20 years under Putin: a timeline

Since March 2021, when the first reports of a military buildup at the Russia-Ukraine border appeared, the Kremlin has continued taking steps to shape the battlespace, both in physical reality and in the information sphere. While Western observers seem to view a Russian invasion as almost inevitable, Ukrainian officials call for a toning down of the incendiary rhetoric. In his op-ed for IMR, Michael Wasiura, a U.S. political analyst based in Moscow, explains why there are reasons to believe that the Kremlin is preparing for war.


February 7, 2022: A Ukrainian serviceman reports to a commander via military intercom sitting in a shelter at the frontline positions near Zolote, Ukraine. Photo: Evgeniy Maloletka | AP.


The preparation 

On February 10-20, up to 30,000 Russian and Belarusian troops will hold joint military exercises in western and southern Belarus. According to the scenario , soldiers of the Russia-Belarus Union State will be divided into “northern” and “western” coalitions and carry out operations as part of a simulated conflict instigated by this latter coalition and terrorist organizations under its control. The western coalition will be joined by the fictional Republic of Dnieprovia, and together they will invade the Republic of Polesye, a member of the northern coalition, seeking to destabilize it, change its political leadership, and undermine the Northern Federation, another coalition member. Despite the veneer of fiction, the main idea of the exercise legend is quite transparent. There is every reason to suspect that the military exercise is a practice run for an attack on Ukraine—an attack that, as some analysts argue, would result in Russia’s seizing of the Ukrainian territory east of the Dnieper River, its natural geographic dividing line.

It is true that past worst-case fears have not developed into worst-case outcomes. Last April, after Russia was observed to be maneuvering additional military hardware into place near its southwestern border, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu put an end to a similar war scare with his declaration that the Russian military’s “snap inspection” had been successfully completed. This announcement came as officials in Washington and Moscow discussed potential means of de-escalating the crisis, and Shoigu’s announcement was widely interpreted as a step in setting up the summit between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden which occurred later that June. In the final week of April, several thousand Russian troops returned from locations around Ukraine to their permanent bases. Kremlin-backed media outlets, which had just waged a three-week propaganda campaign claiming that the government in Kyiv was preparing to launch an offensive aimed at taking back control of the two Kremlin-backed breakaway territories in the eastern Ukrainian Donbass region, noticeably calmed down. However, most of the actual military materiel which had been on the move in the early weeks of spring remained stationed in the vicinity of Russia’s border with Ukraine.

War fever picked up again in early November. As ever more tank-laden trains made their way westward, sharp questions arose as to the intentions behind this continuing Russian military buildup. Optimistic observers in the West breathed a sigh of relief in mid-December when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow published the contents of two draft treaties outlining Russia’s security concerns, and, in the weeks that followed, much of the talk in Western capitals focused on what combination of diplomatic concessions might be sufficient to bring the crisis to a peaceful end. Carnegie Moscow head Dmitry Trenin shared this outlook, opining that the Russian offer constituted “an opening bid, not an ultimatum.

The draft treaties Russia was offering up contained both entirely practical and openly maximalist demands. On the maximalist side were the provisions that NATO roll back its force posture to the alliance’s 1997 borders and that all of its members forswear any future cooperation with Ukraine—two points that were seen as immediate non-starters by American and NATO representatives. On the practical side, however, Russia was suggesting talks to reestablish an agreement similar to the INF treaty, from which the United States had unilaterally withdrawn in 2019. Despite Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s stated position that the draft treaties were “not a menu,” it was widely expected that Moscow would nevertheless be open to compromise in order to reach a reasonable diplomatic resolution to the crisis. 

Nothing over the ensuing weeks suggests that a diplomatic compromise was ever Russia’s aim. Although contact has continued, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov effectively declared the negotiations dead on January 14 with his statement that the Russian side still expected to receive “legally binding guarantees” to all of its previously stated demands—an informal confirmation that the unrealistic draft treaties of December really were an ultimatum. Point-by-point written answers, composed in Washington and delivered to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow on January 26, similarly failed to assuage Russia’s concerns “about increasing politico-military tensions in the immediate vicinity of its western borders.” Throughout this diplomatic charade, Russia continued moving troops and equipment towards its southwestern border, while domestic propaganda put out an endless chorus of noise about Western forces preparing Ukrainian radicals to stage a “provocation” in the Donbass. The Russian public is not enthusiastic about the prospect of war; however, if war does break out, a critical mass will still be prepared to accept the Kremlin’s claim that Russia was sucked into a conflict against its will by hostile Western powers. 

In short, over the past ten months, the Kremlin has tried to justify—at least to its domestic constituency—the possibility of a military clash with those hostile foreign powers purportedly controlling the leaders in Kyiv. Western leaders have repeatedly offered Russia opportunities to de-escalate by starting talks on any of the mutually acceptable areas of Russia’s stated security demands. The Kremlin has responded by moving blood supplies and additional forces towards the Ukrainian border. Starting a war requires a tremendous amount of logistical preparation and resource reallocation. Russia has spent much of the past year methodically putting in place nearly every component necessary for launching an offensive military campaign, quite possibly timed to coincide with the February 20 end of the military exercises currently underway in Belarus.


The final step

After pouring so many state resources into assembling an invasion force and manufacturing an acceptable casus belli, will Vladimir Putin really issue the order to attack?

It is not in the interests of the Russian state for him to do so, as a kinetic military operation would produce outcomes that are at odds with the promotion of Russia’s stated geopolitical priorities. An invasion would trigger devastating Western financial sanctions, bring an influx of NATO troops into Eastern Europe, and potentially inspire thousands of Ukrainian citizens to wage a guerilla conflict against any occupying troops. This scenario—that an invasion of Ukraine is all but certain to make Russia itself poorer and less secure—provides cause for optimism regarding a peaceful end to the current crisis.

Although any exacerbation of Russia’s current diplomatic and economic isolation would have a direct negative effect on the material well-being of most individual Russians, such a situation might suit the personal interests of the ruling elite, as some political analysts point out. The impoverishing consequences of war and sanctions would provide Russia’s leaders with an ideal environment to wipe out all remaining pockets of Russophone democracy, both within Russia itself and in its near abroad. Control over domestic media, combined with the loyalty of the security services, means that, no matter how far living standards in Moscow might fall, no domestic popular uprising is likely even to get started, let alone succeed in changing the regime from within. In this scenario, Russia’s 2024 presidential elections, which under normal circumstances would have a chance to bring out civil unrest reminiscent of Belarus in 2020, could either be scrapped entirely or manipulated even more brazenly than usual without risking mass protests. After the level of falsificationrequired to maintain United Russia’s supermajority in this past September’s Duma campaign, the collective Putin might see Lukashenko-style repression as its most reliable method for remaining in power. Bringing NATO troops right up to Russia’s new border along the Dnieper River might be just what Vladimir Putin believes he needs in order to justify his rule for an extra few years.

This does not make war inevitable; it only means that, at this point in time, there is little more anyone in the West can do to influence the balance of factors competing for priority inside of the Russian leader’s head. In all likelihood, not even the generals preparing the anti-terrorist operation against the “northern coalition” in the upcoming military exercises in Belarus, nor the aides drafting Sergei Lavrov’s maximalist communiques, nor the pro-Kremlin propagandists spreading fear of an American-backed “provocation” in the Donbass know for sure exactly where their multi-pronged assault on reality is headed. All anyone outside of the Kremlin’s inner circle can say with reasonable certainty is: Russia has carried out a months-long operation to assemble an invasion force capable of annihilating Ukraine’s conventional military and of overthrowing the democratically elected government in Kyiv. Sometimes, the best explanation for what Vladimir Putin is doing is that Vladimir Putin is doing exactly what it looks like he is doing. Russia really is preparing to invade Ukraine.