Jan 21, 2022 - World

What Putin's Ukraine options look like

Russia President Vladimir Putin confers with defense minister Sergei Shoigu. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty

The Biden administration is framing Russian escalation in Ukraine as almost a foregone conclusion, but the Russians are still at the table and Vladimir Putin may be seeking concessions from the West rather than a military confrontation with Kyiv.

Driving the news: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who will meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Friday in Geneva, contended in a speech Thursday from Berlin that Putin's intentions are clear: "He's laying the groundwork for an invasion because he doesn’t believe Ukraine is a sovereign nation."

  • That followed President Biden's remark on Wednesday that Putin likely hadn’t made up his mind, but "my guess is he will move in."
  • The administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

State of play: Many analysts remain skeptical that Putin will order a full-scale invasion, at least without a significant reinforcement of the around 100,000 troops massed near the border.

  • There’s no question that Russia’s military is vastly more powerful than Ukraine’s, but attempting to invade and occupy a well-armed, hostile country would likely entail military casualties on a scale Europe hasn't seen in decades.
  • Short of that, Putin could seek to occupy and annex separatist-controlled portions of eastern Ukraine, or seize coastal areas to create a land bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea.
  • Biden also noted today that Russia could reprise its “gray zone” tactics from 2014 — deploying paramilitaries or "Russian soldiers not wearing Russian uniforms."

The other side: The secretary of Ukraine's Security Council told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that, at least in the short term, he expects Russia to seek to destabilize Kyiv through nonmilitary means like cyberattacks, economic pressure and disinformation.

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky said this week that the threat of invasion is no higher than in previous years, likely in part to reassure Ukrainian citizens.
  • Still, Ukrainian officials were alarmed by Biden’s suggestion (since walked back) that if Putin opts for a "minor incursion," NATO allies might be divided over how to respond.
  • Biden inadvertently underscored the crucial question of just what it would take to trigger the "massive" economic consequences the U.S. and its European allies have promised, particularly for countries like Germany that rely on Russian gas.

Russia's government continues to insist it has no intention of invading, while holding out the threat of a "military-technical response" if NATO won’t meet its demands to rule out membership for Ukraine, roll back its presence in eastern Europe, and pledge not to deploy certain offensive weaponry.

  • Moscow is also pressing the U.S. to "strong-arm Kyiv" into implementing the Minsk protocols — the agreements signed in 2014 and 2015 that call for a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and a special status for the separatist-controlled regions.
  • Zelensky has taken a much harder line on that front than the Kremlin expected when he was elected in 2019 on a pro-peace platform.
  • Blinken said Wednesday that the U.S. would be happy to engage over the Minsk process, but that Russia is not holding up its end of the agreement.

The bottom line: Pulling the U.S. into urgent talks on Ukraine and European security is already a victory of sorts for Putin, but there's no chance of an agreement on the terms he's set out.

  • The prospects of a swift compromise — a temporary moratorium on NATO membership, for example — currently appear remote.
  • That leaves the crucial questions of what Putin's ultimate aims are and what it would take to satisfy or deter him.
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