Western political and media circles are convinced that Russia has decided to invade Ukraine. They frequently speculate that the invasion will happen in late February, or earlier, because winter creates favourable conditions for Russian tanks and ground troops. US President Joe Biden announced that Russia’s invasion is now “imminent.” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accused Moscow of fomenting regime change in Kyiv. The United States, Britain, and Germany have already announced the evacuation of their diplomatic personnel from the Ukrainian capital.
Determined to stop Russia, Western nations regularly reveal new measures to punish Moscow should it choose to use force in Ukraine. The West promises new tough sanctions including those against Russian President Vladimir Putin. The US and NATO are also planning to put 8,500 troops on high alert and move them closer to Ukraine.
The contrast between the two sides’ positions could not be more revealing. Russia views its actions as a purely defensive response to increasingly offensive military preparations by NATO and Ukraine (according to Russia’s foreign ministry, half of Ukraine’s army, or about 125,000 troops, are stationed near the border). Instead of pressuring Ukraine to de-escalate and comply with the Minsk Protocol, however, Western nations continue to provide the Ukrainian army with lethal weapons and other supplies. The Kremlin fears an attack on the Donbas, the Russian-supported eastern separatist territory, by Kyiv. As a deterrent against possible military provocations, Russia has conducted military exercises and amassed 100,000 troops along the border.
No one knows exactly what Putin has in mind for Ukraine, but evidence for his preparations of an invasion is far from definitive. Interpreting his troop build-up in terms of crisis bargaining is at least as plausible. Putin is hardly looking for a pretext to start a war with Ukraine, let alone NATO, but he is convinced that any successful negotiations with Western governments must be conducted from a position of military strength. In his perception, he must demand security from the West because Russia’s security situation in Europe and Ukraine has deteriorated—and because Russia’s resolve and military capabilities are sufficient to challenge the West to listen to Moscow.
Putin has two decades of experience of trying to persuade Western leaders to take Russia’s interests into consideration. During these years, Russia has unsuccessfully opposed the US decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and build a new missile defense system in Romania, expand NATO, invade Iraq and bomb Libya, and support Kyiv’s anti-Russian policies—all in vain. Now that the West is more divided and energy dependent on Russian natural gas, Putin is prepared to raise the stakes and is not afraid of escalation. He knows that short of a major war, he has strong cards to play and is unlikely to be swayed by Western threats of new sanctions or limited troop deployments.
What drives the Western war scare has more to do with the West itself than with Putin’s unpredictability. Domestic and foreign affairs of the last decade have left the West weak and deeply confused. This loss of confidence does a disservice to conducting a measured assessment of Russia’s foreign policy and motives in its relations with Ukraine.
Western nations are deeply divided and politically polarized, which compels them to rely on an image of foreign enemies for creating some measure of domestic unity. Following the election of Donald Trump in 2017, Democrats used Russia to justify impeachment on the grounds of his “collusion” with a foreign country. Most of these accusations turned out to be bogus, but now Republicans are doing the same and are accusing Biden of being soft on Putin. For instance, Republicans pushed for new sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but failed to pass it in the US Senate on January 13. Such dependence on a foreign threat leaves very little room for a reasoned dialogue with Russia, including on vital issues of national security.
It also makes it impossible to form a coherent Russia strategy. Indeed, any reasonable strategy assumes the importance of dialogue with the opposing side and recognizes its legitimate interests and potential contribution to solving key issues. A strategy is normally a mixture of sticks and carrots that provides the other side with not only threats but incentives to cooperate.
Instead, the US Russia policy is centred on punishment and military deterrence, at the expense of dialogue and cooperation. US officials are constantly issuing threats, as if they have nothing else to offer. The impression these threats make in Russia is the opposite of what is intended. Moscow shrugs them off and views these provocations as a sign of the decline of America’s intellectual and also military capacities. Henry Kissinger once wrote that sanctions are no substitute for policy. What he didn’t mention is that a sanctions-centred policy also reveals a fundamental weakness of any political establishment.
The US political class remains seriously biased for threatening and punishing Moscow. Even if Biden wanted to improve relations with Russia, he is severely constrained by his own party, as well as Republicans on the other side of the aisle. A considerable part of the American political establishment cannot let go of the country’s flagging global hegemonic status and views Putin as another tyrant who must not be “appeased” in Ukraine. Some of the Russia hawks are so critical of Biden’s “weakness” towards Putin that they go as far as to advocate for a full-scale war with Russia. For instance, Evelyn N. Farkas, an official in the Obama administration, has recently dismissed sanctions and argued for presenting Russia with a demand to withdraw from Ukraine “by a certain date and organize coalition forces willing to take action” to enforce the ultimatum.
Such views find their supporters in other corners of the West. Establishment politicians and officials in Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, and other eastern European countries are more comfortable with the policy of isolating Russia than engaging it. They tend to blame Russia for all their problems such as energy shortages and migration crises. Against their better judgement, they are acting on their worst fear: to be reincorporated into a revanchist Russian empire.
But weakness is not the only reason that explains the West’s paranoia of Russia. By accusing Putin of preparing to invade Ukraine, Western nations also project onto Russia their own motives and policy calculations. Consider what the United States’ actions might be if, hypothetically, Mexico decided to enter a military alliance with China, or if a small country such as Cuba or Nicaragua hosted components of Russia’s military infrastructure within their borders.
Outside the region, and on multiple occasions, the US and US-supported forces have already done what Russia is accused of by invading foreign countries, conducting violent regime change operations, and even allowing the humiliation and murder of foreign leaders such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. But this is not what Russia has done so far, not even during its military conflict with Georgia in August 2008 when the Kremlin had all the power to unseat its government.
Whatever plans Russia may have with respect to Ukraine and NATO, conflict resolution greatly depends on the West. A major war is avoidable if Western leaders gather confidence and the will to abandon the counter-productive language of threats and engage Russia in reasoned dialogue. If diplomacy is given a fair chance, the European continent may arrive at a new security system that will reflect, among others, Russia’s interests and participation.
Andrei P. Tsygankov is a Professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University, and author of Russia and America: The Asymmetric Rivalry (Polity Press, 2019). His forthcoming book is Russian Realism: Defending ‘Derzhava’ in International Relations.