When a former KGB officer became Russia’s president more than two decades ago, everyone in the West seemed to be asking the same question: “Who is Mr. Putin?”
Today, the question is, “What is Mr. Putin planning?”
Tens of thousands of Russian troops stationed near Ukraine’s border; rising anti-Western rhetoric in Moscow; a Russian diplomatic initiative that appears to be more of an ultimatum to the West than a serious negotiation: are these the precursors to a large-scale Russian military operation? A Ukrainian invasion? Is this the start of a war?
I have a phone number for the Kremlin press office, as do most foreign journalists in Moscow. What I don’t have is a direct line into Vladimir Putin’s mind.
Only he knows what the plan is, and he’s keeping everyone guessing both at home and abroad right now.
But there are some things that are unmistakable. This week marks the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. President Putin once called it the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.” He is still bitter about how the Cold War ended, with Moscow losing territory, influence, and empire.
The Kremlin also opposes NATO’s post-Cold War expansion to the east. Moscow accuses the West of breaking verbal promises not to expand the alliance into Eastern Europe and former Soviet territory. NATO maintains that no such promises were made.
Can Russia undo the damage? It appears to be attempting.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov unveiled draft security treaties that Moscow wants America to sign last week. They would provide a legally binding guarantee that NATO would cease military operations in Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
According to the proposals, NATO’s deployments to countries that joined the alliance after 1997 would be prohibited. Russia has also demanded that NATO’s expansion into former Soviet territory be halted.
In an online briefing, I suggested to Mr. Ryabkov that Russia is proposing a “complete reassessment of the Cold War’s outcomes.”
NATO, a defensive alliance, denies any “hostile intent” toward Russia.
When it comes to the Kremlin’s behavior, Western governments have said “enough is enough.” The annexation of Crimea by Moscow in 2014, as well as its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, resulted in Western sanctions and a perception of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an aggressor. This is why the Russian troop buildup near Ukraine is so concerning.
What happens if Russia does not get the security guarantees it seeks?
“We’ll launch missiles. However, this is entirely up to you. This is not what we want “says Dmitry Kiselev, the host of Russia’s most popular news show on state television and a key figure in disseminating the Kremlin’s message to the public.
Mr. Kiselev, who is sanctioned by the West, is also the head of the massive state media holding Rossiya Segodnya.
“It would be beneficial to align our interests and avoid putting Russia in a position where missiles could reach us in four minutes,” he adds. “Russia is prepared to create a comparable, analogous threat by stationing its weapons near decision-making centers. But we propose a way to avoid this, to avoid creating threats. Everyone will be turned into radioactive ash if this does not happen.”
So, is Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine a form of coercive diplomacy? Is the Kremlin attempting to extract concessions and security guarantees from Washington without resorting to war? If this is the case, it is a high-stakes approach.
“There is a real risk of an unintentional escalation, whether in the Donbas, along the Russian-Ukrainian border, or possibly in the Black Sea,” says Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank affiliated with the Russian government.
What happens if there is a major conflict? The Russian public supported the annexation of Crimea. Russians, on the other hand, have little appetite for a full-fledged war with Ukraine or military confrontation with the West.
“I don’t think Russians are interested in real or imagined foreign policy success stories,” Mr. Kortunov says. “The agenda is mostly domestic, and Russians’ real concerns are related to social and economic issues. I don’t think Putin stands a chance of gaining a few more points if he launches an operation abroad.”