So much for the good news. Now the cold shower — and some reasons Putin could still invade, and soon.
For starters, Putin is obsessed with Ukraine, not only because of his fear that it could join NATO, but also because of its deep cultural-religious-historical connection to Russia. While he may not seize the country by invasion, he will not easily give up meddling in its politics, trying to install lackeys in its presidential palace and empowering Russian speakers there to constantly try to pull the two countries closer together. And Putin has many covert means to keep tugging Ukraine his way in a manner that will not trigger as robust a Western response as his massing tanks on its border.
Second, U.S. officials say that while there is opposition in the Russian government to Putin’s brinkmanship, it’s not clear if any of it got through to him. Andrew Wood, the former British ambassador to Moscow, writing in the journal American Purpose on Monday, noted: “Since Covid-19 struck in 2020, Putin has worked from his ‘bunker’ most of the time. Face-to-face meetings are difficult to arrange.” Putin, unlike his Soviet predecessors, doesn’t have to consult with a Politburo or any party leadership. “If, as it appears, there are now fewer trusted persons with ready access to Putin, the dearth must affect his judgment.”
Third, having opposed NATO expansion at the end of the Cold War, I am not indifferent to legitimate Russian concerns about Ukraine joining NATO. Both NATO and Russia should agree to Ukraine being a geopolitically neutral state, like Finland. But in my view, Putin is not really afraid of Ukraine joining NATO, which the U.S. has made clear is not in the cards now. Instead, Putin’s fear is that Ukraine becomes Westernized.
He fears that one day Ukraine will be admitted to the European Union.
What struck me most from a trip I took to Ukraine in April 2014 was how many young Ukrainians I met were dreaming of Ukraine becoming a full member of the E.U. — not NATO — precisely to lock in their frail democracy and lock out corruption and Putinism.
Which is why I never believed it was a coincidence that Putin seized Crimea and first invaded part of eastern Ukraine in February-March 2014. What else was happening then? The European Union’s 28 member states were forging a new E.U.-Ukraine Association Agreement to foster closer political and economic ties, signed on March 21, 2014.
No, the Ukraine crisis has never been exclusively about Putin’s fear of the expansion of NATO’s forces to Russia’s borders. Not even close. His greater fear is the expansion of the E.U.’s sphere of influence and the prospect that it would midwife a decent, democratic, free-market Ukraine that would every day say to the Russian people, “This is what you could be without Putin.”