War Stories

Why Putin Held Off on Invading Ukraine—for Now

Putin stankface.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends a press conference with his Belarus counterpart, following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on Friday. Sergei Guneyev/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin was supposed to make a major announcement about Ukraine’s Donbas region on Sunday. He didn’t.

Also on Sunday, the Russian troops in Belarus—on Ukraine’s northwest border, 100 miles from Kyiv—were scheduled to end their military exercises and return to their bases back home. They didn’t leave, and in fact, Belarus’ defense minister said they’d be staying a while longer.

There was also anticipation that Putin might invade Ukraine on Sunday. It’s possible that’s what his announcement was going to be about. The timing seemed right; the Olympics in Beijing would be over; he wouldn’t be drawing attention from his best friend Xi Jinping’s grand show. But the invasion didn’t start either.

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Meanwhile, pro-Russia separatists in Donbas are shelling Ukrainian army positions, as well as populated areas. They claim they’re responding to Ukrainian attacks, but reporters on the ground say the artillery fire is going in one direction only.

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What’s going on? Are the separatists trying to provoke a response, so Putin can cite that as an excuse to send the tanks rolling into Donbas—and possibly mount an attack on Kyiv as well, to neutralize what he would label further aggression? Or is Putin stretching out the standoff, hoping that the United States might come up with a better diplomatic deal? Is he continuing to meet with European leaders, hoping to spot and exploit fissures within the NATO alliance?

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Putin might have one other disturbing thought to consider. On Saturday, at the Munich Security Conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations must be respected—and that includes, he pointedly added, Ukraine. Two weeks earlier, Putin and Xi had met at the start of the Beijing Olympics, then issued a statement declaring their alliance on a wide variety of issues. Putin might have come away from the meeting, assured that, if the U.S. and NATO hit Russia with severe sanctions, he could turn to Xi for support. Wang’s remark might have jolted that confidence.

What happens next then? Of course we don’t know. Possibly nobody knows. Does even Putin know? President Biden said on Friday that Putin had decided to invade. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Biden’s statement was based on intelligence that Russian officers had received orders to proceed with a full-scale attack. Of course, orders can be rescinded. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to talk with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Europe on Thursday—a meeting reportedly set up by Lavrov. Blinken and Biden have said it’s not too late for Russia to de-escalate and negotiate a settlement to the crisis. Does this mean no attack will come till after Thursday? Or is the European meeting a ruse?

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Also on Sunday, Putin met with French President Emmanuel Macron for 90 minutes. Their talk reportedly focused on the Minsk Agreements, a ceasefire accord that Russia and Ukraine signed in 2015 but never implemented, in part because the two sides hold differing interpretations over the clause dealing with the political settlement of the Donbas region, where separatists and Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting since 2014 in a war that has killed more than 14,000 people.

After meeting with Putin, Macron spoke on the phone for 30 minutes with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ukrainians have resisted resuming the Minsk talks, fearing that Russia holds the upper hand and would press its interpretation—which would give the separatists, and through them Putin, a voice in Ukrainian national politics and foreign policy. In an impassioned speech on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, Zelensky pleaded with Western leaders to start imposing sanctions on Russia now, rather than wait for a larger war to start. He also berated them for “appeasing” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine in 2014, arguing that the current crisis wouldn’t be happening if they’d responded more strongly then.

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Clearly Zelensky fears that, for all their supportive rhetoric and arms deliveries, the West will ultimately sell Ukraine out. He once again appealed for membership in NATO, even though several U.S. presidents and other Western leaders have said Ukraine has not remotely fulfilled the qualifications to join. Some Western officials are becoming annoyed with Zelensky. Putin’s main demand in this crisis is that NATO pledge in a legal document that Ukraine will never join the U.S.-led military alliance. The NATO nations won’t do this, both as a practical matter and on principle, refusing to alter the alliance’s open door policy just because an adversary demands it. However, they fear Zelensky is aggravating the crisis by persisting in bringing up the issue.

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These tensions must be satisfying to Putin, who has counted on disunity within NATO—and, even more, fissures between NATO and Ukraine—to ease his goal of regaining a “sphere of influence” on Russia’s western border. At the same time, it could be that, in waiting this part of the drama to unfold, he is putting off the decision to invade.

Putin has plenty of time to kill. Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, has declared himself fully in Putin’s pocket; the Russian troops can stay there as long as they’d like. Putin’s rule in the Kremlin is uncontested; there is no longer even so much as a Politburo. (In 1964, two years after the dare and humiliation of the Cuban missile crisis, the Politburo deposed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev for his “hare-brained schemes.” There is no formal entity that could do that to Putin.) Russia’s parliament, the Duma, has no serious opposition parties.

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There were signs of discontent within the military, but Putin has quashed them. Earlier this month, retired Col. Mikhail Khodarenok, a widely regarded officer and strategist, wrote an article in the Independent Military Review, arguing that invading Ukraine would be a huge mistake and wasn’t in Russia’s national interest. However, last Monday, the colonel appeared on a TV news program to recant, saying Russian commanders have prepared methods “that will plunge the enemy into amazement” and that the officer corps is completely unified on that score. The recanting was a chilling instance of the sort of ultra-discipline that Stalin used to impose on his critics. It also suggested that Putin was taking critics like Khodarenok as a serious obstacle to his aims—and taking steps to assure that no one else speaks up.

Ultimately, it is all up to Putin, and that may be the most unnerving fact of all.

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