Russia's War on Ukraine: What Does Putin Hope to Achieve?

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference in Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 1, 2022. (Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP, File)

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What does Vladimir Putin hope to achieve, and how? For months, a sizable group of analysts in the West has been willing to take Putin at his word that Russia’s long-term goal is to compel a restructuring of Europe’s larger security architecture. After years of loudly protesting against NATO’s eastward expansion, the argument goes, Putin finally turned to dramatic displays of hard military power as an instrument with which to extract concessions from the West.

Just weeks ago, few would have disputed that Putin’s “crisis diplomacy” in Ukraine had produced some non-trivial successes for Russia. Anxious to avoid war in Europe, leaders such as Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron were at pains to stress their willingness to negotiate issues such as arms control and Russian access to NATO bases. At one point, Germany’s Olaf Scholz even raised the prospect – albeit in tentative language – of barring Ukraine from joining NATO, a signature ambition of the Russian regime.

By ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, Putin has changed the calculus of Western leaders. His war of choice will not induce the West’s leaders to concede even more of his demands – at least not any time soon. More likely than not, it will have the opposite effect: it will harden Western capitals against him and preclude diplomatic talks other than, perhaps, those aimed at securing a cessation of hostilities in Ukraine.

Yet this does not mean that a long-term settlement in Europe is now impossible. It just means that a settlement has become much harder to achieve via negotiation. Putin knows this and has pressed ahead with his invasion of Ukraine regardless. On its face, this might seem puzzling. Why would Putin escalate the conflict in Ukraine if it means losing his chance to negotiate larger reforms to the European security order?

There are two possible answers to this question, both of which are unsettling. First, Putin might be planning a unilateral restructuring of Russia’s external environment, focused squarely on Ukraine. If he can succeed in dismembering and destabilizing Ukraine, Putin might emerge from this war satisfied that Russia has been made somewhat more secure, powerful, and feared across Europe – not nothing, from his perspective.

Second, however, Putin may still be determined to impose a wide-ranging settlement on the West that includes his maximalist goals of limiting NATO deployments and barring future expansion. He might be wagering that, if Western leaders were unmoved by the sight of Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border, then perhaps they will be inclined to bargain in earnest once blood is being shed. In this scenario, whatever happens in Ukraine is a means to a much larger end, not an end in itself.

Western leaders should not discount the possibility that they are the real targets of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. They should recognize that, if this is truly Putin’s plan, then Russian aggression will not be limited to terrorizing the government and people of Ukraine. Putin can only wrest concessions from Berlin, Paris, and London if leaders in those capitals can be made to feel real pain. People across Europe should therefore be afraid: Putin means to hurt them.

    Why the West Has Not Yet Backed Down

    Nobody can pretend as though Russia has not been clear about its grievances. For decades – long before Putin became president, in fact – Russian leaders have bristled at a raft of Western policies in Eastern Europe: NATO expansion, to be sure, but also the deployment of US and allied forces ever closer to Russia’s borders, the development of a missile defense shield, and political and military interventions in countries belonging to Russia’s historic sphere of influence (e.g., Serbia and Ukraine).

    Yet despite Moscow’s complaints being commonly understood, Western governments have almost uniformly rejected the remonstrances of Europe’s largest and most powerful military power. Why?

    Part of the explanation for the West’s inflexibility is surely that its leaders have become prisoners to longstanding ideas about NATO’s intrinsic goodness. Having maintained for decades that NATO expansion is a cause of peace in Europe, they could not easily contradict themselves by conceding the Russian argument that, in fact, NATO is a destabilizing force on the continent.

    If Biden, Macron, Scholz, or any other Western leader were to explain to domestic audiences that NATO expansion is a root cause of the current crisis in Eastern Europe, there can be no doubt about the political firestorm that would follow. Charges of weakness, negligence, and appeasement would abound – especially in an era where Russian subversion of democratic societies is a genuine fear.

    Also at stake, perhaps, is what social scientists call “ontological security” – that is, a stable sense of self. NATO members view themselves and their alliance as good, defensive, and unthreatening. To contemplate limits on NATO expansion would have required NATO’s leaders to first accept the premise that their collective security organization is a bad thing – or, at least, is responsible for causing some seriously bad outcomes. While there are those in the West’s academic communities who readily agree with this assessment, it is an idea anathema to most occupants of high office.

    It is also possible that Western leaders considered the argument that Russia is made less secure by NATO’s existence and reached the conclusion that Moscow’s reasoning was bad or disingenuous. From this view, it has always strained credulity for Russia to claim insecurity when it boasts the largest military in Europe, the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, and is bordered only by NATO’s smallest and weakest members. The target of Russia’s present aggression – Ukraine – is not a NATO member, is the poorest country in Europe, and has been exposed as abjectly impotent in the face of Russian aggression.

    Western leaders might therefore have considered it absurd to argue that Ukraine’s political or military alignments make a jot of difference to Russian national security. That Russian leaders kept making this argument was revealing only insofar as it showed Moscow to be a nefarious actor bent on achieving unreasonable (predatory) goals in Europe rather than sound and levelheaded (defensive) reforms capable of serving the entire European family.

    Finally, Western governments might have declined to grant Russia’s demands up until now simply because they saw no advantage for themselves in doing so. After all, those states that have paid the costs of NATO expansion – Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and today – are not NATO members. Not a single NATO member has ever suffered military consequences as a result of Russian dissatisfaction with the political and territorial status quo in Europe. Why, then, should NATO have been expected NATO to accept limits on its deployments or foreclose future enlargement? The alliance exists to keep members safe from external attack, not to enhance the security of non-members like Ukraine.

    Why War Won’t Work, And How It Might

    These four explanations for NATO’s immovability in the face of past Russian demands – its leaders’ political self-interest, ontological security, genuine distrust of Russia, and cold disinterest in Ukrainian security – are not mutually exclusive. Each might be operating simultaneously. But the point is that some set of reasons has served to prevent NATO from accepting Russia’s calls for a reformed security architecture for some time now.

    By manufacturing a crisis in Ukraine, Putin forced the West to take genuine notice of Russia’s professed dissatisfaction and even begin the process of offering concessions. It does not follow, however, that the actual use of force against Ukraine will now cause the West to continue giving ground.

    Consider, first, whether Putin’s unprovoked Russian attack on Ukraine will make it easier for Western leaders to appease or accommodate Moscow without facing a prohibitively costly domestic backlash. Nowhere does this seem likely to be the case. At least in the short term, NATO leaders will come under enormous pressure – both domestically and from their fellow allies – to adopt hard lines toward Russia, including the swift imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

    Nor is it conceivable that this attack on Ukraine will lead to a change in national or transnational identity among NATO members. The cold execution of a contrived war of choice has hardened the idea that European NATO members are civilized followers of international rules whereas Russia is a rogue actor that cannot be trusted and must be feared. Accused of war crimes, Putin will become a pariah. Western politicians will hardly be falling over themselves for the opportunity to meet with him.

    It is similarly implausible that the invasion of Ukraine is going to lead those Western leaders who previously scoffed at Russian claims of insecurity to change their assessments of Moscow’s geopolitical circumstances. On the contrary, they feel vindicated: in their eyes, Putin’s actions have removed any doubt whatsoever that Russia is an aggressor, not the aggrieved. This problem is compounded by the fact that, in the context of an ongoing invasion, it will become increasingly difficult for those who did (and still do) sympathize with Russia’s geopolitical position to continue making public arguments in favor of accommodation. The invasion of Ukraine will badly hobble doves in the West, perhaps irreparably.

    The only remaining question, then, is whether an invasion of Ukraine can force Western governments to recognize that their own national security is truly “indivisible” from that of Ukraine and Russia. Can NATO’s membership be convinced that a negotiated settlement is necessary to enhance their own collective security? If Putin can achieve this, then it would open the door to NATO eventually agreeing to negotiate with Russia on issues that have previously been beyond the pale.

    It seems clear that a limited invasion – one restricted to the Donbas alone, for example – would not have had this effect. It is now eight years since Russia annexed Crimea. Eastern Ukraine has been in a state of war ever since. At no point have Western governments shown any sign of believing that their own security was in jeopardy as a result of the fighting taking place in Europe’s far east.

    This, perhaps, is why Putin has not limited his invasion to the Donbas. He has made the war into a large conflagration. His forces are attacking cities across Ukraine. There is the looming prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe.

    A Ukrainian Army soldier inspects fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv, Ukraine
    A Ukrainian Army soldier inspects fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Zamirovsky)

    And there might be much more to come: What if Russian forces are to seize Kyiv and topple the government there? What if airstrikes are launched along the Polish and Romanian borders? What if the Russian air force violates the airspace of other NATO members or pursues Ukrainian fighters across international frontiers?

    Such outcomes would be unsettling for politicians in Berlin, Paris, and London. They would verge on existential threats from the perspective of Bucharest, Warsaw, and others in the east.

    As noted above, this large-scale attack on Ukraine will probably harden Western opinion against Putin in the first instance. NATO will profess solidarity and resolve. But if large numbers of refugees stream out of Ukraine, if anti-Russian fighters look for bases in NATO countries, or if conflict spills over into other parts of Europe, for example, then people in Central and Western Europe might quickly become convinced that the concept of “indivisible security” captures a meaningful reality after all. In turn, it is reasonable to expect that the whole of Europe can be forced to acknowledge – however grudgingly – that a reformed security order is needed.

    This is the one area where Putin can overturn the political calculus that, for years, has prevented the West from entering into serious negotiations over the future of the European security order: he can cause so much pain and suffering in Ukraine and beyond that NATO members are forced to concede that they have a self-interest in negotiating a wide-ranging settlement in Europe, not just a moral obligation to bring peace to Ukraine. But to do so, Putin will have to author the case for indivisible security in blood. It will not a “clean” or “surgical” process. There are no euphemisms capable of minimizing or sanitizing what is about to come. The war will be terrible – and that will be the point.

    Europe’s War, Europe’s Peace

    Far from nudging the United States and Western Europe toward voluntarily accepting that a new security architecture is needed in Europe, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will almost certainly make it much harder for Western governments to grant Russia its most ambitious designs for European order. Faced with the sight of Russian tanks rolling across Ukraine, Western leaders will feel under heavy pressure to demonstrate “strength” and “resolve” – codewords for militarism – rather than engage in meaningful diplomacy with Moscow. Doves in the West will be deprived of oxygen, hawks will claim vindication, and leaders will have little choice but to harden their stances against Russia.

    Meanwhile, along Russia’s borders, Kyiv and other Eastern Europe capitals will be made to fear Russian aggression even more than they have up until now. A new generation will grow up knowing what it means to experience Russia as a regional menace. The NATO alliance might even end up expanding, with Finland and Sweden petitioning for and being granted membership. If this happens, it will add another 830 miles of border where NATO meets Russian territory. Moscow’s security environment will have been made worse, not better.

    The only way this apparently self-defeating war makes sense for Putin is if he intends to turn the conflict into something so terrible that Western leaders are dragged back to the negotiating table with the blood drained from their faces. If he succeeds in doing this, a commitment to bar forever Ukrainian entry into NATO will only be the start of what Putin demands as the price of peace. Everything included on Moscow’s December 2021 wish list will be up for negotiation.

    The tragedy of Putin’s war is that, in the abstract, a reformed security order is almost certainly a good idea in the European context. This is true not just because Russia says so, but because weak states like Ukraine are patently in need of new protections. Leaders in the West can no longer pretend that NATO alone is capable of guaranteeing “a Europe whole and free.” The war in Ukraine is Russia’s fault but it is also a failure of international law and order. In the long run, the West must understand that Europe’s security architecture must command the respect of non-NATO members, too, including both Russia and Ukraine, if every country is to be free from the scourge of war.

    With his crisis diplomacy in Ukraine, Putin put a spotlight on the case for continental reform. He might even have generated some degree of sympathy for the Russian position, not just in public forums but also along one or two corridors of power. Alas, by invading Ukraine, Putin has made the path to a reformed security architecture much harder for the West to traverse. Now, only terrible bloodshed will be enough to convince Western leaders that they have a self-interest in compromising with an autocrat they view with utter disdain.

    All wars end. That much is certain. The whole world should hope that this war ends quickly, with the least possible amount of suffering. But it is prudent to plan for the grim scenario painted above: a long war, prosecuted by Russia for the purpose of causing maximum pain and suffering for all of Europe, which will only end when Europe as a whole comes together to forge a peace acceptable to the continent’s worst aggressor. How and when will that war end? With compromise, common institutions, and lasting peace? It is hard to imagine right now. But these are the questions that Western governments might soon be forced to answer. Putin will make sure of it.

    Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, international relations theory and U.S. foreign policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with Defense Priorities and a 1945 contributing editor.

    This article originally appeared on

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