20 years under Putin: a timeline

The consensus among Western politicians and experts is that the Kremlin is gearing up for war, which could be prevented by either deterrence or negotiations. However, recent research shows that policymaking discourse in both Russia and the West is “full of mutual misperceptions, mirror imaging, and attribution of non-existent intentions and capabilities.” One of the main reasons for possible misinterpretation of the Kremlin’s intentions in Ukraine is rooted in differences between the U.S. and Russian strategic cultures.


February 11, 2022: Reconnaissance officers of the Western Military District's tank division hold military exercise in the Moscow Region. Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense.


When it comes to the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, Washington and Moscow have very different ways of thinking about it. The U.S. model of strategy is traditionally focused on one’s own ends, ways, and means. It excludes the enemy from the equation and lacks situational awareness. In contrast, Russian strategy has traditionally emphasized the importance of achieving what it sees as reasonable goals within the confines of the existing situation. U.S. strategy is predominantly top-down and based on what America wants to achieve irrespective of what the Kremlin wants. Russia’s strategy, however, is more bottom-up, as it tries to navigate the unfolding situation and achieve what the Kremlin perceives as reasonable and attainable goals.

Assuming that the Kremlin has no appetite for full-scale invasion and occupation of Ukraine—especially after a clear statement by senior U.S. officials that  “the C.I.A. (covertly) and the Pentagon (overtly) would both seek to help any Ukrainian insurgency”— and assuming that Moscow will not simply send troops back home emptyhanded, it has four main options to choose from: 1) a limited kinetic operation against Ukrainian military assets and/or infrastructure; 2) a limited kinetic operation against NATO assets in Ukraine (however small they are); 3) a combination of the first two options; and 4) maintaining the current military build-up without further kinetic actions.

Western officials’ statements on the current tensions indicate that they view any potential developments through a dichotomous prism of war and peace. If Russia chooses to use force against Ukraine, U.S. officials and their allies would impose a particularly painful package of sanctions against the Kremlin. If, on the other hand, Russia chooses to stand down, the West is open to negotiating with Moscow the future security architecture in Europe. This dichotomy demonstrates that Western officials are oblivious to the fact that the current situation offers numerous opportunities to their more adaptive and flexible Russian counterparts, as the four scenarios outlined above suggest.

Another Western misperception regarding the Kremlin’s motives can be seen in two main Western narratives. The first narrative holds that Russia wants Ukraine back in its orbit. As military analyst Michael Kofman put it, Russia’s leadership seeks to “secure its influence in the country, deny Ukraine any hope of getting into NATO, and end NATO’s defense cooperation with Ukraine.” The second narrative suggests that bringing Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence is part of Putin’s personal agenda as “Ukraine is the single most important piece of unfinished business as the Russian leader contemplates his agenda for the remainder of his time in office and his legacy.” 

While there is little doubt that Russia wants Ukraine in its orbit and that Putin wants to enter Russian history books as one of his country’s greatest rulers, these Western interpretations of the Kremlin’s goals and motives appear to suffer from mirror-imaging.

The West assumes that Russia is fixated on bringing Ukraine back, because for the West the problem with Ukraine started in 2014, and it has been approached almost in isolation from preceding events or developments elsewhere. The end of the Cold War, NATO’s eastward expansion, and the 2008 Russo-Georgian War are considered long-forgotten history, irrelevant to the unfolding situation in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s prolonged intervention in Syria, expanding influence in Africa, and recent law-enforcement intervention in Kazakhstan are discussed as separate issues, not necessarily connected to the Ukrainian crisis. 

The Kremlin, however, sees the Ukraine problem as something that started in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the past two decades, everything Russia has done in Syria, Africa, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine is part of one interconnected effort to challenge the post-Cold War, American-led, neoliberal global order and restore Russia’s image as a great power. Therefore, Ukraine is a means to an end, rather than the goal of the Kremlin’s strategy, which follows from its complex understanding of regional security and concerns that have been largely ignored by the West. In other words, for the Kremlin, the current crisis in Ukraine is not about “NATO and Ukraine,” as Kofman argues; it is about undermining NATO. That is the goal, and Ukraine is a means to achieve this goal. 

“Putin wants to enter Russian history books as the leader who closed NATO’s open door, halted its defense cooperation with nonmember states, and started the restructuring of the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe.”

This brings us back to the problem of mirror-imaging. As mentioned earlier, the West not only views the Ukraine crisis through a dichotomy of war and peace, but it also assumes that the Kremlin does the same. In reality, however, the Russian strategic mindset is more flexible, as it envisions the notions of war and peace as existing on a continuum. Much has been written on Russia’s concept of information warfare as a combination of political, economic, diplomatic, military, and other means to achieve desired political goals. Even more has been written about how Russia wages information war “in its efforts to undermine NATO cohesion.” According to the Russian understanding of information war, “the effectiveness of actions is measured not by their impact in the real world, but by their influence on the virtual information dimension.” Therefore, in information warfare, the military can be used for more than just kinetic force. For example, Russia’s intervention in Syria was not only a military operation, but also “a decisive and carefully staged performance of silver rockets, brave soldiers, shiny hardware and fast achievements to influence the political behaviour of target audiences” around the world. Moreover, the military can be used not for kinetic force at all, but as “a tool that supports political-diplomatic, economic, information and other non-military actions simply by their presence or by the demonstration of military potential.” 

Within this context the Kremlin’s four options give it much latitude in terms of decision-making. Since Ukraine is a means and undermining NATO is the goal, Russian leadership can choose the option that will, in its view, undercut the alliance’s cohesion fastest and most efficiently. If the Kremlin estimates that this requires a limited kinetic operation in Ukraine as a tactic in an information war against NATO, then this will be its choice. However, if it calculates that a kinetic operation might have the opposite effect and help NATO members to close ranks, then it can choose the fourth option, which, surprisingly, is generally absent from Western discourse.

If Russia decides to avoid a kinetic operation in Ukraine, it can maintain its troops on the Ukrainian border indefinitely—it costs almost nothing and brings enormous political benefits. Every military exercise, every movement, every new deployment will continue to amplify divisions among Eastern Europe and the Baltics, which are frantic with fear, Germany and other Western European countries that lean toward reconciliation with Russia, and the United States, which is too busy with its domestic problems (and with countering China) to act as a responsible adult. 

In the last two decades, Russia has repeatedly surprised the West, which has consistently seen what it wanted to see, ignoring what Russia would say or do. The current Ukraine crisis is not an exception. It is time for the West to change its optics and start taking Russia seriously as a considerable and complex political actor that has its own vision of the geopolitical order and is ready to pursue it.

Yes, Putin wants to ensure his legacy. But he does not want to deal with Ukraine piecemeal. He wants to enter Russian history books as the leader who closed NATO’s open door, halted its defense cooperation with nonmember states, and started the restructuring of the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe. If he manages to jumpstart these processes, Ukraine might choose to realign with Russia out of its own accord.

The Kremlin might very well conduct a limited kinetic operation in Ukraine—but as a means to undermine NATO and, possibly, cause its disintegration from the inside. Equally plausible, it could decide to keep the invasion threat in limbo, hoping that internal friction among NATO members will bring about better results.

If Western decision-makers wish to avoid further surprises like the 2014 annexation of Crimea or the 2015 intervention in Syria, they ought to increase their situational awareness of Russia’s goals and evolving options. After all, strategy-making is a tango, and our adversaries get a say in how we proceed, what we might get in the end, and what it will cost us.


* Dr. Ofer Fridman is Lecturer in War Studies, King’s College London. Dr. Vera Michlin-Shapir is an  expert on Russian foreign and defense policies, as well as Russian politics and media. She worked at the Israeli National Security Council, Prime Minister’s Office, 2010–2016. Her book Fluid Russia was recently released by Cornell University Press.