What Putin wants in Ukraine

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On the fertile plains of Ukraine, the resurgent echoes of a Cold War with Russia are in danger of becoming a killer frost. Washington raises alarm about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massed troops at the border and threatens to strike the west-gazing government of Kyiv. The stakes are high for war in Europe and one question remains: What is Putin actually trying to achieve?

The possibilities are myriad and — especially for the hopes of an independent, thriving and democratic Ukraine — range from bad to worse. To force the West to make large security concessions in Eastern Europe. To eliminate all prospects of Ukraine becoming NATO member and to ensure long-term security for the country. To formalize the grip of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, invaded by Moscow’s “little green men” in 2014 and stuck in a near-constant state of armed conflict ever since? Is Putin really aiming to fly the Russian flag above Kyiv’s Maidan Square in order to make Ukraine a part of Russia?

Long-brewing concerns over Russian designs in Ukraine, which had calmed following a similar crisis last spring, have leaped back into the public eye in recent weeks as U.S. officials warned that intelligence signaled the growing risk of a Russian invasion. One core Putin demand has been ruled out by President Biden: a guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO. Putin is already able to make the West listen.

In their most recent call, my colleagues reported, Putin countered that any new sanctions from the Ukraine crisis would trigger “a complete rupture of relations” between Moscow and Washington.

The intervention of Russian troops in Kazakhstan on the request of its pro-Kremlin government following the eruption of broad protests may yet influence the Kremlin’s military calculus or timing in Ukraine. The Russian challenge in maintaining its sphere of influence is highlighted by the rising uprisings in Kazakhstan, which follows the suppression of all dissent in Belarus.

But the challenge now is to game Putin’s bigger strategy in Ukraine.

In a captivating piece in the Atlantic, Anne Applebaum writes of two schools of thought in Kyiv. “The skeptical school essentially thinks this whole situation might be a huge bluff: The Russians have deliberately set out to ‘scare the Americans,’ ” she said, “in order to create pressure on Ukraine to change its constitution as the Russians would like, or to put Putin at the center of international attention, or to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence inside old Soviet borders.”

For them, Putin’s goal seems to have “chalked up some wins” by focusing the attention of the White House and NATO not on the Ukraine crisis per se, but on Russia’s attempts to force the West to engage it over trumped-up claims of Western aggression.

Back in Kyiv, Applebaum said the pessimists fear this: “If Putin believes that Ukraine must be destroyed sooner or later; if he believes that historical wrongs must be righted; even if he just wants to gain back some of the popularity he has lost to covid, corruption, and a poor economy, then he might have reasons to think that this is a good moment to do it.”

The United States is a house divided.

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Story continues below advertisement. The United States is a divided house. Pandemic-worn and distracted. Putin could not have a better time.

A better assessment of Russian motives and goals could be the most useful takeaway from the high-stakes meetings in Europe next week.

“I think Putin wants a couple of things out of the crisis he has created, one of which is a settlement of the [conflict in eastern Ukraine] on Russian terms, with heavy autonomy for the Donbas region,” Defense Priorities Policy Director Benjamin H. Friedman told Today’s WorldView this week. “And secondly, he wants the U.S. to take the lead of saying no NATO in Ukraine, and no Ukraine in NATO.”

Andrew Lohsen, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me he expects the talks to start off strong in the bilateral with the Russians and Americans, before losing steam when the forum shifts to NATO. Moscow will be arguing that Washington decides and would prefer to work directly with Washington.

The question is not only whether Biden may ultimately budge on some sort of pledge to Putin on Ukraine, but how much Washington is willing to discuss a broader revamp of the security paradigm in Europe. Putin, though, has generated so much buzz over the crisis at home that he may have gone too far to simply back down now. He has many options if he doesn’t get concessions. These could be missile strikes or cyberattacks. Others might include a wider intervention in Donbass. Or, some fear, an invasion.

“Russia needs to come out of this crisis with some kind of victory; it needs some kind of concession from the U.S. or NATO,” Lohsen told me. Limiting military presence near Russian borders may be enough, however I am not certain if it will be sufficient. It could be used as a pretext for aggression.

But Putin has also succeeded in something else too: Raising the price for Western support in Ukraine. Even though Russian troops have not yet marched on Kyiv’s streets, there is still the possibility that the E.U. and Washington will be forced to act.

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