As the US seeks to convince the world that Russia is bluffing about a drawdown of troops near Ukraine, it’s worth considering what’s informing Russia’s decision-making and what the possible endgame scenarios might be.
I went back to Michael Kimmage, a professor at the Catholic University of America and a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He specializes in US-Russia relations and previously explained what made Vladimir Putin become more aggressive over the past year.
Our conversation in light of the latest developments, conducted for What Matters by email and lightly edited, is below.
How to view the US vs. Russia information war
WHAT MATTERS: Since we last spoke, Russia has argued it is de-escalating, but the US has recently said the opposite, that Russia stationed 7,000 more troops along the Ukraine border. How do you view this information warfare?
KIMMAGE: This may well be more than information warfare.
If this is a buildup of military force for the sake of diplomatic negotiation, Russia’s actions are hard to explain. True, Russia has not gotten any concessions so far from the United States or from Europe. But the Biden administration and US allies have made it very clear that they are willing to go forward with serious negotiations about European security and about Russia’s general concerns.
The precondition for this kind of conversation, though, is that Russia begin to de-escalate – which Moscow has chosen not to do. Instead, it has engaged in a barrage of mixed messages in the past week. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a staged television conference with Putin that diplomacy with the West is still possible. The meeting between President Putin and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was cordial and seemed to suggest the possibility of further dialogue.
At the same time, Russia has been accusing Ukrainians of committing “genocide” in eastern Ukraine, has expelled an important member of the US embassy team in Moscow and has been party to increased military action along the line of contact between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries in eastern Ukraine.
There is a simple explanation for Putin’s inscrutable behavior at the moment. He is trying to confuse foreign audiences, to keep them guessing and to bewilder them into watching passively as he takes his next steps. This does not prove that the 7,000 troops stationed close to the border since Russia claimed to be de-escalating earlier this week will be part of an invasion force. But of all the possible explanations for this increase in troops, it is the most logical under the circumstances.
A bunker mentality for Putin?
WHAT MATTERS: US officials, according to CNN’s Stephen Collinson, suspect Putin may have a sort of “bunker mentality” at the moment and is getting little advice outside of a small inner circle. What do you make of that concern?
KIMMAGE: I think that is quite plausible. Putin has been in power for some 20 years (though for four years, between 2008 and 2012, he rotated from the office of the president into the office of the prime minister). Elections in Russia are rituals of regime legitimation rather than chances for the population to weigh in on its leadership.
Putin has become ever more remote from the people he rules. In addition, he has – as all of us have – endured about two years of pandemic living and appears to be highly concerned about contracting the coronavirus.
There are rumors that Putin has been having aides pull historical files for him to read, which suggests that he’s meditating on his own historical legacy. The effect of his solitude and his mood is no doubt important for his political and foreign policy calculations.
Another consideration here is the kind of information Putin is receiving about Ukraine, about the United States and about Europe. It could be quite limited, and it could be filtered by the small group of hard-liners he has assembled around himself.
The deference Putin is owed within the Russian political system means that advisers are likely to read his mind and then to validate the drift of his thinking. If true, Putin may not be getting the vigorous back-and-forth, the sober review of options that typically goes into high-quality policymaking.
It bears emphasis here that Putin has more decision-making power than did the general secretaries of the Soviet Union, who had to contend with the Politburo, a Soviet version of an American President’s Cabinet.
If it seems that Putin is inclining toward the decision of widening the war in Ukraine, his “bunker mentality” may be inhibiting him from thinking through the downsides of this decision, and very likely his staff would be either too weak or too worried about angering him to prod him into changing his mind.
What is the endgame?
WHAT MATTERS: What do you see as potential scenarios? How could this standoff play out?
KIMMAGE: I think there are three basic scenarios for Russia’s actions in Ukraine:
1. Outright invasion. It corresponds to the kind of force Russia has built up around Ukraine and in Belarus. This would be a large-scale invasion involving air power and ground troops plus cyber, and it could be conducted from the north, the south and the east.
The goals of an invasion could well be varied.
- Partition the country: to secure Crimea, to control a large segment of eastern Ukraine and perhaps to dominate access to the Black Sea, without which Ukraine would be landlocked and economically hobbled. Over time, this conquered territory would be absorbed into Russia or would function as a colony of Russia’s.
- Regime change within Ukraine: topple the government, either to replace the current government with a pro-Russian puppet or to destroy the government and then to pull back militarily, pushing Ukraine toward being a failed state. This would not be easy for Russia to handle, since Ukraine and Russia are neighbors, but it would achieve Russia’s minimal aim of preventing Ukraine from integrating into Western military and economic structures.
- Compel Ukraine to sue for peace: Russia might threaten ever greater destruction until the Ukrainian government asks for the fighting to stop and is willing to agree to Russian terms, which would be the declaration that Ukraine is neutral or the Ukrainian agreement not to cooperate militarily with Europe and the United States.
2. Salami slice Ukraine. Russia may not invade but instead engage in salami slicing, engaging in more and more potent cyberattacks (which Russia would publicly deny doing), keeping its troops on the border with Ukraine – which is already having a negative effect on the Ukrainian economy – and pushing for small territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.
This might help Russia to escape from Western sanctions, which at the moment are being pegged to an outright invasion of Ukraine. The logic of this scenario would be to generate ever greater pressure on the Ukrainian government and to instill ever greater fear within the Ukrainian population, reinforcing the expectation that things are only going to get worse.
The point of this approach would, once again, be to force the Ukrainian government to accept Russian terms and to curtail its orientation toward the West.
3. Permanent pressure. Russia might do what it has done for the past two months, indefinitely. That is, it might maintain the threat of a wider war for months, if not for years to come, showing Washington and European capitals that a war is possible at any moment. This could be accompanied by the high-stakes diplomacy in which Russia has recently been enmeshed, laying out ultimatums, making demands, prodding for concessions made in the near term.
The logic of this scenario would be its relatively low cost for Russia, financially and militarily, and its prospects of causing exhaustion in the West. Russia would hope for the breaking away of a few European countries, those that would like to see the situation get normalized and would feel impatient with the constant uncertainty. Since both NATO and the European Union require consensus, a handful of countries do have the power to moderate or complicate the positions of these institutions.
This might make possible – or so Moscow would wish – a push from within NATO and/or the EU to deny Ukraine membership in these institutions permanently and thus to turn Ukraine into the neutral country that Russia wants it to be.
What is the diplomatic way forward?
WHAT MATTERS: The bottom-line difference between Russia and democracies – the expansion of NATO – remains at the heart of the standoff. Is there still room for negotiation on that subject?
KIMMAGE: Yes, there is.
Under current conditions, the United States, NATO itself and the European members of NATO have held firm on NATO’s open-door policy. They have rightly refused to make concessions while Russia points a gun to their head.
Yet they have shown a willingness to talk through these issues over time. Were Russia to de-escalate around Ukraine and show some good-faith efforts to remove its military presence in eastern Ukraine, the overall atmosphere would change. It would improve. With that improved atmosphere, if it ever comes to pass, there is middle ground between Russia and the West.
The awkward reality is that very few NATO members want to bring Ukraine into NATO. They do not have a good way of articulating this, and they will not close the door formally, and they will not give Russia the written guarantees it has been asking for.
But diplomacy is all about finesse, and where there is the diplomatic will, solutions even to the most difficult problems can be finessed. Creative, imaginative diplomacy could resolve this issue – provided the trust is there on both sides.
That said, NATO is the tip of the iceberg in terms of Russia’s problems with the West. Russia knows perfectly well that Ukraine has almost no chance of joining NATO, and many of Russia’s historical complaints about NATO are theatrical. They are intended to justify Russian foreign policy to the Russian public. They foster a narrative of an aggressive West that betrayed Russia after the end of the Cold War. This is not the crux of the matter in 2022.
Russia’s deepest objection to US and Western policy is the growing military dimension to Ukraine’s relationship with the West. The Trump administration decided to send lethal military aid to Ukraine. This encouraged several European countries to follow suit.
Even though Ukraine is not a NATO member, NATO is present in Ukraine and participates in training exercises in western Ukraine. Over the course of the past few months, the United States has provided Ukraine with substantial amounts of military aid. (Ukraine is the third-biggest recipient of US foreign aid.)
When Russia games out these growing military ties, it sees a nightmare scenario: a country with a large border with Russia that will become the vehicle of military power for Russia’s competitors and adversaries. This issue is also one that could be addressed diplomatically, and over time it could be resolved, but as with the question of Ukraine and NATO it would demand very creative and very imaginative diplomacy on all sides.
Europe as the new Middle East
WHAT MATTERS: There is a growing perception that Russia’s troop buildup is something Western democracies will have to learn to live with. “I regret to say this is the new normal in Europe” is how NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking in Brussels recently, described the situation. What are your thoughts on that idea? And what will it mean for world diplomacy in the long term?
KIMMAGE: I think Secretary General Stoltenberg is right.
Even if there is no invasion, even if diplomacy starts to make a few gains, for the foreseeable future Russia is going to be playing a new role in Europe. In some respects, Russia as an important military factor within Europe is Russia’s traditional role.
This was the case already in the 18th century, when Russia incorporated parts of Poland into the Russian empire.
This was the case after Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, the result of which was Russian soldiers in the streets of Paris. (The word “bistro” comes from these soldiers, who in Paris kept asking for their food “bistro,” the Russian word for “quickly;” hence, the bistro.)
And this was the case after World War II, when the Red Army was situated in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and in the southeast of Europe.
From now on, Russia is going to be using its military power or the threat of its military power to influence the overall situation in Europe. This is going to be vigorously contested by Poland, by the Baltic republics and more broadly by the NATO alliance. Having known relative peace since 1991, Europe is now entering into new and sadly familiar terrain: It will be defined by military pressure and competition.
A long, unclear, wavering line is going to run from the Baltic Sea to the Balkans. One side of it will be Russia. On the other will be Europe. This will be dangerous and costly for Europeans and Russians alike. For world diplomacy, it will mean that Europe is a crisis zone, much like the Middle East.
It will be the place where great powers – Russia, China and the United States – grind against one another. This will require a much greater application of US resources to Europe, and over time it may encourage the European Union or some confederation of European states to create a proper European military, so that Europe can be more in command of its own future. But if that happens at all, it will not happen anytime soon. The decisive factor in European security will be the role played by the United States.
What’s the Biden doctrine?
WHAT MATTERS: We have spent a lot of time considering Putin and his motives. But where does this standoff place Joe Biden in the line of US presidents? What are we learning about a Biden doctrine in terms of Russia and Europe?
KIMMAGE: I’m not sure about a Biden doctrine (yet). The situation is still too fluid. I think Biden has shown himself to be quite capable in handling both Europe and Russia.
He has had to revise his approach since taking office in January 2021. Then he was too optimistic about Europe and Russia. He did not anticipate some of the tensions that would emerge between Europe and the United States – first over the pullout from Afghanistan and then over the British-US-Australian submarine deal that angered France.
Biden also did not anticipate Russian actions over the course of 2021. He came in looking for guardrails and a stable relationship with Russia. What he got was a Russia that steadily moved toward a major war in Europe.
Once he did adjust, Biden has articulated a policy that has three pillars:
- The first is a readiness to conduct diplomacy with Russia. This makes absolute sense. Russia is a major nuclear power. It cannot be defeated in war, it cannot be dictated to, and it must be dealt with diplomatically. And even if a wider war with Ukraine comes to pass, the United States will still have to pursue crisis management with Russia, to make sure that the two militaries don’t clash and to prevent escalation. Iran, North Korea, nonproliferation and climate change will remain issues to which Russia is important, whether or not there is war in Ukraine.
- Secondly, Biden has worked to strengthen the NATO alliance, which is the key to US policy in Europe. He has consulted closely with its member states, and for the sake of reassurance, he has sent troops to Europe under the NATO umbrella. He repeatedly refers to NATO’s Article 5, its pledge of mutual defense, as “sacred.” He has dispersed his diplomats throughout Europe, and this has already paid dividends for the trans-Atlantic relationship. Biden has not been shy about demonstrated American leadership in Europe. That cannot be taken for granted, and it is a crucial factor in European security.
- Finally, Biden is seeking to deter Russia. On the one hand, this is a matter of sanctions, which have been promised should Russia widen the war in Ukraine. On the other hand, it is a much longer-term project of helping Europe to achieve greater resilience, which means turning Europe away from the purchase of Russian oil and gas, and of limiting or eliminating technology transfer from the West to Russia. This approach to Russia is just beginning, but it would be dramatically accelerated by a Russian invasion.
The President most relevant to all of this is Harry Truman, who became President in April 1945, when the Soviet Union and the United States were allies and then had to work through the change from ally to adversary. The times and the challenges are different today. But Truman’s presidency is the one the Biden administration should be studying most carefully.