War Stories

Putin Paves a Path to War

Vladimir Putin makes a chopping motion with his hand as he sits at a table in front of microphones.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council in Moscow on Monday. Alexey Nikolsky/Getty Images

In the most dramatic event yet of this monthslong crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Monday that he will recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk districts in Ukraine’s Donbas region—much of which is controlled by pro-Russia separatists who have been fighting a war against the Ukrainian army for eight years.

A subsequent decree further said that he will be sending Russian troops into the region to perform “peacekeeping functions.” He has—with no evidence—accused the Ukrainian army of committing acts of “genocide” against Russian-speaking people in the region. He will say the troops are necessary to protect them from further violence.

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What happens next depends on two things: whether Putin actually follows through on the decree; and, if he does, whether the tanks roll just into the sections of Donbas controlled by the separatists—or whether he tries to occupy the entire region, some of which the separatists do not control. The latter would be an act of war against Ukraine. (Arguably, doing the former would be as well.)

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would have to fight back. Western leaders would have to respond with sanctions, more arms deliveries, and other forms of military assistance. It would soon escalate into the largest, deadliest conflict in Europe since World War II. Putin might then take these responses as further provocation to undermine, subvert, or otherwise attack government officials or entities in the capital of Kyiv.

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In any case, President Biden and other Western leaders have made clear in recent days that any invasion of Ukrainian territory would trigger the severe package of sanctions against Russia—and would also be taken as proof that Putin was never serious about pursuing a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Putin’s recognition of the Donbas provinces comes as a surprise. A few weeks ago, he convinced Russia’s parliament, the Duma, not to vote on a bill to recognize the breakaway districts, which the separatists call the “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic.” He preferred to keep the areas inside Ukraine, so that a political settlement of the civil war would give the separatists a voice—possibly a veto—in Ukrainian politics and foreign policy, thus keeping Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence. Recognizing their independence—perhaps as a prelude to annexing them as part of Russia—might give the rest of Ukraine a freer hand to lean into Western institutions such as the European Union, or even NATO.

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Putin’s Monday announcement came at the end of a fiery, hourlong televised speech in which he railed against NATO expansion, accused Ukraine of fomenting aggression, and described the few-hundred U.S. military advisers in Ukraine as “a serious, very big threat” to Russia, charging—falsely—that they are helping Ukraine build weapons of mass destruction. He also delved into history grievances, claiming that Ukraine was the creation of Bolshevik founder V.I. Lenin and that it still owes unpaid debts from its decades as a republic of the Soviet Union. Putin has said before that Ukraine “is not a real country,” and he still seems to think so.

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Putin ended his speech by saying he had no choice but to respond to what he called Ukraine’s threats not only against the separatists in Donbas but also against the Russian Federation. He added, “All responsibility for continued bloodshed will lay solely on the Ukrainian leadership.”

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After his speech, Putin signed a declaration of “fraternity and mutual help” with the separatist leaders. He left some space open—a matter of hours, possibly days, before he actually sent in troops and tanks. Optimists may see this delay as a sign of some flexibility—one last chance for wrangling a diplomatic solution. But, in tone and substance, his speech offered no hint of desire for further engagement with Western negotiators on the subject.

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Before his speech, Putin called French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, even though he has said that the United States is the only country worth negotiating with. He may have called the two European leaders, who have eagerly sought the role of peacemakers, hoping to coax them into accepting the new situation. If so, he got no satisfaction from the calls; both leaders expressed opposition to Putin’s move.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Europe on Thursday. Blinken has said he wouldn’t go if Russian troops invaded Ukraine in the meantime. Are Putin’s announcement and decree sufficient reasons to call off the meeting, even if the troops haven’t yet crossed the border? If not, do the two top diplomats still have anything to talk about? It’s unclear.

Soon after the speech, the European Union announced it would slap sanctions on anyone who was involved in recognizing the two breakaway republics. (Does this include Putin himself?) White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would soon sign an executive order—clearly predrafted, in case something like this happened—to ban trade or investment in any part of the breakaway regions. She emphasized that these moves are independent of the vast package of sanctions Biden and other leaders plan to impose if Russian troops cross into Ukraine.

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The fact that Biden and the others haven’t yet unleashed the other sanctions is recognition that we are not yet in a state of war. But Putin has now carved out an odd, turbulent zone for himself, his country, and all of Europe. If he’s still hoping for a favorable way out of this crisis, he has a bizarre way of showing it. Then again, everything he’s been doing and saying in recent months is more than a touch bizarre. We’re not in the endgame yet, but the road to the end is very clear, and it looks bleak.

Earlier on Monday, Putin held a televised meeting of his Security Council, asking for a spontaneous discussion of whether to recognize the breakaway republics, though the meeting was clearly stilted and—judging from the time shown on one of the participants’ watch—may have been prerecorded. All but two of the members expressed rapt enthusiasm for recognition, and the exceptions were slapped down. As the Guardian described the exchange, Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s spy service who is known for making savage anti-Western statements, “stuttered uncomfortably as Putin grilled him on whether he supported the decision.” He finally did just that, and Putin—who had yelled at him, twice, “Speak directly!”—smirked at his submission. Later, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin “spoke briefly and drily, looking visibly uncomfortable.” Putin asked him directly if he supported the move. “Mishutsin mumbled that he did.”

Putin is clearly in firm, perhaps total, control of Kremlin policy. He brooks no dissent whatever. He is also said to be in near-total isolation, phobic of catching COVID and influenced more than usual by a handful of hawkish ultra-nationalists. The combination may have made him much more confident of his judgments than any leader should be when making decisions as drastic as the ones on his agenda in the past weeks and the coming days.

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