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Op-ed: What was Putin thinking?

Op-ed: What was Putin thinking?
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during their bilateral meeting focused on Syria and Ukraine at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 24, 2016. (Photo: State Department)

Vladimir Putin has been called many things over the years, most of it unflattering, but the Russian strongman has rarely been described as dumb. Ukraine appears to have changed that.

Putin’s decision to invade a sovereign country to reconstitute some sort of sphere of influence has been a stunning blow to the post-World War II rules-based international order. It was also strategically stupid.

Looking at it from the cold hard logic of a foreign policy realist lens, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine doesn’t make much sense. What some observers, myself included, thought he might do is a Crimea 2.0.

Assuming the West didn’t appease his demands to shut Ukraine out of NATO and significantly reduce the security bloc’s footprints on Russia’s borders — all nonstarters — I thought Putin would take the path of least resistance. That’s precisely what it looked he was doing when he anointed the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk in the separatist-claimed eastern territory of Donbas.

From there, his next steps seemed clear: Expand outward from the areas held by Russian-backed rebels to seize a larger chunk of Donbas. This of course would’ve involved fighting Ukrainian troops, but on a battleground that’s already been laid out since 2014 — as opposed to taking on an entire country.

Eventually, if Putin captured a larger swath of the east, he would settle into yet another Georgian-style frozen conflict and weather whatever sanctions the West threw his way, perhaps assuming they’d be akin to what was slapped on him when he invaded Crimea.

Then, it’s not hard to envision Putin’s long-term strategy: After the uproar settled and Russia’s economy stabilized, he might’ve launched another incursion to unite the rebel-held territory in the east with Crimea by grabbing the slice of land along the Sea of Azov, possibly extending all the way to Odessa, creating a sizeable security zone in the south. It wouldn’t have been the size he wanted — an entire country — but it would’ve given Putin the buffer he’s long sought against NATO expansion.

In the meantime, he would’ve undoubtedly continued his efforts to steer Ukraine away from the West through economic pressure, cyber attacks and other tactics.

This type of “minor” incursion — as President Joe Biden accidentally hinted at — would’ve been costly for Russia, but well worth it in terms of the endgame.

Gaming out these kinds of realpolitik scenarios is admittedly a heartless exercise: It omits the casualties, destruction and moral repugnancy that come with trying to steal part of a country. And perhaps that’s why Putin’s brazen assault is, despite all the signs it was going to happen, still somewhat shocking.

Yes, Russia has long had legitimate security concerns about NATO expansion along its borders — and the U.S. and EU only seemed to listen to those concerns when Putin threatened war.

But I suspect I’m not the only one who couldn’t imagine that even a macho authoritarian like Putin would have such a wanton disregard for the consequences of an invasion, including the possibility of triggering a third World War.

The Ukrainian Embassy in D.C. released this photo of a purported Russian airstrike in the city of Zhytomyr on March 1 that it says damaged 10 homes and killed at least two people. (Photo: Embassy of Ukraine)

The Biden administration clearly grasped the possibility and spent months sounding the alarm despite the risk of being the boy who cried wolf.

The White House even took the unusual step of revealing intelligence that detailed Putin’s plans to undercut his ability to spread misinformation and throw him off balance.

Ultimately, though, the Russian president did exactly what Biden warned he was planning to do all along: a full-scale invasion.

Obviously no one other than Putin knows what he’s thinking, but it’s safe to assume he didn’t expect his plans to backfire so spectacularly.

To the surprise of many, Ukrainians have put up a valiant fight against Moscow’s onslaught. Their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian dismissed as a joke just days before Putin invaded, has become an international hero.

This resistance, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, is not only a testament to the Ukrainian people, it has also exposed serious shortcomings in Moscow’s military — weaknesses other nations will study for years to come.

Russia, however, still has military superiority and will likely topple the Ukrainian government, or raze cities to the ground trying. Zelensky may not make it out alive. But now there’s almost zero chance that a puppet regime installed by Moscow will be accepted by the Ukrainian people, or that a Russian occupation won’t be met with a fierce insurgency designed to drain the fight out of Moscow.

Putin will not be able to hold the country without the kind of bloodshed that will turn Russians’ stomachs — and may finally turn them against their president.

Again, it’s surprising that Putin of all people underestimated the slippery slope of occupation after seeing what happened in Afghanistan, first to the Soviets and then to the Americans.

Fiona Hill, one of the country’s top Russia experts, suggested to POLITICO Magazine that Putin doesn’t necessarily want to occupy the country, but divide it: “He’s looked at Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other places where there’s a division of the country between the officially sanctioned forces on the one hand, and the rebel forces on the other. That’s something that Putin could definitely live with — a fractured, shattered Ukraine with different bits being in different statuses.”

But that’s predicated on the notion that there are competing rebel forces to begin with. Ukraine is not Libya. It only has Moscow-backed separatists in the east, and they don’t have enough local support to sustain a wide-scale war without Russian troops.

For years, Russia did enjoy support among Ukrainians who weren’t pro-EU. Perhaps that’s why Putin thought invading Ukraine would be a cakewalk. But he squandered any goodwill he may have had and today Ukrainians are more united than ever.

Putin’s also managed to do in a week what his opponents couldn’t do for years: He’s become a global pariah who resuscitated NATO, got its members to start taking their own defense more seriously and restored America’s global standing.

Neutral Finland and Sweden have floated the idea of joining NATO. Tax-lax Switzerland is freezing Russian assets. Spendthrift Germany bumped its defense spending by $100 billion and for the first time since World War II is exporting arms to a conflict zone. The EU has banned Russian planes from its airspace. Even Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Putin’s illiberal compatriot, isn’t coming to his aid.

This united trans-Atlantic front is a vindication of Biden’s quiet diplomacy and his efforts to rebuild U.S.-EU ties after the Trump era.

Despite incessant calls in Congress to sanction the Nordstream II pipeline, Biden avoided alienating Germany, his most important EU ally, which eventually decided to shutter the gas pipeline on its own. He also ignored Republican calls to pre-emptively sanction Putin, giving the Europeans breathing room to sign off on punishing sanctions they may not have otherwise agreed to.

Today, there’s rare bipartisan unity on the Hill to flood Ukraine with military and humanitarian assistance, giving Biden a much-needed political boost while laying bare fractures within the GOP between establishment hawks and America First Trumpers like Sen. Josh Hawley (not to mention Trump himself, whose praise of Putin as “genius” made even his staunchest acolytes on the Hill cringe).

Biden, who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years, is a Cold War-era Atlanticist. He’s in his element.

Perhaps because of that Cold War background, Biden has wisely ruled out putting U.S. troops in Ukraine — which would trigger a confrontation between the world’s two biggest nuclear-armed powers — while vowing to defend every inch of NATO territory. By acknowledging that America will only fight where her strategic interests are at stake, Biden has exhibited both muscle and restraint.

But he has not held back in unleashing the full force of America’s economic might with a barrage of sanctions unlike any the world has ever seen.

And unlike in 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea, the White House has deftly cut off Russia’s access to the global financial system, preventing Putin from tapping into the $640 billion in foreign reserves he’d amassed to cushion Russia from future Western sanctions.

The sanctions have already taken a toll. Long-term, they could strangle Russia’s economy, alienating both the public — which largely tolerated Putin because he raised standards of living — and the oligarchs who form the backbone of Putin’s kleptocracy.

The West’s financial assault could be the death knell that finally brings down a dictator.

Yet as easy as it is to demonize Putin, it’s still important to consider his motivations. It may seem loathsome to admit given what he’s doing to Ukraine, but Putin had a point about NATO overreach.

You don’t need to be a foreign policy genius to understand that countries don’t want enemies at their gate. If a Russian-style security alliance had set up shop in Mexico or conducted naval exercises right off Norfolk, do we really think the United States would’ve looked the other way?

So why would we think Putin would be OK with the U.S. building a highly sensitive military installation in Poland that’s ostensibly aimed at thwarting missiles from Iran (more than 2,200 miles away) but whose own missiles are located less than 100 miles from the Russian border?

It was President George W. Bush who directed the Pentagon to build anti-Iran missile defense systems in Europe. It was also Bush — not exactly known for his stellar foreign policy decision-making — who in 2008 declared that Ukraine and Georgia should join NATO, trampling all over Putin’s red lines. It was a needless provocation because many members questioned the wisdom of admitting the two former Soviet states and their chances of joining were almost nil.

Since then, the U.S. and EU have ignored Putin’s repeated warnings about NATO’s eastward expansion, which are rooted in Russia’s long history of being invaded by adversaries.

That said, while Putin loves to talk about historical grievances, he doesn’t pay much attention to historical accuracy.

He laments losing Poland and the Baltics, as if they were his to give away.

The situation in Ukraine is far more complex because it is historically and culturally intertwined with Russia.

In a 5,000-word treatise published in July, Putin declared that Ukraine and Russia are one country.

That probably came as a surprise to Ukrainians who have enjoyed 30 years of independence.

Putin also seems to forget that history is constantly in motion. What happened 1,000 years doesn’t exactly dictate national borders today. And the Soviet Union did not “allow” countries to exist. Communism collapsed, countries broke away and formed their own future.

Yet Putin has fully embraced his revanchist delusions of restoring Russia’s imperialist glory, displaying rare emotion on the subject of Ukraine and the West’s humiliation of Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps these emotions clouded his judgment when he decided to start a war. Now the question is whether they will they lead him to start something even more catastrophic.

Putin has already put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert. Boasting about the country’s nuclear arsenal is not uncommon in Russian rhetoric, but it takes on a much more ominous tone in the midst of actual war.

Putin didn’t get the concessions he demanded before he invaded Ukraine. Now, he’s not getting the invasion he bargained for. Instead, he’s staring down a military quagmire and a tightening economic noose.

But the West shouldn’t relish Putin’s humiliation. A cornered animal is a dangerous one. Putin needs a face-saving off-ramp.

Yet it’s hard to see what the U.S. and EU could even offer him at this point. Some sort of neutral status for Ukraine? President Zelensky said he was willing to discuss it, but the more Russia bombs Ukrainian cities, the less its people will be willing to accept anything less than full control of their own destiny. Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem like Putin will accept anything short of total surrender.

That’s a recipe for a long, bloody and brutal conflict — the kind where no one wins.

Anna Gawel is editor-at-large of The Washington Diplomat.