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Can Russia back down in Ukraine?

Russia’s invasion threat looms, and there have been no diplomatic breakthroughs yet.

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea on January 18. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine.
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

“My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” President Joe Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a Wednesday press conference. Biden was describing the predicament his counterpart has created for himself in Eastern Europe, as Russia has stationed tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border.

Biden added that there is space to work with Russia on a peaceful solution if Putin wants it, but if he escalates, “I think it will hurt him badly.”

It was a remarkably blunt — maybe too blunt — assessment of the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine, which is staring down the threat of a possible Russian invasion. The crisis has built and built, lately with renewed signs of Russian aggression, from cyberattacks on Ukrainian government websites to the Kremlin moving troops to neighboring Belarus for joint military exercises. Against this backdrop, diplomatic talks in Geneva between the US and Russia sputtered earlier this month, and renewed efforts between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday produced no big breakthroughs.

Blinken said Friday that the two would speak again after the US consults with its allies and responds to a series of demands from Russia. It’s one sign there might still be a way out of the crisis, if not exactly an optimistic one.

Some of the big-ticket demands on Russia’s list are nonstarters with US and NATO allies, something Russia also probably knows. For example, Moscow wants guarantees that NATO would not expand eastward, including to Ukraine, and a rolling back of troop deployment to some former Soviet states, which would turn back the clock decades on Europe’s security and geopolitical alignment. These demands are “a Russian attempt, not only to secure his interest in Ukraine, but essentially re-litigate the security architecture in Europe,” said Michael Kofman, research director in the Russia studies program at CNA, a research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia.

Map of Russia and Ukraine Christina Animashaun/Vox

In other words, this is about Ukraine. But Ukraine is also a stage for Russia’s own insecurities about its place in Europe and the world, and how Putin’s legacy is tied up all in that.

“For Russia, what it sees as Western encroachment into Ukraine is a very big part of how the West has been weakening Russia, and infringing on a security interest for all of this time,” said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group.

All of this makes it difficult to see a diplomatic way out, especially when 100,000 troops are posted along the Ukrainian border. Russia has denied that it has plans to invade, and few believe Putin has fully made up his mind on what he wants to do. But with all the threats and ultimatums, Putin may still have to do something if he cannot wrest concessions from the West.

“In a certain way, [he] has put himself in a corner,” said Natia Seskuria, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “Because he can only do this once.”

Diplomacy isn’t totally dead. But it’s not going great.

Russia presented the United States with its demands last month. It requested “legally binding security guarantees,” including a stop to eastward NATO expansion, which would exclude Ukraine from ever joining, and that NATO would not deploy troops or conduct military activities in countries that joined the alliance after 1997, which includes Poland and former Soviet states in the Baltics.

Kyiv and NATO have grown closer over the last decade-plus, and actively cooperate. But Ukraine is nowhere close to officially joining NATO, something the US openly admits, and something Russia also knows. Still, NATO says Ukrainian future membership is a possibility because of its open-door policy, which says each country can freely choose its own security arrangements. To bar Ukrainian ascension would effectively give Russia a veto on NATO membership and cooperation. Removing NATO’s military presence on the alliance’s eastern flank would restore Russia’s influence over European security, remaking it into something a bit more Cold War-esque.

Russia almost certainly knew that the US and NATO would never go for this. The question is what Putin thought he had to gain by making an impossible opening bid. Some see it as a way to justify invasion, blaming the United States for the implosion of any talks. “This is a tried-and-true Russian tactic of using diplomacy to say that they’re the good guys, in spite of their maximalist demands, that [they’re] able to go to their people and say, ‘look, we tried everything. The West is a security threat, and so this is why we’re taking these actions,’” said David Salvo, deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

On the other hand, Russia’s hardline requests — alongside its aggressive military buildup — may be intended to get the West to move on something. “I don’t think that this was intended by Putin to fail, as some think. I think it was intended to extract concessions,” said Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “And the question, of course, would be just how many concessions would satisfy the Russian government and obviously allow Putin to build up his domestic prestige.”

And that really is the question, especially since, so far, nothing seems to have really worked. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, a seasoned negotiator, met with Russian counterparts in Geneva earlier in January but made little progress. Blinken and Lavrov met Friday for 90 minutes; the meeting yielded no breakthroughs but Russia and the US agreed to potentially keep at it, after the US delivers written answers to Russia’s demands next week. “I can’t say whether or not we are on the right path,” Lavrov told reporters, according to the New York Times. “We will understand this when we get the American response on paper to all the points in our proposals.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands ahead of security talks at the Hotel President Wilson in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 21.
Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via Getty Images

Russia might not like the responses on NATO, but there are spaces where the US and NATO could offer concessions, such as greater transparency about military maneuvers and exercises, or more discussions on arms control, including reviving a version of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or even scaling back some US naval exercises in places like the Black Sea, which Russia sees as a provocation. “There is still potentially room on those fronts,” said Alyssa Demus, senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. “That’s entirely possible that the US and Russia or NATO and Russia could negotiate on those — and then maybe table the other issues for a later date.”

But if the US and NATO extend those olive branches or others, that might not be enough for Putin. Neither of these will resolve Putin’s fundamental sticking point. He has repeatedly framed the US and NATO as a major security threat to Russia for his domestic audience, including spreading disinformation about the West being behind the real chaos in Ukraine. “Having built up this formidable force, and issued all manner of ominous warnings, he’s got to come back with something tangible,” said Rajan Menon, director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities.

Moscow will likely continue the diplomatic route for as long as it thinks it serves its interests. But Russia has previously said it wouldn’t “wait forever.” “If they decide that it’s not worth continuing to talk — that they’re not going to get enough of what they want from talking — then they might as well fight,” Oliker said. “Then they’re doing it because they think the fight is going to get them closer to that solution than not fighting.”

Russia could opt to destabilize Ukraine — but it’s already been doing that

Russia has deployed troops, tanks, and artillery near the Ukrainian border, movements that look as though Moscow is preparing for war. But what kind of war will determine the humanitarian, political, and economic tolls, and the response of Ukraine, the United States, and Europe.

And, really, Ukraine is already at war. In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, and exploited protests in the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine, backing and arming pro-Russian separatists. Russia denied its direct involvement, but military units of “little green men” — soldiers in uniform but without insignia — moved into the region with equipment. More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict, which ebbs and flows, though Moscow has fueled the unrest since. Russia has also continued to destabilize and undermine Ukraine, including by launching cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and conducting disinformation campaigns.

It is possible that Moscow takes aggressive steps — escalating its proxy war, launching sweeping disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks, and applying pressure in all sorts of ways that don’t involve moving Russian troops across the border and won’t invite the most crushing consequences.

But this route looks a lot like what Russia has already been doing, and it hasn’t gotten Moscow closer to its objectives. “How much more can you destabilize? It doesn’t seem to have had a massive damaging impact on Ukraine’s pursuit of democracy, or even its tilt toward the west,” said Margarita Konaev, associate director of analysis and research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET).

And that might prompt Moscow to see force as the solution.

What happens if Russia invades

There are plenty of scenarios mapping out a Russian invasion, from sending troops into the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine to seizing strategic regions and blockading Ukraine’s access to waterways, to a full-on war with Moscow marching on Kyiv in an attempt to retake the entire country. What Russia does, ultimately, will depend on what it thinks will give it the best chance of getting what it wants from Ukraine, or the West. Any of it could be devastating, though the more expansive the operation, the more catastrophic.

Ukrainian troops stand in a trench on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near Verkhnetoretske village, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on January 18.
Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

A full-on invasion to seize all of Ukraine would be something like Europe hasn’t seen in decades. It could involve urban warfare, including on the streets of Kyiv, and airstrikes on urban centers. It would cause astounding humanitarian consequences, including a refugee crisis. Konaev noted that all urban warfare is harsh, but the specifics of how Russia fights in urban settings — witnessed in places like Syria — has been “particularly devastating, with very little regard for civilian protection.”

The colossal scale of such an offensive also makes it the least likely, experts say, and it would carry tremendous costs for Russia. “I think Putin himself knows that the stakes are really high,” Seskuria, of RUSI, said. “That’s why I think a full-scale invasion is a riskier option for Moscow in terms of potential political and economic causes — but also due to the number of casualties. Because if we compare Ukraine in 2014 to the Ukrainian army and its capabilities right now, they are much more capable.” (Western training and arms sales have something to do with those increased capabilities, to be sure.)

Such an invasion would force Russia to move into areas that are bitterly hostile toward it. That increases the likelihood of a prolonged resistance (possibly even one backed by the US) — and an invasion could turn into an occupation. “The sad reality is that Russia could take as much of Ukraine as it wants, but it can’t hold it,” said Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Still, Russia could launch an invasion into parts of Ukraine — moving to secure more of the east, or south to the Black Sea. That would still be a dramatic escalation, but the fallout will depend on what it looks like and what Russia seeks to achieve. The United States and its allies have said that a large-scale invasion will be met with aggressive political and economic consequences, including potentially cutting Russia off from the global financial system to nixing the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Biden, during his Wednesday remarks, said that if Russia invades it will be held accountable, though “it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not to do.”

Some accused Biden of signaling that Russia could get away with a baby invasion, though the White House later clarified that any move across the Ukrainian border will be met with “a swift, severe, and united response” from the US and its allies. Ukraine has said there is no such thing as a “minor incursion.” But those remarks also reflected the challenges of trying to contain Russia in a place the United States and Europe do not themselves want to fight, and where allies do have competing interests.

And Putin, of course, already knows this. “The question is,” Konaev said, “how much military power [Russia is] willing to commit to where it will call it a day and call it goals achieved?”

Has Putin backed himself into a corner?

Putin’s ultimatum — give me Ukraine, and a say in Europe, or I may do something with all these troops — is a dangerous one. Not just because, well, war, but because it has created a situation where Putin himself has to deliver. “He has two options,” said Olga Lautman, senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, “to say, ‘never mind, just kidding,’ which will show his weakness and shows that he was intimidated by US and Europe standing together — and that creates weakness for him at home and with countries he’s attempting influence.”

“Or he goes full forward with an attack,” she said. “At this point, we don’t know where it’s going, but the prospects are very grim.”

This is the corner Putin has put himself in, which makes a walk-back from Russia seem difficult to fathom. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, and it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of some sort of diplomatic solution that gives Putin enough cover to declare victory without the West meeting his explicit demands. It also doesn’t eliminate the possibility that Russia and the United States will be stuck in this standoff for months longer, with Ukraine caught in the middle and under sustained threat from Russia.

But it also means the prospect of war remains. “The Russian government has not decided definitely on war. In other words, there is still a possibility of compromise,” Lieven said. “But that war is certainly much, much more likely than it has ever been since 2015.”