We continue not to know what Vladimir Putin intends nor wants with his massive military buildup around Ukraine, accompanied by diplomatic demands, primarily on the United States, that will not be satisfied.
Michael Kofman is one of the best military analysts around, and well able to extrapolate from the military to Putin’s objectives. His latest summary suggests that Putin will take major military action against Ukraine, perhaps to install a Russia-friendly regime in Kiev.
Given the stakes, and likely costs, any Russian military operation would have to attain political gains that give Moscow the ability to enforce implementation. In short, just hurting Ukraine is not enough to achieve anything that Russia wants. While some believe that Russia intends to compel Ukraine into a new Minsk-like agreement, the reality is that nobody in Moscow thinks that a Ukrainian government can be made to implement any document they sign. Such a settlement would be political suicide for the Zelensky administration, or any other. Russia has no way to enforce compliance with its preferences once the operation is over. This is, at least, the lesson that Moscow seems to have taken from Minsk I and Minsk II. Why would Minsk III prove any different? Russia has not struggled in getting Ukraine to sign deals at gunpoint, but all of these have resulted in Ukraine’s continued westward march and a decline of Russian influence in the country. It’s not clear how Moscow achieves its goals without conducting regime change, or a partitioning of the state, and committing to some form of occupation to retain leverage.
Fiona Hill has been looking at Russia for the United States government for more than two decades. She offers what may be Putin’s motivation.
In the 1990s, the United States and NATO forced Russia to withdraw the remnants of the Soviet military from their bases in Eastern Europe, Germany and the Baltic States. Mr. Putin wants the United States to suffer in a similar way. From Russia’s perspective, America’s domestic travails after four years of President Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, as well as the rifts he created with U.S. allies and then America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, signal weakness. If Russia presses hard enough, Mr. Putin hopes he can strike a new security deal with NATO and Europe to avoid an open-ended conflict, and then it will be America’s turn to leave, taking its troops and missiles with it.
For a broader perspective on how to think about the crisis, Paul Musgrave considers how different parties with different priors look at it. (Image stolen from Paul)
What’s most striking about this isn’t that there are different opinions or interpretations. It’s that these narratives begin from such incompatible assumptions about everything from the responsibility for the crisis to the factors that matter for its resolution.
These are three good reads for understanding the crisis.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner