Has Ukraine turned the tables on Russia?

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

One of the undercurrents in the tensions over Ukraine has been the perception that Russia has been acting and everyone else has been reacting. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been the one to place more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border. He has been the foreign policy leader to place forces in Belarus that could march on Kyiv. Russian forces have, according to U.S. intelligence sources, stocked up on blood supplies in anticipation of an invasion.

The United States and NATO allies have responded to many of these escalatory steps, but the reaction mode has frustrated many analysts in the United States and in the region. This explains the calls to preemptively sanction Russia and the frustration that Putin has shifted the goal posts enough such that President Biden had to retreat from the observation that a “limited incursion” would be copacetic.

Throughout all of this, Ukraine has been playing an interesting game. On the one hand, Ukraine has tried to play down the sense of an imminent invasion, suggesting that Putin was simply attempting psychological warfare. On the other hand, it was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who called for the United States to preemptively impose sanctions.

So it was interesting to see that Ukraine tried some agenda-setting of its own Tuesday. According to Reuters’ Matthias Williams and Gabriela Baczynska, “Britain, Poland and Ukraine are working to strengthen their three-way cooperation in the face of the threat of a new Russian military intervention, the leaders of the two eastern European countries said in Kyiv on Tuesday. That could bring the former Soviet republic closer to NATO, anathema to its old overlord Moscow.”

Why yes, what Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal described as potentially “a trilateral document on cooperation to strengthen regional security” certainly has the potential to rankle Russia. One trigger for Russian bellicosity has been its recognition that, since 2014, Ukraine has reoriented itself toward Europe and away from Russia. Even if this is not a security alliance, it is yet another tie linking Ukraine to NATO members — a link that appears to include weapons shipments no less. Moscow will view it as yet more evidence that Ukraine is leaving its orbit.

In other words, just as Russia’s perfectly legal buildup of troops is a provocation to Ukraine and the West, a perfectly legal Polish-Ukrainian-British (PUB) arrangement would be a provocation to Russia.

Is it a useful provocation, however? Maybe! European Council on Foreign Relations’s Jeremy Shapiro recently observed that “in a world of increasing geopolitical competition, the US needs partners — not supplicants and free-riders.” An Anglo-Polish arrangement to bolster Ukraine’s defenses suggests the former and not the latter.

At the same time, the Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford warned that “this is how entrapment happens.” There are reasons to wonder whether the United Kingdom’s involvement has less to do with geopolitics and more to do with Boris Johnson’s political woes. Shapiro notes “the British prime minister is absorbed by a domestic political scandal that threatens his hold on power.”

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is normally averse to “Wag the Dog” explanations for foreign policy adventurism. Given Johnson’s predicament, however, it is difficult to completely dismiss in this instance. Well, that plus cementing preexisting arms deals.

Weirdly, that might also be the reason this move will irritate but not necessarily push Putin into action. If Russia views this as less of a serious entente and more of a political ploy, then Moscow will be unlikely to act against it.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that “Mr. Putin accused the United States of trying to goad his government into launching a conflict to create a pretext for tougher Western sanctions against Russia.” Putin said at a press availability that “Ukraine is just an instrument of achieving this goal. It can be done in different ways, such as pulling us into some armed conflict and then forcing their allies in Europe to enact those harsh sanctions against us that are being discussed today in the United States.”

Putin might view this as an irritant but one that does not merit a response. “Might” is a very dicey word to use when talking about escalating great-power tensions.

This piece was re-published from The Washington Post.

Leave a Reply