The West must push back against Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.
Steven Wolff is Professor of International Security at the International Department of Political Science and International Studies, Birmingham University. He specialises in the management of contemporary security challenges, especially in the prevention and settlement of ethnic conflicts and civil wars and in post-conflict state-building in deeply divided and war-torn societies.
1. What do you think about the Kremlin's step to recognize LNR and DNR and deploy military troops there? Can we expect an official call by LNR and DNR to join Russia as a next step? The recognition is a major escalation in the current crisis. It may not (yet) be the feared invasion of Ukraine, but it is not far off. It is also evidence of Putin’s, so far successful, strategy of salami-slicing by gradually pushing the envelope further and to keep pushing if he finds no or insufficient resistance. As for any possible request of formal incorporation of the newly recognised DNR and LNR, this is, in my view, less significant in itself than what Putin would use it for—as additional leverage, as a launch pad for an even greater grab of Ukrainian territory, or as a way of consolidating his gains and making them all but irreversible. Again, this will depend on the extent and effectiveness of the push-back that he will face from Ukraine and the West.
2. Do you think the Kremlin can escalate further and take over more territories in the east or south of Ukraine or even topple Ukraine's leadership in Kyiv to establish a puppet pro-Russian government? Further escalation and more of a landgrab are definitely on the agenda. They are not inevitable, but Putin was very clear in his “recognition speech” that this was about more than Donbas and more than Ukraine. The question is how far will he go and how far will be able and allowed to go. As he said last night, and earlier wrote in July last year in a long essay, Ukraine, to him, is an artificial construct both ethnically and territorially with little legitimate reason to exist independently of Russia. Yet, his aspiration to annex more territory in Ukraine will be met by much more resistance than he faced in Crimea in 2014. Ukrainians are better equipped, better trained, and better motivated to push back against Putin. They are also better supported by the West. And, arguably, enthusiasm in Russia for a major war over Ukraine is more limited than it was for the “reincorporation” of Crimea eight years ago. None of this means that we can rule out a further escalation, but it puts any next moves by Putin into a very different perspective from what happened in 2014. This also includes possible efforts to establish a pro-Russian government in Kyiv fully controlled by Moscow. Again, this is not to say that Putin isn’t considering moves to do just that, but his success is far from assured. 3. What steps should Ukrainian leadership take now to preserve its remaining territories and boost its defense capabilities? First of all, whatever can be done should be done to demonstrate clear resolve to resist any further aggression by Russia while avoiding walking into a Russian provocation on the basis of which Putin could “justify” a full-scale invasion. In doing so, Ukraine will depend on Western unity and a clear Western demonstration of support for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Boosting defence capabilities will be vital, but this needs to include more than anti-tank weapons and missile defence systems. It needs to involve cyber defence and a credible strategy to counter Russian information warfare. Efforts in all these areas have been ongoing for years, including with Western support, and Ukraine is better prepared for a confrontation with Russia.
4. Can we now expect more support from western powers for Ukraine considering the latest Kremlin's move? President Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg were very clear that NATO would defend the territory of each and all its members, but not engage militarily in Ukraine. This was hardly ever in doubt, but it creates absolute clarity now that the Western response to Russia will be limited to economic and political sanctions. So far, the West has remained united in its response and one of the key uncertainties—whether Germany would pull the plug from Nordstream 2—has been resolved. Sanctions have also been announced by other member of the Alliance and by the EU. Alongside more direct political, economic, and military support to Ukraine, this is absolutely crucial if there is to be any chance of deterring Putin from further escalation. Western support on both fronts—sanctions against Russia and direct aid to Ukraine—also needs to be sustained for the foreseeable future to make it clear to be effective and it needs to be increased if necessary in order to send a clear message not only to Putin but also assure those members of the Alliance that might feel particularly vulnerable if the current crisis further escalates. NATO and the EU have the tools to push back against Putin, and they need to use them in an effective way now.