How Putin Could Slam His Head and Tumble Into an Accidental War

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Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

As President Joe Biden approves the additional deployment of U.S. military personnel to Eastern Europe, the world is obsessing over one question: Does Vladimir Putin actually intend to invade Ukraine?

The conversation in the media and among experts is dominated by figuring out what the hell the Russian president really wants. But the sad truth of the matter is that—at this point—what he wants may not matter.

The past few months have seen a complicated and dangerous dance of escalation and counter-escalation between Russia and NATO. Of the two, NATO has consistently offered off-ramps for the prospect of war. Britain, Germany, France, and the United States have continued their efforts to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. At the same time, NATO has remained firm on what it will and will not give up. President Biden will not allow Russia to permanently alter the security architecture of Europe.

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Russia, for its part, has talked a good game. Moscow has repeatedly stressed that it does not want war. Perhaps it doesn’t. But if that is the case, then Russia’s own actions have threatened to make the situation impossible, and rather suggested the contrary. Russia will not invade, unless it is provoked. Putin has loudly declared that the West is escalating the situation in Ukraine and that NATO must pay careful attention to Russia’s red lines. Dire warnings of a “complete rupture” persist, but is that really possible? Some, of course, have suggested that if Russia wants war, then it would have gone to war already. That may be some cold comfort to a few people, but it is almost certainly misplaced.

Much of Russia’s behavior has been aimed at provoking an incident. This could be indicative of older plays, reminiscent of the Georgian war. Troop movements along the border of Ukraine may have been intended to instigate some form of Ukrainian counter-action. Russia sent in more little green men to provoke an incident, and there appears to be a greater willingness on Russia’s part to simply make up a justification if one on the ground does not present itself. Ukraine has also suffered from cyberattacks, and that also seems to indicate a desire to provoke a reaction. The Ukrainian prime minister in November accused Russia of plotting a coup against him, an allegation that was corroborated by the U.K. last month.

Ukraine’s stubborn refusal to retaliate and instead focus on shoring up its defenses and appeals to NATO are no doubt frustrating Moscow. If it wanted to start a war, Ukraine has proven a good defensive actor. If Russia wanted to strike a grand bargain, then an aggressive Ukrainian response would have been useful to them. It might have even granted them additional leverage in negotiations. Either way, Moscow’s actions have largely been fruitless. NATO will not surrender Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. Likewise, if Russia wanted to make Ukraine’s security situation unstable enough to make its ascension to NATO impossible, NATO has not been obliging.

This places Russia in a quandary. Every step Putin made signaled to the world that Russia is willing to solve the Ukraine issue by force if it doesn’t get what it wants. Though Russia may still claim to be open to diplomatic efforts, it is unlikely that the U.S. or EU will accommodate Russia’s claimed red lines. It could be that Putin still believes there’s a play he could make. so perhaps he may seek some soft commitment from Germany or France about NATO expansion. That too is unlikely to succeed.

This leads to a truly impossible, and undesirable situation. Putin may not have wanted war, but he has deliberately escalated the crisis in order to have his demands be treated with a greater degree of seriousness. If NATO will not back down under current conditions, then Russia will be forced to decide between a handful of options.

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The first is to neither back down, nor to escalate. A neutral, do-nothing option. It may be pursued in the short term, but Putin will eventually have to go in one direction or the other.

Though unlikely, it is not impossible that Russia may choose to de-escalate in Ukraine. Unfortunately, it would require some symbol of concession from NATO. Otherwise, Putin has placed too much of his legitimacy on confronting NATO expansion. If he fails to succeed in his aims, then that would do considerable damage to him at home. In other words, backing down will harm Putin. That places him into a lose-lose situation.

That leaves the last option: escalation. If Russia wants war, it will pursue this option. But even if Russia does not want war, it may still choose to escalate if it believes that it might grant Russia some additional leverage in negotiations with NATO.

Russia could try another attempt to provoke an incident. There may be increased naval or air exercises that either walk the line, or outright violate, Ukrainian spaces. Or it could take a more indirect approach, such as another cyber-attack. The precise method they use is not that important, only that Russia could pursue escalatory action in the hope that NATO will blink and perhaps quietly back down from some of its Ukrainian commitments.

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And when that fails, Russia will be even closer to stumbling into war.

With every escalation, more uncertainty is introduced to the Ukraine situation. If Russia sends in part of its navy to Ukraine’s territorial waters, what will the NATO ships in the Black Sea do? If they do nothing, that means Russia is poised to get away with more aggressive action in the future. If they attempt to stop them, then a shooting war breaks out at sea. The same principle holds in the air.

It may be tempting for NATO to pursue some zone of exclusion in Ukrainian airspace, but in order for that defense to be credible, NATO needs to be authorized to shoot down Russian jets. That alone would be a cause for war.

In the dance of escalation and counter escalation, Putin may have misjudged what he can get away with. A move he may choose in order to gain more leverage may, instead, be the spark that ignites a new European conflict.

Sometimes intent doesn’t matter. Even something as terrible as war can happen by accident.

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