On Friday, Staff Writers Charlie Bonkowsky and Simon Panfilio attended the Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies’ expert panel, Russia and Ukraine: What Does Putin Want?

“I’m a big fan of mysteries,” Professor Peter Clement began. “What Mr. Putin is up to right now is a bit of a mystery.”

The most important part of a mystery is the motive, which was the animating question for the panel: what is Russian President Vladimir Putin hoping to gain, domestically or internationally, from threatening to invade Ukraine and building up Russian troops on its border? And in doing so, is Putin simply taking tactical advantage of opportunities which present themselves, or does he have a broader strategic aim in mind? Clement moderated the panel and was joined by Elise Giuliano, a lecturer in political science and the Director of Graduate Studies of the MA program at the Harriman Institute; Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College; and Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at SIPA.

The particulars of what Putin wants from Ukraine, Clements said, are difficult to know for certain. Draft treaties sent by Russia to the USA and other NATO countries seem to indicate that Russia cannot tolerate a Ukraine which is hostile to them or poses a security threat, and would push for a permanently neutral Ukraine. 

Yet away from the diplomatic front, Putin has taken a much stronger stance. Last year, the Kremlin published an article by Putin entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which stated that Ukrainians and Russians were “one people” and should be more closely bound together. In speeches, Putin has declared the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” At the start of his presidency, he met with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of Rebuilding Russia, who argued for a core Russian union including Belarus, Eastern Ukraine, and the northern tier of Kazakhstan. Even if his ambition falls short of restoring the USSR, perhaps Putin seems himself, Clement said, as a modern-day Ivan the Great, “gatherer of the Russian lands.”

Clement laid out five scenarios that he saw as what possible Russian military interventions in Ukraine might look like, from the “non-invasion invasion” to what he called the “seriously pessimistic” scenario, where Russia sought to incorporate all of Ukraine.

In the scenarios where large-scale invasions take place, he noted later during the Q&A, Ukraine’s military—though improved—remains no match for the force Russia has amassed on the border. Since Ukraine is not a part of NATO, the official NATO response will be to increase military assistance, with Western troops acting as advisors but not entering into combat. Still, in such a case, NATO allies will likely be increasingly drawn into the conflict.

Next up, Professor Marten sought to characterize Putin himself more directly. He’s a self-interested autocrat, she said, seeking to keep himself in power and to go down in history as having restored Russia to greatness. (And, Sestanovich said later, he’s approaching his 70th birthday; legacy is certainly on his mind.) Controlling state media and, increasingly, Russian social media, has somewhat insulated him from domestic public opinion.

Despite Putin’s ambitions, she said, he’s much more opportunistic than strategic—he’s threatening Ukraine now because NATO appears weak. In the US, the Biden administration faced a rocky departure from Afghanistan and is struggling now to pass domestic policy; in Germany, none of the new government commands the same influence that Angela Merkel did; and Europe still relies on Russian natural gas for much of its energy. Putin simply seized advantage of the moment.

It’s important to note that Putin still faces issues of public support. Whipping up patriotic support against Ukraine and against NATO could also be a cynical move to distract the Russian audience from the government’s handling of COVID-19. So far, it’s worked—Putin’s popularity has risen since October, when he first began to build up troops at the Ukrainian border—but it’s one thing to cheer for your country, quite another to die for it. Having to actually fight a war in Ukraine might hurt Putin’s approval more than bolster it.

Professor Sestanovich agreed: in escalating to the brink of war with Ukraine, he said, Putin has in essence, “out-foxed himself.” He wants to create a subservient Ukraine detached from the West, and he wants to revise the European security order so that NATO pulls back from the countries which joined after the Cold War. But he can’t have both: in threatening Ukraine, he throws his leverage to re-negotiate European security out the window. Even if the threat of Ukrainian invasion remains just a bluff to get the West to accept his security demands, what courses of action are left for Putin now that NATO has largely refused to budge on those demands?

Sestanovich cited evidence that Putin, having boxed himself in, is frustrated now at the options remaining to him. Near the start of the crisis, Russian communications demanded quick action from the US and from NATO to their demands; now, Putin is claiming in speeches that the West is trying to provoke him into rapid, impulsive action. Even prominent Russian experts are openly dissatisfied: Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, wrote “this ostentatious diplomatic blitzkrieg has come to nothing.” As Sestanovich pointed out, in an autocratic country like Russia, officials generally don’t talk like this unless they think there’s broad sentiment backing them. Putin might be thinking strategically, he said, disagreeing with Marten—but even strategists make mistakes.

Professor Guilano rounded out the panel to talk about the Ukrainian perspective, and to remind everyone that this crisis began in 2014, when Russia first invaded Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected because he promised to end the war; his domestic struggles come partly because he hasn’t been able to do that. 

Not to say that he hasn’t tried. The Normandy Format talks began in 2014 between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, to resolve the crisis in the Donbas region. Representatives of the countries actually met again on January 26, and another meeting is planned soon. In many ways, Guilano said, Zelensky’s political fortunes are tied to this crisis—specifically, avoiding it. When President Biden spoke to Zelensky and warned him about a potentially “imminent” invasion, Zelensky downplayed the Ukrainian response because he still hopes to de-escalate and avoid military action, perhaps giving Putin an off-ramp to avoid a war without losing face. But what manner of off-ramp is a trickier question.

The panel discussed the concessions Ukraine has already made to Russia through the Normandy Format talks: withdrawing troops from the conflict and agreeing to the Steinmeier formula, which called for elections to be held in the Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Marten suggested that Ukraine could withdraw from its aims to join NATO, but Sestanovich and Guiliano agreed that such a move would be divisive within Ukraine. Support for NATO and integration with Europe has increased since 2014, and Zelensky would likely suffer a large backlash if he made that offer to Russia.

Historical models, the panel agreed, are useful to characterize what aggression from Russia might look like, but don’t tell the whole story. Professor Sestanovich noted that, following the Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and ‘60s, foreign relations were affected for a few years, but in the case of Ukraine, “[we] could see something much more long-lasting… a rupture of relations, a kind of standoff to isolate and punish Russia that goes on for a very long time”. Any Russian action in Ukraine would likely invite a much heavier military presence throughout Europe by the US and NATO and result in European states “blowing past the 2%-of-GDP pledge they made to NATO in defense spending”—all outcomes detrimental to Putin’s goal of achieving a more favorable European security order.

So: given the forces of global politics at play in eastern Europe, what’s going to happen next? That’s the million-dollar question, and one which the panel couldn’t answer—fair enough, though, since neither can the US, nor NATO, nor Ukraine. Just one person can, and, as Professor Clement said: “There’s one thing we all agree on: nobody knows what Putin’s going to do.”

Flags of Russia and Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons

Ukraine scenario maps compiled by Charlie Bonkowsky