Vladimir Putin’s military build-up on the Ukraine border and partial pull-back today, combined with visible anger in his red-line rhetoric threatening harsh punishment for those who disrespect Russia’s security interests showed signs of impulsiveness in one inexperienced at commanding military forces. It was interesting that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu signaled the pullback.
A breakthrough force with the look of a Spring offensive, absent a clearly defined, publicly-supported security interest opens the Russian military to risks of escalation, entanglement, mission creep, overextension, and blame for an unnecessary Ukrainian and European land war. Such a war would awaken insurgent opportunism in the Caucasus, Siberia, the Near East, Mideast, and North Africa.
Evidence of Russian encirclement of Europe puts an imperial stamp on Putin’s activities in both hemispheres (not agreeing with every conclusion of the linked NR piece). The overall effect is destabilizing. Consistent with this trend, in December 2020, Vladimir Putin telegraphed his intention to send increase aid to Russian speaking areas in Eastern Ukraine as if these were Russia’s territories, a provocation against Kyiv and Ukraine’s sovereignty, leading to current tensions.
In view of the above, this latest incident at the Ukraine border appears to have been impulsive on Putin’s part, acting forcefully without thinking through the unintended consequences for Russia’s real security interests versus Putin’s ideologic and legacy-oriented motives. Defense Minister Shoigu’s experienced counsel may have alerted Mr. Putin to the military risks of his target-fixation on redressing past grievances instead of dealing with today’s reality.
Finally, Putin’s decisions leading to this Spring 2021 incident contradicts Moscow’s narratives that NATO is obsolete and Putin’s pretenses to respecting national sovereignty.