Amidst the wartime propaganda filling airtime everywhere in the world, one question remains largely unanswered. Given the countless means Russia had at its disposal to coerce Ukraine into any desired outcome, why did Putin opt for a full military invasion of his neighbor? Neither the West’s good-versus-evil rhetoric nor Russia’s claims of “de-Nazification” of Ukraine are convincing arguments.
Ever since the war with Georgia in 2008, Russia’s military ventures have been very calculated and pragmatic, ensuring that no serious backlash would follow, always keeping diplomatic backchannels open for negotiating with supposed opponents, even when this did not fully align with its aggressive foreign policy rhetoric.
This recent invasion of Ukraine seems to have broken this pattern, but not for a lack of alternatives. Putin did not even bother waving the most potent weapon in his arsenal: the energy weapon. To halt the streaming of natural gas through the Ukraine would mean depriving the country of a revenue of almost $1.2 billion a year, roughly one percent of its entire GDP. This would have hit Ukraine’s barely recovering economy hard. Such a move would also put further pressure on Germany to certify the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and guarantee its energy security.
Putin also had the opportunity to establish a more robust de facto presence in Donetsk and Lugansk, without having to resort to a full-scale invasion. By incorporating the two regions’ infrastructures and economies into Russia’s, he could have replicated, at a slower pace, the Crimean scenario. This would have most likely incurred very little resistance from the international community.
Instead, Putin opted for the brutish approach of an all-out invasion, deploying massive force with the sole purpose of completely eradicating Ukraine’s military and forcing the Ukrainian government to capitulate.
Given the present and foreseeable repercussions, the rationale for Putin’s choice remains elusive, especially since there do not seem to be any rational long-term benefits to this invasion. What could explain these actions, though, is the permissiveness of the global environment in international politics.
Primarily, the one power that could have seriously given Russia pause, the United States, is currently not taken seriously abroad. This is not because of its inability to effectively project power, but rather due to this current administration’s image on the global scene. When serious global powers observe the humiliating way in which the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, they do not see leadership that has crisis management potential. When the non-Anglo-Saxon world looks with astonishment at the most recent earth-shattering reforms of the American military, which culminated in allowing servicewomen to wear fake eyelashes while on duty, or of NATO, with its 40-page manual on gender-inclusive language, they react with ridicule.
Such a transformation in the image of the world’s mightiest military force might possibly assist the current administration in pleasing its base domestically, but to the outside world, it invokes images of lunacy, weakness, and senility. It should come as no surprise that Putin did not see the United States as a current deterrent for his actions. Notice how he had no problem with current NATO bases along his borders, but rather the future expansion of the pact, which could only come to be with a more teeth-baring administration. Only then would it create a real security concern for Russia.
Finally, the state of the global economy cannot be discounted in Putin’s calculations. It continues to suffer from the effects of the pandemic. One of its most notable effects is the increase in energy prices and the pressure this puts on the supply chain, eventually trickling down to costs consumers incur. Decision-makers in Moscow certainly banked on Europe’s fear for its energy security, a replay of the annexation of the Crimea scenario. In the not-so-distant past, international observers reasonably assumed that, given the cost, the West did not deem Ukraine worth opposing Russia over.
Without an international context that made him feel comfortable enough to take such drastic action, the Russian strongman would have certainly opted for a more pragmatic and cost-effective path. Sadly, at this point, the only thing that remains to be seen is how this conflict can come to an end with the lowest possible human cost.