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The Russia-Ukraine war crisis, explained by an expert

What's happening in Russia has more to do with national self-interest than Putin or ideology, an expert explains.
Photo Illustration of question marks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Joe Biden and troops in the Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has deployed some 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, raising questions of whether an invasion is imminent or he's applying pressure to the West for security concessions.Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC

Is Russia really looking to invade Ukraine? How messy could it get if the West tries to stop it?

These questions have been on my mind the past couple of weeks, and they may have been on yours, too, given the constant stream of news suggesting that some kind of clash is increasingly likely.

In December, Russia sent a list of security demands to a U.S. diplomat, calling for, among other things, a halt to the NATO military alliance’s eastward expansion, removing NATO troops and bases from former Soviet Union territory and ending Western military assistance to Ukraine. Moscow stated that if its demands could not be sorted out diplomatically, it would then use military force. In other words: “Stop crowding us, or we’ll strike our neighbor to draw a line.”

Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin has deployed some 100,000 troops and serious military hardware along the Ukrainian border, suggesting the country is potentially on the brink of making good on that threat. The U.S. and its European allies have threatened sanctions, although there’s some disagreement between them on how far to go, and President Joe Biden is contemplating sending thousands of U.S. troops, warships and aircraft to NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

To get a big-picture understanding of what’s at stake and what led us to this moment, I called Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of “Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.” He argued that the current impasse is less about Putin than you think — and that the stakes are very high, even if a war doesn't break out.

Zeeshan Aleem: What would you estimate the odds are that Putin is going to invade Ukraine, and, what he's hoping to achieve with the troop buildups?

Anatol Lieven: Well, the buildup is intended to put pressure on the West and the U.S. to, if not meet all of Russia's demands, at least compromise sufficiently to give the Russian government the appearance of some kind of success. I don't think — and it appears to still be the consensus of U.S. intelligence — that they have definitely decided on war.

What really worries me is that the Russian government has pitched its demands so high, and so categorically, that it would be very difficult now for them to go home.

Apart from everything else, I think Russia would need more troops. I don't think 100,000 is enough, if they were going for a full-scale invasion. If they're going for a much more limited incursion in the Donbass, then the troops are not necessarily in the right place. [The Donbass is the eastern region of Ukraine in which Russian-backed separatists have broken away from Ukrainian government control and formed self-declared separatist states that have not been internationally recognized.] My judgment would be that before the Russians actually go to war again, we would have some warning, at least from additional troop movements.

The Russians are, I think, putting themselves in a position to invade. He probably shouldn't have said it publicly, but Biden's comments on the possibility of a limited incursion actually made good sense — it's quite likely that is how it would begin. And then the Russians would stop and see what we did next. What really worries me is that the Russian government has pitched its demands so high, and so categorically, that it would be very difficult now for them to go home with none of their significant demands answered without serious humiliation. So they put themselves in a position where — which, of course you should never do — if they can't get some kind of success, they may have no choice but to fight. And, of course, on the Western side as well, we've also made some very categorical statements that it'll be difficult to back away from now.

Although there is, I think, still wiggle room: There's still the possibility, not of banning NATO membership for Ukraine, but possibly of a moratorium on membership for 10 or 20 years.

And some of the intention of Biden considering sending troops to the Baltics is basically to say, "Look, if Russia withdraws its troops from the Ukrainian border and ends its threat of invasion, we pull back from new deployments in Eastern Europe." So that's another thing, which gives the appearance of a decent compromise.

And the final thing would be to try, at the very least in terms of new public commitment, to move the Minsk II process [the unimplemented cease-fire agreement regarding the separatist areas of Ukraine] forward on autonomy for the Donbass region, because that remains official U.S. policy. And it's also the only possible way of actually bringing a peace settlement to that region.

Why is Russia concerned about Ukraine entering NATO?

Lieven: Russia doesn't want Ukraine in NATO for exactly the same reason that America would not want Mexico in alliances with China, right? There's nothing mysterious about that.

U.S. concern about what happens in Central America existed long before America was a superpower. And if America ever ceases to be a superpower, it won't cease to be vitally concerned with what happens in its neighborhood, for obvious reasons. The Monroe Doctrine, at least in its original form, never implied America trying to rule the world. So Russia's desire to maintain predominant influence over Ukraine does not actually imply Russia’s desire to dominate central Europe.

There is an additional twist, of course, in the case of Ukraine, which is that Ukraine contains this huge Russian minority. Twenty percent of the population say they're ethnic Russians; a third speak Russian as their first language; there are very old and deep historical and cultural connections, which Russia is very anxious to preserve. So that adds to the importance of Ukraine for Russia.

What exactly does Putin want? What ideology and interests are motivating his behavior right now?

Lieven: This isn't about Putin. Russia has a blob like America has a blob. [“Blob” is a term for Washington’s stubborn long-term foreign policy establishment.] Since the beginning of NATO expansion in the mid-'90s, when Russia had a very different government under Boris Yeltsin, the Russian government, and Russian commentators and officials, opposed NATO enlargement but also warned that if this went as far as taking in Georgia and Ukraine, then there would be confrontation and strong likelihood of war. They said that explicitly over and over again. So this is not about Putin.

And it's not even, I think, fundamentally about ideology. You know, I mean, once again, much like the Monroe Doctrine, you've had Republican administrations and Democratic administrations throughout American history insisting on the exclusion of hostile military alliances from Central America.

Biden is contemplating sending troops to the Baltic and has threatened sanctions against Russia. If he were seeking your counsel on how to navigate this situation and advance U.S. interests, what would you advise?

Lieven: Well troops for the Baltic, or for Poland, don't really matter, because Russia isn't going to attack the Baltic states or Poland. I mean, they're useful as a bargaining counter, but only if you're prepared to withdraw them again, in return for Russia withdrawing its troops.

Anyone who thinks that the European NATO countries are going to fight Russia is dreaming.

As far as sending troops into action against Russia is concerned, that would mean sending troops to Ukraine. And everybody's ruled that out. America has ruled it out. NATO has ruled it out. It's not going to happen — partly because America doesn't have the troops, nor does Europe. America has four brigades in Europe; that’s not enough to defeat the Russians. The entire British army now has two deployable brigades, and it can mobilize more but it will take months to call up all the territorials. France has maybe a couple, but it's bogged down in Africa. I mean, anyone who thinks that the European NATO countries are going to fight Russia is dreaming. So that's just not going to happen.

Sanctions are a very real source of pressure and retaliation. Biden and [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken have both made remarks to the effect that you don't want to impose your sanctions in advance or impose what's been called a "nuclear option" — excluding Russia from SWIFT [the world's biggest electronic payments system, effectively cutting Russia off from the global economy] — in response to a minor Russian incursion, because then what are you going to do if there's a major incursion? You've shot your bolt; you've got no sanctions left. So you need to have a calibrated response, but move to full-scale sanctions if there's a full-scale invasion. But then again, of course, for that you have to get the Europeans on your side. If the Europeans can't pay Russia for gas due to sanctions, Russia won’t deliver gas — and then you have a major energy and economic crisis in Europe. So you know that that's something to keep in mind.

As for supplying weapons to Ukraine [which the U.S. is doing] — that's very dangerous, because the problem is that it's highly unlikely there will be enough of them to stop the Russians. It will raise the costs for the Russians of invasion. But the risk there is that Putin asks his generals for advice on what to do. And the generals have to reply: “Look, Mr. President, if you want to achieve this operation with the lowest possible cost in terms of not just Russian casualties, but also to minimize Ukrainian casualties, especially Ukrainian civilian casualties, you better act now. Because if you leave this till the summer, by then the U.S. really might have put in enough weapons to Ukraine, not to defeat us, but to turn it into a much more brutal battle. So if you're going to do it, Mr. President, do it now.” So you see, this could have exactly the reverse effect of what America is trying to achieve.