No, Putin Has Not Backed Himself Into a Corner on Ukraine

The United States and Russia are getting ready for discussions starting January 9 on Russian concerns about European security and Western worries about a further Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia will have similar meetings with NATO on Wednesday and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on Thursday. The clear triggers for these meetings are the threatening buildup of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine and Russian proposals, published December 17, calling for a return to the European security architecture of 1997—i.e., before NATO enlargement. 

These two developments—the military buildup and the apparent take-it-or-leave-it Russian proposals—have led some in the West to argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin has painted himself into a corner. Backing down now—and by that they mean not following through with a major military attack against Ukraine—without having the West and Ukraine agree to at least some of the Russian demands (the “take-it-or-leave-it” is likely a Russian starting position) would damage Putin’s “credibility” at home. According to such analysis, the Russian troop buildup, the second menacing such move by Putin in less than a year, means that Putin really has no option but to move ahead with a renewed invasion. (Russia first invaded in 2014 when it illegally annexed Crimea and moved into eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.) 

Russian military expert Robert Lee tweeted this: “They (the Kremlin) are deliberately backing themselves into a corner where their credibility will be questioned if they don’t achieve concessions or use military force.” Lee went on to say: “I don’t know what Putin is thinking, but Russia’s rhetoric and actions are in line with an attempt at compellence and there will be a credibility cost if they don’t act or achieve concessions. Since the latter is unlikely, I think a military escalation is more likely than not.” Julian Lindley-French, in an otherwise cogent piece on “Putin’s Sphere of Fear,” argued that “Putin may well feel he faces a use it or lose it dilemma if the post-COVID Russian economy weakens significantly.” 

Historian Sergey Radchenko, in this string of tweets, questioned the claims about Putin’s credibility and being backed into a corner: “[I]n Russia’s case, the domestic discourse centres on Russia’s allegedly defensive positions vis-a-vis Ukraine. Putin has repeatedly disclaimed any desire to invade, etc, etc. So, a climb-down would perhaps not be as bad as we think—certainly not domestically. Heck, it might well be very popular—a case of Putin the wise statesman rebuffing aggressive NATO and defusing a volatile situation. Can’t see great losses for credibility. As for future crises & Russia’s relations with the West, every crisis should be taken on its merits.”

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