Publisher’s note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent op-ed contributor for CNN, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. You can find more opinion articles at CNNe.com/opinion
(CNN) — Is Russian President Vladimir Putin planning to invade Ukraine, which could launch a new war in Europe? The answer remains elusive after a week of intense diplomacy with back-to-back meetings between Russian and US officials, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Without a breakthrough, the top US official ominously stated that “the drum of war is beating eerily“, as both sides made pessimistic statements.
This is not a surprising result.
With more than 100,000 Russian troops concentrated on Ukraine’s borders, the US and its allies refused to make any concessions. That may be exactly what Putin was hoping for when he made patently unreasonable demands on the West, in exchange for not attacking a neighbor yet again.
But, in the end, this may not turn out the way the Russian president hopes.
Before the meetings began, it appeared that Putin had the West (and Ukraine) in a bind. He argued that NATO must agree to Russia’s demands, including a promise not to add new members and the withdrawal of NATO forces to their positions dating back to 1997, a set of NATO commitments that it was said from the start that would not consider. It seemed easy to imagine that Putin could turn to the Russian people and say, ‘Look, I tried diplomacy, but the West rejected it. We have no choice but to invade Ukraine.
The ruse may look on paper like a win-win for Putin. Perhaps the Russian people believe in fabricated claims of Putin that Ukraine represents a danger against much larger and better armed forces. But, in the long run, this maneuver could well backfire.
Russia’s threatening posture towards Ukraine, his constant threats even as the talks progressed, they are solidifying the image of the Kremlin as that of a bully endangering its neighbors. The more Putin threatens, the more apparent it is why Russia’s neighbors believe they need to join NATO to protect themselves.
Ukraine, of course, poses a serious military threat to Russia. It used to have the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, but transferred it to Russia in exchange for a commitment to respect its borders and sovereignty, a commitment that Russia violated when it invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. That pact, known as the Budapest Agreement, is just one of several that Russia has signed and blatantly violated.
The only threat Ukraine poses to Putin, not Russia, is becoming a functioning democracy at a time when the Russian leader seeks to cement his place as an unshakable autocrat, and now as a committed autocrat with the defense of other autocrats.
When creating self-fulfilling prophecies about an imminent confrontation, it is possible that Putin is simply strengthening the NATO alliance, which, by the way, probably would not admit Ukraine any time soon.
The message to Moscow was clear. Thirty NATO allies, according to US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, speaking separately but in “complete unit“, they reaffirmed to Russian officials that each country has the right to choose their own alliances, that borders cannot be changed by force.
Perhaps this was not a surprise to Putin. But he may have withdrawn when non-NATO countries — specifically Sweden and Finland — started talking about joining, directly as a result of his military threat to Ukraine. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, in his New Year’s address to the nation, spoke of “the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership.” In response, the not-so-diplomatic Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia threatened with “serious military and political consequences” against Finland.
No one knows if Putin plans to invade. But the 100,000 troops deployed on Ukraine’s borders are ready to act. If what Putin wanted was attention, he got it. If he wanted to distract his population from domestic problems, he succeeded for a while. But you will have to make a decision soon. When the winter ice melts, the muddy roads would make an invasion more difficult. And waiting is expensive.
However, it is not as expensive as a real invasion.
While claiming that Ukraine and NATO pose a threat to Russia, Putin arouses patriotic sentiments at home. But it is also igniting the commitment of Ukrainians to defend their country. The Ukrainians are under no illusions that they can hold off the Russian army, but sustaining an invasion could be enormously costly. It is not only the Ukrainians who would pay the price.
The Joe Biden Administration Are you considering a series of crippling economic sanctions. That could help change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis. And the Ukrainians, who rreceive support from the United States to defend themselves, they could make the invasion intense, something Washington has made sure Putin understands.
General Mark Milley, the top US military officer, spoke with his Russian counterpart a few weeks ago. He reportedly said an invasion would be followed by a campaign of resistance similar to the one that drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan and demoralized the ailing superpower.
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told an interviewer that every Ukrainian city, every home, will become a fortress, making sure that “thousands of coffins” are sent back to Russia.
Throughout this week’s talks, Russian diplomats tweeted undiplomatic messages intended to intimidate, or perhaps irritate, people at home.
At one point, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a grotesque statement about former Eastern European countries that were turned into Soviet satellites by invading USSR armies, a reminder to new NATO members of the old Kremlin’s boot on their throat during the Cold War.
Whatever happens this week, the dozens of diplomats meeting in Europe, the final decision will be made by one man in Moscow. Putin may choose to invade, and he may succeed in cutting off another slice of a country whose sovereignty he had once promised to respect. In the process, however, he has sent a message to the entire world about the direction in which he is taking his country.
While nations voluntarily seek to join alliances led by democratic countries, Russia, once expected to become a peaceful member of the family of nations, is now an autocratic power that represses its own people’s calls for democracy. , defends autocrats throughout the region and participates in vulgar intimidation and conquest by force.