The encirclement of Ukraine by Russian forces has led many to believe that war in Europe is imminent, but so far, those reporting on this are only looking at the crisis at face value, and not at what may really be driving Russian involvement.
While I certainly believe a larger-scale Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory is possible, I find myself wondering what would President Putin gain from this venture? Some standoff territory between Russia and NATO? There is little else to be gained and an invasion of a free nation by Russia would result in Russia’s almost instant exclusion from the economies of the developed world brought on by sanctions. So, why has this crisis intensified and what does Putin stand to gain from bringing Europe to the brink of war?
Vladimir Putin knows the risks, and while he is a despot, he is not dumb. Putin knows the more military pressure he applies to the region the more of a reaction he will get from the West. Putin is betting that by exploiting the situation the West will make concessions to avoid a conflict rather than commit to the defense of Ukraine in the event of a war, whether a war takes place or not.
As a result, the United States and the other western powers have been backed into a strategic corner, because by engaging in diplomacy with the Russian government they are playing right into Putin’s hand. Since Ukraine is not a NATO member state there is no way they will receive reinforcements from anyone including the United States.
However, since the western world is completely intolerant of a war in Europe the western powers feel compelled to do something. This allows Putin to exert incredible power over the region. The perceived threat of war has resulted in the western powers opening up diplomatic talks and possibly concessions to be made in order to prevent a war.
President Putin has used the western power’s intolerance for military conflict to his advantage. Without even beginning an invasion he has set the stage for the west to give diplomatic concessions at the small cost of mobilizing a portion of the Russian military. What President Putin wants more than anything is the United States influence cast out of Europe, and to undermine confidence in the NATO alliance.
During this crisis regional interests have been exploited to further these goals. Chief among them is the exploitation of the Nord stream 2 pipeline, the German government hasn’t been able to guarantee the ending of the pipeline to support possible sanctions, because Germany relies so heavily on Russian energy exports. This severely undercuts sanctions if Germany won’t commit to shutting down the pipeline.
The political positioning of Vladimir Putin has been masterful, while the leadership from the west has been disorganized at best. Negotiations may prove to be very fruitful, allowing the Russian government to get guarantees from NATO nations regarding military exercises, placement of strategic assets or even an easing of economic sanctions brought on by the initial invasion of Crimea. But even if the negotiations do not go well then Russia still has options. Russia could choose to do nothing and forgo the risk of sanctions at the cost of losing some face, and if all else fails invading Ukraine anyway, since NATO is unwilling and unable to provide any forces to stop an invasion.
This inability is setting the west up for diplomatic, economic, and strategic losses. While Putin has the opportunity to minimize his risks while potentially making great political gains in the region.