The ongoing Ukraine crisis is entirely the creation of one man — Vladimir Putin. His decision to deploy a potential invasion force along Ukraine’s borders has been driving events. From the beginning, the questions have been: Why is he doing this? What does he want? How far is he prepared to go? Putin has provided “answers” in multiple statements. He says that Russia is threatened by the eastward expansion of NATO membership. He fears that Ukraine will be the next entrant into the alliance — bringing NATO (U.S.) forces far too close to Russia. All this is given emotional power by Putin’s expressed conviction that Russia and Ukraine are, in fact, one country and their populations are indivisible. With communism gone, Putin, the former KGB officer, has reinvented himself as protector of Slavic lands — particularly Russian-speaking Slavs. Ukraine is at the top of his list.
Putin has stated what he wants: a return of Ukraine to Russian control and a rollback of NATO’s eastward expansion to allow Russian hegemony to be reestablished in Eastern and Central Europe. It’s a breathtaking, even brazen, demand — so over-the-top that many analysts believe it is designed to be rejected and that, in turn, will justify an invasion. For Putin, the alternative scenario to an actual invasion would see a terrified Ukraine and an intimidated West scramble to mollify him. The result would be a new, pro-Russian government in Kyiv and a reduction of NATO/U.S. forces east of Germany. Putin’s leverage would come from his military threat plus his control over much of Europe’s energy supplies in the form of natural gas exports. Germany is the most promising pressure point with its particularly heavy dependence on Russian gas and a new untested governing coalition.
The Russian challenge is clear except for one key point. How far is Putin prepared to go? Even now, months into the crisis, no one actually knows. Is he prepared to start a war — or are all the military moves an elaborate bluff designed to extract concessions without actually firing a shot? Putin’s early training taught him how to conceal his intentions. This means that the U.S. and its NATO allies must assume and prepare for the worst. In Ukraine, the government faces an even starker challenge — responding to the imminent threat of complete destruction.
Given the circumstances, the response of the U.S., its European allies and the Ukraine government has been remarkable — and impressive. The Biden administration has been unequivocal in rejecting Putin’s demands. It has rallied a broadly unified response across a 30-member alliance — not easy. That response will not include NATO forces inside Ukraine, but it has involved a rapid upgrade of NATO’s (including U.S.) military presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. The U.S. and several other NATO governments have delivered a wide variety of modern weaponry to the Ukraine army. [This has caught Putin’s attention and he has demanded that it stop.] Equally important, the White House has publicly pledged sanctions on Russia (if it invades) far more severe and damaging than anything yet seen. According to President Biden, this will include closing a major new pipeline for Russian gas deliveries to Germany — a project that is viewed in Russia as a kind of economic and strategic crown jewel.
The most impressive story of all has been in Ukraine. Putin almost certainly expected his military mobilization to cause the Ukraine government to panic, its society to fracture and voices demanding that Russia be appeased to become ascendant. Instead, there has been a remarkable transformation of public attitudes in a quite different direction — a dramatic increase in public support for Ukraine’s independence from Russia, for the use of the Ukrainian language in place of Russian and a palpable sense of national unity and pride. Instead of wilting in the face of Putin’s intimidation campaign, the Ukrainian population has rallied behind a call for resistance. This metamorphosis has been led by President Zelensky. He is a small man who looks like a cherub, but he has proven to be tough as rawhide and absolutely unflappable. The Ukraine of 20 years ago saw its future with Russia. The Ukraine of today emphatically sees its future with Europe and the West.
Putin is also having an analogous, unintended impact on attitudes in Europe. Europe has been at peace since World War II — prosperous within the European Union and protected by American security guarantees. For most Europeans, particularly young people, the hard world of geopolitics, security strategy, military power and potential conflict is unfamiliar and remote. Most Europeans did not want to spend very much on defense — no need. But Vladimir Putin is changing all that. Suddenly, NATO is vitally important and alliance unity is a high priority. Russia is not just a supplier of fossil fuels; it is now seen as a serious threat to the peace and security of the continent.
In response, European governments are now planning to dramatically reduce their dependence on Russian energy exports. [The sale of natural gas provides a particularly vital income stream to the Kremlin.] All of this, together, is producing a growing estrangement between Europe and Russia. The 18th century czar Peter the Great declared that Russia’s future lay to the West with Europe. That historic decision is now in question thanks to the new czar in the Kremlin.
As this is written, the immediate future remains profoundly uncertain. Much is unclear. What is clear is that Putin has already altered the geopolitical/economic landscape of Europe in ways that are deeply damaging to Russian interests. If he invades, that damage will grow exponentially.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.