Western intelligence agencies have warned that Russia is contemplating an invasion of Ukraine, perhaps involving some 175,000 troops. Vladimir Putin’s government has already moved more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, including into Belarus. Russian officials have been making outrageously paranoid and false accusations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for example, recently blamed NATO for the return of the “nightmare scenario of military confrontation.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the United States is smuggling “tanks with unidentified chemical components” into Ukraine’s Donetsk. And Putin himself has been equally vituperative about NATO, threatening military moves unless it agrees to his terms. “They have pushed us to a line that we can’t cross,” he said on Sunday. “They have taken it to the point where we simply must tell them: ‘Stop!’”
Yet a recent report concludes that despite its massive deployment and threatening rhetoric, Russia is not planning to invade Ukraine. The report, produced by the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute, where I serve as the director of foreign- and defense-policy studies, together with the Institute for the Study of War, finds that the political and economic costs of an actual invasion are too high for Russia to sustain. “Putin may be attempting a strategic misdirection that impales the West in a diplomatic process and military planning cycle that will keep it unprepared,” the report argues. Rather than directly invade Ukraine again, Russia instead seeks to further destabilize the country in advance of its elections, station troops in Belarus, divide NATO, and precipitate Western concessions to de-escalate the crisis.
Even without an invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s military moves pose serious threats to America’s allies, including the Baltic states. Russia demands, as the price of even considering drawing down its military buildup, that NATO accept a different security framework for Europe, abandon any future NATO accessions, and forswear military cooperation with any non-NATO state.
The CTP/ISW assessment of Russia’s intentions is consistent with the country’s preference for hybrid, or threshold, warfare: the fusion of disinformation and political, economic, and military actions designed to immobilize or weaken adversaries without triggering an effective response. The terms are faddish, as though the practice were a new addition to the inventory of warfare. In fact, the simplistic definition of warfare after the Cold War as only military operations was novel, and that narrow conception has now evaporated along with American military dominance.
Strategic failures are almost always failures of imagination, as with the Trojans failing to wonder what might be inside that gigantic wooden horse. We are now scrambling to think as creatively as our adversaries. But the U.S. has a number of advantages: time, allies, transparency, and right.
Even though Russia’s military deployments have been rapid, the U.S. and its allies recognized them early enough to alert one another and agree on a response. The gathering storm of Russian revanchism since Putin came to power conditioned a quick reaction; defense spending by European NATO members has been rising since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Bilateral consultations and NATO meetings produced a set of potential political and economic sanctions, especially Russia’s ejection from the SWIFT financial network, that ought to give Putin and his businessmen pause. Turkey is providing drones to Ukraine, the U.S. sent military advisers and Javelin missiles, and Germany is reconsidering the Nord Stream 2
Pipeline. Democratic societies are slow to align but durable once committed, and the U.S. and its allies have had time to organize.
In an effort to de-escalate the crisis Putin created, the Biden administration has ruled out deploying American forces to defend Ukraine. Joe Biden evidently hoped to prevent a war by miscalculation—one side misinterpreting the other’s actions, and violence spiraling into a nuclear apocalypse. And although textbook military strategy considers telling an adversary what you won’t do self-defeating, in circumstances where the asymmetry of interest is so pronounced, putting a ceiling on potential escalation will likely make America’s policy more credible. In the immediate aftermath of U.S. capitulation in Afghanistan, it just isn’t believable to claim that the Biden administration will “fight any battle and bear any burden” for the independence of a still-corrupt post-Soviet government.
Biden consented to Russia’s demand for discussions of a new European security framework. That consent was unquestionably a concession, giving some standing to Russian concerns, and it has worried frontline NATO allies who have long-standing (and justified) fears of abandonment. If we had refused to even discuss Russian concerns, however, it is difficult to imagine sustaining the solidarity of the Western alliance or American public support for the risks and sacrifices that any response to Russia attacking Ukraine might entail. And agreeing to discuss Russia’s version of post–Cold War history or its demands for a sphere of influence that would consign countries to Russian dominion is not the same as accepting them.
Having the discussions take place in a NATO forum, as Russia has now agreed to do, allows the West to showcase its increased solidarity. Russia’s threats have unified the alliance. The discussions will also contrast the U.S.’s preferred model of power, which emanates from our ability to persuade others to share the burdens of what we’re trying to achieve, with the model pursued by Russian and China, which relies on threatening nations into submission.
The United States and its allies have the easier side of that argument. As Ronald Reagan said, “There is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.” Russia may mobilize some support among countries that feel threatened by governments held accountable by their citizens, but the U.S. has the moral and mathematical advantage of arguing against strong states imposing their will on those unable to protect themselves.
Not that Ukraine is truly incapable of protecting itself. One other thing that may be restraining a Russian invasion of Ukraine is the fact that, even in the Donbas, the mighty Russian military has not succeeded in subduing Ukrainian resistance. Quite the opposite: Russia has enhanced Ukrainian national identity. A Russian occupation would encounter the sort of insurgency that the Russian military proved incapable of subduing in Afghanistan and Chechnya, despite its brutality. Half a million Ukrainians have military experience; 24 percent of respondents in one recent poll said that they would resist Russian occupation “with a weapon in hand.” Russia might succeed in taking Ukraine, but it is unlikely to hold it.
NATO countries might not fight for Ukraine, but they’re likely to arm and train Ukrainians to fight for themselves. A Russian invasion would open the floodgates of Western support for Ukraine, and activate similar mobilizations of civilian society among NATO frontline states. Putin’s threats have already convinced Germans that Nord Stream 2 is not just a business deal, but rather a means of geopolitical leverage. The EU can use its regulatory tools on Gazprom and other Russian businesses seeking access to Europe’s markets more aggressively, to scrutinize their practices and enforce compliance with the law.
Transparency is a potentially devastating tool against authoritarians, because corruption is delegitimizing. The governments of free societies already face public scrutiny, which positions them well to demand the same of others. Russia’s leaders are afraid of accountability for their wealth; the revelations of corruption in the Panama Papers appear to have led Putin to unleash cybervigilantes against the U.S.
Russia’s past attempts to intimidate Ukraine into not choosing a westward path have backfired. Fifty-eight percent of Ukrainians now say that they would vote for NATO membership, and the nation has developed a greater sense of national identity and a more resilient society. Sweden and Finland are moving into closer alignment with NATO, as Russia illustrates the dangers of remaining outside the Western mutual-defense pact. NATO has held united, refusing to accept that Russia gets a veto over either its membership or its actions. The United States, while averting military involvement, has crafted a credible set of penalties and garnered international support for them. Putin lacks the imagination to see that launching successful military operations is not the same as winning a war, a lesson the U.S. recently relearned in Afghanistan. That Russia is now repeating the very mistake the U.S. made, and is slowly recovering from, is an ironic twist.