Putin has loaded the gun. But will the trigger also be pulled? The West cannot know for sure what is intended. The Ukraine crisis is a kind of quantum politics. Every observation also affects the reality. This is the time to signal as concrete as possible. In the past sanctions too often have been an instrument retrospectively, argues Mark Galeotti, rather than of pre-emptive deterrence.
Putin in videomeeting with national Security Council, 2021 December 17th. Photo Kremlin.
Europe is under a shadow not experienced since the end of the Cold War, the prospect of a true and bloody ‘hot war’ that is in orders of magnitude greater than the current low-intensity conflict along the Donbas line of conflict. What makes the crisis especially intractable is that no one outside Putin’s innermost circle truly knows what he intends and how far he is willing to go, which means that everyone is free to interpret the situation as they see fit. In part, this is likely because he himself probably has made no final decision.
This is clearly a serious build-up of forces, of which the first stage was this spring’s war scare. It has been carefully planned and the ‘teeth’ of the combat forces are backed up with a greater necessary ‘tail’ of logistical support than in the past. It represents a substantial economic commitment but also a political one. At the very least, we can say that Putin ordered his military to create a force capable of full-scale invasion and from that we may conclude that he considers this a possible option. But beyond that?
Absent any chance to know for sure, in many ways Western debate – in which there is a regrettable premium on expressing certainty, and any number of pundits appear sure they know what Putin is thinking – has become some Rorschach inkblot test, in which the analytic frame or ideological conviction through which one approaches the challenge in many ways seems to dictate the answer.
There are those who see Putin as some kind of ethno-fascist (not least on the basis of his historically-dubious recent essay that asserted the world was witnessing ‘the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia’). They assume he is committed to the destruction of the Ukrainian nation, for whom it is inevitable that Russia will launch a devastating attack.
Others assume that every potential overseas adventure is an opportunity for the Kremlin to distract its population from their day-to-day discontents and generate a ‘rally round the flag’ surge of enthusiasm for Putin. Of course, this fails to appreciate the extent to which there seems little real evidence of popular support for foreign adventures, let alone ones which lead to casualties and hardships. Russian propaganda has been hyping and mythologising the deployment to Syria for years, for instance, yet to little avail. Most Russians may believe Kyiv and NATO at fault in the current escalation, but that does not translate into a willingness to shoulder additional burdens.
Then, as if capability really can signal final intent, there are hard-nosed military analysts who believe that the scale of the current build-up is in itself proof not simply that Putin may invade (again) but that he will. There certainly is a certain momentum that major decisions generate, a sense that having mustered such a force, it would look weak not to unleash it, but he is still going to make any final decision only when it happens.
Finally, there is the argument that the demands Russia is now putting forward – not just, in effect, Ukraine’s enforced neutrality and federalisation, but also a halt to any NATO expansion and a revision of Europe’s whole security architecture – are so ambitious as to preclude any compromise. Working in a political or psycho-political frame that assumes Putin cannot accept anything that doesn’t look like a victory, and that he must know that the West cannot give him even an approximation of what he wants, the suspicion becomes that this is not a real basis for negotiation, but a pretext for war.
Then again, the costs of any escalation – military, economic, diplomatic and political – are going to be immense. The Russians may be envisaging a quick blitzkrieg to try and impose some kind of surrender terms on Kyiv and a withdrawal, without getting bogged down in street-to-street fighting in the cities of a lengthy, vicious counter-insurgency in occupied territories. However, one would hope that they remember Helmuth von Moltke’s dictum that “no war plan extends beyond the first military engagement with the hostile main forces” – their own experiences in Afghanistan and Chechnya attest to this – and also that Kyiv may be disinclined to surrender.
As a result, those who are sure we can apply common sense to Kremlin calculations presume it is just coercive ‘heavy metal diplomacy.’ The trouble is that what may seem sensible to the old men in the Kremlin may be rather different from our own assumptions. They may truly believe that, without dramatic action now, Ukraine will become some kind of NATO forward base. Or that the West will be unable or unwilling to carry through its threats of ‘unprecedented’ US, UK and EU sanctions. In those circumstances, invasion might seem ‘sensible’ to the same men who felt it worth backing Lukashenko and Assad, hacking the US elections and poisoning Navalny.
For example, back in 2014, I was wrong to presume that Moscow would not take Crimea for this very reason, it didn’t seem ‘sensible.’ Indeed, it didn’t – by Putin’s earlier thinking. Instead, it demonstrated how Putin’s paradigm had shifted, and that his notions of what was ‘sensible’ by then had changed, in light of, in his eyes, the Western-instigated ‘coup in Ukraine. Putin can be at once a rational actor and yet, if working from questionable assumptions and faulty intelligence, capable of deeply self-destructive moves.
What is to be done?
Does this mean we allow ourselves to be paralysed by our inability to know for sure what he plans? Not at all, because this is quantum politics, in which observation also affects the reality.
On the one hand, we have to have analytic humility and appreciate that we cannot know for sure what is intended. Putin has escalated the Ukraine crisis, and then escalated it yet further with his wider demands about NATO into a full Euro-Atlantic security issue. He could be determined that this is his last chance to salvage Russia’s place in the world (or his historical reputation), or he could be trying his luck and will take what he can get. We have to work from the whole range of potential scenarios.
More to the point, Putin can change his mind. Loading a gun, even with the intent to fire, does not necessarily guarantee that the trigger is pulled. But what may seem like a worthwhile possibility in February and a good bet in November, may look foolhardy in January.
This is, perversely, is one of the benefits of Russia being an essentially personalised autocracy. Putin is much less constrained by his political context. No general, parliament or supreme court is going to keep him from a war he is determined to prosecute – or prevent him from avoiding one. And whatever he does, the Russian official media will fete him, whether as peacemaker or warlord.
Thus, really this is the time to do what we can to influence his cost-benefit analysis. To signal in as concrete a way as possible, the likely outcomes, not least as too often in the past sanctions have been an instrument retrospectively to show out disapproval, rather than of pre-emptive deterrence.
Meanwhile, it is also worth recognising that Russia does have some genuine security concerns and historical grudges, and even if they are overblown or imagined, it is important for the country to feel it is heard.
Finally, there may even be some ways of helping Putin find an ‘off ramp’ – moves which do not in any proportionate way seem to reward aggression, but which might address specific and legitimate concerns.
And you know what? All these are being done. Considering the current crisis has become something of a case study in how the decision-making processes in essentially untransparent ‘black box’ political regimes are interpreted and interpolated by outsiders. However, discussing it has also become a case study in how the modern commentariat addresses policy debates.
The press, social media and the blogosphere alike are full of recommendations, exhortations and condemnations. However, for now, what needs to be done, and what can be done within the limits of the politically plausible, is being done. And that’s quite encouraging