Russian President Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich Putin Sullivan says threat of Russian military invasion is “high” unnecessarily makes Ukraine an existential problem for Russia. The conventional wisdom is that he wants to reclaim the mythical glory of the Soviet Union with Russia at the head of the table among the great powers. There is no doubt that Russia’s military capability poses a legitimate threat to Ukraine and, by extension, to the United States and its allies. It is important to point out, however, that Putin’s Ukrainian bet is also a threat to Russia, beyond the certain reaction of the United States and NATO if Russia invades Ukraine.
Putin’s rhetoric regarding Ukraine and NATO’s presence in the former Warsaw Pact countries is reminiscent of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s doctrine that no nation that has a socialist government (i.e. say a government friendly to the Soviet Union) cannot be allowed to choose a different government, non – socialist path. Responding to the efforts of the Czechoslovak government to pursue its own political course, Brezhnev gave a speech in Poland in 1968, making it clear that this was not acceptable, “When external and internal forces hostile to socialism attempt to steer the development of a given socialist country in the direction of restoring the capitalist system, when a threat arises to the cause of socialism in this country – a threat to the security of the socialist community as a whole – it is no longer just a problem for the people of this country, but a common problem, the concern of all socialist countries.
Brezhnev managed to crush the so-called Prague spring, but his doctrine would come back to haunt him a decade later when he invaded Afghanistan. The Soviet incursion into Afghanistan created many problems for an already ossified nation, but one is relevant to what Putin faces today. As a historian Joy Neumeyer points out that “the situation in Afghanistan contributed to a growing reluctance among the Soviet leadership to use force elsewhere.” She later quotes Yuri Andropov, then KGB chief and later Soviet leader,’s assessment of the situation with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: “The quota for foreign interventions has been exhausted.”
Putin’s version of the Brezhnev Doctrine is an effort to reclaim what has sometimes been derisively called the Russian near abroad — those nations like Ukraine that were once part of the Soviet Union. But, like Brezhnev when he visited Afghanistan, Putin finds himself in a difficult situation, regardless of the threats that the United States and NATO pose. He has sent troops in Kazakhstan to quell an uprising there, albeit at the behest of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. With a death toll of at least 164 protesters and an angry and agitated public, it is unclear whether Russian troops will have to return once they withdraw. Belarus is another headache for Putin. He sent Russian troops as late as November to help deal with an immigration crisis caused by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko’s immigration tactics may be part of a grand game to invade Ukraine, but Putin shouldn’t ignore the law of unintended consequences. The people of Kazakhstan and Belarus are restless and Putin makes the problems of the two nations his problems.
If Putin follows through on his threat to settle in Ukraine, he will not have the same welcome as that given to him by the political leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukrainian political leaders seem to accept the fact that they cannot defeat a Russian military attack, but Putin must understand that asymmetric warfare from the Ukrainians will be the welcome he will receive if he chooses this path.
Putin also has his own problems at home, which may be a reason for his Ukrainian threats – to distract from those problems. That of the World Bank recent forecasts of the Russian economy should be of concern to Putin – that “pandemic and inflation risks may hamper Russia’s economic recovery” and that other risks include “geopolitics and the transition to green energy”. In addition to the political problems for Putin created by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, foreign policy recently reported that Putin needs to pay attention to the potential political problems of Millennials and Gen Z: “According to vote, in the past two years, young Russians have become the group most dissatisfied with the Russian political system. If he chooses to invade Ukraine, Putin will have to worry about the impact Russian military losses will have on domestic public opinion.
Secretary of State Antoine BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken: “Deeply destabilizing” North Korean missile tests “Havana syndrome” suspected of attacks on American diplomats in Switzerland and France: report that the Russian-led alliance begins to withdraw its troops from Kazakhstan PLUS, President BidenJoe BidenGallego on January 6 rioters: “F — them” Psaki: Why is the GOP afraid of presidential debates? Biden calls on employers to demand vaccines despite Supreme Court ruling MOREon the question of Russia and Ukraine, exposed Putin’s choice when he appeared on CNN on January 9, just before the US-Russian meetings in Geneva: “There are two paths ahead of us. There is a way of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences and avoid a confrontation. The other way is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression against Ukraine. We are about to test the proposal on the path that President Putin is willing to take.
Putin is a proud man. He wants a resurgent “Greater Russia” and he wants a distraught United States, believing that this is somehow to his advantage. The Biden administration and US NATO allies offer him a way out of the crisis he created with Ukraine. He should have no doubt that President Biden and the other NATO leaders will follow through on the measures they have outlined if Putin enters Ukraine.
At the same time, Putin should remember the history lesson of how the Brezhnev Doctrine turned out for the Soviet Union as he configures a “Putin Doctrine” for Ukraine and its other neighbors. As Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “it takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently”. Let’s hope Putin listens to Dostoyevsky’s wisdom for the good of everyone involved.
Patrick J. Griffin, a professor at American University, worked as an aide to President Clinton and served as Democratic Conference Secretary in the US Senate. He is a former board member of the National Democratic Institute.
William Danvers is an adjunct professor at the Elliott School at George Washington University and has worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.