Putin on the Brink… of What, Exactly?

Russia, Belarus joint military drill
Photo by Stringer/Anadolu via Getty
Julia Ioffe
February 15, 2022

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Russia is about to invade Ukraine.

We’re now in the second month of talking about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine that has, thankfully, not yet materialized. And while two months is not even a blink in the time frame of history, it feels like an eternity in our world of 24-hour news cycles. This particular round began on Friday afternoon with a tweet from PBS NewsHour’s foreign policy correspondent, Nick Schifrin: “NEW: The US believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and has communicated that decision to the Russian military, three Western and defense officials tell me.” A follow-up stated: “The US expects the invasion to begin next week, six US and Western officials tell me, as Secretary of State Antony @SecBlinken said last night.” 

As you can imagine, a well-known reporter from such an august outlet reporting something so definitive and stark—yet another tweet warned of unfathomable bloodshed—had the effect of pouring a cup of water on a bucket of Pop Rocks. As Schifrin’s tweet ricocheted wildly around the geopolitical Twitterverse, the rest of us reporting on the Ukrainian crisis raced to confirm the story. I texted one administration official, who texted back another tweet from Schifrin, who was, by this point, live tweeting a press conference by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan addressing this very issue. The tweet, sent to me by this administration source who had first-hand knowledge of what the hell was going on, said: “.@jakejsullivan: ‘We are not saying that a decision has been taken, a final decision has been taken by Putin.’” 

Then my phone rang. It was a diplomatic source here in Washington who was calling me in response to my frantic text message that was basically Schifrin’s original tweet and “?!” The source, who works at a European embassy here, said their government had been briefed about this assessment—the underlying information at the core of it had come from U.S. intelligence that this source hadn’t seen—but the source emphasized that, while a military invasion “next week” (which is now this week) was very likely, it was “still reversible.” “The Russians could still wake up over the weekend and decide, nah,” the source said. 

Meanwhile, Sullivan was still holding his presser, warning that, given all the Russian military movement U.S. intelligence had observed, there was a “very distinct possibility” that Russia would invade “on a very swift timeframe.” But he stopped short—pretty far short—of what Schifrin reported. “We continue to see signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border,” Sullivan said. “As we’ve said before, we are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time should Vladimir Putin decide to order it.” 

Should Putin decide to order it. Sullivan also said, “It is clear to us that there is a very distinct possibility that Russia will choose to act militarily and there is reason to believe that could happen on a reasonably swift timeframe… Now, we can’t pinpoint the day at this point, and we can’t pinpoint the hour, but what we can say is that there is a credible prospect that a Russian military action would take place, even before the end of the Olympics.”

Soon, I heard back from a second administration source who was also very close to the situation. This person told me that Schifrin’s reporting was, quite simply, “wrong.” When I asked Schifrin for comment, he referred me to a NewsHour spokesperson, who pointed me to both Schifrin’s segment from Friday evening, which included Sullivan’s denial and the ambiguity it introduced, as well as a Wall Street Journal report that Biden had told European leaders Putin had made a decision. Perhaps Biden had misspoken on that call, or his administration was willing to be specific with NATO allies in a way it didn’t want to be with the public.

None of this nuance mattered, though, because by now, the media had spun itself into a tizzy, with some even reporting a specific date—Wednesday, February 16—for the invasion. Suddenly my calendar, which had gradually emptied as cable news producers canceled my planned television appearances as the crisis faded from America’s national attention last week, was again bristling with CNN and MSNBC hits. The cable news machine is always hungry and this was exactly the kind of white-knuckle, nerve-crackling content it loves most—especially now that Donald Trump’s not around to feed it. 

In the meantime, people I spoke to in Russia, as well as journalists who had covered Russia for decades, were scratching their heads. Andrey Sushentsov, the Moscow foreign policy insider I interviewed last week, told me that he too was puzzled by the news, because the fundamentals of the situation hadn’t changed. “What if it’s yet another intelligence failure?” he asked. “I’m sticking to my previous opinion that, without a military attempt [by Kyiv] to retake the Donbas, Russia won’t intervene.” The Russian government itself accused the “Anglo-Saxons” of “hysteria.” For once, I didn’t disagree. 

Blurred “Red Lines”

So what, exactly, is going on? A few thoughts. 

First of all, I think that, for all the administration’s careful wording and anonymous walk-backs, this is exactly what they wanted the media to do. Tweet or not, Sullivan had been scheduled to give that Friday press conference on Ukraine and what he said would have still sent the American media into a panic even if Schifrin hadn’t beaten him to it. And that, I’m pretty sure, based on my conversations with Biden administration sources, is the point. 

Vladimir Putin has virtually encircled Ukraine with an unprecedented number of soldiers, tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery installations, ships, and the logistical backup required to support this war machine. And, as observers have pointed out, all of this is being done out in the open, for all to see. The Kremlin continues to say it has no plans to invade Ukraine and that it is simply conducting perfectly legal military exercises, but that is, quite obviously, a lie. Putin has built this military presence on Ukraine’s borders at the same time as he publicly drew his “red lines,” and as his foreign minister warned of the “nightmare” of war in Europe. He has spoken openly this winter of keeping up the pressure until the West takes his demands seriously and gives him what he wants—or at least some of it. Ukraine is the unfortunate hostage in this game of chicken between Moscow and Washington. 

What can Washington do? Barack Obama correctly pointed out in 2014, back when Russia first invaded Ukraine, that Ukraine means more to Russia than it does to the United States. Russia simply wants it more. This is partly a question of geography, as well as Russia and Ukraine’s intertwining histories and cultures. But it’s also very much a product of American fatigue of foreign intervention after the disastrous adventurism of the Bush administration. Biden has already said, repeatedly, that the U.S. will not be sending troops to Ukraine. After the heat he took for a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, why send the American military right back into another foreign quagmire? 

What leverage does that leave the Biden administration, which badly wants to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine, if military intervention is out? Sanctions are one tool. But Putin has come to see them as a cost of doing geopolitical business: overhead rather than deterrent. 

As I’ve written before, the Biden administration has settled on an innovative and, dare I say, ingenious new strategy: carefully timed disclosures. Twice, the Biden administration unmasked what it said were Russian plans for a false flag operation that could have given the Russian government the pretext it was looking for to invade. And then the administration leaked that they’d intercepted Russians talking about how mad they were about those leaks. 

Friday’s kerfuffle was just another installment of what the Biden administration calls “strategic communications,” but is better understood as information warfare. Last week, a certain kind of conventional wisdom had set in that if Putin did invade, he would wait until after the Olympics were over, so as to not anger the man he needs the most right now, Xi Jinping. There was a sense that we could wait to worry about Ukraine until after the closing ceremonies. We were comforted and our attention wandered, which meant that the pressure on Russia was easing. So the White House acted, releasing information to snap us back to attention and blow apart the idea that Ukraine was safe until the Olympics were over. Not only had the troop build-up continued, the White House countered, but Putin was about to pull the trigger. 

In private, administration officials were more circumspect. Despite the movement of troops, the fundamentals hadn’t really changed, they said. An invasion was still extremely likely and they believed Putin would act sooner rather than later. But given that they’ve been saying that consistently, for the last two months, it’s becoming harder and harder, at least for me, to get as agitated about the imminent outbreak of World War III than it was, say, a month ago.

The Bell That Doesn’t Ring

Here’s the rub: the Biden administration is using this novel technique to get something not to happen. To do this, they’re trying to ramp up the fear that something will happen. 

The idea is to take away Putin’s favorite tool: unpredictability. There are few things the man seems to hate more than being forced to do things on someone else’s timeline, on someone else’s terms. Announcing, or even leaking, that Putin is going to invade next week is a pretty good way to make sure Putin doesn’t invade next week. And the longer you can push off a potential invasion, both with diplomacy and this kind of weaponized leaking, the longer his troops are waiting in the cold and the mud, the less potent the threat becomes—hopefully. (Plus, the two things can be interrelated: leaking can buy more time for diplomacy and thus, hopefully, end the standoff without a shot being fired.) 

This is, according to three senior Biden administration sources, the thinking behind the strategy, though they acknowledge that it’s not foolproof. Putin is more isolated and paranoid than ever, and no one can be sure of what goes on in the man’s head, especially now. 

As if to prove the effectiveness of the White House’s tack, Putin sent the news cycle spinning in the reverse direction by announcing on Tuesday that he is ready to negotiate and that some Russian troops stationed at the Ukrainian border would be returning to their garrisons. NATO officials, the Ukrainian government, and the Biden administration remained skeptical that the troop drawdown would actually happen, but still warily greeted it as a welcome development. (The headlines today make Putin sound like he’s suing for peace, even though he was actually quite squirrely about it and you have to read the articles carefully to see that nothing has changed on the ground yet, and that most troops are still there. And while everyone was talking about Putin’s move to de-escalate, Ukraine’s defense ministry and a major Ukrainian bank were crippled by a cyberattack on Tuesday.) 

To me, Putin’s announcement looks like an obvious attempt to retake control of the narrative, to show the West that he can still surprise us. The message, as I heard it, seemed to be, You said I was going to start a war on Wednesday, so I’ll declare peace on Tuesday—just to fuck with you. If it weren’t obvious enough, Maria Zakharova, the infamous spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, decided to drive the point home. “February 15, 2022 will go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed,” she said. “Humiliated and destroyed without a single shot fired.”  

Which means the Biden strategy is starting to look like a pretty good one. What’s better than tricking the guy who threatened war into threatening peace? I do wonder, does Biden get credit if this new approach succeeds? That is, if no invasion ever happens, do he and his diplomats and advisors get pats on the back for averting a war? Or will his administration be accused of whipping up unfounded hysteria because the war they warned of didn’t happen? So far, the administration gets high marks from the D.C. foreign policy establishment as well as in Moscow, which is pleased with how seriously and carefully Washington is taking this. Friday’s disclosures triggered a flurry of weekend phone calls between Putin and world leaders, and, on Monday, the Kremlin released video of two meetings Putin had with his foreign and defense ministers. Both seemed to signal that Moscow was taking the diplomatic process seriously and that the military “exercises” have an end date. 

Personally, I have been extremely impressed with the robustness and sophistication of the Biden administration’s approach to the crisis. Despite previous stumbles and all the arch criticism that’s been lobbed at “the Blob” over the years, this is the proof of concept and the best-case scenario of what happens when adult professionals who give a shit run American foreign policy. I have no doubt, however, that this too will continue to be politicized: from the left as warmongering, and from the right as weakness.

“Alas, poor Putin…”

Back to the question that we’ve been butting up against every day for at least the last two months: will he or won’t he? 

With the caveat that you can’t rule anything out when Putin is involved and that the most pessimistic prediction is usually the right one, I have to say that I think an invasion is less likely now than it was a month ago. And not because of what Putin said on Tuesday. Yes, militarily speaking, Russia is far more prepared for an invasion today than it was then, but politically, there is much less reason now for Putin to give the order to invade than there was a month ago. 

So far, he is getting much of what he wanted. He has significantly destabilized Ukraine. Despite the country’s best efforts to stay calm, the panic about Ukraine has spooked investors, weakened its currency, and shaken its economy. There are reports that wealthy Ukrainians fled the country this weekend on private jets and charters after the news out of Washington, while average Ukrainians are packing go bags, considering evacuation plans, and training for partisan warfare against the Russian army. Even if this rallies the country around its flag, this glaring reminder that Moscow can invade and take Kyiv in a day or two whenever one man chooses is also profoundly destabilizing. No matter how brave you feel, it’s hard to thrive with a gun to your head.

The West is taking Putin’s concerns seriously, and it is quite obviously pleased to be part of a serious and extended diplomatic discourse—as well as to be at the center of the White House’s attention. (As one of two superpowers guaranteeing European security, Moscow thinks it should always be at the center of U.S. attention—just as the U.S. is always at the center of its own focus.) As Sushentsov pointed out in our interview, the U.S. offered up topics for negotiation that were not even on the table two months ago, like the placement of missile defense systems and limiting military exercises in this sensitive area. On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed this thinking, saying that he was pleased that Russia is “shaking up” Western thinking. Margarita Simonyan, the head of Kremlin-owned RT, said, “We showed everyone what we wanted. Previously, they didn’t even want to talk to us about security, but now there is a line of people wanting to admire the views of Moscow in February.”

As for his core demands, Putin knows that NATO cannot formally give him what he’s asking, but on Monday, the Ukrainian ambassador suggested that his government might drop its NATO bid to avoid a war with Russia. Even though he energetically walked back his remarks and even though the U.S. government says it has not been discussing these ideas with Kyiv, the idea is now out in the open, put there by a Ukrainian government official, likely for the first time since 2014. Even if it’s a hairline, it’s still a visible fracture. 

All this means Russian pressure is having its intended effect, all without having to invade and potentially get bogged down in a vicious war of occupation. (To those who claim Russia will swoop in, decapitate the Ukrainian government, install a Kremlin puppet and leave, I ask: what do you think happens the second Russian troops leave?) 

Moreover, there’s very little downside in all of this for Russia. The Defense Ministry says it’s still within its budget, which is ample, and even if they were to exceed it, the troop build-up pays for itself. The crisis is driving up oil prices—the Russian federal budget is still pegged to those—and driving down the value of the ruble, so just as there are more oil dollars flowing into the Russian treasury, it can pay for the extended troop deployment—which Sushentsov thinks could easily last a year!—with cheaper rubles. As for troop morale, even if it takes a hit, there is so much fear in Russia right now—a recent poll indicated that half of the population expects both a big war and mass political repression—that it won’t be hard to keep an already loyal and disciplined force in line.

This is not to say that no invasion will ever happen or that Putin has decided against using military force in Ukraine. On Tuesday, just as Putin was announcing a potential drawdown, the Russian parliament sent him legislation to sign that would recognize the independence of the breakaway Donbas. If he signs it, it would blow up whatever was left of the Minsk process and give Putin a clear mandate to invade. Or he could use it as a bargaining chip as negotiations grind on.

That said, I do think that, because of everything I’ve outlined above, a Russian invasion is less likely now than it was earlier this winter. Putin might still invade later in the winter, or not invade at all and just keep some level of troops on the border to make sure the West continues treating these talks with the urgency he believes they demand. But I don’t expect Putin to invade on Wednesday, or this week. 

Then again, Putin did just effectively announce that he won’t invade on Wednesday—which means he just might. 

Memories of Kabul

One last thought before I let you go. Much has been made about President Biden telling Americans to leave Ukraine while they still can, and the U.S. closing its embassy in Kyiv and moving remaining diplomatic staff to Lviv, in the west of the country. 

Both moves emphasize the reality and extreme proximity of the threat, and both are very much being made with an eye toward avoiding a repeat of what happened in Kabul in August, according to two senior administration sources. (And who can forget the political fallout from Benghazi, where an American ambassador was killed by militants storming the consulate.) After Kabul fell, there were special forces going out into the city to bring people to the airport, and the Biden administration is not prepared to do that if there are Russian troops in Kyiv. The risk of military confrontation with the Russians is just too high. Basically, the message from the mothership is, if you don’t leave now, don’t be surprised that America doesn’t want to start World War III on your behalf. 

According to these same sources, the administration also wants to forever dismantle the expectation that suddenly arose in Kabul in August that the U.S. government will do absolutely anything to rescue any and all American citizens from behind enemy lines. Until Kabul, this was never an assurance the American government—or any government, perhaps with the exception of Israel—provided its citizens. The American government, for example, didn’t send people in to get American citizens from Nazi Germany or from the Gulag when Stalin was in power. Now that the expectation has arisen—in part because of partisan attacks during the chaos of the pullout from Afghanistan—the administration wants everyone to know: this is not a reasonable expectation. You are responsible for your own safety.