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Putin has yet to show his hand on Ukraine

As Russian forces roll across the border on a “peace-keeping mission” the speculation on the Russian president’s next move continues.

By Lawrence Freedman

The war was supposed to start on Monday 21 February. The announcement that the Russian occupation of Ukraine was imminent came not from President Vladimir Putin, who had consistently denied any intention to invade, but from US president Joe Biden. He had been convinced by intelligence assessments that reported not only on the scale of the Russian military build-up on the borders of Ukraine, and the high state of readiness among its forces, but evidence that orders had been sent out to unit commanders to prepare their tactical plans.

Biden was not alone in his expectation. It was shared by most Western leaders and by many independent analysts. They had been following Russia’s preparations since last year, using commercial satellite images and other open-source intelligence, often derived from social media. Now they offered images of tanks with white winter camouflage and infantry fighting vehicles carrying extra fuel, moving from their previous deployment areas into attack positions close to the border, where they were unlikely to stay for long. Lloyd Austin, Biden’s secretary of defence, described the forces as “uncoiled” and ready to spring into action.

[See also: Leader: The West must stand up to Putin]

The date for the war had been pencilled in the diary for some time. The Beijing Winter Olympics ended on 20 February, so any action taken by Putin after that would not offend China’s President Xi Jinping. The date was also supposed to mark the conclusion of Russian military exercises in Belarus, Russia’s new client state, with its own border to Ukraine and not far from its capital, Kyiv. Russian troops moving home once the exercises were completed would have been an encouraging sign of de escalation. Unsurprisingly, the Belarusian government announced that they were going to stay.

There was also the annual nuclear drill on 19 February, involving ballistic and cruise missiles, presided over by Putin himself. This would serve to remind the United States of the possibility of terrifying escalation should it allow itself to get drawn into the coming war. Meanwhile, naval exercises were under way in the Black Sea and Ukraine suffered from cyber attacks – a warning of how a war could start with an attempt to cripple the country’s infrastructure. 

To cap it all off, as the US had also forewarned, there were the inevitable staged, fake incidents in the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics”, the enclaves held by Russian-sponsored separatists in eastern Ukraine. As Putin would not wish to violate the UN Charter and launch an aggressive war without any provocation, one would have to be arranged. So it came on 17 February, as separatists first launched a barrage of artillery fire across their border with government-held territory, hitting a kindergarten as they did so.

To the separatists’ frustration this failed to goad the Ukrainians into retaliation. Nonetheless they continued with their charade, providing their own fanciful maps of the coming offensive directed against them, conscripting men to fight and ordering civilians to evacuate across the border into Russia. The video appeals of the separatist leaders were shown to be pre-recorded, the odd explosion to demonstrate Ukrainian aggression crudely staged, and the evacuation a shambles, as those residents who followed the order found themselves bussed to cold camps with little food. If the situation was not so serious this theatre would have appeared risible.  

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All this confirmed the performative nature of the whole exercise. It was as if sometime last year Russian planners had scripted an unfolding conflict, moving up their own ladder of escalation, culminating in these carefully orchestrated last steps. A potential downside was that doing so conspicuously meant that there could be no surprise, but this was not really a problem for Moscow. The Ukrainians had brought in defensive weaponry from abroad and worked out how to impose as much pain as possible on the invaders. They were, however, always going to be outgunned and potentially overwhelmed in a conventional fight. Their best deterrent, in addition to threats of economic sanctions from the US and its allies, lay in reminding Putin that wars such as this are easier to start than to end, especially if they lead to an interminable occupation of a hostile population.

[See also: Silence won’t make the Ukrainian far right go away]

Instead of the loss of surprise, Moscow got the benefit of intimidation. The unavoidably transparent nature of the build-up engendered a sense of intense crisis in which Putin seemed to hold all the cards, creating incentives for diplomatic initiatives that might help him get what he wanted without a fight. This could be an object lesson in coercive diplomacy, with a credible threat backing his political demands. Yet few concessions came his way, and the alliance held together, while the Kremlin undermined the impact of the build-up by regularly denying any intention to invade Ukraine, insisting that suggestions to the contrary were the products of fevered Western imaginations. Biden was mocked for continually saying that war was days away. 

Curiously, no explicit demands were made of Ukraine’s government. There were no ultimatums. The Russian line was that the demonstrations that led to the flight in February 2014 of the more pro-Russian former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was fascistic and unconstitutional. When Volodymyr Zelensky became president in 2019 he wanted to improve relations with Russia. This would mean finding a way to implement the February 2015 Minsk-2 protocol, which would give more autonomy to the two enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk in return for them becoming once more fully part of Ukraine. Ukraine’s parliament, however, has always been hostile to the constitutional changes that action would require.

Putin concluded last year that Zelensky could not deliver what he wanted. Only Biden appeared a potential interlocutor, with the contributions of other Western leaders dismissed. It therefore made sense that, in a last-minute effort to avoid war, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, appeared to have persuaded Putin to agree to more diplomacy if it meant a summit meeting with Biden.

The morning of 21 February therefore opened with uncertainty about whether war was on the way or there was to be an opportunity for more diplomacy. Then events took a stranger turn. The world was invited to watch an extraordinary televised meeting of Russia’s Security Council, with Putin (sitting at a safe distance) asking its members to opine one by one of whether Donetsk and Luhansk should be recognised as independent states as requested by their Russian-separatist leaders. 

In place of the drama of war there were a series of wooden, staged contributions, explaining how Zelensky had no interest in implementing the Minsk-2 protocol, yet at the same time was also authorising atrocities in these territories and even offensives mounted against Russian territory. The danger of Ukraine being allowed to join Nato was described as an opportunity for an aggressive Kyiv to attempt to retake Crimea and the enclaves, knowing that its new allies would be obliged to back it with their own military strength. (Such a scenario is dependent upon a complete misreading of Nato’s Article 5, which can only require alliance members to “take the actions it deems necessary to assist the ally attacked”, and not those the ally might demand.)

At first Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, appeared to say, it would be worthwhile meeting his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, to talk about Russia’s ideas for European security, including banning further Nato enlargement. By the end of the meeting, however, Lavrov appeared to have changed his mind and now said there would be no point. Putin concluded the meeting promising his own decision. 

Soon after came an announcement that Putin would recognise the enclaves, and he would make a televised address. When his speech came it took the form of a full blooded rant, drenched in tendentious history. First he challenged the concept of Ukraine as a separate state, then moved on to the perfidious treatment of Russia by Western powers, including Nato with its enlargement, turned to the “Euromaidan coup” of 2014, which he claimed was financed and blessed by the US and had led to an illegitimate government in Kyiv, one that now wanted its own nuclear weapons.

The speech ended with accounts of the daily provocations by Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. After this tirade, which seemed to be building up to a full declaration of war that would unleash the 150,000 troops surrounding Ukraine, the brief announcement that the People’s Republics would be recognised was almost anti climactic. If anything this was a step back for Putin because it would mean that he was stuck with paying the bills and, with the Minsk process dead, he would be giving up on exercising any influence over Kyiv. There would be no summit with Biden, or much further diplomacy.

After all the speculation about a massive military operation, 21 February ended with forces rolling into Ukraine on a “peace-keeping mission”, hardly a trivial matter but not quite what had been anticipated.

On 22 February Putin said that – dangerously – he is supporting the separatists in the boundaries they would like to have rather than those they currently occupy. It is less clear whether he intends to use force right away to achieve this, but the situation is unstable and threatens further escalation. Putin’s final words of his address were: “All responsibility for continued bloodshed will lay solely on the Ukraine leadership”. The speculation on Putin’s future intentions continues and is unlikely to abate unless and until all those troops return to their home barracks.

[See also: Putin confronts Ukraine and the West with a terrible choice]

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls