A week ago, the White House claimed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “imminent.” But it hasn’t happened yet, and the clock is ticking.
In a few weeks, the ice may have begun to thaw – or it could still be thick enough for Russian armor to roll across without getting swamped. It depends on the vagaries of Ukraine’s winter – and which weather site you are looking at.
On Friday, Beijing’s Winter Olympics are due to begin, and Russian President Vladimir Putin may not choose to spoil his friend Xi Jinping’s games by starting a conflict thousands of miles away and distracting the world’s attention.
Coupled with that, Russia’s critics and advocates alike agree that a full-scale invasion – of the depth and pace the Biden administration seem convinced is going to happen – could be catastrophic.
So, what else could Putin do?
Much Western analysis of Putin’s options revolves around his temperament – which some perceive as opportunistic and driven by resentment – and his apparent isolation from the full facts.
It hinges on how his information intake is fed by the tight cabal which surrounds him, supplying him with imbalanced and incomplete data on how successful each of the strategic options in front of him might be, and how survivable any Western response could prove.
But that same cabal might also be capable of persuading him that no response is acceptable – and that doing nothing looks both tactically wise and geopolitically strong.
Kremlin outsiders have concluded that Moscow needs to do something in order to avoid looking weak. But insiders might convince themselves – and their decision-maker – that the opposite is, in fact, the case: That it is best NOT to act.
2. Something we have not thought of
This may be unthinkable to the cottage industry of war-gamers pondering the prospects of an imminent conflict, but when Putin rose from nowhere to power in the late 1990s, invaded Chechnya in 1999, used a mysterious gas to end the Moscow theater siege in 2002, arrested Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003, took Crimea in 2014, joined the Syrian conflict in 2015 (you get the idea…) he defied expectations and predictions.
It is of course contradictory to try and predict what his next move might therefore be, but Putin has a lot of options for ways to make his mark without invading a neighbor.
Central Asia remains chaotic, and its despots are perhaps open to more interventions, such as the one seen recently in Kazakhstan. Afghanistan is in turmoil. The Arctic is a place Russia cares deeply about and has a territorial advantage over. Sweden’s Gotland and Norway’s Svalbard are islands that have been on edge because of Russia’s earlier military abruptness. South America, too, contains many opportunities for the Kremlin to disrupt the status quo.
In short: The options are manifold, and Putin’s ability to surprise is long-established.
3. Seek a settlement over eastern Ukraine’s separatist areas
This is by far the worst option for both sides.
Peace talks over the status of the Donbas have stalled, partly as Moscow tends not to act in good faith, and partly as Kyiv is reluctant to agree to a deal which may tacitly acknowledge ceding control to Russia over the two separatist enclaves in its east (and why should it?).
The Minsk process – in which European powers seek to encourage a permanent settlement – may get a new lease of life. Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, may even talk briefly. But it is tough domestically for either side to give ground.
Moscow can’t – either ideologically or practically – unwind its proxies in the Donbas easily: They are too entrenched, as is their rhetoric about rights to the land.
4. Recognize the separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine
This is something the Russian parliament – often a rubber-stamp to Kremlin initiatives – has suggested is an option even this week, though what form the recognition might take is unclear.
Would the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics become part of Russia? Or separate entities altogether, supported by their huge creator and neighbor? Recognition could be matched with Russian “peacekeepers” to provide protection from Ukrainian forces.
In truth, though, this is a lose-lose situation for the Kremlin.
It might provide a brief moment of self-assertion, but it could result in damaging sanctions from the United States and mean the economic mess of the two enclaves is entirely owned by Moscow.
Putting Russian troops on the frontline would also risk dragging Russia into a full-blown war, if any were killed on the often-febrile line of contact.
5. Leave thousands of troops in Belarus
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said Monday that Russia currently has 5,000 troops in Belarus, and by early February may have has many as 30,000.
This is a strategic gain telegraphed by Putin’s recent moves in defense of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. As Russian assistance poured in to help quash protests there, and Moscow stood firmly by the Minsk leader – despite his ambiguous stance towards Russia over the past decade – many predicted Putin would want payback.
The joint exercises between Russian and Belarusian troops may just peter out with Putin deciding to leave some – or all – of this force in place.
It could help menace Kyiv over the years ahead, since the Ukrainian capital is just two unimpeded hours away from the Belarusian border. It could loom large over NATO members Poland to the west, and even the Baltics to the north.
It would effectively subsume Belarus, Russia’s smaller, weaker neighbor, whose strongman leader is an international pariah, crushing dissent with ugly, persistent cruelty. It is something Moscow could sell as a gain, and for which the US and its allies have yet to articulate a real position.
How can Washington, with troops spread across Europe’s NATO members, criticize Putin for responding to an “invitation” to leave thousands of his troops in its ally Belarus? It’s a win – and one which would leave Ukraine’s security in a far worse place than it was three months ago, when all the invasion noise began, without any real consequences for Moscow.
Putin’s next move is – as the White House keeps insisting – up to him.
But there are defter alternatives than a full invasion, and the Russian President has a track record of unanticipated, brutal subtlety.