The other day, Alexander Motyl published an article on the Atlantic Council about the potential of a Russian invasion of Ukraine…
But before I get to trashing the message of the article, let me quote these bits:
Vladimir Putin must be kicking himself. Four years ago, he could have invaded and seized most of Ukraine in a few weeks. Believing that Ukrainians were an “artificial” nation led by “fascists,” however, he figured an invasion was unnecessary and the state would collapse on its own. Now, Ukrainians are daily demonstrating their desire to leave the Russian zone of influence forever.
So, what’s Putin to do? He’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Although war—whether big or small—would serve no Russian interests, it is all the more likely as Putin grasps at straws to sustain his declining legitimacy. Like all increasingly impotent and unpopular dictators, Putin probably senses that a war with Ukraine might just succeed in distracting Russians and saving his regime.
Putin surely believes that Russia is strong and stable. He also surely believes that whatever setbacks he may have incurred in the last decade must be due to bad luck or some combination of dastardly Western interference in the natural order of things. The prospect of a good war going bad is almost certainly beyond his comprehension. Quite the contrary, voices of doom could just as easily persuade him that the forces of evil are amassing and that a quick strike is imperative. We don’t know how Russia’s aging dictator will react.
“We don’t know how Russia’s aging (sic) dictator will react.” Did you ever notice how these Russophobic pundits all style themselves as Putin mind readers? In fact, Motyl does not have any idea about Putin’s motivations and his account lacks any grounding in anything tangible. Take for instance the claim that Putin’s legitimacy is based on foreign military campaigns, and as his ratings fall he might be tempted to invade a neighbouring country. What is this based on? Putin’s rating rising when he took Crimea in the wake of the Maidan after months of mayhem in Kiev? Putin back then saved several million Russian people from the fate of demonstrators in Odessa, or the fate of Donbass civilians, or the fate of several thousand political prisoners in Ukraine.
Even Motyl doesn’t believe Putin is that stupid to engage in a reckless invasion of Ukraine. Much of Motyl’s article boils down to: Russia can’t invade and occupy Ukraine because the former is not economically fit to do that. That is likely true. But here is something that Motyl did not take fully into account, although he shows signs of thinking about it. If Russia cannot occupy Ukraine, why would Russia occupy Ukraine? Limited capabilities of the Russian state are therefore relegated to the defence of the Donbass (not its entire territory) and Crimea.
Should Ukraine threaten any of these territories, Limited intervention of Russia to destroy the threat, like we have seen in 2008 in Georgia, is all Russia needs. Did Russia occupy Georgia in 2008? Did they roll into Tbilisi and hang Saakashvili on his tie? Russia went in, destroyed Georgian forces, took the Hummers, and got out. And while Ukraine may be a tougher nut to crack, contemporary Russian military is much more modernised than the force we have seen in 2008.