Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, center, sits alongside Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, second left, during the Russian Navy day in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 28, 2019. Bloomberg

The almost theatrical massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border in recent days, which some researchers have described as the heaviest since 2015, brings home to Western leaders an uncomfortable truth: If Russia had the appetite for a major military operation, Ukraine would be at its mercy.

Putin the opportunist, who seized a moment of confusion in 2014 to grab Crimea, surely sees a similar chance now, and he has little to fear at home if he launches a military operation. Yet there are good reasons to conclude that what Putin really wants is not more Ukrainian territory, but greater respect from the U.S. and his European neighbors for what he thinks of as his ability to advance Russia’s interests.

After the Minsk agreements of 2015, which aimed to end fighting in Eastern Ukraine and launch a political process, one could safely assume that domestic constraints tempered Putin’s appetite for a full-scale incursion. To some extent, that argument still holds: Putin’s poll rating (pushed upward by respondents’ understandable caution) is only slightly above historic lows. My analysis of data from GDELT, the Google-backed global database of events, shows that protest activity is about twice as high in Russia as a year ago, which wouldn’t be surprising given the economic effects of SARS-CoV-2.

But Putin’s trampling of the Russian constitution last year, which essentially allows him to hold on to the presidency for as long as he controls the suppression apparatus, has made those constraints less important. Seeing himself as an historical figure, and relying increasingly on brute force to steamroll over any vestige of an opposition, Putin no longer needs to worry about legitimacy. Russia’s swashbuckling propagandists are more than ready to go into overdrive if they need to justify an onslaught on Ukraine. Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, the state-run network, has long used her Telegram channel to agitate for a full Russian takeover of Eastern Ukraine. And Dmitry Kiselyov, the Kremlin’s top TV commentator, used his most recent program to accuse Ukraine of plotting a war against Russia — a “second fratricidal” war incited by an uncaring U.S.

The Kremlin also isn’t too concerned about the coronavirus and its fall-out: Minimizing deaths is not a political priority when domestic politics are meaningless, and you can manipulate death statistics. (Officially, Russia says only a fraction of its high excess mortality is due to COVID.) Despite a relatively low vaccination rate, the Russian economy is now about as open as vaccination leader Israel’s. By contrast, European countries, bound by geography to take the greatest interest in Ukraine of all Western nations, are preoccupied with the virus and with their painfully slow vaccination rollout. Besides, some European Union members are already using Sputnik V, the Russian COVID-19 vaccine. It’s the worst possible political moment for the Europeans to intervene forcefully in Ukraine. Witness the recent toothless Franco-German statement, calling on “all sides” to de-escalate when Ukraine is obviously incapable of meaningful escalation.

It’s also an extremely inconvenient time for the U.S. to make big, quick decisions on Ukraine: For all of President Joe Biden’s history with Ukraine during the Obama administration, a crisis there would ruin his focus on an ambitious domestic agenda. Trying to push reluctant European allies to take joint action would only strain the weakened alliances that Biden would like to mend. For all the moral support Biden has tried to give Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, he is highly unlikely to go to war if Putin attacks. If the U.S. confines itself to another round of sanctions, it will also discover again that Russia has spent years preparing for the toughest restrictions, such as the loss of access to the SWIFT financial transaction messaging system.

Zelensky, who has spoken with a series of Western leaders about the Russian build-up, told North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday that his country’s membership in NATO was “the only way to end the war” in Eastern Ukraine. But a U.S. military guarantee is a pipe dream for a country as unstable and as vulnerable as Ukraine. Calling Putin’s bluff on Ukraine would be too uncertain an enterprise in the absence of any real checks and balances.

Yet the Russian troop movements likely don’t mean Putin is about to attack. Not even Ukrainian generals think they do. “Is there an immediate threat that we’ll wake up tomorrow in the midst off a war?” Ukraine’s top military commander Ruslan Khomchak said in a recent interview. “The General Staff assesses that it won’t happen tomorrow.”

If Russia had wanted to attack, it likely wouldn’t have advertised the troop movements, which were, in the words of military analyst Michael Kofman, “meant to be observed” but hardly sufficient for an all-out onslaught. It would have struck suddenly, as it did in Crimea, and probably from the air, not by churning the nearly impassable April mud in the fields of Eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s reasons for not using the opportunity to strike are likely more complex than any political concerns or fears of retaliation. As at any time since 2015, when Russian troops sealed the de facto secession of Eastern Ukrainian territories, the Kremlin has no idea what to do with the bits of Ukraine it has split off, much less any further Ukrainian land. The rebel “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Lugansk are run entirely from Moscow these days after the local warlords were killed off or shunted aside — but they remain a twilight zone that would cost way too much to absorb and rebuild economically. Crimea is costing the Russian budget about $2 billion a year, a manageable amount, but it’s not a war-ravaged industrial region with little left in the way of usable infrastructure. The Eastern Ukrainian regions are of more use to Putin as they are: They provide leverage not just on a Ukraine bogged down as ever in corruption and inefficiency, but also on Europe and the U.S.

If not for the Ukrainian stand-off, many U.S. strategists would long have written off Russia as an irrelevant, shrinking, second-rate power. Its leverage in the Middle East or in the U.N. Security Council is balanced by other powerful interests. In Ukraine, realistically, it would be all but impossible to waylay. All the talk about China as the second superpower and the U.S.’s only credible rival must be a huge irritant to Putin: Little is more important to him than not being slighted or dismissed. By shifting some troops around, he isn’t just reminding Ukrainians that they shouldn’t even dream of a military solution to the the problem of lost territories; he’s also inviting the West to weigh its options in case he does decide to attack in earnest. Presumably, such an analysis should prompt Biden and the Europeans to deal him in when matters of geopolitics are being discussed, and perhaps refrain from describing him as a “killer” rather than as a man of destiny. Putin still believes Russia can be one of the poles in a multipolar world rather than an afterthought. Yet apart from escalation in and around Ukraine, he has few cards to play to back up that ambition.


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