The CIA discovered something scary in October: Russia was moving troops toward the Ukrainian border — and, unlike in previous border thrusts, was making secret plans about how to use them.
The agency also worried that the potential conflict zone didn’t appear to be just the eastern sliver of Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed separatists, which Russian troops had approached the previous April, but a much broader swath of the country. Alarm bells rang at the agency, and then across the U.S. government.
Reports of the Russian buildup couldn’t have come at a worse time. President Biden was seeking improved relations with Moscow after his June summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The Russians seemed to be reciprocating with dialogue on cybersecurity and strategic stability. And the administration had signaled support for an eventual diplomatic deal on Ukraine that would give Putin much of what he wanted.
The tension mounted through November. CIA Director William J. Burns rushed to Moscow at the beginning of the month to warn the Russians that an invasion of Ukraine would shatter the Russian economy and void any hope of rapprochement with the West. But Putin didn’t seem to be listening. The Russian buildup continued, accompanied by defiant rhetoric.
As the Ukrainian crisis enters December, the Biden administration is pursuing what policymakers like to call a “dual strategy.” To deter a Russian invasion, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Wednesday with NATO allies in Latvia to share U.S. intelligence and discuss joint military plans to raise the cost of any Russian invasion. At the same time, the White House has continued high-level conversations with Moscow that could lead to a meeting between Biden and Putin, virtual or in person, before year end.
Russia isn’t backing down. It has nearly 100,000 troops close to the border, and administration officials expect that number could increase soon. As NATO plans for contingencies, Russia is boasting of its “unbreakable” military alliance with Beijing. Putin speaks of Moscow’s eternal bond with Kyiv in nearly the same way that Chinese leaders demand reunification with Taiwan. He offered a rationale for war in an emotional essay in July arguing that Ukraine and Russia were inseparable.
Putin loves to play mind games with the West. He dials confrontation up and down, sending troops to the front and then blaming America for provoking him; his agents float rumors of coup plots in Kyiv. He invites concessions from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then, when Zelensky enlists Israeli and French leaders to argue his case, spurns him as weak. A former CIA officer who knows Ukraine well explains that Putin is “softening the target, increasing fatigue, distracting the government.”
Blinken is likely to warn NATO allies Wednesday that Putin may be preparing a ploy in which he falsely claims that Russian-backed forces have been attacked by Ukraine, as a pretext for taking action. Blinken said last month that Putin made such false claims when he invaded Ukraine in 2014, and that they’re part of his “playbook.”
The Russian leader wants to be taken seriously by America, but beyond that, he wants payback for Russia’s humiliation after the collapse of communism. “Putin actually has a malign attitude toward the United States,” explains William B. Taylor Jr., a former ambassador to Kyiv. “He wants to stick it to America in whatever ways he can.”
Taylor recalls the warning he gave to Zelensky after he became Ukraine’s president in 2019, and was eager to negotiate a deal with Putin: “Don’t get sucked in.”
The troop movements that began in October were an example of Putin’s wily persistence. “The way they did the buildup was not transparent; it was concealed, done partly at night,” explains John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who’s now at the Atlantic Council. He argues that for all Putin’s boldness in staging this new, partly covert plan, “his game is bluff.”
Putin’s biggest problem may be public opinion — in both Ukraine and Russia. As much as Putin talks about the mystical unity of Kyiv and Moscow, people in both countries don’t want conflict.
An August poll by the National Democratic Institute found that 76 percent of Ukrainians wanted a “fully functioning democracy.” That goal was endorsed by 71 percent of those polled in the east; sentiment in Kharkiv, near the Russian border, matched that in the capital Kyiv. Asked to name a threat to the country, 82 percent of Ukrainians cited “Russian military aggression.”
Putin is popular in Russia, with a 67 percent approval rating in October, according to the Levada Center in Moscow. But a May survey by the group showed that the percentage of people who wanted to stay out of a war in Ukraine was identical to the number who wanted Russia to intervene. Just 16 percent of Russians thought a Ukraine war would boost Putin’s authority, and 31 percent said it would bring dissatisfaction.
How do you stop a “master of audacity,” as a former CIA official describes Putin? One way is to talk to him, as Biden is planning to do, and offer a dignified retreat. But if that fails and Putin invades Ukraine, the United States and its allies are discussing this week how to make him pay as heavy a cost as possible.