If Vladimir Putin decides to invade Ukraine, it will represent the biggest political gamble of his tenure and his most profound strategic blunder. There are a few compelling reasons why Russia should refrain from launching a military strike. If Russia invades, it will face a hostile population that has enjoyed political freedom for a generation. There will be a fierce and determined armed resistance, in support of Ukraine’s independence, opposed to any Russian occupation. A prolonged insurgency against Russian forces broadcast to the world could embolden the political opposition in countries allied to Russia, like Belarus and Kazakhstan. It should be noted that the Kazakh regime recently needed Russian “peacekeepers” to end a week of violent protests about rising fuel prices. And there is smoldering resentment in Belarus towards its president, who most consider illegitimate because of widespread voter fraud in their last election. Putin’s military adventure in Ukraine could trigger an “Arab Spring” like reaction in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Then there is the issue of how Russian citizens would respond to a war in Ukraine. While many believe the West, and more specifically the US, is provoking Russia into war, Russians are also fearful of war. How will citizens respond to Putin’s decision to invade if the body count begins to rise significantly and after the West imposes new and unprecedented economic and financial sanctions? Consider too that Russia’s largest trading partner is the EU, representing about 40% of Russia’s trading revenue. Russian aggression against Ukraine would diminish trading revenue and, when coupled with sanctions, might spark a financial crisis. Could public uneasiness about the consequences of war be exploited by Putin’s political opponents? Would they question his decision to invade and end up challenging his continued grip on power?
While the drum beat of war resounds across Ukraine, how can the West deter Russian aggression at this late hour? Emmanuel Macron was right when he said Europe cannot be secure if Russia is not secure. We must consider NATO expansion to Ukraine as equivalent, say, to Mexico or Canada establishing a military alliance with Russia, resulting in the presence of Russian troops and/or missiles there. No American president would tolerate this. Accordingly, the perception of Ukraine’s NATO membership as an existential threat must be understood as Russia’s version of the Monroe Doctrine. Putin has a valid point. The West should acknowledge it by placing a twenty-five year moratorium on any NATO expansion.
But the broader political and diplomatic goal involves persuading Russia that its political and economic future remains bound up with Europe, not China. The West should pursue a political rapprochement with Russia that, over the long-term, could make Ukrainian membership in NATO irrelevant to Russia. Or better yet, the West should work to create an environment whereby the rationale for NATO, to deter Russian aggression, becomes obsolete. We would do well to remember that thirty years ago, Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin visited Washington and delivered a message of hope and friendship in a speech to Congress. This seems like a fairy tale now, but it did happen. An appealing array of trade deals, arms control negotiations and new agreements on a range of issues ranging from the climate crisis, fighting global terrorism to cyberattacks, could change the current political narrative and entice Russia into the European fold.
Finally, the West needs to recognize that Putin’s military build-up reflects Russia’s political and military humiliation in recent decades. It suffered a disastrous military intervention in Afghanistan. And it sustained the loss of its empire with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Putin’s aim remains quite simple: to make Russia great again, to restore Russia to its rightful place as a respected political and military actor on the world stage. His military build-up is not a bluff. It is a desperate attempt to get the West to recognize and respect Russia’s security needs. A moratorium on NATO expansion and an attractive assortment of deals that lashes Russia’s interests to Europe, would enable Putin to declare “mission accomplished” and initiate a troop withdrawal. Allowing Putin to savor his “victory” should not be construed as placating a ruthless authoritarian leader. Rather, it represents the first step in a long process to persuade Russia that its economic, financial and political future rests with Europe and the West. This will be essential to avert war now and to defuse future political and military tensions in Europe and around the world.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano