Putin’s Post-Trump Tantrum

Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty
Julia Ioffe
December 17, 2021

Several readers have written in to ask, in so many words, whether Russia will invade Ukraine.  The short answer is that we still don’t know. And we don’t know if Vladimir Putin knows. What we do know is that the December 7 virtual summit between him and Joe Biden did nothing obvious to diffuse tensions on the Ukrainian border. Not only has Putin not recalled his troops in the week since his conversation with the American president, videos and other reports trickling in from the Russian side of the border paint a worrying picture: rows upon rows of tanks and heavy artillery stretching as far as the eye can see. Russian troops are moving, but not in a way that would alleviate some of the pressure they’ve created. (One Washington diplomatic source told me the troop movements were “unhelpful” and “worrying.”)

Meanwhile, Putin continues to insist on political guarantees that the U.S. cannot give him. This week, his No. 2 diplomat, Sergey Ryabkov, said that, without a formal, legally-binding promise that NATO will not expand further eastward, Russia’s response will be “military.” And today, Putin issued a new list of demands, calling on NATO to guarantee it won’t conduct any military activity in former Soviet republics and that it remove any NATO military infrastructure installed in eastern Europe since 1997. On the other side, the authorities in Kyiv are checking to make sure their bomb shelters still work. My friends in Moscow are panicking that war is imminent. 

But then again, I also have friends who say it’s highly unlikely. Meduza, an independent Russian publication, polled several Russian military and foreign policy experts, most of whom said that they don’t think Putin will end up invading Ukraine. Their logic is that, unlike in 2014, Russia’s troop movements are not happening in secret, which is indicative less of an imminent invasion than of Putin’s classic negotiating tactics, known in Washington as “escalate to de-escalate.” In short, the strategy is to create a crisis that the West then has to scramble to solve. This can only be done, of course, by talking to the man who created the crisis in the first place, and he always has something he wants—usually respect, but in this case, a guarantee to stop the expansion of NATO, which had stopped expanding anyway.