Things are heating up on the Ukrainian border right now. To the casual observer, it might look like a repeat of what we saw in 2014. In fact, what we are seeing in 2021 is the exact opposite of 2014, and something far more sinister is afoot.
2014’s attack on Ukraine was a rude awakening for everyone — for Ukraine itself, for Russian society, and for the West. Putin managed to leverage the element of surprise and achieve victory in Crimea. In Donbass, things were not so easy — in part because Ukraine had begun to resist and had time to repel attacks of the Russian-backed separatists.
In 2021, the landscape has turned upside down. Today, no one questions whether Putin is capable of aggression. That reputation for treacherous opportunism has become his trump card in geopolitical games. By all accounts, Putin is convinced that the West will blink first and make concessions, no matter what. This belief lies beneath his increasingly aggressive rhetoric and conspicuous concentration of troops along the Ukrainian border.
While military hostilities could break out at any moment, starting a war is not Putin’s real goal. War, after all, is unpredictable. The Crimean adventure was a success for Putin precisely because it was quick, bloodless, and victorious. If his next war becomes protracted and bloody, Putin will face serious problems with his own nuclear electorate, as well as his elites who would never forgive him for the defeat, and possibly would go even further and attempt to oust him in retribution.
Putin’s goal is not to start a conflict. Instead, he aims to achieve his goals by scaring the Western elites with the very prospect of war. In an extraordinary situation, no doubt, he would be prepared to fight, but only with Ukraine, and only with guarantees that Ukraine would receive no meaningful assistance from the outside. Putin can afford only victory, and he will shy away from any hostilities if failure is in the realm of possibilities.
So, what does Putin really want from Ukraine? Let’s start with the basics: due to a variety of circumstances, Crimea, annexed by Russia, is suffering from water shortages. Prior to the occupation, mainland Ukraine supplied the peninsula with water. In part, Putin’s current theatrics may be aimed at forcing Ukraine to resume supplying Crimea with water. This could easily be “sold” to the Western public as a humanitarian mandate without forcing Putin to renegotiate any key issues. Naturally, to the Russian audiences, it would be presented as a major victory for Putin, and to a large extent, it would be — the water issue would have been resolved, and Ukraine would have made concessions, including indirect recognition of the new Crimean status.
The water issue is just one part of the larger problem. Putin does not need Ukraine as much as he needs to legalize the annexation of Crimea. There are two ways for him to do this. First, he could strongarm the West to start suggesting to Ukraine that it better accept Crimea as part of Russia. Alternatively, he could try to pressure the Ukrainian government directly to recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea, which would immediately render any Western sanctions moot.
Despite the fact that Russia has dedicated considerable efforts on shaping the public opinion in Western countries, it is Ukraine that the Kremlin views as the weak link — and rightly so. In its current state, the Ukrainian government is unwilling to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, just as it is unwilling to acquiesce to being within the Russian sphere of influence. This means that Russia would need to bring down the current Ukrainian government, and then negotiate with its new authorities on more favorable terms. In this sense, the Kremlin may view the threat of war, and military operations in particular, as a pragmatic attempt to resolve this matter.
But in addition to these goals, there is another, far more sinister and far-reaching goal behind the current escalations. Putin wants the West, and specifically the United States, to recognize him not only as an equal player on the world stage, but also as that free to do whatever he pleases both within Russia and any countries that he considers within its sphere of influence.
In Putin’s dream world, the West would not only stop asking him uncomfortable questions about his repressions on the political opposition or the state of human rights inside Russia but would also actively muzzle his critics around the world, so as not to provoke the dangerous tyrant in the Kremlin who is ready for war at any moment. He clearly views Ukraine and other countries bordering Russia, particularly those that were once republics of the former USSR, as those belonging to Russia’s zone of influence, where no change of government should take place without the approval of the Kremlin. That is why his antics are not just about Ukraine. Unfortunately for Ukraine, it has been used as a convenient testing ground for Putin’s techniques for pressuring the West and intimidating Western political elites with his audacity and willingness to trample on all principles of contemporary international politics.
All of this aside, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Putin’s main goal has always been holding onto power in Russia. People’s lives, the future of entire countries and nations, including that of Russia itself, only concern him in the context of achieving that goal. Just as annexing Crimea in 2014 helped Putin rebrand his regime domestically, becoming significantly more brutal, current situation with Ukraine is likely to lead to similar outcome — Putin’s regime in Russia will become more ruthless, punishing anyone who dares resist him.
For this reason, as tensions rise along the Ukrainian border, the level of police terror is also growing inside Russia. The leader of the Russian opposition, Alexey Navalny, is being held illegally in prison with the treatment amounting to torture, and all critics of the regime are subjected to brutal reprisals. The Kremlin propaganda portraits anyone dissatisfied with the Putin regime as a Western agent, and the authorities have proposed prosecuting them “under wartime laws”.
Putin’s adventurism abroad may indeed lead to war in the near future. Even if we dodge a bullet this time, Western elites need to understand that as long as Putin is Russia’s leader, global tensions will continue to grow, and any concessions made to him will be interpreted as proof that he has chosen the right strategy.