Putin's high-risk poker game in Ukraine

Albrecht Rothacher argues that Putin’s power play over Ukraine, while driven by the West’s current weakness, serves neither Russia nor the West. The two sides should, instead, lower tensions and address together several longstanding issues at the heart of current international instability

Putin and the ghost of Empire

Putin (and, more broadly, the Kremlin) suffers from phantom pain: the Soviet Empire, which perished 30 years ago. He intends to restore that Empire by expanding the Russian sphere of influence. The goal: to be seen as a world power again on an equal footing with the great Western powers, even though Russia is a demographically shrinking country living purely on commodity exports, with a GDP the size of Spain. His method is destabilisation of neighbouring states, as is happening in Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The weakness of the West

The West is currently showing sufficient weakness for Putin to flex his muscles. Biden fled Afghanistan in September, like Trump in Syria before him. He abandoned his allies and sees only China as a strategic rival. Europeans have their own national concerns to worry about, and the EU is barely taken seriously as a strategic power.

Military build-up on Ukraine’s borders

Putin, meanwhile, keeps all his options open. Since last spring, he has gathered about 125,000 troops on the eastern and south-eastern borders of Ukraine and in Crimea, accompanied by heavy military equipment, and is organising military exercises in southern Belarus.

Putin has gathered troops on the borders of Ukraine and in Crimea; his offensive options are substantial, though not limitless

Of course, these troops are far from sufficient for the conquest and occupation of a nation of 52 million and the defeat of an army of 215,000 (albeit one worse equipped than its Russian counterpart). In the worst case scenario, Putin could formally annex the two 'people's republics' of Donetsk and Luhansk (which he already effectively controls). He could follow it, under 'provocation', with a limited war to secure a land corridor along the Sea of Azov to Crimea. Its right flank would probably have to stretch as far as the Dnieper. In the spring at least, this would pose significant logistical problems.

At the same time – as with his war in Georgia in 2008 – Putin could launch a 'relief' attack on Kyiv from the north, but without taking the city. Of course, hybrid actions would constitute fewer risks in terms of response from the West. These could include a naval blockade in the Black Sea or a series of hacker attacks.

The West’s limited options

As in the Cold War, peacekeeping depends on the credibility of effective deterrence – though Ukraine, as a non-NATO member, cannot count on military assistance. It would be left alone in its hour of need. So what can the West do?

The issue with sanctions

Britain and the US continue to supply military equipment, despite Russian threats. The US has increased its military aid to Ukraine to US$650 million.

Then there is the threat of sanctions. The continued blockade of Nord Stream 2 and, above all, the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT payment system would be devastating for the Russian export economy and financing of the state budget, which is fed mainly by its revenues. Yet, while this might not affect the energy self-sufficient US, Europe would suffer. In the event of an interruption in the supply of Russian gas, oil and timber to the EU there would be an explosion in world market prices. Countries such as Finland, the Baltics, Slovakia and Bulgaria, for example, are 100% dependent on Russian gas. Shooting oneself in the foot is not a credible deterrent.

Sanctions might not affect the energy self-sufficient US, but Europe would suffer

Moreover, to absorb the impact of possible Western sanctions, Russia has accumulated a considerable vault of gold and foreign currency reserves, worth US$630 billion. This has been fed mainly by oil revenues. And, unlike the West, Russia has pursued a sound fiscal policy (national debt stands at only 19% of GDP). It cannot be driven into national bankruptcy.

Confiscations: an alternative?

An alternative action for the West would be to threaten to confiscate the international possessions of Kremlin rulers and assorted oligarchs, including Putin. There is much to threaten. The villas and wine cellars on the Côte d'Azur, the chalets in Chamonix, the townhouses in Mayfair, the bank accounts in the Caribbean and Cyprus, and the beautiful yachts... (Notably, Putin brought his own yacht to safety in Königsberg before its repairs – in a German shipyard – were complete.)

But would Putin be prepared to lose a few billion in exchange for territorial expansion?

Putin’s secure power base

Since 2013, the Russian economy has stagnated, partly because private enterprise is systematically plundered by the apparatchiks and associates. Real incomes have since fallen by 10%. Inflation stands at over 8%. The ruble has lost half of its value. The main concerns of Russians are inflation, impoverishment and corruption.

Putin is the focus of international attention and can negotiate on an equal footing with the US

Putin is unpopular, but because he has effectively eliminated organised opposition, he is not at risk. Sanctions, therefore, are unlikely to undermine his power base.

A US-Russian summit?

Putin has successfully built up a threatening backdrop. He is the focus of international attention and can negotiate on an equal footing with the US. A summit with Joe Biden is becoming increasingly likely. There is a lot they could usefully discuss: disarmament of medium-range missiles in Central Europe on both sides (including the Iskander missiles around Königsberg); maximum limits for military manoeuvres and deployments at the respective alliance borders; border guarantees; deployment of manoeuvre observers; demilitarisation of the Crimea and Donbass; joint solutions for Syria, Libya and Iran; post-mortem management of Afghanistan; and a withdrawal of Wagner mercenaries from Africa.

The two countries need to rise above the current power play, remembering that Russia and the West have no 'clash of civilisations'. They are part of a common Western cultural heritage. Their current quarrel favours only one country: China.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Albrecht Rothacher
Albrecht Rothacher
European University Institute

Albrecht gained his MA in sociology from the University of Bridgeport in 1978, and a PhD in international relations from LSE in 1982.

A stint at Deutsche Bank in the EU’s diplomatic service followed from 1984–2020, with postings in Vienna, Singapore, Paris and Tokyo, lastly as Minister Councillor, mostly dealing with economic and trade issues.

He then worked in Brussels as a policy officer, mostly concerned with economic relations with countries 'East of Berlin and Vienna'; lastly with Russia mainly.

He has published 24 books mostly on Asian affairs, economic and military history, but most recently a biography on the French presidents of the 5th Republic.

Current research work includes a collective biography of the Austrian chancellors of the 2nd Republic, and French colonial wars 1945–1962 (Indochina and Algeria).

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2 comments on “Putin's high-risk poker game in Ukraine”

  1. What is happening in Ukraine today these events had been happening for the past 20+ years, when Putin came into power by bombing his own people – civilian apartments and committing atrocities against the Chechen people. The response from the US, EU and NATO had been just complete silence and welcoming Putin to the summits and holding red carpet meetings for him. This further emboldened Putin who attacked Georgia in 2008 and conquered Abkhazia and Samachablo. What did the Western powers do? Absolutely nothing! Reset by the Obama Administration and warm handshakes by Merkel, total ignorance of the international laws and Putin’s war crimes against the Georgian people. What happened afterwards? Putin invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. What did the Western powers do? Bare minimum of symbolic sanctions that continued to feed Putin’s war machine. Then Syria, use of chemical weapons, more atrocities… . What did the Western powers do? Absolutely nothing!
    So we are here as a result of Putin’s false perception that he could chew more than he could bite and the 20+ year ignorance from the EU, US and the NATO. Today there is strong response and sanctions that will take the Russian economy back to the 1990s indicators, however it is too late and too little. Ukraine needs the Patriot missiles, S-400s, S-300s, missiles to shoot down airplanes and incoming rockets at much higher altitudes than Stingers could reach, Ukraine needs much more firepower and the ability to control and close its own skies. Lets help Zelensky establish the No Fly Zone! The Biden administration looked weak, but slowly they are starting to wake up and see the true face of evil – Vladimir Putin who is trying to restore the new Russian empire…

    David Dzidzikashvili
    Ph.D. Candidate
    Business & Technology University – BTU
    Tbilisi, Georgia

  2. Wake up NATO, Wake up EU, Wake up USA!

    What Ukraine needs today is not just your prayers and words of courage, but weapons! Weapons to enforce the No Fly Zone, since everyone seems to be too scared of Putin to enforce even the bare minimum of the No Fly Zone over human corridors to evacuate the civilians, women, children & the elderly.

    What is happening in Mauripol is genocide and ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians. 80% of the city had been destroyed and the Russians are actively bombing the civilian targets, while refusing to let them evacuate. This is the most evil, the most deliberate murderous action against the civilian population since the WW2!

    Ukraine immediately needs those Mig29 fighter jets, S-300/S400 anti air systems, more drones, more anti-tank/anti-armor systems, smart artillery systems and the Biden administration would do a lot if the US will start to transfer the Patriot missiles to the Ukrainian Defense forces. The Ukrainian forces need anti-artillery radar systems, to be able to identify and geo-locate the artillery fire, since this had been the #1 killer of the Ukrainian civilians: artillery & rockets from the Russian Mir!

    The civilized world has to wake up and wake up now! Prayers and kind thoughts are welcome, but they don’t kill the Russian invaders. Bullets & missiles do! More weapons to Ukraine immediately!

    Slava Ukraini! Glory to Ukraine!
    As a Georgian citizen, I proudly stand 100% with my Ukrainian brothers & sisters!

    David Dzidzikashvili
    Ph.D. Candidate
    Business & Technology University – BTU
    Tbilisi, Georgia

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