Russian officials have said they don't need peace at any cost, but what price are they prepared to pay for war?
The answer to that question would help Western policymakers determine what they must do to deter Russian leader Vladimir Putin as he seeks to remake Europe’s post-Cold War security order to his liking.
Western leaders say the Russian leader is prepared to invade Ukraine if he fails to secure the concessions he wants from the United States and NATO that in effect would carve out for Russia a Soviet-era-like sphere of influence across eastern Europe. Russian officials deny they have any intentions to invade their neighbor, despite an unprecedented massive military buildup along the borders of Ukraine.
Dmitri Trenin, a longtime Kremlin-watcher and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank, worries the lack so far of a diplomatic solution “will logically lead to a further escalation of the crisis, and increase the chances the only way out of it will be through the use of what Russian officials call military-technical means.”
Washington consistently has rejected Putin’s demand that Ukraine never to be allowed to join NATO, as well as his insistence the Western alliance remove any military presence in other former Soviet bloc nations which are now NATO members.
Trenin doubts a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine is likely, though he concedes in a commentary the situation remains volatile and unpredictable. By escalating tensions with the West to a boiling point, Moscow may consider it already has achieved some wins, including forcing the U.S. to discuss European strategic issues for the first time since the end of the Cold War, he says. Trenin also contends Putin most likely has squelched any chance of NATO admitting Ukraine as a member.
Others, though, are reading the geopolitical confrontation differently. Timothy Ash, a risk analyst at Bluebay Asset Management in London, fears Putin is a gambler who may have gone too far to back down. He agrees the Russian leader already has notched up some accomplishments.
“Putin has enhanced his image as the guy who calls the shots and the poker player with all the cards. More than ever, he is seen as a leader who everyone has to contend with if they want solutions to the geopolitical problems that he typically creates himself,” Ash says.
But Ash cautions: “If the Russian leader does not proceed with some form of military action in the weeks ahead, his bluff will have been called” and he would risk “emerging from the current crisis as a net loser unless he proceeds further. Does he see it the same way? If so, will he escalate from here? At this point, he may feel that he has little choice.”
Putin appears to relish courting, calculating and taking risks. In 2019, the editors of Britain’s Financial Times newspaper conducted a 90-minute interview with the Russian leader. They noted: “Just before midnight, Vladimir Putin perks up at the mention of the word ‘risk.’ It encapsulates the man and his 20 years in power.”
His interviewers talked with him near a bronze statue of Russia’s legendary and expansionist Tsar Peter the Great, one of Putin’s heroes who carved out a Russian empire in the 18th century. They tried to explore whether the Russian president is a rash gambler or a calculating, and more cautious, risk-taker. But he was elusive and teasing.
They asked him if his appetite for risk-taking had increased with each passing year. He responded: “It did not increase or decrease. Risk must always be well-justified.” But then Putin cited a popular Russian phrase: “He who doesn’t take risks, never drinks champagne.”
Some risks, Putin clearly thinks, are beneath leaders of great powers to fret over. Asked about the attempted assassination in 2018 in England of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, which the British government has blamed on the Kremlin, Putin bristled. “Listen, all this fuss about spies and counterspies, it is not worth serious interstate relations. This spy story, as we say, is not worth five kopecks.” A kopeck is worth a hundredth of a ruble.
Invading Ukraine would cost Russia a lot more, and the risks would be massive in terms of loss of life (Russian, as well as Ukrainian) along with treasure. Putin and his aides have made no secret that a key domestic goal is to upgrade and modernize Russia’s economy. In his Financial Times interview, Putin highlighted that, saying, “The most important task we need to achieve is to change the structure of the economy and secure a substantial growth of labor productivity through modern technologies.” One of his aides emphasized that in an interview, too, with VOA a few months earlier.
War in Ukraine possibly may be too big of a risk for Putin to take, reckon some longtime Putin-watchers. Economically for Russia, it likely would result in capital flight, with many foreign investors fleeing the country or reducing their investments and would mean much slower economic growth.
All of that would lead to declining living standards of ordinary Russians, which in turn could trigger the kind of major social unrest that rocked Kazakhstan this month and which the Kremlin always fears. Russians already are complaining about feeling an economic pinch and Putin’s popularity and trust ratings in opinion polls have been slumping for months.
Modernization of the economy would be set back by years and possibly decades by a further wave of tough sanctions — especially if Washington includes in them, as it has threatened to do, novel export controls that would bar the export to Russia of products that are fitted with electronic components and software designed and/or manufactured in the United States.
The export controls would disrupt strategic Russian industries, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing and civilian aerospace sectors, Biden administration officials say. They note there is hardly a semiconductor on the planet that is not made with American tools or designed with American software.
“Despite being described as reckless, Putin is anything but,” notes Eugene Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council. Now an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington-based think tank. “Putin surely is not blind to the risks of war,” he has argued.
Cost of war
Some Western diplomats tell VOA that Putin will stay his hand this time and continue with hybrid warfare and cycles of escalation and de-escalation, which present him with more opportunities to roil and divide Western allies. They note the foreign risks he’s courted to date have been limited. His military foray in Libya has been disguised by using mercenaries, and in Syria he mainly restricted Russian intervention to airstrikes, deploying ground forces sparingly, thereby minimizing Russian casualties.
Other diplomats worry Putin may see this as his best chance to rectify what he sees as historical slights by the West and to restore Russia’s dominant role in central and eastern Europe. It will all come down to whether he is a rash gambler, who wants to wager on one big win, or a calculated risk-taker prepared to notch up incremental wins, they say.
Western leaders are trying to increase the price of war for Russia — economically and in terms of Russian casualties. Some of Washington’s European NATO partners are joining in supplying Ukraine with more lethal weaponry that could be used in an insurgency, if Russia invades.
Putin was in his 30s and 40s when Russia waged a costly and ultimately unsuccessful nine-year counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, seen by many scholars as a contributing factor to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This week, Britain’s Boris Johnson cited what befell Russia in Afghanistan, warning publicly that an invasion of Ukraine would be “disastrous” for Russia.