Despite the media hype, it is unlikely that President Vladimir Putin intends to attack Ukraine. He is far shrewder than that, aware as he almost certainly is that an invasion will incur more burdens than benefits.
Russian diplomacy and Putin himself continually stress that no attack on Ukraine is planned. How then could he justify an attack to his own population and world opinion?
And what do the smoke signals wafting up from countries, notably China and Turkey, that often are sympathetic, if not totally in sync, with Russian views suggest?
Consider Thursday, January 27, 2022. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Secretary of State Antony Blinken that “regional security cannot be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs.” According to press reports, he referred to the 2015 Minsk II agreement, insisting that China would support efforts in line with the “direction and spirit of the agreement.” There can be little doubt that his statement was carefully crafted. It does not sound like an omen for, let alone approval of, a forthcoming invasion of Ukraine. Nor should we overlook that China has invested in a friendly relationship with Ukraine anchored by a strategic partnership going back to 2011. A potential Russian takeover of that country can hardly be in China’s interests.
Speaking for China, Wang Yi might also have used the opportunity to drive home two messages couched in careful diplomatic language. The first is that it is the United States and NATO, and neither China nor Russia, that are engaged in troublemaking. And second, to remind Washington of Beijing’s clear discomfort about AUKUS (the September 2021 trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States), as well as its warning not to turn the QUAD, the strategic security “dialogue” between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia into something more.
This line was reiterated in the joint communique issued by President Xi Jinping and Putin on February 4 that denounced both NATO’s expansion and AUKUS. China expressed support for long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe, while Taiwan was referred to as a breakaway province, as opposed to Ukraine which went unmentioned in that context.
China is singularly focused on the 20th Communist Party National Congress set for this fall. In his New Year address Xi enumerated a number of steps to be taken at that meeting where he will almost certainly be elected to a third term. It is safe to assume that a major global conflict that would undoubtedly damage China’s economy would be highly unwelcome in that context.
Consider also February 3, when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Ukraine where he stressed his support for a peaceful solution, offered to mediate and highlighted Turkey’s NATO membership in such a capacity. His key sentence may have been “We continue to support the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine including Crimea.”
Like China, Turkey wants to be friends with Russia but does not fancy a Russia that is too strong or too assertive. Both Beijing and Ankara vie with Russia for influence in Central Asia and may fear that if Russia scores a victory in Ukraine, Central Asia may be next.
President Putin will be reluctant to act in a way that runs counter to the signals coming from Beijing and Ankara. Without their acquiescence at the very least, he will be pretty much alone, and Russia, with a GDP the size of Italy’s, simply cannot afford to be so isolated. And certainly neither one of them has issued a green light. He must have sensed how China and Turkey would react and figured it into his calculation. Their stance is likely to weigh as much or more than what the United States and the EU are doing and saying at this point.
The Russian military has over centuries turned “maskirovka” into a special art of warfare and political maneuver. Its basic objective is to throw the enemy off balance by deception, mainly by misdirection, making the enemy believe you are doing something other than what you intend to do. There is a parallel to the Chinese art of war going back to Sun Tzu. The “West,” less schooled in this art, may find it difficult to gauge the policy objective pursued by Moscow, which may lead to a response based on incorrect and consequently dangerous assumptions.
As the crisis develops, it seems increasingly clear that President Putin is pursuing an open-ended policy consisting of three strategic goals. At any time, he can declare himself satisfied and call one, two, or even all three off — and still declare victory. Alternatively, he can keep them all alive indefinitely, and let the West stew while waiting for his next move. He retains the initiative.
The first of his three strategic objectives is to re-establish Russia as a power the United States has to reckon with on the global chessboard, and not to be run roughshod over as in the 1990s.
Russia continues to intervene in Syria. Its intervention in Kazakhstan, however short, demonstrated its ambitions and capability to be larger than just Russia. It is playing an active role in negotiations with Iran. It has a limited capability to project military power abroad but has carefully selected interventions to enhance prospects for success, or at least not failure as has been the case for some of America’s recent adventures.
The second objective is to demonstrate that Russia is capable of exercising considerable leverage over Europe. The EU has played into President Putin’s hand by pursuing a dysfunctional energy policy. Some years ago, it could have entered into a long-term gas supply contract with Russia establishing reciprocal dependence — the EU as buyer, Russia as seller. Instead, it vacillated. The consequence is that Russia turned to China, making the EU a subsidiary market. On top of that, the inconsistent foreign- and security-policy interests among EU member states have frustrated any meaningfully coherent common stance.
The third objective is driving home the message that, whenever it likes, Russia is capable of invading Ukraine thus, without necessarily planning or actually doing so, forcing Kyiv into some kind of dependency vis-à-vis Moscow.
Superficially, the Atlantic alliance appears to have been doing well in the current crisis, responding with clear statements about its intentions and policies accompanied by limited material assistance to Ukraine, a non-member country. On paper, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has been confirmed. In reality, however, it has been taken off the agenda. For the first time since 1991, Russia has acted proactively in Europe and pushed NATO and the EU into a reactive/defensive role.
Regardless of how the crisis ends, Russia and President Putin will make sure that the rest of the world will see them as a winner.
But President Biden may be poised to steal his thunder. If an attack does not take place because Russia never intended to, President Biden can claim that he foiled Moscow’s plans. And perhaps we will see the United States ask for a stronger European commitment to its China policy as a quid pro quo for having “saved” Europe from the calamities of a Russian attack on Ukraine?
If so, Washington will have outmaneuvered the Europeans and drawn them closer to U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific irrespective of their own interests. In this context, it is irrelevant whether the Biden administration believed Russia would attack or not.
The main conclusion to be drawn from this game is its demonstration of Europe’s inability to defend itself and control a major crisis inside Europe, leaving it to Russia and the United States to sort things out. Europe has marginalized itself, not as a result of this specific crisis, but rather by decades of its failure to build a credible military capability. And, incidentally, that will also be the conclusion in the unlikely event that Russia actually does attack Ukraine.