Why is Russia acting like it will invade Ukraine?

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

I have a colleague whom I trust completely when it comes to interpreting events in and near Russia. This person is well sourced when it comes to what is happening in Moscow. So when they told me 10 days ago in an even-keel, matter-of-fact tone that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine in a few months, I took it seriously.

My academic colleague is hardly the only one to be making this assertion. My Washington Post colleagues Shane Harris and Paul Sonne reported late Friday that this was the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment, too: “U.S. intelligence has found the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive as soon as early next year involving up to 175,000 troops. … [Russia is] demanding Washington guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO and that the alliance will refrain from certain military activities in and around Ukrainian territory.”

The Post is not the only outlet running with this story. CNN’s Jim Sciutto and Natasha Bertrand filed a similar report: “Russian forces have capabilities in place along the Ukraine border to carry out a swift and immediate invasion, including erecting supply lines such as medical units and fuel that could sustain a drawn-out conflict, should Moscow choose to invade. … It is still unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to invade or whether the buildup is a game of brinkmanship to get concessions from the West, officials said.”

If Politico’s David M. Herszenhorn is correct, then right now it is just a game of brinkmanship. The NATO officials that talked to Herszenhorn expressed more skepticism about whether Putin would actually invade. He also referenced a European Commission analysis that does not dispute the facts contained in the U.S. intelligence assessment, but interprets them differently: “Rather than igniting a hot war, the unofficial analysis found Moscow was more likely to be using the troop mobilization to convey its growing unhappiness over increasing U.S., U.K. and NATO military ties with Ukraine, as well as Ukraine’s acquisition of new weaponry, including an armed, Turkish-made drone that was used recently to fire at separatist artillery.”

So where does that leave us? There are times when Russian analysts seem to be responding with the foreign policy equivalent of the shrug emoji.

Other Russia analysts have noted that these dueling interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Both Putin and his foreign policy advisers have recently articulated their demand that NATO pledge not to expand farther eastward. The NATO and European analyses note that Russia is not ready to invade Ukraine right now. U.S. officials, however, have been warning about an invasion early next year. This suggests a sequence of moves: buildup now, see if that can extract any concessions regarding Ukraine and NATO, and if none are forthcoming, military action next year.

Would Putin really be willing to invade Ukraine absent NATO pledges? I would not be so foolish as to rule it out. Under Putin, Russia has shown zero compunction about violating the sovereignty of its neighbors. Putin does not think of Ukrainians as different from Russians. With his domestic popularity waning for pretty obvious reasons, he might view an incursion into Ukraine as a way to bolster his domestic standing like he did in 2014.

On the other hand, unless Putin is thinking of a hit-and-run raid, the military and economic costs of Russia trying to invade and hold Ukrainian territory would be rather high. Beyond the resistance this would foment in Ukraine, Russia would face severe economic sanctions and a larger buildup of NATO forces on its borders — the very things Moscow does not want.

Also, even though no one is officially saying this out loud, Ukraine is not going to be joining NATO. Massing hundreds of thousands of troops in an effort to secure a superfluous pledge seems like overkill. It is possible that even absent formal membership, Putin sees the growing military ties between Ukraine and NATO and thinks he has an expiring window to change the facts on the ground.

If this is the case, the Biden administration has a simple choice: prioritize its desire for a “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia and accede to enough demands to preclude an invasion, or take steps to try to enhance U.S. extended deterrence.

The former seems like the less sustainable option at this point. As Michael McFaul and Oleksiy Honcharuk pointed out last week in this newspaper: “Putin clearly does not want a stable and predictable relationship with Biden. … Moreover, Putin already has won tangible gains from his unpredictable behavior earlier this year.” U.S. accommodation now would probably encourage further bellicose actions in the future.

President Biden and Putin will video chat tomorrow to “underscore U.S. concerns with Russian military activities on the border with Ukraine and reaffirm the United States’ support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” according to the White House. Maybe that will reduce tensions somewhat. Maybe it will allow Biden and Putin to feel out each other’s intentions. Maybe this has all been for show, like the Trump administration’s efforts to rattle North Korea at the end of 2017.

Or maybe 2022 will be a most violent year.

This piece was re-published from The Washington Post.

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