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Russia-Ukraine: Will they or won’t they go to war?

Russia-Ukraine: Will they or won’t they go to war?

Russia-Ukraine: Will they or won’t they go to war?

Given the stakes of the conflict, the Russia-Ukraine standoff is the most serious threat to peace the world has faced since the end of the Cold War. Recent events make war look more likely than it did, say, two weeks ago.

But is it?

The honest answer is: I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.

Some people think they know. Western officials have been beating the war drums about an imminent attack on Ukraine for weeks, amid Russia’s escalating military buildup along the Ukrainian borders.

Speculation on both sides reached a fever pitch last Friday, when US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned of “a distinct possibility that Vladimir Putin would order a military action and invasion of Ukraine […] before February 20.” In response, the US evacuated its embassy in Kiev, withdrew observers from the OSCE mission in Ukraine, urged US citizens in the country to leave immediately, and ordered 3,000 additional troops to deploy to Poland. British and Canadian troops in Ukraine were also ordered to leave the country over the weekend, and several European nations have issued travel advisories for their citizens.

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Russia has described Western alarmism as “provocative speculation,” with the Kremlin still denying that it is planning an invasion even as it continues to encircle Ukraine and demand a laundry list of concessions from the West in exchange for de-escalation. Diplomatic efforts between Russia, the US, its NATO allies, and Ukraine have thus far failed to resolve the standoff.

While on Monday the Kremlin gestured that it was open to continuing the dialogue and Russia’s defense ministry announced that it was withdrawing some troops from the Ukrainian border, Western officials still believe an invasion may be imminent. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and US President Biden all separately said on Tuesday that they have not seen any evidence of a Russian military drawdown happening.

True enough, despite Moscow’s more conciliatory rhetoric and claims of de-escalation, Russia still has more than 150,000 troops massed along Ukraine’s borders and is reportedly mobilizing 7,000 more, and the Kremlin has not signaled any flexibility on its demand for a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO. Moreover, President Putin recently reiterated the false claim that a “genocide” is being committed against ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s Donbas region, which many interpret as an attempt to fabricate a pretext for an invasion.

And on Tuesday, the Russian parliament voted to ask Putin to recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine, a move that would effectively end the Minsk peace process and could provide Moscow with yet another pretext for a military incursion. That same day, Ukraine suffered a series of cyberattacks allegedly at the hands of Moscow, directed at the websites of the Ukrainian defense ministry, armed forces, and two banks.

Then, on Thursday, Russian-backed separatists reportedly opened fire across the frontline in eastern Ukraine, hitting a kindergarten. Russia blamed Ukrainian government forces for the shelling, while the White House interpreted the incident as a Russian "false-flag operation" to "fabricate pretexts for invasion." Soon after, President Biden predicted that Russia will launch an attack within "the next several days."

How are we supposed to interpret all these mixed messages and confident predictions?

For his part, Ukrainian President Zelensky has brushed off most of Russia’s recent moves and mocked the flurry of often highly-specific forecasts coming from the West, sarcastically declaring that Wednesday, the day when US intelligence said Russia could attack Kyiv, would be a public holiday. In other words, the view from Kyiv is that this is mostly noise.

The outcome is not just unknown—it’s unknowable

The key thing to recognize is that Putin and Zelensky are operating under tremendous uncertainty about each other’s true preferences, beliefs, and strategies.

So far, President Zelensky has given zero indication that he’s willing to give up the country’s NATO membership aspirations, even if it means risking a Russian invasion. Putin has signaled that he’s willing to go to war to compel him, even if it triggers costly Western sanctions. If both leaders are taken at their word, one has to conclude that such unreconcilable differences will inevitably lead to war.

But that’s not the only possible interpretation of their positions, which means that war is not the only possible outcome. Because both leaders have an incentive to pretend to be more resolute than they actually are, their statements and actions don’t necessarily reflect their true preferences. Instead, they can be a bluff meant to convince the adversary that they mean business and extract concessions—in other words, to get the other side to blink first. But herein lies the issue: a credible bluff looks indistinguishable from a display of real resolve.

Putin and Zelensky’s efforts to achieve their political objectives while avoiding war make war more likely in the interim.

To illustrate this, let’s start with the premise that Putin’s decision to attack or back down is largely dependent on securing assurances that Ukraine will never join NATO. Surely he’s interested in other “secondary” concessions (e.g., NATO missile positioning), but this appears to be the make-or-break issue upon which his go/no go decision hinges today.

Assume also that the United States and its NATO allies have done all they can reasonably do to deter Putin from attacking but that those measures may still not be enough to get him to back down (fact check: true), that they won’t rescind Ukraine’s NATO invitation because they can’t be seen to appease Moscow (fact check: true), and that there’s little more the West can do to convince Zelensky to renounce his aspiration to join NATO given the political constraints faced by the Ukrainian president (fact check: also true). This means the US and its allies have much less role than they'd like in determining the outcome of this crisis, and it’s all down to Zelensky and Putin on the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations.

There are then two conceivable pathways to a peaceful resolution:

  1. Under threat of imminent invasion, Ukraine agrees to some form of neutrality (e.g., “Finlandization”) or altogether renounces its NATO membership aspirations.
  2. Despite the threat of imminent invasion, Ukraine stands firm in its commitment to eventually join NATO and Putin backs down (perhaps while securing a victory elsewhere to save face).

For the first scenario to come true, Zelensky would need to both be ultimately willing to back down and to believe that Putin was willing to go to war to stop Ukraine from drifting into the West’s orbit. For the second scenario to come true, Putin would need to both be ultimately willing to back down and to believe that Zelensky would not give up Ukraine’s sovereignty no matter the cost.

Putin and Zelensky are making these decisions simultaneously, and neither knows the other’s true level of resolve. Zelensky doesn’t know whether Putin is actually willing to go to war to prevent Ukraine from eventually joining NATO, and Putin doesn’t know whether Zelensky is actually unwilling to renounce his NATO aspirations if the alternative is an invasion.

Perhaps Putin is a pragmatist not actually willing to pay the price of another war, and the Russian military buildup and sanction avoidance measures are an elaborate bluff meant to convince Ukraine and the West that he’s willing to incur high costs to ensure that Ukraine will never join NATO. Or perhaps he is a fanatic (or an opportunist primarily concerned about legacy) who’s actually prepared to go the full distance in exchange for the guarantee he so craves, no matter the cost.

Perhaps Zelensky is a pragmatist who would ultimately prefer to give up NATO at gunpoint but by diplomatic means than to be invaded and possibly overthrown, and his unwavering refusal to budge on the issue is posturing meant to convince Putin that he’ll have to incur prohibitively high costs if he wants a veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy. Or perhaps he is a fanatic (or an opportunist primarily concerned about legacy) who’s unmovable in his commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and would rather lose the option of NATO membership by force than capitulate, even if it costs him his job and possibly his country.

The problem is that Putin the pragmatist and Zelensky the pragmatist would behave the same as Putin the fanatic and Zelensky the fanatic, because both leaders have an incentive to pretend to be tougher-than-thou until the very end even if they ultimately preferred a peaceful defeat to war. Meaning that anything they say and do says little about what their red lines are, and it's incredibly hard to tell whether they are bluffing or not without calling the bluff and risking war.


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