Russian rhetoric on a military confrontation with Ukraine has ratcheted up this week, with President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu continuing to develop justifications for an invasion. According to some analysts, the pace of Russia’s military build-up on its border with Ukraine means that Moscow could be ready to invade as soon as next month.
But for Russia specialist Mark Galeotti, war is not Putin’s Plan A or even Plan B, although he agrees that the current massing of Russian forces far surpasses the more theatrical build-ups of the past.
‘He’s clearly giving himself the option of military invasion. But this is a high-stakes attempt to intimidate Kyiv and the West to give him what he’s been looking for for the 20-odd years of his presidency.’
Galeotti says Putin wants a kind of ‘Yalta 2.0’, referring to the 1945 conference at which the Allies discussed the post-war division of Europe. Extracting such a grand bargain from the West would give Russia the security and respect that Putin thinks it deserves and control over a sphere of influence that includes Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia.
But, he says, ‘it feels like the last throw of the dice from an ageing president who thinks history might not be on his side’.
Galeotti scorns notions advanced by some analysts that Putin is a grandmaster of geopolitical chess, able to checkmate opponents in just a few moves.
He believes that judo—which Putin has a black belt in—provides a much better metaphor for understanding how he operates.
‘He’s a judoka. You go into the ring, circle around your opponent and, as soon as you see an opportunity, you strike. And that is very much Putin’s approach to foreign policy—to create instability in which he will have a variety of different options.’
Escalatory rhetoric is a key part of this strategy; the aim is to create panic, division and misjudgement in Western capitals. Last week, for example, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov introduced an atomic element to rising tensions when he threatened to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on the Ukraine border.
Galeotti says that’s essentially a meaningless statement, since Russia already has tactical nuclear weapons stationed along most of its land border. Still, it’s an example of what he terms as the classic art of Russian ‘heavy metal diplomacy’, where Moscow uses its military as an instrument of coercive statecraft.
‘The Kremlin is saying to the West that Russia is serious, and that it has the least to lose from a conflict.’
Galeotti maintains that the situation is most likely to be resolved by non-military means. ‘But there is an asterisk here,’ he says. ‘What might seem to us like common sense might not seem so to the old and paranoid men in the Kremlin.’
People like Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Russian Security Council who’s effectively Putin’s national security adviser, almost certainly believe that the West aims to isolate and dismember Russia, he says.
‘So it’s not that Putin is insane or a zealot or an ideologist, just that we don’t know what he’s being told and what this rational, pragmatic man may think is a pragmatic move.’
Before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, leader Leonid Brezhnev was famously told by his defence minister, Dmitry Ustinov, that it would be over in six months. Similarly, there are a lot of assessments coming out of Russia right now claiming that a war in Ukraine would be over in a week.
But Galeotti notes that Ustinov, who was not a military man, actually sat on detailed planning from the general staff, blocking the right information from getting to Brezhnev.
In the current context, Shoigu is a different man, who will probably be considering sober military calculations of costs and options. ‘When I was in Russia a month ago, I got the sense from military contacts that he’s sound, not just a placemat,’ Galeotti says.
And many of the other assessments rolling around the Russian media landscape can be dismissed.
‘These are not from serious people in the national security community, but rather from toxic TV commentors—geopolitical shock jocks who compete with each other to say extreme things but have no traction on political process.’
But if Putin did decide to go to war, what would the battle plan look like? Galeotti argues that Moscow is probably not interested in taking terrain in Ukraine. It would more likely mount a punitive attack, a blitzkrieg involving missiles, artillery and air power.
‘The aim would be to force Kyiv to capitulate and to accept political guarantees that would lock Ukraine into Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia could then withdraw without getting bogged down fighting in major cities in eastern Ukraine.’
But the problem for Russia, says Galeotti, is that the neatness of this plan may not survive on-the-ground realities. Ukraine has built up its territorial defences, training local militias to fight for their villages and towns.
And the political part of an invasion is a gamble for Russia. If Kyiv refuses to surrender and fights on, what then?
‘At this point it becomes difficult for Russia, because how does it avoid getting bogged down in fighting street by street? That’s why people don’t think there will be a war: because it will be hard for Russia to translate it into political gains.’
Galeotti also notes that a war is unlikely to be popular domestically, at a time when Putin’s popularity is at an all-time low of 32%. Kremlin officials will have a sense of this, he says, because they are the most assiduous pollsters in Russia.
‘There’s no enthusiasm in Russia for some kind of grand imperial adventure, even though Russian media will pump out the same old rhetoric about Ukrainian neo-fascists and genocide against Russian speakers.’
Support is likely to evaporate further if the US follows through on the crippling sanctions it has been considering in response to an attack on Ukraine.
So, what would it take for Putin to climb down from escalatory rhetoric to some kind of political solution? Galeotti argues that there needs to be something on the table that Putin can spin as a victory of some kind. The challenge will be finding the sweet spot without delivering any substantive gains to Russia.
‘If gains are made, then the message for Russia and perhaps China is that this is the new world order in which the West will keep buying you off if you become too inconvenient.’