Understanding Putin’s Game

LOS ANGELES — Across Ukraine, war and devastation rages. In the week following Putin’s Feb. 24 war declaration which he framed as a “special military operation” to “demilitarize Ukraine,” Ukraine has been thrown into a drastic battle for survival. 

From Kyiv to Odessa to Kharkiv, the country has devolved into a state of calamity, resulting in casualties for both Russian and Ukrainian forces. According to the United Nations, there have been at least 406 civilian deaths and hundreds of injuries, thousands without electricity or water and about 1.7 million refugees at the time of publication. Russia is destroying airports, schools and reportedly committing war crimes by blowing up orphanages, kindergartens and other civilian infrastructure. 

While Ukrainian forces are holding on better than many expected, some experts believe that it is highly unlikely they will last much longer against the brute force of Russia’s army. How did the situation escalate to this point, and how will it progress?

Glimpse from the Globe sat down with Dr. Brian Rathbun, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, to discuss the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Rathbun, who specializes in humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building and diplomacy discussed invasion and implications of the evolving conflict.

Note: Though the interview was conducted in early February, the conversation maintains relevance by offering insight into the evolving conflict. 

On discussing the origins of the invasion, Rathbun pinned the issue to American inattention and a lack of concession.

BR: [Putin] sensed lack of unity in NATO as well as American inattention, on top of [America] leaving Afghanistan hastily. Putin thought this was the time to push what had been long-standing aims to see if he can get [concessions]…We understand that our actions [in terms of NATO expansion]might make Russia insecure, while at the same time denying that they should make them insecure, but that recognition may be exactly what Russia is looking for: some sort of validation. But it now seems [Russia] wants more based on the sheer size of the deployments around Ukraine.

And indeed, it has been made painstakingly clear that Russia wants more than just concessions. Putin has emphasized throughout his years in power that he does not view Ukraine as a sovereign country, but rather, as a Russian land wrongfully torn from the homeland’s grip. With the recent invasion, it seems Putin wants to force a regime change to install another puppet government nearby and redraw the lines of Europe. 

The United States has known about the impending conflict for months, at minimum; the federal government first began leaking documents to the press that Russia was amassing troops and weapons around eastern Ukraine in December of 2021. Rathbun describes this as a cultural defense strategy in which a state attempts to establish a global narrative to shape future conflict. 

BR: This is something I’ve been paying a lot of attention to, something we don’t always pay enough attention to as scholars of international relations but which I think we should. Almost every conflict involves some sort of rhetorical struggle to put oneself in the position of the defensive, acting in self-defense, and the “other” as being offensively motivated. This is done both for operating in front of your own audience, because you want to convince your people that you are doing what is necessary to protect your own legitimate interests, as well as in front of a global audience… I think that is the reason we have been leaking various Russian plans… We are doing that because we are scared that they are trying to drum up a pretext so it looks like what they are doing is defensive. The [US] is trying to undercut them by showing the offensive motive behind those various plans we are leaking. [Russia] wants to make the US look like we are trying to start this, but it’s a hard thing to do because we didn’t just reposition 100,000 forces.

Yet, while the United States may have been drumming up its own normative framing of the situation for months, Russia has been doing so for years. As aforementioned, Putin has long vowed by nationalist ideals which claim Ukraine as a part of Russia. This remnant of Soviet consciousness views NATO expansion into previous territories, such as Estonia and Lithuania, as further assault and menace to Russian standing. The threat of Ukraine or Georgia also becoming NATO members is one Putin capitalized on to sow anti-Western fear and justify such a “demilitarization.” 

This desire to reassert Russian dominance in Ukraine is the reason Crimea was supposedly annexed eight years ago, and why the region of Donbas in Eastern Ukraine has long been under besiegement as Ukraine and Russia struggle for its control. In fact, it was this contested region of Donbas which Putin primarily claimed was his limited goal prior to revealing his true intentions a few days later with a nationwide assault. 

And, as Rathbun sees it, many Russians (though not all) may very well believe in this ideology and narrative enough to back their President as he wages unprovoked war across the way.

BR: [Russia] might just be willing to bear those costs of international opprobrium [in response to invasion]because [Putin’s] main audience is his own people who I think will back him no matter what. The Russians will always feel that what they’re doing is self-defense because they see themselves as acting not to the immediate circumstances but to all the actions they view as aggressive on the part of the US and NATO since the 1990s. You can almost see this as a sort of self-defense to NATO encroachment and American encroachment.

Whether Putin’s motives are personal, political, or simply strategic, their consequences are real and debilitating. Experts are warning that this war will likely be Europe’s bloodiest and most devastating since perhaps World War II. Its results have the potential to put the very foundation of democratic peace which has lasted since World War II at risk as well. Yet, how democratic countries should react remains contested. Putin has very clearly warned against foreign intervention, saying: “Whoever tries to hinder us… should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development of events… I hope that I will be heard.” 

Coming from the largest stockpiler of nuclear weapons in the world, this threat was indeed heard around the world. It was also hypocritical, given Putin has pulled the strings on his cronies in Belarus and in Chechnya to have them send their troops to wreak further havoc in Ukraine. Even with Putin’s fear-mongering put aside, it has always been unlikely that the United States would choose to engage in a direct war with Russian troops, if not because of the unprecedented challenge and threat, then also because the United States is just coming off the tail of decades of failed foreign wars. 

BR: “I personally would not support any kind of direct military engagement with the Russians. If we thought Iraq and Afghanistan were bad, this is a much more formal adversary with more potential for escalation; this is a power with nuclear weapons. I think what would inevitably happen, and again the lesser evil, is to help the Ukrainians resist to the extent that is possible and bottle up the Russians economically and financially and diplomatically so they are essentially cut off from the rest of the world. And I think that is the trap we are trying to set right now…the worst possible outcome is an actual ground war. I don’t see the American public supporting that.”

Yet, even the less aggressive method of economic and financial sanctions can have severe consequences in such a complex situation as this. Russia is a key global exporter of a number of vital resources, from fertilizer to aluminum, and of course, oil and gas. 

Furthermore, the conflict could hinder Ukraine’s export of neon gas, which constitutes 70% of global supply used to make semiconductors. If Russia, seeing little more to lose in the face of economic demise due to sanctions, was to counterattack and limit its exports, it would be highly wounding to an interdependent global economy already suffering from destruction and inflation following COVID-19. 

On the other hand, the West would surely lose credibility if they were to not speak out in a situation that directly attacks the fundamental principles of liberal democracy. Accordingly, the West has unified — far faster and stronger than many would have expected. The United States will likely soon call for an emergency UN General Assembly meeting to condemn the invasion as a counter to Russia’s sole veto of the UN Security Council resolution on Feb. 25. Norway will sell off the Russian assets of its sovereign wealth fund, Britain is freeing itself of stakes in Russian oil companies, and in an unprecedented move, Germany has vowed to raise its military spending by 2% and invest more in LNG terminals to wean off dependence on Russian oil. 

NATO has put out a statement condemning Russia and Belarus, redirected blame towards Putin, committed to providing “political and practical support” to Ukraine, and fortified forces and assets in the Eastern part of the Alliance. It has also reportedly activated defense plans in preparation to defend and secure Alliance territory. 

Additionally, major Western countries have imposed restrictions on Russia’s use of SWIFT, the global payments system used by many Russian banks, and are toying with cutting Russia off from its hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign reserves. This would wreck the rouble, throw Russia’s “fortress” economy into a frenzy, and potentially send a warning to China, which has been eyeing Taiwan for years. 

Whether this will incur retaliation from Russia or deter Putin remains to be seen, but as noted by Condoleeza Rice, Putin’s actions in Ukraine have “stirred up a hornet’s nest” and brought together NATO in ways unseen since the end of the cold war. This is something Professor Rathbun predicted weeks ago.

BR: If Putin takes even the radical step of annexing another part of Ukraine, like Donbas, it would bring about a revival of NATO much much more inimical to Russian influence in the region. This is something we saw a lot of in IR, whereby provocative actions which are seen as justified by one side lead to escalatory actions by the other side which leaves the provocateur worse off. This happens all the time and betrays a lack of foresightedness which shows how, just as we struggle to understand their point of view, [Russia] may struggle to see our point of view. They may fail to see how we would feel it necessary to create a much more robust, conventional deterrence to Russia and be more inclined to admit other countries into NATO rather than less inclined because of their actions. Russia feels like we’ve taken advantage of them whereas we would say you haven’t seen anything yet.

In less than a week, the conflict has unraveled in the worst possible way in the blink of an eye. The future is uncertain, but unlikely to resolve itself peacefully and without severe losses for both Ukrainians and Russians, even though the countries recently agreed to a temporary ceasefire. Moreover, the current worldwide hegemonic system as a whole may ostensibly be at risk as major powers like Russia and China undertake authoritarian actions which contradict it and challenge the dominance of the United States. 

The crux of the security dilemma and the Achilles heel of democratic peace is the fear of, and the resulting desire for control over, “the other”. That tension is bubbling under the surface, and none can ascertain if global forces will be able to cool the embers of its flame before further catastrophe occurs. 

However the cards may unfold, what is currently clear is that in this game of war, innocent human lives are yet again the pawns left to be casually discarded.