We may be seeing the high tide and the turn in the Ukraine crisis as some Russian troops return to their bases, though the toing-and-froing of the Russian army is not a good indicator of the Kremlin’s intentions.
“When I sat down at my desk every morning for years,” a retired British diplomat told me, “the first thing I would read were reports of Soviet, and later Russian, military manoeuvres on their borders.” He added that these could cause alarm, but they never turned out to mean very much.
Suddenly, American and British politicians and diplomats are speaking of a faint glimmer of hope of peace, illuminating the dark scene they had been painting only 24 hours earlier when a Russian invasion was being described as imminent. Russian officials are crowing about dispelling the dark cloud of war hysteria and stressing that no invasion had ever been planned.
More persuasive than these assurances that an invasion was always highly unlikely is that the supposed invasion force of 127,000 soldiers is about a third of the minimum number required to seize and occupy Ukraine. When in 1968 the Soviet Union, along with Warsaw Pact forces, invaded Czechoslovakia, a country which was less than a quarter the size of Ukraine, they fielded an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 troops.
Another compelling reason why a Russian invasion was never going to take place was that there was no upside in it for President Vladimir Putin. By invading he would have launched an unwinnable war and Russia would have had to endure heavy sanctions. But, by way of contrast, he has every reason to threaten an invasion aimed at extracting concessions, elevating Russia’s status and making the expansion of Western influence in Ukraine a more risky business.
In the last few weeks, the benefits to Russia from its sabre-rattling must have far exceeded the Kremlin’s expectations. It has produced a traffic jam of presidents, prime minister and ministers making their way to Moscow.
They may be issuing warnings against a Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the reality is that for the first time since 1991 Russia is once again being treated as a superpower to be feared, cultivated and never disregarded.
This mass migration of Western leaders to Moscow is not likely to continue, but the Kremlin will draw the lesson that Ukraine is a good pressure point to bring the Americans and Europeans running to its door. The most interesting unanswered question now is why Putin’s not very credible threat was taken at face value and given further substance by officials pumping out strange tales of Russian plots and ploys on a daily basis?
A general answer to this question is that the new Cold War, like the old one in Soviet times, enables governments of all stripes to posture as defenders of the people against foreign threats. Political leaders become statesmen, however bad they may smell.
President Joe Biden and Boris Johnson have a more specific reason for hyping the foreign threat since they both face the potential of electoral defeat in 2024. Johnson’s desperate need to present himself as something other than a dissolute law-breaking party-goer is self-evident.
Biden was politically damaged by the chaotic and bloody scenes at Kabul airport when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. If he stands tough over Ukraine defying Putin he may be able to wipe away these humiliating memories from the minds of American voters. Another motive for Biden is that in the next few weeks. the US could resurrect the nuclear deal with Iran, signed in 2015 and denounced and dropped by President Donald in 2018.
Any such deal will inevitably be denounced by the Republicans as further evidence of Biden’s weakness in the face of America’s enemies. This makes it difficult for him to compromise with Putin. It may be to his political advantage to keep up the war of words with Russia whom the Democrats spent years blaming for Trump’s victory in the presidential election in 2016. They never succeeded in proving this and accounts of Hillary Clinton’s shambolic campaign suggest that she needed no help in losing at the polls.
It is easy enough to show that a war in Ukraine is not in the best interests of Russia, though the threat of a war may well be astute policy. But what if Putin does not grasp what is in his and Russia’s best interests? History is littered with self-destructive wars when leaders acted made this mistake. Saddam Hussein’s invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990 are good examples of this.
I have witnessed two Russian military interventions of rather different type under Putin, the first a regular war in Chechnya in 1999 and a more limited intervention in Syria from 2011, with a major escalation in 2015.
Both were well planned from a military point of view with a clear idea of what was feasible and what was not. An invasion of Ukraine, by way of contrast, would be an open-ended adventure offering plenty of opportunities to Russia’s enemies – and the evidence of Putin’s track record is that he is not a man who takes chances.