Britain, has warned that Russian troops massing on the border of Ukraine suggest that Moscow could start a major conflict on European soil. And yet even with this risk, some European nations closer to the action remain skeptical.

Germany has been particularly resistant to the prevailing wisdom in Washington and London. Berlin has ruled out supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons so far; British Royal Air Force planes even avoided German airspace when delivering antitank weapons to Ukraine, instead taking a longer route over the North Sea and Denmark.

There are many reasons for the divide, but one key difference is in views of the Russian president and his intentions, according to Liana Fix, an expert on Russia at Berlin’s Körber Foundation. Many in Europe think Vladimir Putin is bluffing, she said.

“In Europe, the perception was that Russia is building up the military threat to gain concessions,” Fix, currently on a sabbatical in Washington as a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told me. “Whereas, the perception here seems to be that military escalation is perhaps the most probable path ahead.”

The stark difference was highlighted in remarks Friday by Germany’s navy chief, who asked a think tank panel in New Delhi if they thought Russia was interested in having a “small and tiny strip of Ukraine soil” under its control? “No, this is nonsense,” Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach said, before adding that “Putin is probably putting pressure on us because he can do it.”

Western nations should respond by giving the Russian leader the respect he craves — and deserves — the German naval leader continued. Schönbach offered his resignation Saturday after an international outcry.

Such views are not as isolated as you may think. There are plenty of officials and experts who believe that Russia does not seek a conflict and its military buildup is a ploy designed to force concessions from the West. However, there is disagreement on whether his demands, which include an end to the eastern expansion of military alliance NATO, should be met.

Historian and military strategist Edward Luttwak wrote on Twitter last week that Putin was “bluffing” on Ukraine as invading the country would start a war that it “cannot afford to fight.”

“To invade Europe’s largest country with less than 200,000 troops would not end the crisis victoriously for Russia,” Luttwak wrote, adding that even if no European country will send troops, “they will send weapons.”

Russia has surprised everyone and began major international aggression before under Putin — Chechnya from 1999, Georgia in 2008, Syria from 2015 and even not-so-covertly in breakaway regions of Ukraine from 2014 — and still frequently engages in lower-level international acts. But a full-scale invasion of an enormous country — which borders the European Union, is well-supplied with Western arms and has a largely hostile population — may be a very different proposition.

Russian officials have capitalized on this uncertainty, accusing the United States and its allies of “hysteria” on Monday. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last week that Russia would not take any aggressive actions at all. “We will not attack, raid or invade Ukraine,” he told Russian media. And some European officials appear to have doubts about the U.S. and U.K. accounts, too.

Speaking after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels, the European Union’s top foreign policy official said countries need to avoid a “nervous breakdown” in their reactions to the situation. “We know very well what the degree of threats are and the way in which we must react, and no doubt we must avoid alarmist reactions,” Josep Borrell said Monday.

But others believe exactly the opposite: That it is the offers of diplomacy, not the threat of war, that is the bluff. Writing for the website War on the Rocks on Monday, Michael Kofman argued that Russia’s demands simply could not be met by the United States and its NATO allies.

“By publicizing its demands and refusing to unbundle them in ways that might achieve compromise, Russia has made its diplomatic effort appear more performative than genuine,” wrote Kofman, director of the Russia studies program at the think tank CNA, later adding: “Perhaps Moscow is just fishing for what it can get, but the political demands do not align with the military side of the equation.”

In December, U.S. officials said they were seeing signs that Russia was preparing for a military offensive against Ukraine involving up to 175,000 troops. Since then, troops have been seen moving through neighboring Belarus, and Britain has warned of Russian plans to install a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv. “While we can’t get into the mind of President Putin, we are seeing the preparations that they’re making at the border,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Monday briefing.

Despite denying it was planning any military action, Russia has made a series of unilateral demands that would forestall Ukraine entering NATO and effectively limit NATO forces to the military bloc’s 1997 borders, before its eastern expansion. The country has drafted agreements with the United States and NATO, with deputy foreign minister Ryabkov saying Monday the demands weren’t a restaurant menu that could be chosen from.

To many, the scope of those drafts suggests a lack of seriousness.

“Few serious negotiations begin with one side drafting, let alone publishing, an entire agreement,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, recently wrote for The Post, adding that Putin appeared to not be negotiating but offering an ultimatum. “And ultimatums, as we know from history, are often pretexts for annexation or war.”

Bluffs are made to be called. That could put Putin in the position of being the man who bet it all and came away from the table with nothing. Is he really willing to let that happen?

“By backing away from a military escalation, Putin would risk being accused of failing to secure serious concessions on Ukraine or from NATO. He would be seen as a man who talks a lot and threatens but, when faced with a tough response from the other side, eventually backs down,” British historian Timothy Ash wrote for the Atlantic Council this week.

Others agree. Fiona Hill, formerly a top Russia official for President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, has said roughly the same, telling Puck News that Putin believes it can extract concessions from Biden as he cares more deeply about Ukraine than Trump. “If we call his bluff, he has to do something, because otherwise none of his threats are credible,” Hill said.

Even the top U.S. leader apparently believes the same. “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” Biden said during a news conference last week. And the problem of credibility cuts both ways.

“The president of the United States is not going to be blackmailed,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif) said in an interview with CNN this weekend. “If he were to do that, every other country would start to try to blackmail the president.”

If an attack does happen, those who thought Putin was bluffing will have been shown to be wrong. Historically, countries like Germany had hoped that closer economic integration and dialogue with Russia would ensure peaceful relations. As Fix put it: “This is a litmus test for Germany’s approach toward Russia.”

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