Putin’s Ukraine quagmire

Russian President Vladimir Putin regularly showcases his skills in judo and other martial arts. Success in these sports often depends on what the Japanese call kuzushi—unbalancing one’s opponent by employing techniques designed to disrupt their physical and mental equilibrium.

Putin has sought to throw the United States and its NATO allies off balance by mobilising more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. Having made no secret of his view that Russia and Ukraine are organically tied, Putin may well see re-establishing such a relationship as a way to cement his legacy by removing the perceived ignominy suffered by Russia in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin may have believed that threatening Ukraine could destabilise the country and provide an opportunity to replace the current, pro-Western government with one much more deferential to the Kremlin. Even more likely, Putin judged that his troop mobilisation would intimidate the US and its relatively new president, Joe Biden, into accepting Ukraine’s return to Russia’s sphere of influence.

After all, the US had just carried out a chaotic and near-unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan. Putin had largely gotten away with annexing Crimea in 2014. And Chinese President Xi Jinping had paid little if any price for rolling back democracy in Hong Kong. From afar, therefore, the US appeared weak, divided and inward-looking.

Add to that Putin’s lack of respect for America’s European allies. Germany, having unwisely decided to phase out nuclear power, had allowed itself to become more dependent on Russian gas and, as was often true of West Germany during the Cold War, is uncomfortable confronting the Kremlin. Moreover, Putin began his military build-up as winter was approaching, when low temperatures and high fuel prices would give the Kremlin added leverage. The French were focused on their upcoming presidential election, while the United Kingdom was preoccupied with Covid-19, Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s behaviour.

In addition, Putin took steps to reduce Russia’s own vulnerabilities, especially to economic sanctions. The country’s foreign exchange reserves reached a record US$630 billion in December 2021, while high oil prices have generated significant government revenue. And China, already providing diplomatic backing, could offer financial help if the Kremlin were to need it.

But while Putin manufactured the Ukraine crisis believing he held a clear advantage vis-à-vis the West, he committed an error that can prove dangerous even for a skilled martial-arts practitioner: he underestimated his opponent.

While Biden and NATO have said they won’t intervene directly on behalf of Ukraine, that’s not the same as accepting Russian dominance. In fact, the US has organised a comprehensive response. It has sent arms to Ukraine to increase the costs to Russia of any invasion and occupation. There are plans to fortify NATO member countries closest to Russia. Substantial economic sanctions are being prepared. And rerouting gas to Europe would partly offset the possible loss of Russian supplies.

All of which is to say that Putin’s initial thrust failed to score a decisive blow. Those who say that he has the West where he wants it have things backwards. Putin has placed himself in an unenviable position: he must either escalate or find a face-saving way to back down.

The US has wisely provided Putin with a diplomatic off-ramp. This could entail a new structure to help underpin European security, as well as arms-control arrangements that would limit the scale and location of a range of systems. A revitalised and revised Minsk process would seek a political settlement in eastern Ukraine that would allow for considerable autonomy for the region’s inhabitants (many of whom are ethnic Russians) and the replacement of Russian soldiers by international peacekeepers. The US has also signalled that Ukraine will not enter NATO anytime soon, and then some.

Whether such an outcome will be enough for Putin is uncertain. He’s not going to hear what he wants—that Ukraine will never be able to join NATO, or that NATO forces will pull back to where they were more than two decades ago, before the alliance expanded into Central and Eastern Europe. But Putin will probably have a few weeks to ponder his next steps. He will soon travel to Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics—and Xi has likely made it clear that he would not appreciate a war in Ukraine overshadowing the opportunity to showcase China ahead of the Chinese Communist Party congress later this year, when he will seek a third term.

Putin does have another option. He could increase Russia’s military presence in the western hemisphere, claiming to be doing to the US what it and NATO had done to Russia. But that would be risky, and would do nothing to deal with his concerns in Europe.

It’s impossible to predict what Putin will do, and it may be that he has yet to decide. He may well opt for a so-called ‘minor incursion’, or limited intervention, possibly to increase Russia’s military presence in eastern Ukraine.

Such a course of action would give Putin something to show for his aggressive diplomacy without incurring major penalties, as NATO’s 30 members would be unlikely to reach a consensus on how to respond. It would also be consistent with the martial arts approach of looking for tactical openings to unbalance one’s opponent.

But such a scenario highlights the limits of the martial arts, which are more about tactics than strategy. This largely manufactured crisis in Ukraine risks leaving Russia worse off: controlling slightly more territory, but facing new sanctions, a stronger NATO and a neighbour whose people have developed a more separate, anti-Russian identity.

When he returns to his dacha, therefore, Putin might be well advised to take up another game closely associated with Russia: chess, where the best players think several moves ahead and respect their opponents.