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The Historian's Take: Thoughts on Putin and the Ukrainian Crisis

Dr. Matthew S. Muehlbauer

Last year, I argued in The Hill that Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy successes had been facilitated by American weaknesses. These included lack of strategic focus, sprawling bureaucracy, and even idiosyncrasies of the Electoral College. Conversely, Russian strengths have encompassed not just cyber attacks and social media weaponization, but the capacity to marry those techniques to the calculated use of armed force in the pursuit of political goals. Some in American national security circles describe such use of force as “below the threshold of war,” essentially meaning a level of violence that would not trigger outside intervention. And despite developments in Ukraine over the past two months, larger-scale war may not be Vladimir Putin’s goal. Rather, the current face of the Ukrainian crisis may simply be an exercise in brinksmanship designed to consolidate and demonstrate Russian power.

As of this writing, Putin has recognized the independence of two breakaway regions of Ukraine controlled by separatists, and ordered Russian forces into those areas to exercise “peacekeeping functions.” Most of the world has condemned these actions as violations of international law, and fears wider war. But consider what happens if Russian forces simply occupy the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in support of the nominal political independence of those areas. In that scenario, the onus for any larger war (one involving more than Ukrainian, Russian, and Russian-backed forces) falls on the West. The purpose of the conflict would be to recover the separatist regions for Ukraine, necessitating offensive action by its forces and those of its allies. That circumstance helps explain Putin’s propaganda campaign to depict Ukraine as an historic and integral part of Russia (a view rejected by Ukrainians and many others). To the extent that this narrative is believed, it undermines the resolution and consensus needed among Ukraine’s allies to employ military force in the separatist regions. And should Western powers launch such an offensive, Russian information agencies would expand the narrative to depict that operation as an aggressive act threatening the homes and lives of innocent civilians. (Another question is how the Crimea fits in with these calculations.) 

However, in a scenario where Russian forces hold in eastern Ukraine, any potential Western use of force would likely be preceded by the imposition of economic and political sanctions. This begs the question of how Russia would endure the harm imposed by such actions – but that also might be part of Putin’s calculus. The longer it can withstand sanctions, the longer its forces would remain in the breakaway areas of Ukraine, and the more likely people outside of the region would be willing to accept their alleged political independence as a fait accompli – or at least not willing to risk a major war to challenge it. Of course, even if Putin is engaging in brinksmanship, that does not preclude the possibility of war. The problem with mobilizing and threatening force is that unforeseen events might prompt violent responses in ways that undermine or impede the realization of policy goals. Here too, though, Putin may be betting that Western reluctance for war will mitigate the chances that contingent incidents might produce an inescapable escalation of hostilities, hence leaving room for negotiation. 

The broader issue to keep in mind is that for Vladimir Putin, the threat of a major war is a much more effective means to enhance Russian power than such a war itself. A broader conflict contains the risk of significant losses, which in turn can be used to highlight weaknesses of Russian military capabilities. Conversely, recall that Russian intervention in Ukraine began eight years ago, which – using a combination of limited force, cyber, and information operations – succeeded in weakening the country and arresting its reorientation towards the U.S. and NATO. If the latter do not respond in a manner that prompts Russian withdrawal from the breakaway areas, that result will produce a remarkable political victory for Putin, at the expense of the Western democracies. The question is: Can the West find a way to compel Russian departure from eastern Ukraine short of war? If not, would the U.S. and NATO have the ability to create the consensus and political will for an offensive in the region? And how could it be sustained in the face of military and political challenges such a campaign would produce?  

At the very least, Putin has created a situation where it will be very difficult for Western leaders to achieve a satisfactory political outcome. And some might decide that offensive action is not worth the risk. If so, the crisis would inevitably draw comparison to that of Munich in 1938, where Western powers acquiesced in the carving up of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany. Avoiding that outcome, both now and in the future, requires that Western powers become more proficient (much like Russia has done) in synthesizing distinct means of achieving political ends, to include military force, information, cyber, economic sanctions, etc. Recent efforts by the Biden administration are hopeful, particularly in the realm promoting narratives detailing Russian aggression and deceit – but those must go much further, both to address the current crisis and, more broadly, to better combat the twenty-first century challenges to Western democracy.

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