The West’s preoccupation with the threat of an imminent, out-of-the-blue Russian invasion of Ukraine is misplaced. It is based on a fundamental misreading of Russia’s mindset, priorities, and mode of operations. The suggestion that Moscow will proceed with a massive, unprovoked attack—with Russian tank columns driving straight into Ukraine’s Javelin-strengthened defenses—and that it will happen soon, perhaps this month, is questionable at best. For a start, President Vladimir Putin’s record of using military force indicates that he usually responds to some violent action of Russia’s opponents rather than initiate the action himself. He first gained legitimacy in Moscow in 1999 as Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister, when he sent the Russian army to combat the Chechen invasion of Dagestan. In 2008 (again as prime minister), Putin commanded Russia’s counterattack against Georgia, following the Georgian army’s attack on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. In 2013, Putin, in semi-secret fashion, dispatched Russian forces to support Syria’s beleaguered president Bashar al-Assad, a longstanding ally of Moscow, and this effort was considerably expanded in 2015. It is also the case that in 2014, in response to the overthrow of Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych, Putin deployed the Russian military to establish control over Crimea and provide military assistance to separatists in the Donbas region. Most recently, this year, Putin—together with Collective Security Treaty Organization allies, including several central Asian states and Belarus—sent a small peacekeeping contingent to Kazakhstan in response to what Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has described as an extremist insurgency. Today, Ukraine’s political evolution and foreign policy direction remain an abiding concern of the Russian leadership, but there has so far been no evidence of an adequate justification for a major Russian military operation.
The danger from Russia is serious and real, but far different from what the conventional wisdom assumes. Rather than undertake an all-out invasion of Ukraine without any specific reason, Russia is more likely to remain patient—and wait for what could be portrayed as a Ukrainian provocation. Meanwhile, it is preparing to respond to the West’s “sanctions from hell” as if they were the functional equivalent of war—meaning that instead of its familiar, toothless countersanctions, Moscow would employ a broad spectrum of measures targeted against Western economies, infrastructure, and individuals perceived as involved in hostile activities against Russia.
The West has based its entire sanctions regime on the expectation that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would meet stiff local resistance and quickly bog down as happened decades ago in Afghanistan—making Moscow an easy and attractive target for punishment. But new sanctions from the West may not be quite that simple. So far, Moscow’s hope to activate Nord Stream 2 has had a moderating impact on its conduct. If and when that hope proves idle, however, some in the Russian government are suggesting striking back in the energy sector. Such retaliation would come at a steep price for Russia—but with more than $600 billion in foreign exchange reserves, Moscow believes it could persevere longer than the Europeans. Moscow is not ignorant of Western plans to replace Russian energy supplies with those from Qatar, Azerbaijan, and other places. There is an expectation, however, that if push comes to shove, it too can find new customers, primarily in Asia and, above all, in China. Even in Europe, nations such as Hungary may be interested in purchasing Russian gas at a discount rate. Moscow views the emerging crisis as a question of resolve, and if the stakes are high enough, many in the Russian government believe their country will have greater staying power than their American-led adversaries. Indeed, Moscow insiders claim that Western resolve is unlikely to survive images of devastating damage inflicted by Russian missiles and airpower on Ukrainian airports, bridges, and government buildings in the style of the U.S. attack on Iraq. In such a confrontation, there is no expectation that China would fully ally itself with Russia; previous Russian experience would certainly not support such rosy expectations. On Friday, Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping signed a new Chinese-Russian security cooperation statement that illustrates the generally positive direction of Chinese-Russian relations. The statement also underscores China’s reluctance to ally itself fully with Russia against the United States and Europe. There remains a widespread belief, however, that Beijing would try to bolster Moscow in a variety of ways—including protecting it from censure at the UN Security Council—and be prepared to replace some of the advanced technologies of which the United States and Europe could deprive Russia. Indeed, Moscow has just inked a new gas agreement to supply it from the Far East to China, thereby helping to ensure that it can replace European customers.
Russia has reacted with barely-controlled fury at the announcement of new U.S. and NATO troop reinforcements to its neighbors—particularly to the Baltic states, in close proximity to St. Petersburg. The Baltic states have now apparently promised to provide U.S.-made Javelin missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, and other weapons to Ukraine, placing them, for the first time, in Moscow’s sights for retaliation. Russia has no intention of attacking the Baltic states in response to such arms transfers, but if military conflict erupts elsewhere such as in Ukraine, Russian military planning would not exclude the Baltic states simply because they are NATO members. As one senior Russian official put it, “In the absence of a treaty, we were idiots to believe American and European assurances that there would be neither NATO enlargement nor movement of NATO forces and infrastructure into the post-Soviet states.” But today, according to him, Western leaders delude themselves into thinking that if Russia must defend its existential interests, it will not dare touch small but especially bold NATO members like Estonia simply because of the magic power of Article 5.
So how could a military conflict in Ukraine actually start? In the many conversations I had in Moscow in December with Russian officials—some considered close to President Vladimir Putin—I did not hear a single one mention the possibility of a major Russian invasion simply because Moscow’s demands on NATO enlargement and NATO forces in Eastern Europe were not met. Every Moscow spokesperson denies such a possibility. But they do acknowledge—including Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council and Putin’s longtime associate—that if Russia is attacked, it would not hesitate to respond decisively. When asked what kind of “attack” they had in mind, Russian officials and experts frequently mention a telling precedent—Georgia’s attack on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia in 2008. Moscow responded with an all-out invasion of Georgia that only stopped at the outskirts of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. This, incidentally, occurred while then-Prime Minister Putin attended the Summer Olympics in Beijing, from which he quickly returned to direct the Russian offensive. Also commonly cited is a 2018 incident in which three Ukrainian naval gunboats attempted to pass under the Crimean Bridge, in disregard of Russian-imposed procedures. The Russian Coast Guard and border guards in this incident quickly captured the three vessels without much resistance. Today, however, with a more confident Ukrainian navy reinforced by several new vessels and less inclined to back down, it is not difficult to imagine a similar scenario quickly escalating into open conflict. The threat of escalation is now especially acute given NATO’s stepped-up naval patrols in the Black Sea.
In Ukraine itself in recent weeks, NATO has provided a large influx of arms, which Russia claims are being delivered not only to the regular military but also to nationalist battalions who sometimes openly defy President Volodymyr Zelensky’s orders. There is a good possibility that if Russia exercises a little patience, emboldened Ukrainian nationalist detachments may provide Moscow with credible excuses to retaliate. The area of most concern is, of course, Donbas. Putin recently announced that Russian citizens residing in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions should be given access to regular social services, arranged through a government portal. The Russian Duma is now pursuing two simultaneous initiatives regarding the regions. The first one—proposed by the ruling United Russia party—aims to provide Donetsk and Luhansk with new weapons in response to NATO military supplies to Kyiv. The second initiative—proposed by the Communist party but allegedly coordinated with the Kremlin—calls upon Russia formally to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” thereby allowing Moscow to conclude security treaties with the disputed territories. Moscow could then assume official responsibility for defense of the regions. When Russia made a similar move in 2008—recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics, in response to U.S. and NATO recognition of Kosovo—Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili took Moscow’s bait and activated his forces in the disputed territories. Russia quickly responded in kind and Saakashvili proceeded with a major attack on Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital. The rest is history—history which the United States and NATO should hardly want to repeat in Donbas.
The world is not unfamiliar with this kind of adversarial relationship; during the Cold War, it was called brinkmanship. From the standpoint of the West, brinkmanship worked without major incident, and the pressure it generated contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The problem is that, in matters involving the risk of nuclear catastrophe, reliance on such precedents is hardly sound policy. Even if a nuclear exchange can be avoided, brinkmanship with Russia remains a huge distraction from what, by any reasonable standard, should be America’s paramount foreign policy priority: confronting the emergence of a rival superpower, China.