MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is trying to remake the future in Moscow’s favor. His preferred tool is old-fashioned Cold War-style tension.
It was on full display Tuesday in Putin’s first comments on the Ukraine crisis in more than a month. He called out the West, saying Russia’s security concerns “have been ignored” and that Ukraine was being used as a pawn by Washington and allies to undercut Russia’s power.
Russia’s sense of grievance over its “loss” of Ukraine echoes its loss of empire with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which Putin has called one of the great geopolitical calamities.
In the past, he has been quick to use military action when angered that Moscow’s interests were sidelined. He invaded Georgia in 2008 and carved out a Moscow-allied breakaway enclave just months after a NATO summit declared that Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO, although no timeline was set. Both remain close NATO partners, but they are not full members.
After Ukrainian mass protests ousted a pro-Russian Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014, Putin swiftly seized Crimea and fomented a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, provoking a conflict that continues to this day.
Whether Putin does attack Ukraine again still remains a global guessing game. The Biden administration claims it’s only a matter of time. The Kremlin says that is pure fiction.
But Putin’s brinkmanship has already achieved some Russian objectives.
Among them: destabilizing Ukraine and undermining its economy; and forcing President Biden and top European leaders to pay attention to Russia’s “red line” on Ukraine joining NATO, drumming up a flurry of high-level diplomatic meetings and winning some concessions on limitations on intermediate range missiles.
Russia’s massing of forces on Ukraine’s doorstep and its demands to curb NATO have presented the United States and Europe with a security crisis that could reverberate for decades.
That is fine with Moscow, which seeks to shake the global order and topple Washington from its post-Cold War dominance. Biden has warned that Russia could mount “the largest invasion since World War II” in an attack on Ukraine, after its loss of Crimea to Russia in 2014 and conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the east.
Putin is using a crisis and threat of war to try to get Washington and NATO to budge on Russia’s demands to halt NATO expansion, attempt to push NATO forces and equipment out of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, and evict U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe.
Andrew Wilson, a Russian affairs analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the building of tensions to extract concessions was “the standard not just Russian but Soviet method: brinkmanship, demand the maximum, don’t concede, extract concessions from the other side.
“They’ve already gained a lot. Now Russia is the center of attention.”
He said Russia, viewing the West as weak and divided, had seized the moment to try to force negotiations on old Russian grievances over the alliance’s expansion into Eastern Europe and former Soviet countries from 1997.
That’s when former Warsaw Pact members Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic were invited to join, paving the way for other nations in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states to join, amid Moscow’s mounting anger.
“Once we start talking about that, that’s a big win for them,” Wilson said. “The danger here is that we engage with Russia on Russia’s terms, we enter into a virtual reality. We get trapped in the Russian matrix, which is exactly what they want. Russia doesn’t just want us to talk. It wants us to buy into their definition of what the agenda is.”
But Washington and NATO have rejected the demands. Now Putin is keeping his foes guessing. Analysts think the Russian leader will probably escalate the showdown, even if he avoids a direct military attack.
“If he is faced with the stark choice of escalation or capitulation, I don’t think he will back down. I think he will feel that he has to escalate,” said London-based Russia analyst Mark Galeotti.
He said the Kremlin’s rhetoric “is actually a fairly blunt instrument. And the Russians are pretty much making this up as they go along.”
“I think that the trouble is that Russia or the Russian leadership has long internalized the notion that the West only pays attention to its concerns when it causes trouble for the West,” he said. “And therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that it causes trouble for the West, because that’s how it gets heard.”
Putin rarely flags his tactics. But in November, he gave a rare glimpse. Meeting Foreign Ministry officials, he expressed approval that “tensions have risen” because of Russian warnings against NATO expansion and urged them to keep tensions high “as long as possible.”
He ordered Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to “push for serious long-term guarantees that ensure Russia’s security” by preventing NATO’s expansion, in public comments that are recorded on the Kremlin website.
Galeotti said Russia’s military buildup already succeeded in getting the United States and NATO to pay attention.
“The Russians are realizing that this is a chance to actually get some real movement,” he said. “It actually does seem to shake down some kind of diplomatic movement, with the prospect of some kind of progress.”
But it also provoked some tough responses Russia probably did not expect. NATO has shown unusual unity facing down Russia. The Pentagon announced the deployment of about 3,000 troops to Europe on Wednesday to counter Russia’s buildup. And Washington and its allies have sent hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Kyiv.
Russia has been steadily increasing tensions for a year.
In February 2021, top Russian officials expressed their disgust at Ukraine’s leadership for moving to shut down several pro-Russian TV stations.
On April 6, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked NATO to give Ukraine a road map for membership, infuriating Moscow.
Two weeks later, Putin warned that Russia would take “asymmetrical, fast and tough” military action against foes who crossed Moscow’s “red line,” a reference to Ukraine membership in NATO.
In summer, he published a long essay describing Ukraine as “despicable” for “forcing” Russians in Ukraine to see Russia as the enemy. He likened it to “the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”
The deputy head of the Russian Security Council, former president Dmitry Medvedev, ginned up Russia’s tough anti-Ukraine rhetoric throughout the year. In October, he wrote an article in Russia’s Kommersant newspaper calling Zelensky “disgusting” and a “vassal.”
In November, Putin warned NATO not to cross Russia’s “red line” by deploying missiles or troops in Ukraine, and announced that Russia would deploy submarine-based hypersonic missiles from early 2022 that could be positioned to strike Russia’s foes within five minutes.
By December, Putin was accusing Kyiv of “genocide” in separatist eastern Ukraine. That month, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov more than once compared the confrontation over Ukraine to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
At his annual news conference in late December, Putin said NATO had “brazenly lied” to Russia about expansion, and “came with missiles to the doorstep of our home.” He called for the West to agree to Russia’s demands for security guarantees “right now.”
By January, Russia had more than 100,000 troops at the Ukraine eastern border. Next week, thousands of Russian forces will take part in military exercises with ally Belarus near Ukraine’s northwest border.
When he addressed a news conference Tuesday, accusing the West of ignoring Russia’s demands, the Russian president made world headlines for comments that would have barely caused a ripple a few months ago.
“He wants Russia to be relevant in every major global conversation, and he certainly has managed to put himself back at the center of attention, and to a certain extent that brinkmanship achieves that historically,” said Sam Greene, Russia analyst at King’s College London. “So clearly, it works.”