Recent news headlines have been oversaturated with dramatic language describing the ongoing situation between Ukraine and Russia. One might read these headlines and think that Russia is poised toward a full military invasion of Eastern Ukraine, that NATO allies will come to the rescue, and that a full-blown conflict will start raging on the borders of Europe.
This is only one possible scenario that could play out between Russia and Ukraine in the coming weeks, albeit, an unlikely one.
It is crucial to understand that what you read in the headlines is wildly simplified. This conflict is not so much about the interests of Russia or the US. At a fundamental level, this conflict is driven by the interests of the country’s leaders and commanders in chief who have the ultimate decision-making power. Therefore, when analyzing this conflict, it is appropriate to think in terms of the interests of Putin and Biden, not Russia and the US.
So what do Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden want?
The media often portrays Putin as an evil mastermind pulling all the strings of a grand plan to reestablish Russia as a leading global power. Nonetheless, despite all the shirtless pics you may see of Putin riding a horse, he is not a god and does not have absolute control over the situation between Ukraine and Russia. He reacts just like anyone else and, he gets worried and cautious just like anyone else.
Over the past couple of years, Russian antipathy has been growing against Mr Putin. Combined with what he sees as encroaching western influence in the former Soviet States, Mr Putin wants to reassert himself and cement his position. Mr Putin’s overarching demand in the Ukraine situation is that all NATO troops be removed from all former Soviet States and, that no former Soviet States become part of NATO.
NATO and the US have labelled this demand outrageous, considering that former Soviet nations such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are both NATO and EU member states. Mr Putin is not stupid. He knows that this demand is unreasonable and, he is probably using it as leverage to frame another demand, such as a commitment that Ukraine will never join NATO or the recognition of Crimea as Russia, as more reasonable possibilities.
Furthermore, a full-blown invasion of Ukraine and the inevitable war that would subsequently break out is not in Putin’s interests. Swaths of sanctions would be placed on him, his allies, and an already faltering Russian economy. In a full-blown conflict, Putin would likely constrict oil access to Europe via the Nordstream II pipeline. Close to 10% of all the gas produced by Russia would flow through this pipeline, owned by Russian oligarchs who are essential in propping up Putin’s powers. However, the loss of a steady revenue stream would likely not be favoured among Putin’s oligarch friends.
Throughout his time in the White House, Joe Biden has generally been against military intervention in foreign countries. For example, Biden famously opposed former President Obama’s decision to deploy 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2011. Having just undergone the disaster that was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the last thing the Biden Administration wants is to become engaged in another war halfway across the world.
In a marathon press conference last week, Biden also seemed to suggest that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine could warrant little response from the US, a comment that was quickly backtracked on by Jen Psaki and Kamala Harris. Biden needs to make up his mind on Russia. He needs to adopt consistent and strong rhetoric implying that Russia must not violate the Westphalian principle of state sovereignty.
Considering the 2022 midterms are right around the corner, Biden wants to show the American people that he will be resilient against Putin, while not becoming engaged in another war. This will likely mean that Biden will continue to exhaust diplomatic channels between the US and Russia, and if nothing productive comes to fruition or if Putin does, in fact, decide to enter Ukraine, heavy US sanctions will follow.
The headlines regarding Ukraine are enticing, but they do not tell the whole story. Foreign policy is ultimately driven by people, and people, especially those in power, have their own interests that will be reflected in the geopolitical actions of their country. Currently, the interests of both Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden suggest that the Russian invasion in the coming weeks is unlikely and that a WWIII starring the US versus Russia will not happen.