Putin’s Aggression Toward Ukraine Serves Dual Purposes, Expert Says

Russia scholar Simon Miles briefs media on latest crisis

Putin’s Aggression Toward Ukraine Serves Dual Purposes, Expert Says

DURHAM, N.C. – In amassing military troops along the Ukraine border, Russian President Vladimir Putin is pressing his opposition to NATO membership for the former Soviet satellite state while burnishing his own bonafides domestically as a strong, forceful leader, a Duke University scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union said Wednesday.

And Putin is threatening military action from a stronger position than he did eight years ago when Russia invaded Crimea, a part of Ukraine, said Simon Miles, an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Miles spoke Wednesday in a virtual briefing for journalists. (Watch the briefing on YouTube.)

Here are excerpts:

ON THE CURRENT CRISIS

“The reason there’s a crisis is because we’re seeing about a 100,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, with, of course, echoes of the events of 2014 and 2015, that is the Russian invasion of Crimea and some parts of eastern Ukraine. Those troops are engaging in not only just massing in significant quantities, they’re engaging in live-fire exercises – that is, practicing war. And we’re seeing information operations, disinformation and things like that, emanating from this massive Russian presence.”

“So the crisis is there because there’s a huge surge of Russian troops on a pretty volatile piece of territory.”

 

ON RUSSIA’S MOTIVATIONS

“Putin and many Russians, including those who are not nationalists or expansionists …, really see the difference between Russia and Ukraine as a distinction without a difference. This is the whole Putin promise to the Russian people that only a strong leader like him – requiring sacrifices of freedom of expression and other authoritarian means – is necessary to run a country like Russia.”

“Well, if Ukraine can be a functioning, stable democracy – prosperous and successful without such a leader – that calls into direct question the legitimacy and really the main argument for Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. So that’s the domestic angle.”

“The foreign policy angle is that Russian leaders are unhappy with the growth of NATO ever eastward. They’re unhappy with this because it’s humiliating, I think it’s fair to say, to a lot of Russians, not just in the Kremlin. It also calls into question some of their serious security concerns over defending their own territory in the event of an outbreak of hostilities – which of course is a small chance, but militaries still plan for small-chance events.”

 

ON PUTIN’S END GAME

“I don’t think even (Russian diplomats) know what Putin’s ultimate end game is. Right now, Vladimir Putin has kind of gone into isolation. He’s not really seeing anyone, because of the COVID pandemic. Anyone, even very close, close advisers and confidants who wants to see him have to go into isolation for three days and be observed before they can be in the same room with him. So it seems to me a lot of the key Russian players … don’t really know what is a viable proposal, what’s acceptable and what isn’t.”

“We’ve seen pretty clearly that statements have been made about NATO foreswearing Ukrainian membership in NATO. These have been presented by various Russian officials as the absolute central piece of that package of demands, requests, proposals … from the Russian Federation. So it’s fair to say that some movement on the Ukraine issue that is favorable to Russia is really, really important.”

“That being said, in the (NATO) meeting in Geneva and today’s meeting in Brussels, that issue has been deemed a non-starter.”

“So why put all of these troops in position anyway? Well, one, it kind of gins up these crises and this is very good … for Vladimir Putin’s position and sense of legitimacy with his own people, to be seen as this great statesman.”

“Then what would the military play be? This is something on which analysts are really divided.”

“I think that if Russia were to use force, their goal would be to demonstrably break the Ukrainian military and also to attempt to show that the United States is all talk.”

 

ON PRESIDENT BIDEN SAYING THE U.S. WOULD NOT ENGAGE MILITARILY

“I think that was an unwise thing to say on the part of the president simply because the Russians have very clearly not taken anything off the table. I’m not really sure why an American leader would do so pre-emptively and without any concessions.”

“Statements bracketing off certain types of action are taken by the Kremlin as an indication the United States is a lot more talk than it is action when it comes to Ukraine. Those certainly indicate to Putin and some of his advisers … that they can get away with what they’re trying to do.”

 

THREE POINTS ON NATO

“Ukraine is not joining NATO anytime soon and the Russians are keenly aware of this. The most optimistic projection would put that as being at least a decade out.”

“The second has to do with the fact that Ukraine does not have territorial integrity. The premise of the alliance is that it will defend nations against threats. When a country like Ukraine has a real piece of its territory that it doesn’t fully control, its sovereignty is compromised, that of course is not a situation in which I think any American policymaker would want to bring them into an alliance like NATO, nor indeed would any of the other NATO partners.”

“That brings me to the third point, which is that NATO is not singing from the same sheet of music on the issue of Ukrainian membership. Victor Orban in Hungary has been quite clear … that he is not in favor of this.”

“Even the Germans and the French are pretty lukewarm on this. So the divisions within NATO are a key element here.”

 

ON WHETHER U.S. SANCTIONS WORK

“That depends on who signs on to the sanctions. It’s pretty clear that countries like France and Germany would not be open to active participation in those sanctions. The Germans have made it very clear they intend to go forward with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will move Russian natural gas from Siberia and other fields to western European, and especially German markets.”

“The French, too, have sent pretty clear signals they’re not interested in punitive, major sanctions the likes of which would inflict the kind of pain on the Russian economy that would change the Russian course of action.”

“There are some levers the United States can pull but a lot of them will also require building a coalition in order to really achieve maximum effect.”

“At the end of the day, the Russians have a significant quantity of oil and gas, and there are many people who want to buy it and who see sanctions on Russia, which would drive up the price of those consumables, as being not good for their national interests, even if it’s at the expense of Ukraine.”

 

ON RUSSIA’S ECONOMIC POWER

“We saw even in the case of Ukraine about half a decade ago that withholding gas or jacking up the price of gas was able to do serious damage to Ukrainians during a cold winter when basically their thermostats were hijacked by the Kremlin. That was a really powerful source of leverage.”

“That’s a really, really important issue. The economic argument – the fear of sanctions argument – is a tough one for me to buy even as it’s presented by the Biden administration. In 2014, 2015, Russia was much weaker economically than it is now and thus was much more vulnerable to the threat of sanctions, and still proceeded to use force in Ukraine.”

“Today’s Russia is going to be much less hurt by sanctions, especially the types of unilateral sanctions the Biden administration could bring to bear. And thus that is less of a compelling argument in the eyes of Russian policymakers because their economic power primarily through the export of hydrocarbons is even more significant.”

 

DOES PUTIN WANT TO REBUILD THE SOVIET UNION?

“I think it’s very clear Vladimir Putin does not want to bring back the Soviet Union in large part because capitalism has been very good to him. He is undoubtedly an extraordinarily wealthy individual thanks largely to corruption and graft within Russian government contracting processes and things like that.”

“I don’t think there’s a desire to return to the ideological days of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. What I do think there’s a desire to return to is the power and respect the Soviet Union commanded on the international stage.”

Faculty Participant

Simon Miles
Simon Miles is an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke and an expert in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of “Engaging the Evil Empire,” an account of how Washington and Moscow ended the Cold War.
simon.miles@duke.edu

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