The current conventional wisdom, echod by U.S. President Joe Biden, among others, is that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin intends to re-invade Ukraine in the near future. Military experts who have weighed in on the matter — notably Rob Lee at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses — have speculated that the Russian military posture points to plans for a ground invasion toward Kyiv, meant to compel Ukraine toward a pro-Russian course or a change in government.
All these predictions are premised on the same foundation: the Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border. Why would they be there if Putin wasn’t planning some kind of assault?
Let me lay out a scenario that defies this seemingly unshakable logic and plays out as a media phenomenon rather than a hot war. It doesn’t exclude a re-invasion — since 2014, that possibility can never be ruled out. It does, however, allow more leeway for a de-escalation than the professional wargamers’ predictions.
One of the reports that got the world worrying about Russian troops and equipment parked near the border with Ukraine last fall appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 1. Citing “senior Biden administration officials,” it said that Russia had only withdrawn a few thousand troops since the previous invasion scare, which had spread in the spring of 2021. The article in the NYT put the number of troops in the border regions at some 80,000.
Since those early days of September, warnings coming from the U.S. and often echoed by official Kyiv have grown louder and more urgent, with bigger and bigger numbers of Russian troops named in media reports sourced to the Biden administration and the U.S. intelligence community. In early December, the Washington Post reported that Russia was preparing to attack with 175,000 troops. This would assume massive reinforcements: The most frequent number bandied about these days is 100,000 or “more than 100,000.”
If that latest number is correct, the Russian military presence on the border, heavier than usual throughout last year, hasn’t changed dramatically — at least not in terms of troop numbers — since last spring, growing again in the fall after ebbing slightly during the summer. Some heavy equipment, including various missile launchers, was shifted toward Ukraine back in the spring of 2021, although the movements have intensified in recent months since Ukraine has been boasting about buying, and using, Turkish-made TB2 drones against Russian-backed forces in the east of the country.
Russia, in other words, appears to have gradually shifted its military might toward Ukraine in 2021 and is carrying out more exercises near the border — as it did near Georgia in the years preceding the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. Then, Putin and his strategists successfully baited a trap for hotheaded Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, who finally made a disastrous first move. Conceivably, Putin has been hoping for a similar development that would give him what he considers a legitimate casus belli. Like Saakashvili’s Georgia, Ukraine has been rearming and restructuring its military, gaining confidence that it won’t be routed as painfully as it was in 2014. If Ukraine moved to recapture lost territory in the east, Putin could take advantage of such a moment.
The Biden administration, however, has managed to turn the tables with its wolf-crying campaign. It has succeeded in whipping up a media frenzy. According to Google Trends, news search interest in Ukraine now is the highest it has been since 2015, although not as high as it was during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity.
Suddenly, Putin was in the hot seat. He couldn’t simply wave off Washington’s alarmist messaging, since his troops were demonstrably massed on the border. His knee-jerk reaction was a burst of angry U.S.-trolling, including the rollout of a spate of impossible demands like a NATO withdrawal from Eastern Europe.
If this was meant as an attention-grabber, it only worked to a degree. The unproductive diplomatic meetings that followed can be spun as Russian successes only with difficulty (the Carnegie Endowment’s Dmitri Trenin attempted that in a recent interview, saying the meetings signified the first discussion of European security involving Russia since German reunification). As an attention-deflector, it failed miserably. The U.S. had enough media firepower, far more than Russia, to maintain a focus on the re-invasion possibility.
Meanwhile, the expectation of a big war and the hellish sanctions that would accompany it has crashed Russian stocks: The MOEX Russia Index hit the last 12 months’ low on Jan. 24 and is down more than 20% from its October high. The ruble has lost 10% of its value versus the U.S. dollar over the same period, despite Russia’s impressive currency reserves.
At the same time, the publicity campaign has provided justification for increased Western arms supplies to Ukraine. The U.K. has stepped up deliveries as its embattled prime minister, Boris Johnson, seized on the Russian invasion threat to distract voters from his scandals. Putin, who had publicly singled out the weapons shipments as an irritant, suddenly found himself facing a version of the Saakashvili trap himself.
“He has to do something,” Biden said of Putin. You could read this statement as an assessment that Putin the macho man cannot back down now — or as a sign of White House anticipation that Putin has been pushed into a corner where he’s likely to make a stupid move.
The latter is, of course, a possibility. Putin is known to be emotional about Ukraine. He is, however, also experienced and crafty; he hasn’t made a statement on the crisis in weeks. It’s almost as if he’s decided to wait out the invasion hysteria and then go on calmly weighing his options — and waiting for pro-Western Ukrainian governments to run out of rope as they struggle ineffectively with the country’s seemingly incurable corruption.
If Putin needed a way out, he could play a card he’s long held up his sleeve: the recognition or even inclusion in Russia of the puppet “People’s Republics” of eastern Ukraine. These gray areas are already integrated into Russia in many ways. Their residents have been supplied with Russian passports, many of them work in Russia or send children to Russian universities. Links to Ukraine are more tenuous and revolve around smuggling. The Russian military presence along the border would likely deter any Ukrainian kinetic response, and in a practical sense, a Russian takeover of the regions would remove a problem for Ukraine rather than create one: The Minsk agreements of 2015 would finally be off the table and Ukraine’s victimhood would not be marred by any broken promises made under those deals.
The idea of the takeover recently has been aired in the docile Russian parliament by the nominal Communist opposition — and the Kremlin publicly asked its proponents not to rock the boat. But once diplomacy with the U.S. and NATO runs its course, Putin could easily say that no better solution has been found. In that case, he’ll hardly lose face at home: Inviting the Russian-speaking population of the “People’s Republics” into the motherland’s fold likely would be a popular move.
In this scenario, there’s no massive invasion — not in the near future. Waiting out this crisis would have the extra advantage for the Kremlin of undermining U.S. credibility. Will the world believe it a year from now if it turns on its invasion sirens again?
I’m not saying the military experts are wrong. Putin can launch the strike they expect, and he has strategic reasons to do it at some point. Ukraine has been living on a powder keg since 2014. It’s strange, however, that Western observers of the crisis aren’t paying more attention to the calm behavior of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his closest aides. You could write it off to fatalism — but, more likely, it stems from a different reading of the situation than one can pick up from Western media. Zelenskiy appears to be betting that Putin won’t be manipulated into an angry, careless move. I’m not a betting man, but I hope so too. – Bloomberg.
Also read: How Vladimir Putin keeps everyone guessing