Putin’s “Nightmare” Threat to Europe

Russian troops
Photo by Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
December 6, 2021

Ukraine’s national anthem is called “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished,” which, considering recent Ukrainian history, is both apt and brave, like a country stubbornly and continually willing its existence into existence. It’s also a useful summary of what’s happening on the border between Ukraine and Russia, where Russian troops and materiel continue to accumulate as the Russian propaganda machine kicks into full, anti-Ukrainian gear, much to the alarm of Washington and Ukraine.

Since I last wrote about the situation, Russia still hasn’t reinvaded Ukraine (thankfully), and we still don’t know if it will, but it’s ratcheting up tensions every day. Now President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are stating openly what, until now, they’ve been communicating mostly behind the scenes: Russia wants a guarantee by the West that Ukraine will never join NATO. But this is not the West’s to give. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has reiterated, that is a decision that can only be made by the country seeking to join NATO and the alliance’s 30 member states. 

There is a deep irony to the evolution of this dispute. For many years, Putin was obsessed with NATO, regularly naming the alliance as the No. 1 threat to Russia. But NATO, which was created to counter the U.S.S.R., barely paid attention to its old archnemesis after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After 1991, Russia was a pale imitation of its former superpower self. Russia was so unthreatening, in fact, that it was given representation at NATO. The security alliance even conducted regular joint military drills with Russia. Besides, there were other things to pay attention to, like a civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The American-led invasion of Afghanistan was the first and only time that Article V of the NATO charter—which declares an attack on one member state is an attack on all—was invoked by the alliance, and it wasn’t against Moscow. 

It wasn’t until 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine and lopped off the Crimean peninsula, that NATO was forced to suddenly turn its focus back to Russia. Putin’s own actions, in other words, made his paranoid fantasy a reality. Now, Ukraine is a NATO partner, and Western aid, including military assistance, has only increased in recent years—mostly because of Moscow’s aggression. Moreover, before 2014, Kyiv’s political orientation was legitimately stuck in a constant tug-of-war between Russia and the West. And because of deep historical and cultural ties, it was also Russia’s closest and most natural ally. By invading Ukraine and taking over its most pro-Russian territories, however, Putin alienated Ukraine for at least a generation, and made the country’s pro-Western orientation iron-clad. 

Of course, there was never much appetite in NATO for making Ukraine a full member, even before 2014. But that year’s invasion made NATO accession all but a pipe dream. NATO members, especially France and Germany, which have close economic ties with Russia, have never felt that Ukraine, which still needed to implement many reforms to join NATO, was worth picking a fight with Russia. Still, Putin wants NATO to declare publicly what everyone thinks privately but cannot say aloud, because doing so would violate both Ukraine’s national sovereignty as well as NATO’s. After all, what good is an alliance if its adversaries can dictate its membership? So now the two sides are stuck in a high-stakes staring contest as Russian and Ukrainian troops pool at the border.

Another wrinkle: Last Wednesday, Putin said that more NATO assistance to Ukraine is one of Russia’s “red lines,” as is the deployment of missile defense systems in Ukraine, similar to the ones that exist in Romania and Poland. “We would have to create a similar threat for those who are threatening us,” Putin said, warning that Russia could deploy hypersonic missiles that could strike Europe, a clear echo of the Cold War when the U.S. and Soviet Union competed to outpoint missiles at each other. Here’s the thing, though: Americans say they have no idea what Putin is talking about and that nothing like this is or has been in the works. Would Putin demand that Washington publicly promise not to place missiles it had no intention of placing? Presumably Washington could not say any such thing publicly, as doing so would be seen as allowing Moscow to dictate its defense strategy. Would this become another high-stakes fight over a problem that didn’t exist?

On Thursday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned of “the nightmare of military confrontation” returning to Europe if the West doesn’t respect Russia’s red lines. “If Russia decides to pursue confrontation there will be serious consequences,” he said. He also suggested that the situation could resemble that in Georgia in 2008, when Russian troops massed on the Georgian border, steadily turning up the pressure until it provoked the hot-headed Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili into action, thereby giving Russia a formal excuse to invade the country—and bite off one-fifth of Georgia’s territory. 

This seems to be the scenario that everyone on the other side of the barricades is worried about: that Russia will ramp up the pressure to such unbearable heights that the Ukrainian government will inevitably stumble into a small mistake that Russia can use as a pretext to invade. What then? And to what end? Will Russia attempt to hack a land route to Crimea, which is only connected to Russia by the sea and has been very hard to supply with water and electricity? Will Putin annex swaths of Russian-speaking eastern and central Ukraine, and leave a mortally wounded rump state in Western Ukraine? Or will he gobble up all of Ukraine, unleashing a Western Ukrainian insurgency? 

No one knows. No one in London or Kyiv or Brussels or Washington can say what Putin is really planning, or if he’ll even invade. If he does, one scenario that Ukraine’s Western allies fear is that the Russian army quickly overpowers Ukraine’s defenses, and then Putin negotiates a ceasefire in which he demands all kinds of fanciful guarantees in exchange for withdrawing his forces back across the border. According to sources familiar with the thinking in Washington and Brussels, if that were to happen, there wouldn’t be much that the West could do. No one wants to send their soldiers to die in Ukraine and, despite Putin’s paranoid delusions, absolutely no one wants to go to war with Russia. 

And it’s not just military limitations. Despite Joe Biden and other administration officials threatening sanctions should an invasion take place, few believe in their effectiveness. For one, the administration understands that major European allies, primarily Germany, would suffer economically under these sanctions, too. (The yet-to-be-completed NordStream II gas pipeline would be stalled forever if Putin invades.) Putin himself seems to have decided that Russia’s standing in the world is worth whatever economic pain the West decides to inflict. Moreover, American power to punish deteriorates by the day as China offers an increasingly plausible alternative to Western financing and energy markets.

And that threat of a bloody insurgency in Western Ukraine? Yeah, it would be bad, but I doubt it’s lost on Putin that one of Nikita Khrushchev’s main tasks as party boss of Ukraine after World War II was to wipe out the Ukrainian nationalist guerrillas still fighting Soviet power from the forests of western Ukraine. He accomplished that task by 1947. Given Putin’s contempt for Khrushchev—a liberal who later handed Crimea to the Ukraine Republic in 1954—I would bet that Putin imagines he could reconquer those territories in a fraction of the time, should he want to. 

By all accounts, Putin has become increasingly isolated. He is not tech savvy and there is a shrinking number of people he trusts to feed him information. For years now, the chatter in Moscow has been that Putin is getting high on his own supply, believing his own propaganda that the West is poised to invade and humiliate Russia. It’s hard to see this current crisis, manufactured out of whole cloth by Putin, as something other than the product of the Russian president working himself up into a paranoid lather over the possibility of Ukraine’s accession to NATO—which, again, was never going to happen anyway—and risking a bloody conflict over it. What a massive and tragic miscalculation that would be.

For the last few days, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this and another bloody blunder of Russian history. The second tome of historian Stephen Kotkin’s monumental biography of Josef Stalin ends with the last 24 hours before dawn on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Kotkin carefully chronicles the flood of intelligence reports landing on Stalin’s desk that day: the German army massing at the Soviet border is cutting the wire fencing, the German embassy in Moscow has been evacuated and a skeleton crew is burning what’s left of the building’s documents. Still, Stalin, a paranoid and Byzantine overthinker, misinterpreted all of this and convinced himself that this was all a provocation designed to get him to strike at his friend and ally, Adolf Hitler. He dismissed his lieutenants’ increasingly desperate pleas to do something and put the military on alert until it was too late. Germany invaded, and, catching the Soviet military totally off guard, killed or captured some 7 million Soviet soldiers in the first four months. 

This is obviously the inverse of what’s happening in the Kremlin at the moment, but it’s a reminder of the peril of paranoid thinking. Sometimes the reality one imagines is far more dangerous than the one that really exists.