Putin’s brinkmanship over Ukraine could have global consequences

Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly decided that now is the opportune time to secure his long-held objective to bring Ukraine back within Moscow’s orbit—by whatever means it takes.

In part this is because the Kremlin has given up on President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in Kyiv, and concluded that the diplomatic process under the Minsk accords is going nowhere. Moscow fears that its long-term influence in Ukraine is ebbing.

Russia also sees the US and its major European NATO allies as weak, distracted and vulnerable, providing it with a window of opportunity to redress its historical grievances and achieve longstanding ambitions to redraw the post–Cold War settlement in ways that meet Moscow’s interests.

Why is Ukraine so important to Russia? Partly, it reflects perceptions of shared national identity (laced with imperial nostalgia).

But Ukraine is also important to Russia for geostrategic reasons.

The break-up of the USSR and demise of the Soviet empire in central and eastern Europe, and the consequent eastward expansion of NATO and the EU, removed the strategic depth Russia has always strived to maintain on its western approaches, from where security threats have historically emanated.

Putin sees an opportunity now to rectify this, forestalling Ukraine’s westward drift, while at the same time curtailing and undermining NATO expansion and reasserting Moscow’s sphere of influence around its periphery.

It’s a matter not just of national security, but also of regime insecurity.

The Kremlin has intervened unsuccessfully on repeated occasions over the past 20 years to thwart what it portrays as Western-inspired ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine. Moscow doesn’t want sovereign, democratic states flourishing on its doorstep, offering an unhelpful model for Russians.

Similar thinking has guided Moscow’s propping up of the embattled authoritarian regime in Belarus over the past two years, as it ruthlessly suppressed the widespread popular unrest sparked by the disputed presidential election of August 2020. Long economically dependent on Russia, Belarus’s embattled president, Alexander Lukashenko, is now totally dependent for his political survival on Moscow’s patronage.

So too recently in Kazakhstan, where Putin was quick to provide assistance to the authorities to restore order after popular unrest apparently morphed into intra-elite clashes—leaving President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s government increasingly dependent on Russian support for its survival.

The broader context for all of this is Putin’s overriding objective over the past two decades: to restore and strengthen centralised authority within Russia, suppressing dissent while reasserting Russia’s standing and influence globally as a great power, especially in its near abroad, and rebuilding a strong Russian military to support this ambition.

So far, Putin has played his hand on Ukraine adeptly. The threat of invasion, reinforced by the Kremlin’s bellicose rhetoric and massive military build-up on the Ukrainian border, has forced the West to take notice—obliging the US and NATO to engage with Russia on Putin’s terms as Moscow continues to frame the agenda. The Kremlin knows, too, that it can exploit its leverage as Europe’s dominant energy supplier.

But is this just coercive diplomacy, promoting tensions and uncertainty in order to undermine Zelensky and warn NATO off of deeper military engagement with Ukraine?

Or is it diplomacy designed to fail, a propaganda ploy by Moscow to provide a pretext for intervention in Ukraine?

There are big risks for Putin in unleashing military force against Ukraine—whatever form that might take. It could backfire badly for Russia. Zelensky’s government may fall, but any client regime installed by Moscow would require long-term and substantial Russian support.

Russian military action would lead to Ukraine’s irrevocable estrangement; forge greater unity of purpose within NATO, providing the alliance with a new raison d’être; and lead to a greater, not lesser, NATO military presence in its eastern member states—not to mention the damaging effect on Russia of expanded Western sanctions.

Beyond Europe, the consequences of Russian intervention in Ukraine would ripple widely, causing major global economic and supply-chain disruptions.

It would inevitably lead to a significant spike in global oil and gas prices of uncertain duration, creating additional unwelcome inflationary pressures for importing countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Since Ukraine is a major grain exporter, the resulting disruption to supplies would likely lead to shortages, increased prices and hardship in developing state markets, notably in the Middle East.

And all of this could have implications for Russia’s increasingly aligned yet still transactional relationship with China.

Beijing would welcome any Russian action that embarrasses the US and gives a nudge to the unravelling of the US-dominated international rules-based order. But China would not welcome the increased costs for its already overheated economy caused by disruptions in global energy and food supplies arising from a Ukraine conflict.

Putin’s brinkmanship on Ukraine carries huge stakes not just for Europe but for the world.