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.

Putin knows that NATO can’t just come out and capitulate to his demands, but maybe he’ll accept something less, like scaring the West enough into never considering Ukrainian accession to NATO, even if they’d never admit it publicly. (One of the unspoken tenets of “escalate to de-escalate” is that Putin rarely gets 100 percent of what he wants. But because the ask is so extreme, even getting a part of what he wanted is still a lot.) Still, Putin couldn’t just back down the day after the call with Biden; that would look weak. Nor did he get what he wanted, or even close to it. He might push harder to get something that allows him to back down while saving face. (When Putin backs down, his style is to do so only when the spotlight has moved on. At some point people will notice that the sabers have been put away, but few will be able to pinpoint exactly when or how they were placed back in the scabbard.) 

Maybe this will be the outcome this time: Putin keeps the pressure on until the West is scared enough to take Putin’s demands seriously—and maybe even get in another conversation with Biden, as the American president has hinted in recent days—then slowly, imperceptibly let the steam out.

Or maybe not, and we’ll wake up one morning to news that Russian troops are pouring across the Ukrainian border. We just don’t know. And the fact that we don’t know is also part of Putin’s strategy, as I’ve written before. There’s a lot of power in being the unpredictable actor, in making everyone think about you and try to guess your motives and next steps. And Putin loves being the center of attention.

Another reader asked, Why is Putin acting out now, and not when Donald Trump was in office? The simplest answer is that he didn’t have to. Trump hated NATO and bashed it every chance he got. He publicly questioned the need for the alliance and for whether he’d order American troops anywhere if Article V (collective defense) were invoked. He publicly sided with Putin over his own intelligence agencies. He spoke constantly of how much he liked Putin and how Russia was an important and strong power that America should respect. He told G7 leaders that Crimea is Russian. Trump did everything Putin wanted without Putin even having to ask for it, and Brussels and Washington lived in constant fear that Trump would announce a U.S. withdrawal from NATO. (As one former Kremlin advisor told me on the sidelines of a NATO conference in 2018, “Trump is our wrecking ball.”) 

Things are different with Biden, who told Putin to his face that he didn’t have a soul. Biden is an old member of the D.C. foreign policy establishment, which has always been skeptical of Russia and which Putin hates. Moreover, Biden was the one who, as vice president, dealt directly with the Ukrainian government after Russia invaded in 2014. He was actively and intimately involved with both the Russian and Ukrainian sides, and he was very clear about whose side he was on (not Russia’s) and what he thought Ukraine’s future looked like (not under Russia’s influence). 

In other words, Trump naturally respected Putin’s boundaries and shared his worldview. Biden very much does not. This time, Putin needs a more, um, convincing way to get his message across. And so here we are.