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Putin Must Understand: Invading Ukraine Would Be a Historic Mistake for Russia

A Ukrainian Soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 80th Airmobile Brigade prepares to shoot an AK-47 during a live-fire training exercise, Nov. 12, at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center. Soldiers assigned to 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division is deployed in support of the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine. JMTG-U is focused on direct training of Ukrainian ground forces in the near term while helping to build an enduring and sustainable training capacity for the future. (Army photo by Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Tarr)

The odds are growing that Russian President Vladimir Putin will make the greatest mistake of his career by invading Ukraine. This is likely to result in the very outcomes that the Kremlin claims it seeks to avoid. A new assault on Ukraine would weaken the Russian government, hurt its economy, over-extend its military, strengthen NATO unity and resolve, cause Washington to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe, and give new impetus to Western military modernization.

Were Moscow to seize all of Ukraine, it would actually exacerbate the Kremlin’s sense of vulnerability and feed its determination to defend its conquests even at the price of alienating the West. The U.S. and Europe now need to make an attack on Ukraine so unattractive that Putin will have reason to rein in his imperial ambitions.

Some politicians, experts, and pundits have sought to minimize the danger to the West should Russia invade Ukraine, arguing that Putin is driven largely by the fear that Ukraine will join NATO. Were that the primary issue, the conflict could be readily avoided. However, in Putin’s mind, the true danger to Russia is the existence of an independent, democratic Ukraine. Putin has gone so far as to assert that Ukraine cannot be an independent state and has no real history or culture outside of its ties with Russia. But Ukraine remains its own country, one that is too close to Russia geographically and too distant from it politically.

Moscow seeks to undermine Ukraine’s political and economic stability to help ensure the survival of the current kleptocratic regime in Russia. Putin targeted Ukraine following the start of the so-called “color revolutions” that swept parts of Europe and the Middle East more than a decade ago. He did so because he feared that political revolutions in the former Soviet republics, especially the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, would be super-spreaders of democracy, thus threatening his hold on power.

It is not enough for Putin to exercise autocratic control over Russia. For his regime to be secure, a sturdy bodyguard of subordinated states must surround it, essentially countries that were once Soviet republics. Only by extending Moscow’s control well beyond the borders of Russia can Putin achieve a sufficient amount of security at home. As Clifford May observed, the continuation of Putin’s rule depends on personifying a new “Czar of all the Russias” if only to prevent the infection of democracy from coming home. This is a recipe for perpetual conflict in Europe.

Putin’s proposed agreements with the West make clear that what he really seeks is the disempowerment of NATO and the recreation of a Europe based on Cold War-era political divisions. One article of the agreement offered by the Kremlin declares that “the participants, which are Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, shall refrain from conducting any military activities on the territory of Ukraine, as well as of the other States of Eastern Europe, Transcaucasia and Central Asia.” Another article in the draft agreement would prohibit NATO from deploying forces or weapons in countries that joined the Alliance after May 1997, meaning Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

The proposed U.S.-Russia treaty would also essentially forbid the stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons in NATO countries while allowing Russian weapons based in the homeland (including Kaliningrad) to range all of Europe. Collectively, all of these Russian-sponsored treaties would undermine the Alliance’s credibility as a defense pact.

A limited incursion into Ukraine might ease Moscow’s problems with controlling currently occupied territories in the eastern part of that country. However, it would come at the cost of continuing the long conflict in Ukraine while simultaneously antagonizing NATO. It is likely that more economic sanctions would be imposed on Russia and that NATO would deploy additional forces to Poland and the Baltic States, as well as Romania. The Kremlin would thus prolong a lengthy war and incur significant costs while gaining nothing in terms of overall security.

The deeper Russia moves into Ukraine, the greater the problems Putin will face. Should Moscow occupy Kyiv and conquer all of Ukraine, the result would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would move Russia’s border right up to NATO’s eastern edge, which is what Moscow feared if Ukraine ever joined NATO. The Alliance could then initiate precisely the same actions that Putin already accuses it of taking (but which it has not).

The Alliance would be reinvigorated and could see the accession of both Sweden and Finland. U.S. heavy forces would be permanently based in Poland. Washington would move aggressively to supply NATO allies with advanced military hardware such as F-35 fighters, M1 Abrams tanks, advanced air and missile defenses, and long-range fires. The result would be a second Cold War and the descent of a new iron curtain across Europe.

Moreover, it is not clear that Ukraine would submit to Russian occupation. If Ukrainians stoutly resist an invasion, the capacities of Russia’s military and security forces would be severely stressed. This would only exacerbate Putin’s perception of the threats to his rule.

By continuing to deploy large forces to Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus while making maximalist demands of NATO and the U.S., Putin may have painted himself into a corner. At the same time, unless NATO and the European Union act quickly to counter Putin’s threats and make clear how high the cost an invasion will be to Russia, the Kremlin may well believe that its least costly course of action is to invade Ukraine.

NATO needs to send Putin the strongest possible message that attacking Ukraine would result in intolerable costs for his country and regime. Rather than deploying a few thousand troops to Europe, President Biden should begin moving large numbers of U.S. personnel, heavy ground forces, and long-range fires systems to Poland and the Baltics while demanding that other NATO countries follow suit.

The Biden Administration should immediately announce its approval of the pending sale of M1 tanks to Poland. The NATO Response Force must be sent forward now and additional naval forces to the Baltic and Black Seas, including Aegis-capable ships, must be deployed. The U.S. and the European Union must also impose additional economic sanctions on Russia, including on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and on Russian access to global financial markets. These steps might give Putin an excuse for holding back.

Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

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Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.