foreign interests

Is Putin Choosing War in Ukraine?

The chances to avoid a disastrous full-scale invasion are now almost spent.

Putin during Monday’s meeting of the Russian Security Council at Moscow’s Kremlin. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Alexei Nikolsky/TASS
Putin during Monday’s meeting of the Russian Security Council at Moscow’s Kremlin. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Alexei Nikolsky/TASS

Russian president Vladimir Putin effectively launched a long-anticipated invasion of Ukraine on Monday night, ordering soldiers into the neighboring country on the pretext of a “peacekeeping” mission in parts of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. But while Russian forces crossing Ukraine’s border without the invitation of its government is a violation of sovereignty as a matter of international law, Monday’s escalation is best understood as a dire final step toward a full invasion rather than the invasion itself.

After weeks of incremental escalation and frustrated diplomatic endeavors, the tilt toward full-blown war came swiftly. In a televised address, Putin formally recognized the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic as independent and accused Ukraine of committing torture and genocide against Russian speakers in these regions without presenting any evidence to support his claim. He also dismissed Ukraine’s legitimacy as a real nation, calling it “a colony with puppets at its helm,” and rehashed his grievances against NATO for its eastward expansion over the past two decades.

Over the weekend, Ukraine reported hundreds of cease-fire breaches in Donetsk and Luhansk with artillery shells striking civilian targets including a kindergarten. The separatists claimed to be responding to attacks from Ukraine, but witnesses on the ground said the artillery fire was all coming from one direction. The U.S. had repeatedly warned that Russia would likely stage a false-flag attack it could blame on Ukraine and use as a pretext for invading. To nobody’s surprise, the recognition of the breakaway republics was followed within hours by the announcement that Russian “peacekeepers” were on their way into Ukraine.

If Putin proceeds with a full-on invasion of Ukraine beyond the territory in Donbas, the likely trajectory of the coming conflict is grim. U.S. military and intelligence assessments hold that Russian forces could capture Kyiv in days, toppling Ukraine’s government and cutting a destructive path across the country that may leave over 50,000 dead and displace some 5 million refugees. On Sunday, the U.S. informed the U.N. human-rights chief that it believed Russia had a list of Ukrainians “to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation,” including Russian and Belarusian dissidents, journalists, anti-corruption activists, and “vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons.”

Security officers walk in an underpass at a railway station in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. The city’s authorities have identified underpasses and the city’s extensive subway system as among the thousands of sites where residents can seek shelter in the event of war in Kyiv. Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Putin has dropped numerous hints that his objective is greater than securing the independence (or, rather, annexation) of the breakaway republics. If the Russians occupy Kyiv, the likely outcome will be regime change, replacing Volodymyr Zelensky’s government with more compliant, Moscow-friendly leadership as the Kremlin has tried with varying degrees of success over the past two decades. Zelensky, a former comedian who entered office in 2019 on a platform of fighting corruption and resolving the conflict with Russia, has failed to deliver on any of his campaign promises. Now, bleeding public support, he is faced with a crisis he is unequipped to handle.

It is not clear if Russia can achieve regime change in Ukraine without a lengthy and costly occupation. That prospect initially drew significant opposition within the Kremlin’s military establishment, though Putin appears to have corralled his officer corps on that point, and the dissenters have since fallen in line. Just how popular this invasion will be among the Russian public is hard to accurately gauge, but the best available surveys suggest extremely low enthusiasm for it. If the Russian army becomes mired in guerrilla warfare without a decisive outcome, the invasion could become a politically disastrous quagmire for Putin. He knows this, so if Putin does decide to take Kyiv, we can expect to see a swift, brutal effort to capture the city and put down any resistance as quickly as possible.

For now, Putin has moved the front lines of this battlefield from the formal border between Russia and Ukraine to the border between the separatist “republics” and the rest of Ukraine. In the meantime, Ukraine remains surrounded by some 190,000 Russian troops including over 30,000 who took part in provocative military exercises in Belarus last week and have conspicuously remained.

Ukrainian servicemembers on the front line outside of Svitlodarsk, Ukraine, on Monday. Photo: Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

While regime change in Kyiv is Putin’s preferred outcome, he might settle for redrawing the map to peel the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics — which have been de facto Russian satellites since 2014 — away from Ukraine and annex them like Crimea. This can actually be interpreted as a downgrade of his original ambition, which was to have the separatist regions remain part of Ukraine but be highly autonomous and de facto controlled from Moscow. This would have effectively given Putin representation in Ukraine’s legislature and the ability to influence its domestic and foreign policy.

Now, instead of invading Ukraine proper, as it were, he might try to get the world to accept the “independence” of the separatist regions from Ukraine as a fait accompli. This could still meet his objectives of destabilizing Ukraine politically and ending Zelensky’s political career, which would demonstrate to his supporters that he can use brinkmanship to force concessions out of NATO. This would get Putin most of what he wants out of Ukraine at a much lower cost than a war of occupation while leaving the door open to more bullying and territorial violations in the future.

The U.S., the European Union, and NATO responded quickly to Putin’s aggressive move, denouncing it as a violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty responding with harsh sanctions. On Monday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order prohibiting U.S. entities from any trade or investment in the breakaway regions, following up on Tuesday with total sanctions against Russia’s military bank servicing the defense sector and the major investment bank VEB. Also Tuesday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a relatively mild sanctions package that will target five Russian banks and three wealthy individuals. Most significantly thus far, German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that he would suspend certification of the massive Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline that connects Germany and Russia. Biden has also vowed further sanctions against Russian individuals and redeployed troops in Europe to support NATO members like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, describing Putin’s actions so far as the “beginning” of an invasion.

It is unclear whether Putin’s moves so far will trigger the full blast of sanctions the Biden administration has prepared in response to an invasion. On Monday, an unnamed senior administration official drew a distinction between the movement of Russian troops into the parts of Donbas they already effectively occupy and an incursion into other parts of Ukraine. The official noted that “Russia has had forces in the Donbas for the past eight years,” suggesting that this move might not rise to the level of a full-blown occupation. But on Tuesday, Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer told CNN that “an invasion is an invasion and that is what is underway.”

Front-line Ukrainian servicemembers in a trench outside of Svitlodarsk, Ukraine, on Monday. Photo: Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The extent of the world’s reaction may depend on how far Putin goes. If he limits his war goals to breaking off the separatist republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, the West might let him more or less get away with it, as it did in 2014 when he occupied and annexed Crimea. The hardest-biting sanctions will be reserved in case he moves on Kyiv to topple the government and install a puppet regime.

Russia’s ability to weather Western sanctions also depends on how far China is willing to go to support it economically. Chinese officials have warned Russia about violating Ukrainian sovereignty, and Beijing may be more tolerant of Russian “peacekeepers” in Donbas than of Russian occupation forces in Kyiv.

Another point of uncertainty is how the world would respond if Putin refrained from threatening Kyiv but tried to capture the rest of the Donbas region to add to his separatist proxies’ territory. This would technically be an act of war, but would the U.S. and NATO allies split hairs between occupying Donbas and occupying the entire country? It is still not clear where exactly the red line is — and that makes the situation all the more uncertain and frightening.

Whether the situation stabilizes at this point or continues to spiral into all-out war depends mainly on Putin’s mentality: If he thinks he is winning and can push his luck (or is simply delusional), he may proceed to march on the Ukrainian capital no matter what. If the Biden administration and NATO are willing to let him get away with formalizing his de facto annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk, he might walk away with that. Yet whether the next escalation comes tomorrow, next week, or next year, the danger Putin’s revanchism poses to European security has never been clearer.

This post has been updated.

Is Putin Choosing War in Ukraine?