Putin’s Calculus Over Ukraine

The Russian leader risks huge casualties and painful sanctions if he invades, but he’s left himself little room to de-escalate.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference in Moscow on Dec. 23, 2021. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s War

As Russia has massed over 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine, Western officials are still scrambling to find a diplomatic offramp from the crisis, while bracing for the worst. U.S. officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin remains undecided on whether to go to war, but that ultimately it will be Putin alone who decides whether or not to begin a renewed attack on Ukraine. Senior U.S. officials have questioned if even their counterparts in negotiations are privy to Putin’s thought process.

While Russia has for decades chafed against NATO’s eastward expansion, Putin appears to have identified a potential opening—when the West is beset by its own crises and divisions, and Russia’s financial resilience seems at an all-time high—to force a change in Europe’s post-Cold War security order. But it is not a cost-free gambit, risking heavy casualties, international isolation, and severe economic reprisals from the West.

Just what issues are likely factoring into Putin’s calculus?

As Russia has massed over 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine, Western officials are still scrambling to find a diplomatic offramp from the crisis, while bracing for the worst. U.S. officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin remains undecided on whether to go to war, but that ultimately it will be Putin alone who decides whether or not to begin a renewed attack on Ukraine. Senior U.S. officials have questioned if even their counterparts in negotiations are privy to Putin’s thought process.

While Russia has for decades chafed against NATO’s eastward expansion, Putin appears to have identified a potential opening—when the West is beset by its own crises and divisions, and Russia’s financial resilience seems at an all-time high—to force a change in Europe’s post-Cold War security order. But it is not a cost-free gambit, risking heavy casualties, international isolation, and severe economic reprisals from the West.

Just what issues are likely factoring into Putin’s calculus?

First, and likely weighing against an attack, is the question of casualties. Recent Russian military campaigns in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria have relied heavily on airstrikes, military contractors, and a veneer of plausible deniability to keep costs low and assuage public concerns about troop losses. A major assault on Ukraine, many analysts fear, would do away with this low-cost model of warfare. Russia is expected to leverage its advantages in the air, pounding Ukrainian targets and demoralizing its troops before sending in Russian ground forces. But while the Russian military has the upper hand in terms of sheer troop numbers and resources, the Ukrainian military has come a long way from the threadbare forces that Russian troops first encountered in the Donbass in 2014.

“This war would accumulate casualties for the Russians as well,” said Samuel Bendett, an advisor with the CNA think tank and a member of the organization’s Russia Studies Program. “Part of the reason behind Russia’s decision to fight in Syria was its relatively low casualty rate when juxtaposed against the larger military mission that involved both Russia and allied forces. And this is kind of the way for the Russians to sell their involvement in Syria: minimal to nonexistent casualties, maximum outcome. Ukraine is a different conflict.”

Since 2014, Ukraine has received billions of dollars in security assistance from the United States. The Western buildup of the Ukrainian military has focused on defensive capabilities that would blunt a potential Russian offensive and make life more difficult for the Kremlin. In October 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense sent Ukraine 30 Javelin anti-tank systems, shoulder-fired missiles designed to punch through high-tech tanks. Last week, the State Department approved a request from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to send Ukraine more Javelins as well as Stinger missiles, which can be used to take down helicopters.

While the United States and NATO have both ruled out sending troops to support Ukraine—which isn’t a member of the military alliance—increasing supplies of weapons and ammunition will likely enable the Ukrainians to exact a more punishing toll on the Russians.

“The rationale I see for this is we’re trying to affect Putin’s calculation,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, speaking at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution. “There’s quite a bit of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the Russians went to extreme lengths in 2014 and 2015 to cover up the fact that Russian soldiers were being killed in Ukraine.”

But other than casualties, it’s not clear that public opinion weighs too heavily on Putin’s thinking on Ukraine. An opinion poll conducted last month by the independent Russian pollster Levada found that 50 percent of respondents blamed the U.S. and NATO members for escalating the current crisis, while just 4 percent believed Russia was responsible.

“In my view, the domestic component plays a smaller role in the current crisis,” said Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, who pointed to the recent crackdown on opposition activists, independent media, and nongovernmental organizations that has left virtually no room for dissent.

“The majority of Russians are primarily concerned about domestic issues like inflation, economic stagnation, and low wages. The salience of foreign policy appears to be fairly weak. And it’s precisely on the issues that are of low salience to Russians, where domestic propaganda appears to still work quite successfully,” Snegovaya said.

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Putin’s approval rating skyrocketed. But the seizure of Crimea was largely bloodless and welcomed by many Russians who feel a historic attachment to the peninsula. That shared history between Russia and Ukraine could make a war more costly for Putin in the court of public opinion. Russia was often accused of indiscriminate targeting in Syria by human rights groups, and in 2020, a United Nations panel said that Moscow had committed war crimes by hitting civilian targets in airstrikes. The prospect of civilian casualties may complicate the way that Russia fights the Ukrainians, especially if the invasion route goes through historic cities.

“If Russia inflicted a lot of civilian casualties, that would be a problem for [Putin’s] popular approval rating,” said Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps. “Killing civilians, hitting Kharkiv, Poltava, these famous cities, so much history, I think that would particularly be a problem for his approval.”

Pushing in the opposite direction is another kind of opinion: that of Russian elites in the political and security establishments. As Russia has continued to ratchet up tensions in the wake of intensive diplomacy with U.S. and European officials this month, it’s unclear how Putin could walk back the military buildup without incurring significant reputational cost.

“I do think elite views are significant, and there would be external and internal audience costs to backing down right now,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the CNA think tank. “If he backs down, people will say that either he was bluffing or, even worse, that he was deterred. And it will land Russia in the worst of both worlds in that he will be seen as highly aggressive and at the same time resistible.”

Another big consideration for the Kremlin is likely Western responses, even if direct military intervention seems off the table. U.S. officials have warned that they are willing to go much further than they did in 2014, likely targeting Russian banks, further sanctioning Russian sovereign debt, and removing the country from SWIFT, the financial messaging system that underpins much of the world’s financial transactions. “The gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there,” a senior administration official said on Tuesday, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

But eight years after first incurring U.S. and European sanctions for annexing Crimea, Russia may feel that it has largely sanction-proofed its economy. Russia’s central bank reserves, its rainy day fund, reached an all-time high by the end of 2021 of $630 billion, while its national wealth fund was worth a further $185 billion or so at the end of last year. That gives the Russian economy some buffer from fire-and-brimstone sanctions threatened by the United States.

“Putin has reserves, financial reserves in place. He is playing his cards, and you can see them, because he is playing them in the open,” said Rep. Bill Keating, a Democratic lawmaker and chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe. “He’s viewing all of this as a window where he can move, and it’s a window that may not be there forever.”

Russia may also have a potential ace in the hole, given the centrality of Russian energy exports to the global economy, especially Europe’s. Tough Western sanctions and the promised German closure of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the event of an invasion would likely exacerbate Europe’s energy crisis at a time of near-record-high prices.

“The question is what cost the U.S. and Europe are willing to bear. If you’re willing to bear a cost, you can impose a substantially larger cost on Russia,” said Chris Miller, an assistant professor of international history at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

In other ways, Moscow has worked to limit its exposure to Western sanctions over the last eight years, weaning the economy off the U.S. dollar where possible and reducing its dependence on foreign finance and investment. For example, when Russia banned the import of cheese from the European Union amid tit-for-tat sanctions, the country’s own cheese industry flourished to fill the void. Yet substituting imports of cheese is one thing; replacing high-tech semiconductors is another.

A second senior administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday that the White House was weighing export controls on sophisticated technologies vital for strategic industries such as defense, aerospace, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. U.S. dominance in software and technology gives it leverage to prevent other countries from exporting these technologies to Russia, even if they’re not manufactured in the United States.

“​​[Putin’s] tolerance for economic pain may be higher than other leaders’, but there is a threshold of pain above which we think his calculus can be influenced,” the senior administration official said. Some experts believe the sanctions that followed Russia’s 2014 assault on eastern Ukraine may have deterred Putin from pushing deeper into the country.

Others are less convinced. “I think the economic consequences are probably pretty important. Although I think we’d be wrong to think that Putin wakes up in the morning, trying to maximize Russian GDP growth,” Miller said. “It’s clear that economic factors are not core to his primary goal, but the risk that it becomes domestically destabilizing, it’s got to be present.”

Then there’s the question of whether the threat of sanctions can override other powerful driving forces for Putin, who has accused the West of not taking Russia’s redlines seriously.

“Arguably the most important human motivation is the motivation for dignity and significance,” said Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. “Given his personality, given the kind of attitude he evokes in the Russian people, it’s likely that he’s not to be deterred by any kind of threat of sanctions.” Still, even if Russia manages to weather punishing sanctions, Moscow could face a degree of international isolation not seen since the end of the Cold War, leaving it dependent on its flourishing but uneasy relationship with Beijing.

Putin is heading to China at the beginning of February for the opening of the Winter Olympics, where he is set to meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who likely has his own thoughts on Russia’s saber rattling. Russian and Chinese economic ties redoubled—especially in energy—after the imposition of Western sanctions in 2014, but the Chinese leader may not be so enthusiastic about helping to bail Putin out.

“I’m not sure that China looks very favorably on what Russia is doing now. We know that they didn’t really like what happened in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, and then all the sanctions,” said Angela Stent, an expert on Russian foreign policy and professor emerita at Georgetown University, speaking at the Brookings event. “So it’ll be very interesting to see what comes after that.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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