That’s it. This is not an exercise. The United States, Russia, Israel and other countries are evacuating their diplomats from Kyiv. The Black Sea Fleet has left its ports and in eastern Ukraine young women with perfectly manicured nails are carrying Kalashnikovs. On the country’s borders, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of soldiers are deployed with all they need, including field hospitals and plasma. All the pieces are in place and moving to battle stations.
And yet those currently in Russia, allegedly the aggressive power about to invade its neighbor, report that there’s no war-like atmosphere. The Kremlin-controlled television networks haven’t started to broadcast historic Russian opera and war movies of the Red Army taking Berlin. There’s no preparation of the population for a great patriotic effort that will also call for sacrifice. At nearly all levels of the government, and the business community that is umbilically connected to it, they are trying to broadcast business as usual.
Who to believe? The battalion tactical groups lying in wait on the border with their fingers on triggers and the Biden administration warning of war breaking out “imminently,” or the peaceful vibes on the streets of Moscow?
For over two decades now, Vladimir Putin has safeguarded his rule over Russia by guaranteeing power and riches to those close to his Kremlin and providing the Russian people with a sense of stability and pride that Russia has remained a world power, after years of chaos following the Soviet Union's collapse. Embarking on an all-out war with Ukraine, which will trigger unprecedented Western financial sanctions, will undoubtedly have an impact on the elite he has protected. They enjoy their wealth mainly in the West: it is where they hold their assets, educate their children and park their yachts. They will be loath to replace the French Riviera with the beaches of Crimea.
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But even if Putin feels confident enough to let his oligarchs suffer, the Russian people are another matter.
Russia’s army could easily overwhelm their much weaker Ukrainian adversary. And if Putin decides to take major cities, there would be hundreds of locals waving Russian flags and cheering on the “liberators.” But at the same time there would be widespread guerrilla warfare, which with relatively few weapons can cause an endless stream of Russian casualties. Unlike the Mujahideen campaign against the Red Army in the 1980s, which took place far from cameras, every rocket attack on an invading tank will be filmed by smartphones and the footage of escaping, burning Russian soldiers will be online within seconds.
It won’t matter how hard the Kremlin tries to instill a patriotic spirit and obscure these images, the combination of coffins of young soldiers coming home and the impending financial crisis brought on by Western sanctions would undermine Putin’s support.
It’s challenging to assess how far Putin is willing to go to return Ukraine once and for all to Russia’s imperial orbit, because access to the Russian leader has become extremely limited in the two years since the start of the pandemic. There are rumors that he is suffering from an illness that prevents him from being vaccinated and is surrounded by a cabal of ultra-nationalists pushing him to take risks.
Putin’s inner circle has obviously changed in recent years. Gone are the relatively young technocrats, like former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who aspired to be high-tech entrepreneurs. They’ve been replaced by older KGB alumni, like Putin himself, who are motivated by deep frustration at what they see as a Western invasion not just of Russia’s neighborhood, but of its values as well.
They spy a historic opportunity, when confronting a weak and divided West, to draw back the Iron Curtain cutting their empire off from the West. That’s why over the past year, under the umbrella of the Moscow-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia has deepened its military presence in various former Soviet republics that are ruled by like-minded autocrats. And it is why they have made the theoretical Ukrainian membership of NATO, which is nowhere near being on the agenda, into a casus belli for going to war.
But despite all that’s happening on the ground, war is not yet inevitable. Putin can still reach the conclusion that the risk and price will be too heavy, and that he still has an option of getting at least some of what he wants through bullying and bluffing.
Perhaps the visit of new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Kyiv and Moscow is an unlikely “last chance” for diplomacy. Scholz has been the target of criticism over Germany’s perceived inaction over Ukraine, but the increasingly forceful statements he has been making on financial sanctions if Russia invades raises the prospect that Germany may finally be prepared to use the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline as a bargaining chip.
Scholz has little diplomatic experience, but is a wily labor lawyer with a career of negotiations with tough unions. Hopes aren’t high, but who knows, perhaps he will be the one to come up with the formula of threats and inducements that give Putin cause to pause.
One of the problems is that Putin has so far gained nothing by his massive buildup of military force. Instead of weakening his hated enemy NATO, the Western military alliance has rediscovered its purpose. Nation-members who may have previously harbored doubts of NATO’s relevance are no longer doubtful. It probably won’t help save Ukraine, but other countries near Russia’s borders who are not NATO members, like Finland, are inching closer to the alliance.
The question of what Putin actually wants has become a cliché, but it remains true: Until he fires the opening shot or begins drawing down his forces on Ukraine’s borders, no one has a clear idea of what he is expecting to achieve and what he is prepared to risk.