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The Scenarios Putin May Assess Before Invading Ukraine

Putin understands why Beijing is more powerful than Moscow today. While he cares about increasing Russian power and influence in the world, he cares more about enriching the kleptocracy that maintains him in the Kremlin and clinging to power for as long as he lives

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Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia depends on a combination of repression and propaganda. Putin understands as someone trained in Soviet intelligence that the propaganda of a repressive power requires grand myths that transform the subject subjugated by repression and misinformation by censorship: from the reluctant slave he would be if those were the only tools of power, into an active believer in a grand myth that legitimizes authoritarian power.

Putin’s propagandistic myth is that of an empire with a role in the world that the real Russian Federation could not sustain today. The myth matters in Putin’s decisions because his popularity among his political base depends on it. But as I have explained in the past in this column, the “patriotic” Putin is quite willing to make Russia a satellite of Beijing if it guarantees him to stay in power until the end of his days.

Putin understands why Beijing is more powerful than Moscow today. While he cares about increasing Russian power and influence in the world, he cares more about enriching the kleptocracy that maintains him in the Kremlin and clinging to power for as long as he lives.

The crisis that concluded in the Russian annexation of Crimea was a turning point for Russia on the global geostrategic chessboard and the best moment to strengthen Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia. The annexation boosted Putin’s popularity to 85% and divorced the Russian Federation from the West. Crimea and the port of Sevastopol, as well as a strategic port for Russia, are vital in a mythologized imperial version of Russian history like that of Putin’s party. And what Moscow learned in that conflict was that:

  1. The West will respond to limited Russian military action against Ukraine, not with a military response but with economic and political sanctions that Western Europe’s — especially Germany‘s — dependence on Russian gas will eventually soften.
  2. Beijing is an ally whose crude political realism has no problem allying itself closely with an authoritarian kleptocracy such as the one headed by Putin.
  3. Beijing, rather than the true Chinese totalitarian model, ideologically exports a very flexible version of authoritarianism and social control adaptable to any allied regime that understands the specific “red lines” it must respect. Putin knows and respects Beijing’s red lines. And without touching them he successfully maneuvered to position himself as a regional power that Beijing still depends on to stabilize Central Asia.

Putin simply saw now a favorable scenario to repeat his great success of the annexation of Crimea. The border between Russia and Ukraine is an area of significant oilfields and the Russian economy is based primarily on the extraction and export of oil and gas. Putin had already stabilized Central Asia for Xi’s strategic regional branch of the Silk Road by militarily controlling the Kazakhstan crisis.

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Russia sees Biden’s Washington as a “paper tiger” in the face of another crisis like Crimea. And counting on Beijing’s consent and Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, it initiated the new crisis on the Ukrainian border. Knowing its impossibility to confront NATO militarily in an open conventional conflict. And knowing to what extent Beijing will support him. Putin would rationally bet on a limited annexation of Ukrainian territory, rich in hydrocarbons, to repeat his Crimea success.

With NATO naval forces in the area any mistake would have unpredictable consequences. But Putin needs a repeat of Crimea. His best-case scenario would be to achieve it in a “Chamberlain at Munich” type negotiation. His second-best scenario would be military annexation of an area of Ukraine with enough Russian population on the ground to sell it in Russia as a liberation of oppressed Russians. And with enough hydrocarbons under the ground to ignore the sanctions the West will respond with. His worst-case scenario would be to be forced to leave the matter to “military maneuvers” while waiting for another favorable occasion; a scenario that would not put Putin’s power in Russia at risk.

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