Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)Is Russian President Vladimir Putin going to launch an invasion into neighboring Ukraine? Enormous movements of Russian troops and military equipment toward the shared border have raised the alarm among Ukrainians and their Western friends.
Denials aside, the West is concerned enough about Putin’s intentions that President Joe Biden and the Russian president are holding an urgent virtual meeting on Tuesday as experts warn about the growing risks of a new war.
Putin’s actions and intentions may be deliberately wrapped in a fog, but his track record is clear. If he’s allowed to advance his goals without serious consequences, he will continue to escalate his foreign policy of bullying and intimidation.
In 2014, as “little green men,” dressed in unmarked military uniforms deployed across Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Putin denied they were his forces — until Russia took control of the territory and annexed it.
Anyone who paid attention to how Russia stole that strategic peninsula from a sovereign country knows how much weight to give the Kremlin’s words now. As US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted, “We’ve seen this playbook.”
This time, the Western alliance led by the United States wants to stop Russia before its “little green men” cross Ukraine’s borders with all their heavy armament. In a secure call with Putin on Tuesday, Biden plans to make clear to the Russian president that he should stand back.
Nobody knows for certain if Putin will give the order to invade. But US and NATO officials are extremely worried. US intelligence believes that Russia has a plan for an operation involving up to 175,000 troops — more than half already in place — along with heavy artillery and armor. According to Ukraine’s defense minister, Russian troops could cross into Ukraine as early as next month.
Part of Moscow’s playbook includes creating a justification for an attack, and that part of the strategy is already moving forward. When Russia attacked Ukraine in the past, capturing Crimea and supporting pro-Russian separatists in Donbas, the region of Ukraine adjacent to Russia, the Kremlin claimed it was doing it to defend ethnic Russians living under Ukrainian rule.
Putin is already deploying the argument for a future assault. An elaborate information operation, among other propaganda points, paints Ukrainian leaders as puppets of the West.
Why would Putin risk provoking NATO, going to war against Ukraine or — even if he decides to call off the suspected military offensive — walking to the edge of such a dangerous precipice?
Putin has several objectives.
Above all, the Kremlin wants to destabilize Ukraine and prevent it from exercising its rights as an independent nation to craft its own future. Ukraine is drawing closer to the West; it wants to join NATO, and it is a fledgling democracy — in sharp contrast to Russia. Ukraine’s existence as a democracy alongside Russia, where Putin has become an increasingly repressive autocrat, makes the Kremlin uneasy.
Putin wants to secure what in the Cold War days was accepted as spheres of influence, aiming to keep the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union under Moscow’s sway. He has taken to saying Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” a statement that carries ominous portents and which many Ukrainians vehemently reject.
The Ukraine gambit isn’t just a push against Ukraine, it’s also a push against the West.
As his troops amass near Ukraine, Putin is also trying to paint his Ukraine concerns as defensive. He argues that he distrusts not just Ukraine’s leaders but its NATO friends, arguing that NATO’s expansion to Russia’s border would be a threat to Russian security. Putin is making wholly untenable demands on the West, laying out what he describes as his “red lines.”
More specifically, Putin is demanding that NATO guarantee it will not expand toward the East, closer to Russia’s borders. Biden said this weekend he would not agree to any red lines. Imagine NATO today saying it will ban not just Ukraine but any country near Russia (Finland, Sweden, Georgia?) from joining it either now or in the future.
Having watched Russia’s behavior in recent years, its neighbors have good reason to seek protection.
If Putin’s goal was to draw Ukraine away from the West, there is no sign that is happening. The US is reaffirming its “ironclad commitment” to Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” in Blinken’s oft-repeated words.
As Putin menaces the West with a military buildup along the Ukrainian border, he’s trying to achieve other goals, too. He is showing once again that Russia can make trouble for the former Soviet Republics, its former Eastern European satellites and the West, where he has already shown himself willing to squeeze fuel supplies during cold winter months. (Putin claims the gas shortages are not Russia’s doing, but not everyone is convinced.)
An invasion now, however, is potentially much costlier than the swift Crimea operation. Over more than half a decade of fighting, Ukrainian troops have become battle hardened. Few expect NATO to go to war against Russia, but NATO is not impartial. Ukraine’s toughened soldiers now have much better weaponry, provided by the West.
A Russian invasion would provoke stiff resistance. Casualties on both sides could be enormous. In addition, Russia could be hit with more punishing Western sanctions. The Biden administration is already designing sanctions that would inflict, “significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy,” according to a US official.
If Putin moves in, the Russian people may just experience another awful war, with young soldiers returning home in body bags and the economy limping from the cost of war and sanctions.
As well, the move into Ukraine has the potential to create precisely the opposite result of what Putin claims he wants now. By invading, he would reaffirm the threat posed by Russia against its neighbors. An invasion wouldn’t just bring Ukraine and the West closer, it would make the rest of the people living in Russia’s neighborhood yearn for closer ties with the United States, Europe and NATO, just as the Soviet invasions of the Eastern European countries made them all rush to join NATO as soon as they were free of Moscow’s clutches.