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What’s in Vladimir Putin’s playbook?

The Kremlin’s demands of Ukraine are so ambitious that little short of full-scale war could satisfy them.

By Felix Light

MOSCOW – If Russia does make good on its threat to invade Ukraine, it may well find that its problems are only just beginning. 

Though there is little chance that Ukraine will successfully defend its borders against a Russian attack, pure force of arms is unlikely to deliver definite return to Moscow’s sphere of influence, as Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear is his goal.

Short of a full-scale invasion, perhaps the most obvious option for Moscow would be a contained offensive in the Donbas, in the east of the country. In 2014 Moscow helped conjure into being the separatist “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk; extending its control over the remaining parts of the Donbas would be a feasible next move.

Such an operation has its advantages, including the likelihood of a more positive reception for Russian troops in a region that, despite almost eight years of war, remains relatively Russophile in orientation.

In recent weeks, signals from Moscow have indicated that the Donbas is likely to figure heavily in any solution to the Ukraine crisis. 

Twice in December, Putin used rare public appearances to make emotional remarks about the Donbas, on one occasion accusing the Ukrainian government of a “genocide” of the local population.

The fate of the people’s republics has nothing like the hold on the Russian imagination Crimea had eight years ago. However, they do have influential champions, including the head of the broadcaster RT, Margarita Simonyan, and the Communist Party, which is currently sponsoring a motion on recognition in the State Duma.

[See also: What would Russia risk to invade Ukraine?]

But as much as the Donbas cause – boosted in no small part by tall tales of Ukrainian atrocities against local Russian-speakers in 2014 – is popular domestically, annexation by Russia is entirely incompatible with Putin’s stated aim of ensuring that Ukraine returns to what he sees as its historically natural unity with Russia.

Since the start of the war in 2014, Russia has repeatedly insisted that the Donbas must be reincorporated into Ukraine, albeit with an autonomy broad enough to veto Kyiv’s pro-Western ambitions. That bargain is the essence of the Minsk agreements, a series of stalled ceasefire deals in the Donbas in 2014-15.

To annex the Donbas – or, indeed, a larger slice of Russophone East Ukraine – would be a sign of desperation, an acknowledgement that Ukraine is lost forever, and that Moscow must salvage whatever it can. There is nothing in the Kremlin’s recent behaviour to suggest that it would settle for such a mutilated victory.

For similar reasons, a limited incursion – mooted by some after the US president, Joe Biden, appeared to suggest that such an attack would invite lesser sanctions than a full-scale invasion – provides no sure route to a pro-Russian Ukraine.

In theory, a limited Russian offensive could play out like the 2008 war in Georgia. An overwhelming Russian attack would swiftly overcome opposing forces. Moscow would then withdraw from any conquered territories, having humiliated its rival and proved the West is unwilling or unable to intervene.

All eyes are focused on the military build-up, but Russia does have other, less visible tools at its disposal, including cyber-attacks. In mid-January about 70 Ukrainian government websites went down, an attack Kyiv blamed on Russia.

And yet, it is hard to see how even a combined attack, on the ground and in cyber-space, could ever return Ukraine to the Russian fold.

[See also: Will the lights go out in Europe if Russia invades Ukraine?]

Though the 2008 war probably did prevent Georgia from ever joining Nato, it did not fundamentally change the country’s geopolitical orientation, which remains pro-Western and anti-Russian. Even Georgia’s then president Mikheil Saakashvili – whom Putin once swore to “hang by the balls” – clung on to power for another five years after the war.

In Ukraine, which is larger and more complicated than Georgia, it seems unlikely that a limited Russian incursion would lead to fundamental political change in Kyiv, rather than deepening anti-Russian sentiment there. That leaves only one military option: full-scale war.

Russia has recently extended its would-be line of advance westwards by announcing military exercises in Belarus in February. In the event of an all-out onslaught, Russia would likely triumph, but the prospect is so terrible that even its normally bellicose state media has barely covered it.

The Kremlin’s demands of Ukraine are wildly ambitious: the nullification of the Euromaidan revolution that removed a pro-Russian government, and the end of two decades of Ukraine’s gradual progress towards Nato and the EU. It is hard to see anything short of all-out war achieving them.

It needn’t come to that. Moscow – which has long believed the Kyiv government to be a bought-and-paid-for US stooge – is still hoping that Biden can deliver a grand geopolitical bargain that obviates the need to fight for Ukraine. Russia, which has been sanction-proofing its economy and accumulating vast foreign currency reserves, could resort to turning off the gas taps to Europe, imagining that doing so might persuade a freezing Europe to drop its opposition to such a deal.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is soon expected to deliver written responses to Russia’s demands. If the answers are not to Moscow’s liking, then the Kremlin’s obsessive need to settle the Ukrainian question once and for all could see things get very nasty, very quickly.

[See also: Is Vladimir Putin preparing for war?]

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