Close listeners to The Editors will know that I’ve gone back and forth on the question of whether Russia will actually stage a large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
At this point, I’m still unsure, but leaning toward Russia climbing down. Why?
Russia has already racked up some serious wins with these exercise:
- He’s gotten many Western political figures to show their cards, and the cards say that Ukraine will not be a member of NATO any time soon. He has effectively demonstrated to NATO what moving the NATO–Russia conflict so far to the east could look like. Russia’s geography gives it a major conventional military advantage here.
- He’s highlighted doubts and fissures in the NATO alliance, whether they are between Germany and Poland, or Germany and France, or Germany and the United States. A war that genuinely sends Ukrainian refugees scrambling West would risk reuniting the NATO band.
- The pressure on Ukraine and the freakout from the West — including the evacuation of diplomatic personnel and Western nationals — has accompanied and accelerated capital flight from Ukraine, wrecking havoc on the nation’s economy. This collapse makes it easier for oligarchs and firms connected to the Kremlin to come in and either scoop up assets themselves, or make themselves useful in rebuilding the Ukrainian economy. That will have downstream political consequences.
- He has won the privilege of high-level talks with other world leaders.
It’s also possible that President Biden, German chancellor Olaf Sholz, and French president Emmanuel Macron will offer some other deal-sweetener to get Russia to further back off and end this crisis. Perhaps expansion of existing energy deals, a longer-term relaxation of sanctions, or a slow rebuilding of diplomatic relations after the last few years of mutual expulsions.
Conducting war is financially costly and politically perilous. An annexation of the Donbas region may solidify Russia’s grasp of the lands leading toward their Sevastopol naval base. But it would leave the remaining Ukrainian state as one more solidly antagonistic toward Russia — both out of its sense of injury and in the fact that its more pro-Russian regions would not need to be mollified. War would also involve Russians killing lots of Ukrainians, or being killed by them. Putin is not entirely wrong to see Russians and Ukrainians as having a kind of historical kinship, and it is precisely this kinship which would make bloodletting between them look fratricidal and difficult for the Russian public to accept.
A more aggressive action — an attempt at full regime change — risks the dissolution of the entire Ukrainian nation which is already under severe economic and demographic pressure. Millions of Ukrainians have left Ukraine in the last decade. A war for regime survival would make whatever remains in Ukraine worth less to control for a great long time. Those are costs I don’t think Putin or the Russian state can easily carry or absorb.
And I see as I am writing this that Ukraine is reporting that Russian troops are being moved away from the border.