With more than 130,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus, U.S. and NATO diplomats have been negotiating with Russian officials to avert a ground war on the European continent as world leaders await Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move.
Analysts with expertise in Russian politics and national security said at a Harvard event on Wednesday that Putin has much to gain by pushing into Ukraine and that now could be an opportune time to do it — but that doesn’t mean he will. The group assessed the delicate, complicated state of affairs and offered theories on how things may play out during the event hosted by Paul Kolbe, director of the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School.
Putin’s goals and demands are multifaceted and though unrealistic, not entirely illegitimate, said Alexandra Vacroux, Ph.D. ’05, executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and lecturer in the Government Department at Harvard.
She said his aims include securing Russian access to the European energy market with completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany to protect Russian tax revenues generated from hydrocarbon exports, which will in turn allow the government to maintain Russian standards of living and help quell domestic unrest. U.S. and German officials have warned that the project will not move forward if Russia invades.
In addition, Putin wants to get NATO to ban Ukraine from ever joining the defense alliance and to move NATO troops westward, back to where they were in 1997; demand that the West respect Russia as a great power, equal to the U.S. and China; and secure his legacy as a heroic figure in Russian history before he leaves office by fixing the mistake made by Russian leaders at the end of the Cold War.
Though NATO will not agree to withdraw its forces, the closeness of NATO forces to Russia’s western and southern borders is “a legitimate security concern” for Russia, Vacroux said.
So why act right now? The Russian military has recently modernized and is fairly strong, while Ukraine’s military, which was weak and poorly trained during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, has also grown substantially and improved. With NATO advisers and equipment flowing into Ukraine, Russia may see the window closing on its advantage and want to strike while it can. Putin also sees that Europe is not united on what to do and views President Biden as politically weak and distracted with domestic politics, she said.