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Robert Gates: Putin has overplayed his hand on Ukraine

The writer was US Director of Central Intelligence (1991-93) and Secretary of Defense (2006-11)

Europe and the US wait anxiously to see if Russian president Vladimir Putin will give the order to invade Ukraine. For years, western statesmen and commentators have puzzled over what makes Putin tick.

After Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, then US secretary of state John Kerry complained: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in the 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” Others have called Putin’s aggressive policies “inexplicable” and bound to lead to a “quagmire”. Yet, here we are in early 2022 waiting for Putin to call the shot.

I believe his actions, however deplorable, are understandable. Almost everything Putin does at home and abroad is rooted in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which for him marked the collapse of the four-century-old Russian empire and Russia’s position as a great power.

Internally, the Soviet collapse and subsequent period of “reform” led to chaos, lawlessness, poverty and a dramatic weakening of the central government at the hands of both oligarchs and regional authorities. Since becoming president in 1999, Putin’s objectives have been straightforward: to restore and expand central government authority (not to mention enhancing his personal dominance and wealth), and to return Russia to its historical role as a major power. In short, authoritarianism at home and aggression abroad.

The restoration of Russia’s role as a great power began with a return to its historical policy of creating a buffer of subservient states on the periphery — the so-called near abroad. Putin’s embrace of this strategy of securing the near abroad is seen in his actions in Belarus, Moldova, Transnistria, Georgia, the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Kazakhstan and, most dramatically, Ukraine.

He has no desire to recreate the Soviet Union — he does not want to be responsible for the problems of former Soviet republics. What Putin wants is subservience, and for those now-independent states to bend the knee to Moscow — and to be a bulwark against the west and democracy.

Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski observed that without Ukraine, there can be no Russian empire. Putin fears a Ukraine that is economically and politically orientated towards the west with an ever-closer security relationship with the US and other members of Nato — even if it is not a member of the alliance. He regards that as a critical security risk and, just as bad, an alternative economic and political model likely to be increasingly attractive to Russians — a dagger pointed at the heart of Russia.

Putin seems determined, therefore, to take whatever measures he deems necessary either to destabilise and bring down the current western-orientated government of Ukraine or to try to seize the country by military force.

Putin’s restoration of Russia as a great power has also involved significantly strengthening the country’s military capabilities, as well as pursuing an aggressive foreign policy, especially in the Middle East and Africa. He sees the US as the primary enemy and is determined to do whatever he can to exacerbate American tensions at home, disrupt relationships with our allies even as he interferes in their internal affairs, and weaken the US position internationally. In these endeavours, he has enjoyed an increasingly close partnership and commonality of purpose with the Chinese.

Because of Russia’s stunted economy, demographic challenges and other weaknesses at home, Putin has dealt himself a poor hand — but until now he has played it rather skilfully. He has received a great deal of unintended help from the US. Our domestic divisions and near-paralysis in Congress, our perceived withdrawal from the Middle East and, more broadly, from our six-decade-long global leadership role, and ignominious scuttling out of Afghanistan — together these have led many countries to hedge their bets and develop closer economic, political and security ties with both Russia and China.

Putin’s problem is that, as dictators are wont to do, he has overplayed his hand. His aggressive threats against Ukraine have galvanised Nato and reaffirmed its clarity of purpose. His menacing policies have made Ukrainians even more anti-Russian and driven the country further into the arms of the west. Any Russian military action will result in Ukrainian resistance as well as larger Nato military deployments on Russia’s western border, potential suspension of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and painful economic sanctions.

Moscow has deployed some 100,000 troops to the borders of Ukraine. What now? Putin finds himself in a situation where Russian success is defined as either a change of government in Kyiv (with the successor aligned with Moscow) or conquest of the country. The 18th-century French diplomat Talleyrand is meant to have said: “You can do anything you like with bayonets except sit on them.” Putin must use those troops soon or face the humiliation of withdrawing them without achieving anything except pushing Ukraine closer to the west. In either case, he has placed himself in a difficult position at home and abroad. The US and its allies must do what they can to exacerbate his difficulties.

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