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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.

Written By

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.



  1. Christina Gina

    February 10, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    Very intelligent article well aware of authoritarian regime thinking. But somewhat frightening because we are dealing with irrationality, fascism, and nuclear weapons

  2. Commentar

    February 10, 2022 at 4:49 pm

    The big trouble (including Ukraine) today is that US doesn’t want to listen at all.US keeps ignoring Russian concerns and instead connects Russia with ‘threat’ & ‘invasion’. US only wants to maintain gazpacho control of Europe despite WW2 having ended over 75 years ago.

    WW2 resulted in US turning into a control freak and today it has bases, facilities, weapon storages sites, CIA cells and bmd hardpoints all over the world.Even right up to the yard fences and front doorsteps and backyards of rivals. US truly the gazpacho Genghis of today.

  3. Yrr

    February 10, 2022 at 4:52 pm

    As many, I am one of those who most of the time entirely disagree with this kind of article. So why am I reading ? For fun : Authors are so deeply wrong about Russia that it’s frankly funny.

    I married a Russian woman, from who I know a bit about Russia, it’s people, and so I’m always interested by it’s history and it’s politic. Every sentence of this article is false. Amazing.

    The scary part is that the policy of the USA is decided by that kind of ignoramus…

  4. Paul C

    February 10, 2022 at 5:40 pm

    No American soldier should be put in harm’s way fighting a war to satisfy the politicians and military-industrial complex of the United States. If Europe wants the Ukraine to join NATO then let Europe deal with the fallout.

  5. Ivan

    February 10, 2022 at 8:58 pm

    FUCK US….

  6. Popescu Vladimir

    February 11, 2022 at 7:48 am

    My god,who are these insane warmongereres writting articles?
    Ukraine can want whatever(EU,NATO), that doesn’t mean other countries should agree.
    Russia is forced by geopolitics to never allow former Soviet States to be part of a NATO alliance many times more powerful that itself and with huge military potential.Any and all of the responses by NATO detailed above will be met by nukes(think many thousands of tactial nukes given to junior officers not conventianal forces).
    Also if any country can do whatever it wants regardless of geopolitics or other security concerns than I guess russia can just sell ICBMs to whomever it wants(Syria,Iran,NK,etc.)Why not?
    Everybody should get a hold of themselves and remember that Russia is a great power and the Cold War didn’t end with the american flag above the Kremlin,but an invitation to join the capitalist world-which it did.
    Ukraine is Russia’s red line(as such they are willing to go up to the end of the world),while for the EU and US ,Ukraine has 0 strategic value.Ukraine in NATO will make nuclear war inevitable,which will end with either NATO dismembered as NATO nuclear countries will refuse to exchange their existance for noncore strategic positions(baltics,Poland,Romania,Ukraine) or the End of the world(total nuclear war).Russia will never fight a conventional war with NATO,because it will have no advantage,as such it can only lose.

  7. Keith

    February 11, 2022 at 8:01 am

    Putin invades his neighbors and then complains that Nato and his neighbors are upset about it. He seems delusional.

  8. from Russia with love

    February 11, 2022 at 9:05 am

    Popescu Vladimir:
    “Also if any country can do whatever it wants regardless of geopolitics or other security concerns than I guess russia can just sell ICBMs to whomever it wants(Syria,Iran,NK,etc.)Why not?”
    bingo! but you are a bit wrong with the region. since Russia has claims about the US contingent, it will most likely be one of the countries of South America or Cuba.
    as for Ukraine, you are mistaken with the definition of Russia’s goals. Russia is interested in protecting Russian citizens in Donbas. most likely the republics of the LDNR will soon be annexed to Russia according to the scenario of the Crimea. after that, any military activity of Ukraine in the Donbas will lose its meaning. they hope to seize the unrecognized republics, the Ukrainian army can still, but there is no longer any attempt to recapture the territory from the Russian army.

    as for NATO, you are mistaken in almost everything. you are right only that NATO has more people and equipment than Russia. while NATO is separate countries, some of which are not friendly to each other. in the days of the USSR, the NATO alliance had a motive for resistance, this motive was the loss of assets. now Russia is the same capitalist country as the EU countries. IF Russia seizes some NATO country, then this is just a change of protectorate. there is no loss of active – there is no point in resisting. why risk your life if you get nothing out of it. nothing at all. and the question of whose protectorate is more reliable in the EU, America, which is far away, or Russia, which is nearby, is very ambiguous.
    as for the use of nuclear weapons, it is completely pointless. Iskanders, Calibers and adjustable bombs are enough to destroy NATO infrastructure. Europe is being shot through. but the scenario of a war with NATO is extremely unlikely. Russia does not need this, NATO is not ready for war, it is not ready at all. The pandemic has shown that in a crisis situation in Europe, every man is for himself.

  9. Bankotsu

    February 11, 2022 at 11:01 am

    What a dumb article. Putin fears a democratic Ukraine?

    What could be a dumber idea than that?

    If Putin feared a democratic Ukraine, than why didn’t Russia invade Ukraine in 2014? Why wait until 2022, 8 years later?

    This is so dumb man.

  10. Alex

    February 11, 2022 at 11:14 am

    Russia knows what historical mistakes are. Therefore, Russia is the largest country on the planet.

  11. Columba Siluoan

    February 11, 2022 at 3:32 pm

    A “Democratic” Ukraine with the potential decadence of the “Protect our Democracy” West is indeed something to be feared. The United States is devolving into a Mob Rule “Democracy” as opposed to the REPUBLIC it was originally founded as. That kind of rot should not be allowed to infect Ukraine. Ukraine as it is currently is a corrupt basket case mirroring the corrupt basket case the United States is becoming. This is greatly to be feared. Ukraine should voluntarily enter into an alliance with Russia. An invasion will be tragic, though. The intransigence and arrogance of the western “democracies” will be partly to blame if it happens.

  12. Matt Musson

    February 14, 2022 at 9:29 am

    Replace Putin with Hitler and roll back 75 years.

  13. Alex

    February 14, 2022 at 10:52 am

    Matt, how can you replace someone with someone if after the second world war it was the United States that killed the most people in the world? You Nazis are so pathetic.

  14. Srinkris

    March 7, 2022 at 2:07 am

    Russia can not advice Ukraine not to join Nato and Eu. Ukkraine is an independent democratic country.

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