Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Stop Panicking About Ukraine—and Putin

Russia has its own limits and logic that make war unlikely.

By , a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of international history.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on Jan. 24. Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

In early November 2021, several media outlets and the U.S. government began to warn of an imminent full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia on a scale not seen since the Iraq War of 2003. The attack was predicted to come around Christmas or in mid-January. Both dates have come and gone, and no invasion has materialized, yet some policymakers and most pundits continue to warn that it will happen, and soon. Moscow announced a series of demands on European security—unrealistic ones, but ones that seem set as a starting point for a dialogue among peers. This is a shift in the dynamic that Russia has been pushing for years: increasing its indirect confrontations with the United States to get America to treat it as a peer, not a spent force that can be ignored or dictated to.

The evidence so far points to Russia looking toward talks, not invasion. The initial reaction was set off by Russia’s movement of military assets within the Southern and Western military districts. The movements did not even represent a serious addition of forces to these command areas but a repositioning of different assets.

But there is a plausible argument that these are not a serious threat to Ukraine. In an article published in the Dutch-language magazine Knack and also on social media, Sim Tack, an independent military analyst (and previous co-author of mine) has noted that there has been more of a concentration of equipment than of personnel. He suggested last month that “Russia appears to experiment with forward positioning of equipment over longer durations of time than we usually see. They have done this first at Opuk between April and October, and now at Yelnya, Novoozerne, and Bakhchysarai. An emulation of NATO procedures in Eastern Europe.”

In early November 2021, several media outlets and the U.S. government began to warn of an imminent full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia on a scale not seen since the Iraq War of 2003. The attack was predicted to come around Christmas or in mid-January. Both dates have come and gone, and no invasion has materialized, yet some policymakers and most pundits continue to warn that it will happen, and soon. Moscow announced a series of demands on European security—unrealistic ones, but ones that seem set as a starting point for a dialogue among peers. This is a shift in the dynamic that Russia has been pushing for years: increasing its indirect confrontations with the United States to get America to treat it as a peer, not a spent force that can be ignored or dictated to.

The evidence so far points to Russia looking toward talks, not invasion. The initial reaction was set off by Russia’s movement of military assets within the Southern and Western military districts. The movements did not even represent a serious addition of forces to these command areas but a repositioning of different assets.

But there is a plausible argument that these are not a serious threat to Ukraine. In an article published in the Dutch-language magazine Knack and also on social media, Sim Tack, an independent military analyst (and previous co-author of mine) has noted that there has been more of a concentration of equipment than of personnel. He suggested last month that “Russia appears to experiment with forward positioning of equipment over longer durations of time than we usually see. They have done this first at Opuk between April and October, and now at Yelnya, Novoozerne, and Bakhchysarai. An emulation of NATO procedures in Eastern Europe.”

As Tack notes, the Russian air force has been largely absent from these movements. Air superiority would be a critical component of any ground offensive, so the lack of movement other than some helicopter formations is a major point against an imminent offensive.

Though on maps like the one published by the New York Times earlier this month Russian formations seem to be almost inside Ukraine, some are hundreds of miles away, lined up in depots at long-standing bases. There has been no effort to conceal the troops in forward positions or prepare them for an imminent offensive. Exercises in the Southern and then Western military districts have been interpreted as directed at Ukraine, yet these exercises were well within the scale of what is typical for Russia’s training schedule—and if units were being relocated to new areas as part of a reconfiguration, training and logistical exercises make perfect sense.

The Russian military is in many ways still reforming and evolving into a post-Soviet formation. Massed combined arms formations manned by conscripts are being replaced by contract professional formations. A major part of this involves a tempo of regular training and exercises.

There has also been an over-concentration on the motives of Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. Understanding Putin has its place in legitimate scholarship, but it is made more useful if scholars look at Putin within the context of the Russian political system. Putin is the president of Russia and the main arbiter of its various elite circles. He governs through the Russian political consensus that emerged after the disastrous 1990s. He is not a supreme master of strategy or a maniacal Bond villain set on revenge for the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather than attempting to read Putin’s mind, observers should ask not just what he wants, but how he could achieve it and what the cost-benefit is for the regime and for Russia.

There is a need also to look beyond the Kremlin, and indeed beyond Moscow-centric circles to Russia’s vast provinces, where concerns over economic development and basic services trump some chauvinistic fantasy about annexing territory. Unlike other nationalistic regimes, Russia is far more reliant on the goodwill of its regional barons and the compliance of its people.

Yet even a small-scale attack on Ukraine could be destabilizing. Russia’s own highly bellicose media ecosystem does little to help its global perceptions. The unhinged statements made on these outlets and in the Russian parliament serve only to feed the hype, thus creating a constantly reinforcing atmosphere of mutual suspicion and recrimination between two sides that already lack even basic trust.

The conflicts in and around Russia since 1991 are often portrayed as a perpetual plot bent on maximum brutality rather than as opportunistic and often limited expeditions. It is worth noting that Russia never attempted full occupation of Georgia, Ukraine, or Moldova, instead confining its military to regions where it had at least a modicum of local support, such as the Second Chechen War, and subsequent conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, Syria, Ukraine, and, most recently, Kazakhstan.

The Russian military has increasingly been used with a focus on maximum force with minimal casualties, while avoiding being bogged down. The light-footprint approach makes sense when one considers Russia’s recent military experiences in both Afghanistan and the First Chechen War. Lack of clear objectives, long occupations, and indiscriminate use of violence served only to embolden resistance and destabilize both the USSR and Russia politically.

Ultimately, Russia had to swallow a humiliating peace deal in Chechnya that left the region as the personal fief of the local strongman. Since then, Russia has been extremely pragmatic in its negotiation and use of force, but much of this has been reactive rather than active.

It is possible that the Russian leadership has considered an invasion as one option among many, likely as an option of last resort if Ukraine’s NATO accession were imminent or there were no other recourse. The reaction to the troop movements, therefore, has created for the Kremlin an opportunity to force the peer-to-peer negotiations it has long sought. Russia has no master plan on Ukraine; its 2014 invasion was a moment of hubristic overreach that squandered any sympathy in the country and massively diminished its influence. Since then it has made crude attempts to maintain some modicum of influence that will keep Ukraine officially out of NATO, which Russia views as an inherently hostile entity.

The Biden administration is right to engage Russia in talks. Russia for its part will hopefully see the talks as an opportunity for substantive engagement and be willing to make tangible steps that will lessen the concern of the United States. Washington for its part will need to continue to engage with Moscow even as the threat diminishes, to show that such displays of force are not necessary to open diplomatic channels.

While a full-scale invasion across Ukraine remains highly unlikely, there are a range of other options open to Russia, including a formal recognition of the Ukrainian breakaway regions or even more limited strikes against Ukraine’s forward military positions along the line of contact. Russia’s reorientation of military forces was also done for the purpose of preparing for the eventuality of a future conflict. Both sides need to make an effort to engage diplomatically and lower the rhetoric, or such a full-scale conflict will become more and more likely, not less.

Jeff Hawn is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of international history. His research focuses on the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis and the post-Cold War international order.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.