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

He has persuaded the majority of Russians that the West is the source of the tension.

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.”

CNA’s Russia expert Michael Kofman took issue with Radchenko: “Coercive credibility matters. If Russia threatens war like this and backs down with nothing, people will claim he’s just bluffing or was deterred. Either way it is a significant defeat with implications for future crises.”

I’m with Radchenko on this. For starters, Putin has already gotten something: dialogues with the United States and NATO, respectively, while Russian forces point many guns at the heads of Ukrainians. That’s not nothing, even if those dialogues produce no agreement on Russia’s proposals. That the United States did not insist on a precondition of a full and complete withdrawal of Russian forces from the border with Ukraine—or any precondition, for that matter—is something for Putin. It means Putin’s side enters these dialogues in a stronger position than the self-imposed weaker position adopted by the United States. 

Moreover, Putin and the Kremlin-controlled media would never portray any pullback of forces as coming in exchange for nothing. Kremlin propaganda already suggests it is winning, as Françoise Thom demonstrates in her recent piece, “What does the Russian ultimatum to the West mean?” Even if some of the quotes in Thom’s piece are delusional, they reflect a Russian view that it is in the driver’s seat setting the agenda, not the West. In other words, they already have achieved, in their minds, equal status with the West and are watching Western leaders and commentators endlessly ponder the question, “What might Putin do?” That ain’t nothing.  

Putin and the Kremlin have done an effective job persuading the majority of Russians that responsibility for the current tensions lies with the West first and Ukraine second. According to a Levada Center survey released mid-December, “Half (50%) of those polled believe that the United States and other NATO countries are the initiators of the exacerbation of the situation in eastern Ukraine. 16% think that Ukraine was the initiator of the escalation, 3%—the unrecognized republics of the DPR and LPR, 4%—Russia.”

At the same time, according to the same Levada poll, a majority of Russians does not think a war between Russia and Ukraine is likely: only 3 percent are confident the situation could may escalate into war; 36 percent think that it is “quite probable,” but 38 percent think it “unlikely” and 15 percent rule out such a possibility. More importantly, according to a separate Levada survey from last April, a full-scale war with Ukraine would trigger “dissatisfaction” with Putin by a nearly 2-to-1 margin over those who believe it would “raise Putin’s authority” among Russians. 

As Russian analyst Andrei Kolesnikov notes, “23 percent of Russians believed Russia and Ukraine should be friendly neighbors but still have their own borders: only 17 percent of respondents supported a unification of the two states … 66 percent of Russians aged between 18 and 24 have a positive or very positive attitude toward Ukraine. That’s despite a backdrop of unceasing vitriol directed toward Ukraine on state television, and the persistent, oft-repeated idea that it is external attacks that require Russia to take defensive measures.” As Kolesnikov points out, it is the younger generation that would bear the burden in any military conflict. 

Ukraine expert Taras Kuzio recently cited leading Russian sociologist Olga Krishtanovskaya on the possibility of war with Ukraine: “We are sick and tired of all these political tensions,” she stated. “We don’t trust our own politicians, and we certainly don’t want a war that arises out of all the lies being told on both sides. I don’t want to believe in a war. It would be incredibly unpopular with the Russian people.” 

All this suggests that an invasion of Ukraine, contingent on the type and duration of the operation, could damage Putin’s standing more than help it. But even then, Kremlin propaganda would shift into high gear, explaining how Putin had no choice but to act. 

With their control over the media in Russia and efforts to silence civil society and most critics, Putin and the Kremlin are not likely to pay much of any price at home in terms of credibility if Putin decides not to invade Ukraine. On the contrary, an invasion that produces lots of body bags returning to Russia, even with Kremlin control over the media, is apt to prove more harmful to Putin’s grip on power. Of course, it would also be devastating to Ukraine, the true victim of Putin’s aggression and threats. 

Nor would a decision not to invade likely affect Putin’s standing overseas as the boy who cried wolf. Putin has the means to mobilize his forces against any of Russia’s neighbors, or in Syria or elsewhere—and he may decide to do so in neighboring Kazakhstan given protests there—and in doing so, he will get the West’s attention the next time. There is a dangerous track record—a cyber-attack against Estonia in 2007, invasion of Georgia in 2008, invasion of Ukraine in 2014, intervention in Syria in 2015—that demonstrates Putin is capable of action as well as talk. Some of these decisions have been more popular at home than others, but they all suggest Russia under Putin is a menacing force to be reckoned with and not to be ignored. 

A new Russian attack on Ukraine is a real possibility this time, much greater in fact than when there was a buildup of forces last spring. Despite the fact that such a move would likely mean heavy casualties for the Russian side as well as for Ukrainians, Putin thinks differently from Western leaders. After all, Putin finds a successful, vibrant, democratic Ukraine that is integrating more closely with the West a serious threat to the authoritarian, kleptocratic system he oversees in Russia. He would rather destabilize Ukraine, make it unattractive to the West—even if that means an unstable Ukraine along Russia’s borders—than establish mutually beneficial relations with a thriving neighbor of some 42 million people. So far, he has met little resistance inside Russia to his course of action. 

Standing up to Putin and pushing back on his threatening and increasingly aggressive behavior are the best way for the West to handle this crisis. Finding a face-saving way out for him is neither necessary nor our business. He will take care of that himself however this plays out. 

David J. Kramer is director of European & Eurasian Studies at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs and served as an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration.

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David J. Kramer