Ukraine-Russia tensions: Why concerns of a Russian invasion are high
Tens of thousands of Russian troops are at the Ukraine border, leading to fears of an invasion. Here’s what we know.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – Steven Pifer has a vivid recollection of his conversation with Russia’s deputy foreign minister after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Pointing to his head, the Russian official said he understood that Ukraine was now an independent country. Pointing to his heart, the official said it would take a while to get used to that reality.
Pifer, who was ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, sees echoes of that sentiment in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats against Ukraine, with one big difference.
“I don’t think Vladimir Putin has ever reconciled himself to that,” Pifer said of the loss of Ukraine, which has sought to align itself with the West since declaring independence from the Soviet Union.
With more than 100,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border, Putin’s threatened invasion of Russia’s neighbor goes beyond nostalgia.
It’s also about bolstering Putin’s standing on the world stage – and inside Russia. It’s about testing the United States and dividing Europe. It’s about protecting Russia’s sphere of influence and staving off perceived security threats.
Putin’s next move is fraught with risk – for himself and for the rest of the world.
The brinkmanship is “probably the most sensitive and dangerous crisis we’ve gone through in Europe since the end of the Cold War,” said Russian expert George Beebe, director of studies at the Center for the National Interest.
Here’s a look at the dynamics motivating Putin, a former KGB officer who has jailed his opponents and cemented his grip on the Kremlin.
Putin ‘won’t stop’ with Ukraine: Why Americans should care about Russia’s aggression against its neighbor
Boosting Putin’s world stature
President Joe Biden has surmised that Putin seeks to regain the stature Russia lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“He is trying to find his place in the world between China and the West,” Biden said in his Jan. 19 news conference, his most extensive remarks about the standoff.
As the United States increasingly focuses on China as its top rival, Putin is eager to show Russia is still one of the world’s biggest players, experts say.
“The core driver of much of this, the background to this crisis, is that he wants the West to treat Russia as if it were the Soviet Union, that is to say, a great power to be respected and to be feared,” said Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia.
Alexandra Vacroux, executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, said that Russians do not feel they’ve been taken seriously since the end of the Cold War and that “enough is enough.”
“They have everybody’s attention now,” she said. “I think they’re not necessarily interested in owning Ukraine, but they are interested in being taken seriously as kind of the big power on the European continent.”
Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees the moves on Ukraine as an extension of Russia’s power plays in recent years that have included seizing Crimea, establishing a large footprint in Syria and building a naval base in Sudan.
“There has definitely been an expansion of Russian power and influence in a range of countries,” he said. “They don’t have the economic might of the Chinese or certainly the U.S., but they’re back as a major power.”
Keeping spheres of influence
Russia has always seen the ring of countries around it, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, as a buffer zone between Russia and countries that might invade, Vacroux said.
“Russia has a history of being invaded and feeling encircled by enemies,” she said. “And so one of the arguments (for Russia’s actions) is that Putin is basically reestablishing a kind of buffer between Russia and its enemies.”
Putin is not trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union, according to George Breslauer, a veteran Russian scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. But he is asserting that independent states in Russia’s neighborhood cannot be turned against Moscow because that poses an unacceptable security threat.
He also wants those buffer countries to be friendly to Russia and Russian businesses interests, and to defer to Moscow on major geopolitical decisions, said Pifer, a William Perry fellow at Stanford University.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost essentially almost all of its sphere of influence,” Jones said. The Baltic states became members of NATO, as did members of the Warsaw Pact collective defense treaty.
Russia has long complained that NATO and the U.S. promised at the end of the Cold War that their security alliance would not extend beyond the borders of the former East Germany, Vacroux said.
“So I think Putin sees this as one of the last things that he hasn’t fixed about the 1990s, which is pushing NATO back from Russia’s border,” she said.
Russia’s demands include blocking Ukraine from joining NATO. Putin also wants to keep NATO missiles from being in striking distance and stop the alliance from deploying forces in former Soviet bloc countries that joined NATO after 1997.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Putin’s top goal is not putting the Soviet Union back together but destroying NATO and the transatlantic alliance.
“I think that’s really important to understand as we decide how to react to his threatened invasion,” Murphy said. “Because if NATO splits up over our response to the threatened invasion, that is a big win for Putin.”
Boosting Putin’s domestic popularity
Russia’s unstable economy means Putin must look elsewhere to remain popular at home, according to M. Steven Fish, an expert on authoritarianism at the University of California, Berkley. Fish notes that Putin’s stock was highest after he annexed Crimea and took over parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Thomas Pickering, who was ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996, called Putin’s domestic political calculations a significant factor in his recent actions.
“Much of what he has propounded, either in red lines or charges against the U.S. and the West, is something which can appeal to the nationalism that has always been present in Russia,” Pickering said. “While he goes up and down in public popularity, a certain amount of this activity, on his part, is orchestrated, I think, at critical times for him to reinforce it.”
Taking advantage of a ‘weakened’ U.S.
Putin may also be trying to take advantage of Biden’s domestic troubles.
“I think the Russians also have sensed, whether rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. is weak right now after the withdrawal from Afghanistan (and) political polarization in the U.S.,” Jones said. “I think from Putin’s perspective, this is about as good a time as any to make a move in Ukraine.”
Fiona Hill, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia, said Putin is trying to give the U.S. “a taste of the same bitter medicine Russia had to swallow in the 1990s” when it was in a weakened position at home and in retreat abroad.
“All Moscow’s moves are directed against Washington,” Hill wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times.
Murphy, however, rejects the idea that Putin’s timing is connected to a calculation that the Biden administration will have difficulty responding. Former President Donald Trump, Murphy said, was always “bending knee” to Putin.
“If Putin was making his decision on when to invade Ukraine based upon the most likely time for a weak response from the U.S. government,” Murphy said, “he would have invaded during the Trump administration.”
What are Joe Biden’s options in Ukraine?: That all depends on Putin’s next move.
Putin sees Ukraine as part of Russia
Now to the nostalgia factor.
In Russian, Ukraine is called “Malorossiya” – or “small Russia.”
The history and culture of Russia and Ukraine are “thoroughly intertwined,” according to Pifer.
“This actually goes back 1,000 years,” he said.
Putin elaborated on his often-repeated assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” in a lengthy essay the Kremlin posted in Russian, Ukrainian and English in July.
“I said that Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole,” Putin wrote. “These words were not driven by some short-term considerations or prompted by the current political context. It is what I have said on numerous occasions and what I firmly believe.”
The fact that Putin made the essay compulsory reading for the Russian military, including the soldiers lining up on Ukraine’s border, means it’s “pretty serious,” said Jones, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It is designed, in part, not just to influence external audiences,” Jones said, “but also internal ones that may fight and die in Ukraine for the Russian cause.”
Ukraine has been moving further and further away from Russia over the past eight years – much to Putin’s consternation, according to Murphy.
“And everything short of a full-scale invasion that Putin has tried, in order to win back Ukraine to the Russian orbit, hasn’t worked,” the senator said.
Visual explainer: How US and its allies could respond to Russian invasion of Ukraine
Putin’s moves come with huge risks.
If he sends 100,000 troops into Ukraine, they will need extremely long supply lines that will be hard to support, Vacroux said.
“It’s possible that … it’s not a quick operation and then they’re bogged down in Ukraine, and that’s just going to be a huge mess,” she said. “It’s especially messy if Ukraine gets more than supportive words and defensive weapons from NATO, and from the United States, which is all they’ve gotten so far.”
Biden has threatened severe sanctions intended to seriously damage Russia’s economy should Putin attack. And the U.S. president said he was considering personal sanctions targeting the Russian leader’s own pocketbook as well.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, in terms of sanctions on Russia, I think we’re at about a 3 now,” Pifer said. “So they could ratchet it up.”
And some Russian parents are expressing concerns on social media about their sons being sent to fight, and possibly die, in Ukraine, said Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of NATO who is now at Stanford University.
In Ukraine, by contrast, one recent poll showed a third of the country saying they would be willing to take up arms if Russia invaded. So even though Russia has much greater military might, they could take heavier casualties than anticipated.
“I can see Putin’s ideal scenario, but I can also see that it goes badly for him,” Pifer said.
And Putin’s fears about NATO encroachment could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any invasion of Ukraine would be met with a buildup of NATO forces along the Russian border, Jones said.
On the other hand, if NATO’s response isn’t forceful and if China helps Russia get around sanctions, Putin may be able to annex at least a large portion of Ukraine.
That, Jones said, would send a very clear message to any country in Eastern Europe or Central Asia “that this is what happens if you even think about joining” NATO.
Maureen Groppe has covered Washington for nearly three decades and is now a White House correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @mgroppe.