Only Putin Knows What Happens Next

He alone can make the choice to bring Europe back from the brink of a major war.

Vladimir Putin
Mikhail Svetlov / Getty

About the author: Tom Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Peacefield.

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If Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t about to invade Ukraine—or, more accurately, isn’t about to expand his previous invasion—he’s certainly making a good show of it.

Russian military forces have been moving into position for weeks. Russia and Belarus announced snap exercises that will continue for at least a month. President Joe Biden says he is expecting an invasion, and there are reports that the U.S. embassy in Kyiv is planning to evacuate families and nonessential personnel. Some NATO members are stepping up military aid and assistance. The British government says it has outed a Russian scheme to topple the government in Kyiv and replace it with Russian stooges (probably in the hope that exposing the plan will foil it).

If this isn’t the setup for a massive Russian invasion, it’s a damn good dress rehearsal.

Through all of this, the Biden administration has cycled through every combination of threats to deter the Russians from attacking. But the reality is this: Putin created this crisis, and only Putin can end it.

American options are limited for several reasons. Perhaps most important, no one really knows why Putin is doing this—or whether he really intends to do it at all. It is unlikely that his own inner circle even has a good read on its boss. As Fyodor Lukyanov, a well-connected Russian foreign-policy figure, put it: “The expert opinion that I can authoritatively declare is: Who the heck knows?”

Despite all the Western mythmaking about his cold cunning, Putin is emotional, volatile, and vain. His 2014 invasion, in which he seized Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine, was in response to the utter humiliation of seeing the Ukrainian president at the time, his ally Viktor Yanukovych, chased out of the country. When Putin moved in, no one knew when he would stop—and it is likely he didn’t either. The Russians gained real estate and inflicted pain on the Ukrainians, but without much of a plan for what to do next.

Putin’s impulsive move in 2014 was meant to assuage his ego and cover his appearance of weakness by stirring nationalism at home. But all of this was seven years ago, and now Russia is committed to a frozen conflict. To be sure, Putin has shown that he can take territory and sit on it, and force everyone else to get used to it. But sooner or later, even Russians—who in the main feel positively about their fellow Slavs in Ukraine—start asking if there’s a point to all this.

The point may well be deep in the dark recesses of Putin’s psyche. The Russian president has made no secret of his mourning for the old Soviet Union. (That wistfulness does not extend to socialism or communism; the world’s richest man might be an aging nostalgist, but he’s not crazy.) And yet he has made it clear that he does not think Ukraine is a real country but rather a renegade imperial possession that must be wrangled back into Kremlin control.

Putin’s emotional and visceral attachment to Ukraine is another reason why the West has limited sway in the situation that is now unfolding. American negotiators proceed from the assumption that they are discussing a political crisis among several countries; Putin, however, sees nothing but interference in a large and undifferentiated Russian domain. The Russians, even in Soviet times, were always in the grip of a paradox in which they saw themselves as both a great empire and a nation of dispossessed victims, and Putin is the prime example of Homo Sovieticus, a product of a system whose view of the world constantly wavered between paranoia and messianism.

This isn’t to say that Putin is irrational. Rather, he simply does not share a common frame of reference about the world with his opponents in the West. Americans might be right that Putin is on “the wrong side of history,” but they will not deter him from invading Ukraine by talking to him as if he’s failing a graduate seminar in international relations.

The Russian president also has practical and self-interested reasons to pursue an ongoing cycle of military confrontation with the West in general and with Ukraine in particular. Remember, most Kremlin policy is directly informed by the fact that Putin, in the end, sits atop a government that is in effect a mafia.

This matters because it is yet another aspect of Russian foreign policy that is beyond American control. If Americans were truly willing to go after the Russian elites who work below Putin, the United States might have leverage, but this would mean outing the locations of oligarchical wealth, freezing assets in places such as London (which is practically a Russian bank vault these days), and, as my Atlantic colleague David Frum has suggested, perhaps even uprooting children from elite Western schools and sending them home.

A warning, however, is in order. In the words of Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables, if you’re going to open the ball on these people, you must be prepared to go all the way. An escalation against Russian interests around the world wouldn’t be a polite game of diplomatic and financial tit for tat. If the Western powers intend to pressure the Russian elites to dissuade Putin from war, then they’d better mean it. They must vow that violence in Ukraine will mean sleepless nights not only for Putin but for everyone around him, including the underbosses who do not have Putin’s considerable political and financial resources to protect themselves and who thus will face real costs and personal losses.

Biden has tried to say something along these lines, but the Russians understandably shrug off threats they’ve heard before from the Americans. Even without the free ride given to Putin for years by former President Donald Trump—who attacked NATO almost as relentlessly as Putin himself—the Russians have a memory that predates Trump. Putin’s advisers are no doubt smiling confidently at a White House staff with which they are already familiar and whose last bold move on Ukraine back in 2014 was to run a hashtag campaign on Twitter.

More to the point, even if the West were more serious about a military defense of Ukraine, the United States is not going to plunge into World War III for a country that is not a member of the Atlantic Alliance, especially because there are clear divisions among the allies. Britain and other NATO states have stepped up and sent aid, but Germany has made clear that it does not want to endanger its energy supplies from Russia. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has had to sack the head of his navy for publicly siding with Putin. This is not a formula for a united front against Russian aggression.

So what’s left? Nikolas Gvosdev, a longtime Russia watcher at the U.S. Naval War College, believes that unless the West has the will to inflict serious economic punishment on the Russian elites, the only path out is by a “diplomatic sleight of hand” in which Washington publicly refuses to accept Russia’s unreasonable demands but finds ways “to craft possible compromises and jury-rig solutions, between the United States and Russia, between Russia and Ukraine, and between the United States and its European allies.”

This could well be the outcome of the current crisis, if Putin is savvy enough to declare such negotiations the equivalent of victory over NATO and Ukraine. He has a compliant media at home and a population that is willing to believe him. He may hope that rattling Western nerves over the past few months will convince Kyiv that it has no friends in the world, and he can push other measures to destabilize the Ukrainian government in hopes of eventually replacing it with one more to his liking and finally closing the wound of 2014.

If Putin is bent on war, however, there is nothing we can do. The Russians might forgo a full invasion (which over time would be immensely costly), but Putin could still try to use a sudden military escalation to create chaos and casualties, using a kind of Russian shock-and-awe to force a collapse of the Ukrainian government. Or he could move more forces into areas that the Russians already occupy as a means of strengthening the Kremlin’s hand in later negotiations.

The danger here is that the Kremlin, once military forces are on the move, could set into motion a chain of events that no one can predict or control. The only measure America and the West can take is to be prepared for Putin to throw the dice. This means ensuring that a crisis team is already in place in Washington, making arrangements to keep the leaders of both U.S. political parties—despite the GOP’s pro-Russia tilt—in the loop. It also means confirming that communications with our allies are open and ready, and instructing U.S. and NATO militaries to remain alert for accidents or mistakes that could have catastrophic consequences.

Only Vladmir Putin knows why he has escalated tensions, and only Putin can make the choice to bring Europe back from the brink of a major war. The Americans and their allies need to recognize their limited ability to affect the Kremlin’s immediate calculations. Instead, Biden and NATO should prepare to get through this crisis controlling those things that are in their power, including planning ahead to use the considerable Western capacity to make Russia pay for a military adventure for years to come, if necessary.