Will Russia's Anti-NATO Gambit Succeed?
On the surface, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have backed himself into a corner by making demands regarding Ukraine’s membership of NATO that the West is highly unlikely to accept. But Putin has made real gains by exposing the West’s disarray and the weakness of its commitment to the country.
CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Recent talks in Geneva between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding the crisis over Ukraine achieved little. Russia asked for a written response to its demands, which include a halt to NATO enlargement. For now, Russian President Vladimir Putin might be as relieved at the current standstill as the United States and its NATO allies are.
That is because Putin is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship vis-à-vis Ukraine. True, he has succeeded in calling into question the strength of NATO’s commitment to the country, highlighted its internal divisions, and forced the world to pay greater attention to Russian power. And he may yet manage to wring concessions from the US and NATO. But Putin also risks putting himself in the position of having to launch a materially and politically costly invasion of Ukraine.
Stopping NATO expansion has been one of the Kremlin’s main foreign-policy objectives for a decade, but Putin’s approach has yielded few results. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014 has succeeded only in making NATO membership more appealing in Ukraine and Georgia. Moreover, Russia’s actions failed to prevent smaller candidate countries from acceding to the Alliance, with Montenegro and North Macedonia joining in 2017 and 2020, respectively. Worse yet, Putin’s bellicose foreign policy led to NATO membership being seriously considered by mainstream politicians in neutral countries like Sweden and Finland.
The escalation of tensions over Ukraine also carries enormous domestic risks for Putin. The Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region required little sacrifice and massively increased Putin’s political support at home. Invading eastern Ukraine now is unlikely to yield a similar political dividend, as opinion polls in Russia have long shown low public support for such a move; just a quarter of Russians currently support the incorporation of Donbas into Russia.
Moreover, the likely costs to Russia of such an invasion today are greater than they were in 2014. Significant troop losses would turn public opinion against Putin’s actions in Ukraine, while severe Western sanctions would further damage the Russian economy.
Given these political and economic risks, what could Putin hope to gain by seemingly backing himself into a corner?
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Despite his repeated claims that NATO poses a threat to Russia, Putin may regard the current standoff as a way to demonstrate to Ukraine and other Eastern European states that the NATO and US commitments to them are actually quite weak. US President Joe Biden arguably reinforced this impression at his January 19 press conference, when he appeared to suggest that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would elicit a milder Western response than a full-scale invasion of the country. (Biden and other administration officials subsequently scrambled to walk back the comment.)
Russia benefits from such gaffes, because the Kremlin obviously wants to sow discord and highlight fissures among NATO members. While the US and several Eastern European countries have supported Ukraine’s accession, the Alliance has long been divided over the issue, owing to its members’ differing economic, security, and energy relations with Russia.
In the days leading up to the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Ukraine presented Germany and France with a letter requesting the two countries’ support for its entry into NATO. But France’s then-prime minister, François Fillon, emphasized his country’s opposition to Ukraine (and Georgia) joining the alliance. “We think it is not the right response to the balance of power in Europe and between Europe and Russia, and we want to have a dialogue on this subject with Russia,” Fillon said. Then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed a similar view.
But publicly, at least, US and NATO officials have reaffirmed the Alliance’s continuing unity. While Biden suggested at his news conference that America’s European allies were not united on how to respond to a small Russian incursion into Ukraine, there have been no bilateral negotiations between other Western powers and Russia regarding Ukraine.
Perhaps most importantly from Putin’s perspective, at a time when US and European leaders would rather be dealing with the rise of China and the COVID-19 pandemic, and promoting economic recovery, the current crisis is forcing them to pay more attention to Russia’s interests.
On the surface, Putin seems to have unnecessarily boxed himself in by making unacceptable demands on an issue – Ukraine’s NATO accession – that was unlikely to materialize anyway. But Putin has in fact made real gains by exposing the West’s disarray and the weakness of its commitment to Ukraine.
If US and European negotiators make even symbolic concessions, Putin can use them to burnish his image. Even if he de-escalates tensions without the written guarantees he wanted, the stationing of Russian troops in Belarus, and the recent deployment of a Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization “peacekeeping” mission in Kazakhstan, demonstrate Russia’s continued leadership role among former Soviet states.
But Putin’s brinkmanship over Ukraine remains dangerous. One can only hope that when US and Russian officials return to the negotiating table, they will find a way to prevent a manufactured crisis from turning into a hot war.