This was a colossal blunder of crisis diplomacy. Not only was the U.S. deterrence scheme ineffectual, but putting it into practice had perpetuated the opposite of what it intended to prevent. Indeed, when a crisis is driven by a security dilemma, the very act of showcasing strength and resolve doesn’t deter war. Instead, it aggravates insecurities, thereby fueling an escalation cycle to spiral upward and out of control.
In spite of worsening tensions, NATO’s large-scale military exercises in Europe didn’t do much to buttress deterrence over the spring and summer of 2021. In fact, it sustained the Russian mobilization to project its strength and reassert its resolve in kind. Moreover, the deepening military partnership between NATO and Ukraine hastened the diplomatic hourglass to reach its expiration date.
At one level, the military assistance caused tensions to intensify in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, overburdening a fragile ceasefire. Fears grew that the NATO-supplied hardware and ongoing training might, sooner or later, be repurposed by Kyiv to revise the status quo and reclaim full control over the breakaway provinces. At another level, it emboldened Ukraine and weakened Russia’s coercive leverage to achieve its aims, diplomatically. More strikingly, it made Moscow’s reserved military option grow costlier with time, thereby closing the door on further rounds of negotiations.
Ultimately, Biden’s definitive refusal to concede and close NATO’s open-door policy to Ukraine is what likely cemented Putin’s decision to resort to his military option. “I don’t accept anyone’s red line,” Biden said in December 2021, to head off Putin’s intent later that month to formally request a permanent ban on NATO membership for Ukraine. Mistakenly, and rather foolishly, the only outcome deemed unacceptable for Washington was a diplomatic solution that favored Moscow’s stated security concerns. In this crisis, it was accommodation, not deterrence, that constituted the correct approach to starve off the prospect of war.
The Fallacy of the Maximum Aim Assumption
Since the 2014 Maiden Revolution, which toppled a pro-Russian regime in Kyiv, Russia’s principal aim has been to reorient Ukraine as a neutral state. For Russia, neutrality in Ukraine is envisioned in both the de jure and de facto sense of the term. Not only does this involve legal guarantees and mechanisms to ensure Ukraine is prohibited from joining rivaled spheres of influence—such as NATO and the European Union—but also insists on a demilitarized relationship with the West given NATO’s growing role since 2014. This strategic interest is not a recent invention. In fact, Russia’s interest in Ukraine’s non-alignment predates Putin’s rise to power. Furthermore, neutrality was prominently featured and its mechanisms to ensure it were integrated within the stalled and now defunct Minsk II treaty, co-signed in 2015 by Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany to resolve the war in the Donbas region. But efforts by Moscow in the subsequent years—and even up till the final week prior to war—to compel the implementation of its concerned provisions had hit a dead end. For Ukrainian nationalists, Minsk II was too hard of a pill to swallow, casting it as a death warrant for the country’s sovereignty.
Contrary to the media’s popular depiction, the war isn’t—and never was—about conquering Ukraine. Since its onset, the invasion hasn’t entailed the scope, scale, or conduct that is akin to a maximum war aim to vanquish the state and subjugate society. Across all of Russia’s invading fronts, the variation of the expended resources by ground and air power within Ukraine—in addition to where it has demonstrated the greater will to fight—contradicts a military strategy that places the capital city as its centerpiece. Indeed, whatever the criteria or metric, the war’s center of mass has been anchored in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine.
In contrast to U.S. forewarnings, Russia hadn’t commenced a national-wide bombing campaign, let alone one tied to a discernable strategic objective. In fact, its military delivered fewer sorties and missiles in Ukraine in nearly the first month of the war than the 2003 U.S. campaign in Iraq did on just the first day. “The heart of Kyiv has barely been touched,” said a U.S. intelligence analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity over three weeks after the war began. “For whatever reason, clearly the Russians have been reluctant to strike inside the urban megalopolis of Kyiv.”
Despite the tremendous conventional firepower at Russia’s disposal, there are clear signs of restraint. For example, on the first day of the war, “32 civilian objects” were damaged, according to the Ukrainian government; however, nearly all were accidental. Of course, more would be damaged or destroyed in the coming months. But, by and large, they do not appear to be intentional. And while data is still murky, the information available on noncombatant deaths tracks with those of combatant deaths. This suggests that civilians are largely caught in the crossfire within contested areas, not targeted through a parallel military campaign intended to inflict civilian punishment. Proportionally, civilian fatalities are on par, or even lower, than the ratio experienced in U.S. air campaigns in the Middle East. In fact, according to one report citing U.S. intelligence and military observers, Russian air power has “almost exclusively been in direct support of ground forces.” Indeed, west of the Dnieper River, which splits the country into two halves, has been largely divorced from the intensity and carnage exhibited in the east, where contestation exists.
Thus far, there isn’t an aim to cripple Ukraine’s infrastructure to quicken state collapse. Until now, no systematic campaign has been attempted to target transportation and communication networks, both of which remain intact. Also, there hasn’t been a deliberate effort to wipe out the electrical grid by leveling Ukraine’s power plants or critical distribution nodes. While some were damaged, those appear to be due to close proximity to military installations or contested battlefields rather than by intention. Moreover, airfields in uncontested areas were “still operable” and some even remained untouched, including in major cities.
As for designs to upend and overturn the Ukrainian government, there’s no credible indication that foreign-imposed regime change was the pursued goal, let alone a political objective considered feasible by Russian leaders. What’s more, from a military perspective, neither the conditions in Ukraine nor Russia’s own capacity to overcome those obstacles supports the conventional wisdom of an intent to conquer it.
For instance, the reported estimates of Russia’s mobilization on the eve of war ranged from 100,000 to 190,000 personnel. Even at its peak deployment, it remains too small of a force to achieve conquest in Ukraine, let alone sustain a military occupation to safeguard a puppet regime in Kyiv. A modern country of 44 million, Ukraine is also the largest landmass after Russia on the European continent. In addition, its military was more recently upgraded—rebuilt, armed, and trained by NATO. With active military personnel at 200,000 and even a larger reserve force to boot, it can inflict tremendous costs, especially when under the belief they are fighting for the country’s survival. In the event of toppling the regime, the potential for a potent Ukrainian insurgency composed of military veterans is certain. Not only is nationalism a powerful political force in Ukraine—and anti-Russian in its ideological orientation—but it also borders multiple NATO states, which could lend support against a Russian occupying power.
To put it mildly, such conditions render a military occupation of Ukraine more arduous and taxing than the U.S. military experience in Iraq. In fact, this gap isn’t even close.
On top of the gargantuan military obstacles, their political counterpart also deems regime change an implausible goal. In fact, there’s no genuine sign Russia was even attempting to organize a political project to install in Ukraine in the first place. Moscow had neither tried to form an alternative government in exile nor was there any semblance of political opposition inside Ukraine ready to take the reins of governance. All the more, no part of the existing security apparatus of Ukraine, or any state institution for that matter, could realistically be co-opted in partnership with a Russian occupation. By itself, this nullifies the model of leadership decapitation alleged by U.S. and UK officials as Russia’s plan to install a puppet government. In Ukraine, any effort to impose regime change would require a purge and recreation of the state in its entirety.
Despite these Herculean obstacles, the notion that the Russian military aimed to overrun Ukraine and overturn its political system continues to be reproduced, not only by policymakers and pundits but also by journalists. They contend that Russian leaders must’ve miscalculated—or somehow were unaware of the challenges of pulling off regime change in a country that was next door. To this effect, they say Moscow committed the liberators-not-occupiers error in its pre-war assumptions, mistakenly believing their military would be widely welcomed by the Ukrainian population, thereby permitting the pursuit of a maximum aim.
This theory finds receptive ears in the West. Nevertheless, the argument, to say the least, is nonsensical. Unbeknownst to its proponents, as the track record shows, it’s the universal values espoused by the liberal internationalism in the West—not the realpolitik in Russia—that makes military adventurism more susceptible to committing this sort of error. For starters, the belief this miscalculation applies to this case stems from confirmation bias. Its attribution helps rationalize and reconcile Russia’s audacious decision to invade, while reinforcing and keeping intact the overall belief that it sought to conquer Ukraine.