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Uncertainty is Putin’s ace to play

We all hoped that 2022 would be a better year than 2021. But we’re a month in and Russia is already threatening to make a move on Ukraine. There are 100,000 Russian troops within reach of the Ukrainian border, and 8500 American troops on high alert for possible deployment to the region. Despite negotiations, tensions are rising, and we cannot ignore the threat that is looming on the horizon: nuclear annihilation.

Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But both sides of this conflict have an immense nuclear arsenal to back them up. One misstep could lead to millions of deaths. And we shouldn’t underestimate world leaders’ capacity to make stupid decisions in a time of crisis. All we, mere mortals, can do is hope that our overlords are wise enough not to press the big red button that would end life as we know it.

But what is behind these tensions in the East? What does Putin want with Ukraine? 

I’d argue that there are three main reasons for a possible invasion of Ukraine. Firstly, Putin may be using the conflict to distract from domestic issues like COVID-19. Russia hasn’t been particularly forthcoming with its pandemic data, and with trust in Putin falling, it isn’t unreasonable to think that he might use military action as a distraction. 

Secondly, the threat of conflict with Ukraine may be a way of legitimating his rule. He has been in some form of power for over 20 years, and Russia has become increasingly autocratic in that time. But authoritarian regimes are difficult to maintain, and arresting opponents and critics is not enough to eliminate opposition. Since coming to power, Putin has carefully crafted a ‘strong-man’ persona, which portrays him as the brave protector of his people and country, keeping Russia safe from foreign threats. Not many people would want to topple his regime at a time when the US is threatening to attack Russia (which is how the conflict is being portrayed in Russian media). 

But there is also an element of insecurity in Putin’s actions. Russia has begun to fall in importance on the world stage, and Putin may want to reaffirm his position. He is proving himself as a threat, able to challenge US hegemony and stand up to NATO on its own. He seems to want to regain influence and bring Russia back to its ‘glory days’ during the Cold War. 

I don’t see the US as willing to start a nuclear war to protect Ukraine, and I think that Putin knows this. I doubt that any American politician would be willing to potentially sacrifice millions of American lives in a nuclear war to protect the democratic institutions of another state on the other side of the world. 

At the same time, however, Putin is also probably not too keen to start a nuclear war – he’s definitely smart enough to know that that would be a bad idea. But the US doesn’t have enough invested in protecting Ukraine to call Russia’s bluff. This is where Putin might come out on top. If he keeps pushing the right buttons, he may get the US to step aside and practically hand Ukraine over on a silver platter. 

But all of this depends on Putin, and who knows what he wants or what he’s really thinking. It could be that he isn’t even planning to invade Ukraine – weirder things have happened. Maybe he wants to prove that Russia is still powerful. Maybe he wants to make Biden look bad. It could be anything. 

However, if no one knows what Putin’s plans and motives are, it’s a lot harder to come up with a plan to force him off the ledge. Russia has been slapped with a number of economic sanctions, but I’m not sure how effective these will be. While they may have been enough to halt his invasion of Ukraine in 2014, I am not convinced that they will be enough to stop him again, especially if he truly does want to invade. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if Putin has been bluffing this entire time, but he definitely has a lot to lose. Giving up now would be very bad for his image, both domestically and internationally. So will the conflict in Ukraine escalate into a full-blown war? Will Putin be the one to back down, or will Biden blink first? At the end of the day, no one knows, but we’ll be sure to find out soon. 

Image courtesy of kremlin.ru via Flickr