War Stories

Would Putin Really Invade Ukraine for This?

How the Biden administration’s high-stakes diplomacy to avoid a crisis in Ukraine is going.

Antony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov shake hands.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands before their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. Alex Brandon/Getty Images

So what happens next?

As planned, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva on Friday to discuss a possible peaceful way out of the crisis in Ukraine. The meeting was pitched as the climax of several sessions over the past week among senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia, NATO, and all of Europe, including Ukraine.

The stakes were high. Russian officials warned, and everyone else feared, that if the U.S. and NATO didn’t meet all of Russia’s demands (some reasonable, others not), there would be no reason for further talks because diplomacy would have reached a “dead end,” meaning Russian President Vladimir Putin might take “military-technical” measures to keep Ukraine within his country’s orbit.

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Blinken and Lavrov met for 90 minutes. Neither budged from his earlier position. Yet both of them agreed to continue the dialogue. Diplomacy hasn’t hit a dead end yet after all. And, it seems, Putin isn’t quite ready to go for broke and invade Ukraine.

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How long can this standoff go on? Many have reported that Russia has 100,000 troops poised on its border with Ukraine, but this isn’t exactly the case.

According to Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, an Arlington, Virginia-based research firm, 55,000 of those troops have been stationed at the border, on permanent bases, for a long time. The other 45,000, who have reportedly been mobilized from other areas of Russia, actually haven’t moved. Rather, their equipment—tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, tactical missiles, and so forth—have been sent to areas near Ukraine.

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This isn’t unusual. Often, in preparations for battle, weapons and vehicles are “pre-positioned” in areas near the front line; the troops stay at home, but could quickly be sent to join the weapons and vehicles, which they’ve been trained to operate, in case war seems imminent.

So how long can this buildup stay in place? Since there are no extra troops to exhaust, freeze, starve, or demoralize, quite a long time. Putin is in no hurry. Meanwhile, he can keep putting the squeeze on Ukraine, mounting cyber attacks or sending mercenaries into rebel-controlled areas in the country’s eastern provinces—and put pressure on NATO’s unity by threatening to cut back energy exports to Germany and other Western European countries.

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Biden and other Western leaders can also stretch things out, providing more anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine or sending more troops to NATO’s eastern countries, especially Poland and the Baltics, whose people feel very vulnerable to a resurgent Russia. Offers of NATO membership could also be dangled before Sweden and Finland, longtime Western but militarily neutral nations on Russia’s northwest flank whose leaders are now thinking about joining in response to Putin’s latest moves.

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The question is which side’s pressures will have the most politically potent effect most quickly, if they’ll have an effect at all.

Meanwhile, what are the issues? Russia has put forth several demands about what it calls “security guarantees,” the most insistent of which seems to be that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO. Many Russians have long seen Ukraine as vital to their country—historically, culturally, economically, and as a buffer state to encroachments from the West. Putin has gone so far as to say that Ukraine is “not a country,” that it is, always has been, and always will be part of Russia.

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The fact is, Ukraine is not likely to be let in to NATO for a long time, if ever. Even in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rush of requests from former Warsaw Pact states to join NATO, Ukraine was always viewed as a separate matter. Unlike Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, it had actually been a part of the Soviet Union. It was also understood that pulling Ukraine into a Western military alliance would be highly provocative to Russia. Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that an attack on one member will be treated as an attack on them all, and few NATO members wanted to go to war with Russia in order to keep Ukraine independent. (Even now, Biden and other NATO leaders say they will not send their own troops to defend Ukraine if Russia attacks.) Finally, unlike the Baltic states (which had been a part of the Soviet Union, but were let into NATO anyway), Ukraine didn’t meet the alliance’s standards for membership—a high degree of democratization, low corruption, civilian control of its military, and the ability to integrate with other NATO countries’ militaries. Ukraine has improved in all these areas, but it still falls well short of NATO’s standards.

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However, Biden and other Western leaders insist that no outside country—least of all a hostile country like Russia—has the right to dictate who can or cannot join their alliance. During the post-Cold War “enlargement” of NATO, its leaders declared as policy that membership would remain open. By demanding that NATO now prohibit any further expansion to the east, Putin is challenging that principle.

In their meeting on Friday, Blinken did agree to provide Lavrov with written responses to Russia’s demands—something that the U.S. officials had not done even a few days earlier. Drafting such responses will require much consultation within the Biden administration and with other NATO countries, as well as with Ukraine. This will stretch out the diplomatic process, and keep Putin from pulling the trigger, for weeks.

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At the same time, pressure will need to be placed on Ukraine. Blinken and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko have both said, in separate public forums, that enforcement of the Minsk Agreements could go a long way to reduce tensions. These agreements—signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2015 but ignored by both sides since—called for a ceasefire of the war between Ukraine and separatist militias in Donbas province, an exchange of prisoners, the disarmament of militias, but also free elections in Donbas, which could have an effect on Ukraine’s policies.

At some point, the issue of NATO’s further enlargement will have to be settled. It is crazy to trigger a war for the principle of a cause—Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO—that isn’t actually going to be enacted. There must be ways to defuse the dispute without surrendering the principle. NATO could issue a statement explaining the many reasons Ukraine is not eligible for membership today. Experts could be consulted on how long it would take for this to change. In tandem with these steps, Biden and other Western leaders should hold behind-the-scenes talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, offering a boatload of security assurances and economic goodies, in exchange for his withdrawing his request for NATO membership—on the condition that Russia withdraws its newly mobilized tanks and other weapons from the Ukrainian border.

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Will this be easy? No. Diplomacy is hard, especially when the disputes and conflicts of interest are as complex and deep as they are here. Will everyone be satisfied with the outcome? No. Ukrainians would like the warm-blanket security of NATO’s Article 5 guarantees. Russians (not just Putin) would like the uncontested restoration of their “sphere of influence” to the west. They’re not going to get these things.

The questions on the board: Does Putin think it’s worth the risks of war to make a stab at getting what he wants, which, in some sense, he sees as the recovery of Russia’s destiny as a great power? Can Biden come up with enough compromises to steer Putin away from war without giving up too much? The next few months may be nerve-racking.

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