Mr Putin’s Ukrainian gambit

All the talk internationally this week is about Ukraine, and specifically about the buildup of Russian troops on its borders. Pundits and politicians are giving every appearance of taking the threat of war seriously; United States president Joe Biden said this morning that he expected the Russians to “move in”, although exactly what he meant by that is open to doubt.

Speculation on the objectives of Russian president Vladimir Putin is unnecessary. We know exactly what Putin wants; he wants a friendly, subservient government in Ukraine. You can read his own explanation of how he sees the relationship in a long essay from last July. While some of Putin’s history is tendentious at best, he makes some valid points about the deeply intertwined heritage of Russia and Ukraine.

But as he acknowledges, countries grow apart: “some part of a people in the process of its development, influenced by a number of reasons and historical circumstances, can become aware of itself as a separate nation at a certain moment.” Putin would like to turn the clock back, but he knows there is a limit to how far that is practical.

He must also know that a friendly relationship is, in the very nature of things, not something that can be re-established by armed force. His problem is that with the collapse of the pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine in 2014, armed force is about all he’s got left. That won’t deliver a sympathetic government in Kiev – in fact, the current government of president Volodymyr Zelensky is about as sympathetic as he’s likely to get, and he has consistently rejected its overtures.

Instead, Putin seems to have decided that he might be able to use the threat of force to achieve goals that would at least be better than nothing. He might, for example, aim at the annexation of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, most of which is already occupied by Russian paramilitaries. But his most explicit objective so far is detaching Ukraine from military co-operation with the west, with an ambit claim of rolling back NATO’s presence from Russia’s borders.

As I’ve said before, I think Putin has a legitimate grievance here: I think the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union was a bad mistake. But it can’t now be undone; asking NATO to abandon the Baltic states is a complete non-starter, and Putin must be presumed to realise that.

The demand to rule out NATO membership for Ukraine, on the other hand, presents an opportunity for the west to call Putin’s bluff. A counter-offer of comprehensive Ukrainian neutrality, to be guaranteed by both sides – roughly on the model of the Austrian treaty of 1955 – would give him what he claims to want in defensive terms, but would not prevent Ukraine developing as a westernised democracy.

Unfortunately, the chronic inability of American policymakers to see the other side’s point of view (their “willful naïveté about the way international politics actually works,” as Peter Beinart puts it) means that such an agreement is unlikely to be reached. Instead, Putin will probably get no more than some soothing words and some minor confidence-building measures – a poor return on his large military buildup.

What then? There’s a tacit assumption in much of the commentary that if it was rational to make a threat in the first place, then it must be rational to carry out the threat if merely making it is insufficient to gain one’s objectives. (Canadian philosopher David Gauthier enunciated just such a principle back in the 1980s.) So if the threat of war doesn’t do the trick, the next step is actual war.

But this is an insane suggestion, as anyone who remembers the Cold War must realise. The threat of nuclear retaliation succeeded remarkably well in keeping the peace; it does not for a moment follow that, had it failed to do so, actual nuclear retaliation would have been rationally justified. The question of whether the threat of war might serve Putin’s purposes is a quite separate question from whether actual war would do so.

And no-one has yet produced an explanation of how an actual invasion of Ukraine would do Putin the slightest good. The costs would be immediate and catastrophic; the benefits would be at best remote and more likely quite illusory.

The only sane argument for carrying out the threatened invasion, as for similar drastic threats, would be to preserve credibility: if the maker of the threat backs down, future threats are less likely to be taken seriously. But this does not seem to be a problem for Putin. If anything, it is the reverse – his threats are being taken more seriously than they deserve.

Having repeatedly resorted to military action outside Russia’s borders, Putin has plenty of credibility on that front. Add to that the fact that he has not explicitly promised to invade Ukraine (and indeed has disclaimed any such intention), and it seems fairly clear that he could now de-escalate the situation and quietly back away without suffering any reputational damage.

Men and nations do not always act rationally, so there is no guarantee that that’s what will actually happen. But at the moment it seems a good bet.


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