War Stories

Putin Looks Ready to Start a War. Will He?

He’s checked off every box he needs to for an invasion, except sending in the tanks.

Vladimir Putin pictured on a monitor out of focus in the foreground with deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh speaking at a podium in the White House press briefing room in focus in the background
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate intentions remain blurry as ever. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Update, Feb. 23, 2022, at 11:04 p.m.: On Wednesday night (early Thursday morning in Russia), Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine’s Donbas region and warned that if foreign powers intervened, they would “face consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” Soon after, explosions were reported around Ukraine, including the capital of Kyiv and the northeast city of Kharkiv. On Tuesday, in the piece below, Fred Kaplan described how Putin laid all the necessary groundwork to go ahead with an invasion. Stay tuned to more Slate coverage as we learn more.

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The long, tense slog toward war in Ukraine picked up its pace on Tuesday, as Vladimir Putin checked off all the requisite preparations and pretexts for an invasion—and Joe Biden slapped his first sanctions on Russia in response.

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On top of mounting troops on the border and recognizing two pro-Russia breakaway republics in Ukrainian territory, Putin won rubber-stamp approval from the parliament to send the army across the border and, meanwhile, evacuated his diplomats from Ukraine. And yet, in this moment poised between crisis and outright war, he has not yet ordered the troops and tanks to move in.

If Russian forces do roll in, Putin has said that they will go not only into the areas of Donbas region controlled by pro-Russia separatists, but also into the areas controlled by Ukraine’s army. Should that happen, combat will ensue and Russia’s move will be deemed an invasion.

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President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have hesitated to utter the I-word because they’ve promised to unload a full package of “severe” sanctions against Russia if Putin actually launched one. On Tuesday afternoon, Biden took a big step in that direction.

“This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” he said in the White House East Room. “I’m going to begin to impose sanctions. … If Russia goes further with this invasion, we’re prepared to go further with sanctions.”

It’s a delicate situation. On the one hand, the first Western sanctions need to be firm enough to show Putin that they’re serious—but not so firm that Putin thinks he has nothing to lose by moving ahead. In other words, there needs to be a credible threat of further, much more serious sanctions to discourage Putin from escalating. It’s unclear if he can be deterred from war.

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But if not, Biden and the others want to leave a clear record that they were responding to Putin’s moves at every step, not provoking him (though of course Putin will claim otherwise).

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On Tuesday afternoon, Biden announced the first phase of sanctions and said more would come if Putin took further offensive actions. The sanctions will bar Russia’s major banks from conducting any transactions with U.S. financial institutions, stop the country from selling government debt in the West, and punish Russian “elites and their families.”

Earlier in the day, Germany announced it would not open the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was set to carry enormous quantities of Russian natural gas straight to Germany. This step—which few expected Berlin would really take—will be damaging to both Russian exports and German imports. The European Union announced various sanctions against Russian banks and individuals as well.

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All told, these moves will have a serious but not devastating effect on certain elements of Russia’s economy. The sanctioning of elites—the details of which Biden did not divulge—could bar hundreds, if not thousands, of wealthy Russians, some with political connections, from all activities in Western countries, where they vacation or own property and where many of their children go to school. It is unknown what effect the discomfort of these elites might have on Putin’s political fortunes. In any case, any consequences would take a while to play out.

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Will these sanctions—and the prospect of more, deeper sanctions—give Putin pause before rolling the tanks into Ukraine? Who knows? Will they stir discontent against Putin’s actions within the Kremlin’s ruling circles? Again, who knows?

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It’s hard to guess Putin’s next move in part because he doesn’t answer to any other authority in Russia, formal or informal. He does not face the pressures from an official Politburo that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev did when, two years after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, he was ousted from power for his “hare-brained schemes.” In the 1990s, U.S. pressure on the financial elites surrounding Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had a serious impact on his rule; but those elites held Milosevic in power, whereas the elites in today’s Russia are kept wealthy by their associations with Putin. The leverage might be reversed if the oligarchs decide that their fortunes have been pummeled too badly, but there are no signs of this occurring soon.

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In his speech Tuesday, Biden said he remains “open to diplomacy, if it is serious.” But he seemed more skeptical than ever about the prospects of successful talks. And who could blame him? In various public speeches over the last two days, Putin has said Ukraine doesn’t exist as a separate country from Russia; on Tuesday, he demanded that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky formally recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, promise never to join NATO, and give back all the weapons—mainly anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles—that the West has sent him. Putin must know that these demands will not be taken seriously.

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Putin has also repeated the claim, with no evidence, that the Ukrainian army is committing “genocide” against Russian-speaking people in the Donbas region—the justification for his sending “peacekeeping” troops into the area. He has signed a decree recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk districts in Donbas as an independent republic, which Biden and other leaders condemned as a flagrant violation of international law.

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Putin may be willing to take such risks with Russia’s economy and his own position in power because he simply doesn’t believe that, in the end, the West will punish him and his country so severely.

When it comes to the “further sanctions” that the West will impose if Putin goes further in his invasion, Biden did not make clear—and may not yet have decided—how far he’s willing to go in this game of limited moves and countermoves. Putin may make piecemeal moves, taking over one chunk of Donbas, then another chunk, then possibly make other moves—military, cyber, or some other form of hybrid warfare—against other parts of Ukraine. He may even launch cyberattacks against U.S. targets. At some point, if the sanctions are to be effective at all, Biden and the other Western leaders will have to unleash the full raft of “severe” sanctions. What is that point? Is it when Russia launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine—or before then? And what does a full-scale invasion mean?

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Putin may be gambling that Biden and the others endlessly put off that decision and keep imposing less than severe sanctions, which he thinks he could tolerate. The challenge for the West is to make Putin recalculate that gamble as a bad bet.

One factor in this calculation may be China. When the Beijing Olympics began earlier this month, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a lengthy joint statement about their burgeoning alliance. However, as the current crisis has escalated, China has stopped well short of defending Putin’s moves. Over the weekend, at the Munich Security Conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries—including Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since spoken with Wang about applying these principles to China’s relationship with Russia—though his tweet on the phone call didn’t report Wang’s reply. Putin may be expecting Xi to bail him out if the Western sanctions start hurting. Will Xi prop him up or let him down? And if China does the latter, will this damage Putin’s position inside the world of Kremlin politics or influential elites?

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Then there is the ultimate gamble, if Putin fully rolls the dice. Does he think a military campaign against Ukraine will force Zelensky to accept Russia’s terms of surrender—or, better still from Putin’s point of view, result in a coup and the installation of a new, more pliant leader in Kyiv? The 150,000 or so Russian troops surrounding Ukraine on three sides are enough to overpower the Ukrainian army, but they may not be enough to occupy the territory or deal with an insurgency. In 1968, when Czech leader Alexander Dubcek talked of “socialism with a human face” and reached out toward Western European nations, the Soviet Union crushed his Prague Spring by mobilizing five tank divisions—250,000 troops—to oust Dubcek and to occupy the country.* And that was with the help of a Czech army and a local Communist Party apparatus that were loyal to Moscow. Besides being five times the size with 10 times the population, Ukraine would give Putin’s army no such safe harbor.

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Putin is ramping up the tensions. He has certainly captured the world’s attention, as no Kremlin leader has for a long time. Perhaps to his surprise, the attention has included worldwide, near-unanimous condemnation. Whether he cares, whether he thinks that matters, whether he believes the alliances against him will fall apart once blood begins to flow and stock markets tumble, we don’t know. What happens next remains a mystery.

Correction, Feb. 24, 2022: This piece originally misidentified Alexander Dubcek as Czech president and misstated that he reached out to the European Union. The Czech leader reached out to Western Europe.

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