Barely had talks ended between Russian and western delegates last week before what one US official called the “drumbeat of war” began to resound. Ukraine was hit by a cyber attack paralysing at least 10 government websites. Though the attack has not been definitively tied to Moscow, the US warned it saw signs of Russian actors preparing “false flag” operations in Ukraine that could be used to justify a Russian intervention. Europe faces the real prospect of escalation, ranging from semi-covert and hybrid efforts by Moscow to destabilise Ukraine to all-out invasion.
It would be hard then to avoid the conclusion that Vladimir Putin set up last week’s talks to fail, as a pretext for armed intervention he was bent on launching all along. The Kremlin will have known its hopes of a “Yalta”-style carve-up of Europe into zones of interest were futile. The US and Nato could never agree to rule out expansion of the alliance. But it was a significant concession for the US and its allies to engage at all over Russia’s security “concerns”. President Joe Biden has braved criticism for being prepared to talk to an aggressor who had already invaded and annexed part of a neighbouring country and was poised to attack again.
Washington, moreover, engaged in good faith. The US offered potential areas for compromise including arms control, limits on military exercises, and re-establishing military communications channels. Progress on these could have helped to rebuild mutual confidence and pave the way for talks on trickier areas of discord.
Some western officials fear that a Russian president who once weighed risks with care has become ever more deluded, heeding only a narrow circle who feed his prejudices. Putin’s personalised rule lacks the checks and balances even of the late Soviet period. Appeals to reason may, then, be futile.
Yet renewed military action against Ukraine would be a riskier step than any Putin has taken in 22 years as Russia’s paramount leader. It would trigger western sanctions that could do much greater damage than those imposed after Russia annexed Crimea and fomented the Donbas conflict in 2014. The president is under pressure at home after years of falling real incomes. While the Kremlin may feel it has successfully withstood punitive US and EU measures in recent years, these have constrained growth and sorely needed foreign investment.
Putin may believe, too, that he can repeat his “small war” of 2014, when he complicated Ukraine’s hopes of western integration, seized territory, and sent his poll ratings soaring — at what the Kremlin saw as an acceptable cost. Even today, Ukraine’s now much better trained and equipped army may be no match for the air power and heavy weaponry Russia could deploy. The lesson of eight years ago, however, was that even Ukraine’s Russophone easternmost regions did not fall easily into Russia’s lap. Ukrainians further west would mount an even more fierce and dogged resistance. The narrative of Russian body bags coming home from a Slavic “brother” nation, on top of an economic hit, could become difficult for the Kremlin to control.
Above all, Russia’s aggression in 2014 did more to cement a Ukrainian sense of identity and sovereignty than any event since the second world war. It swung a previously sceptical majority in favour of joining Nato. New interference by Russia would entrench Ukrainian anger for generations. There may, sadly, be no one left in Moscow able to tell this to Russia’s president. Rather than going down in history as a modern-day “gatherer of Russian lands”, however, Putin might instead go down as the leader who finally lost Ukraine.