Vladimir Putin has a very clear strategy in Ukraine: first, sow panic among Ukrainians and the West and then wait, then provoke Ukrainians into doing things that distance them from the West, and then wait; invade when both Ukrainians and the West are off balance; and then repeat the process.
Such a strategy, one could almost call it a recipe given its invariability, reflects three unfortunate facts: First, Putin has a longer time horizon than do either Ukrainians or Western governments. He doesn’t have to achieve all his goals all at once, whereas they want a resolution extremely quickly. By sowing panic, he is promoting his program.
Second, Putin understands that if he can provoke some Ukrainians into statements or actions that put distance between Kyiv and the West, he makes progress toward his goal of subordinating Ukraine and ultimately the rest of the former Soviet space and perhaps more to his will.
This tactic works either if Ukrainians call wolf once too often by predicting an invasion that doesn’t happen, thus leading Western governments to conclude that Ukrainian predictions are not to be trusted and can be dismissed even when they ultimately prove true, or if Putin’s offensiveness prompts some Ukrainians to say and do things that some in the West, to the applause of Putin’s clique, will invoke as more reasons not to support Ukraine.
And third, Putin knows even if some in Ukraine and elsewhere do not that sowing panic and provoking Ukrainians are an alternative to invasion but rather part and parcel of such a plan. Not only do these tactics make an invasion easier and cheaper for the Kremlin leader if he needs to use military force, but they could eliminate his need to invade.
That could happen if Ukrainians lose heart and conclude on their own that they have no choice but to submit without the use of force or if the West pushes Kyiv to make ever greater concessions to Moscow in the name of a peace process intended not to reverse Putin’s aggression but rather to find a settlement that will allow the West and Moscow to resume business as usual.
Both Ukrainians and the West need to understand what Putin is about. He is an aggressor, and his aggression must be reversed rather than accommodated. He has already invaded Ukraine and seized territory, and both Ukrainians and the West need to recognize those realities and begin the hard process of reversing Putin’s crimes and punishing him for them.
That will not be easy for either Ukrainians who are forced to look down the barrel of Russian guns and at the pipeline of Russian gas, and it will not be easy for the West which in its desire to declare victory and do business has consistently refused to recognize just how horrific the Soviet system was and how much Putin embodies its worst features.
But it can be done. And three steps are necessary immediately. First, Ukraine and the West must understand what Putin is doing and call it by its rightful names: invasion, Anschluss, provocation, intimidation, and panic-sowing. And both must understand that this is part of a single policy rather than a set of alternatives as some in both Kyiv and the West appear to want to believe.
Second, the West must declare formally a non-recognition policy relative to Crimea and the southeastern portions of Ukraine where Moscow forces are currently operating. Western governments must say clearly that they will never recognize as legitimate the Russian occupation and annexation and that they will never recognize the government that does those things as legitimate either.
That won’t reverse Putin’s crimes immediately, just as the US-led non-recognition policy about the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania took 50 years to achieve its goal; but it will serve notice to Russia and the world that the results of Putin’s actions will be reversed eventually.
And third, it is long past time to be talking about whether NATO countries should be supplying Ukraine with weapons. They should have been sent at the time of the first Putin moves against Ukraine, and the flow of such weapons and related assistance should have been stepped up with each new Putin action.
In short, the time has come for the West to extend NATO membership to Ukraine, a country that has made the choice to be part of the West and that the West now acknowledges that reality. That alone will not solve the current crisis, but it will disrupt Putin’s strategy and cause both him and his supporters to realize that his approach won’t be tolerated any longer.
If that message isn’t delivered now, Putin will repeat his strategy not only in Ukraine but elsewhere as well.