Since Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine in February 2022, debates have raged in the West about how to properly respond to Moscow’s aggression. But those debates are limited by a lack of agreement about the goals of that aggression and, ultimately, what kind of threat Russia really represents. Arguably, understanding the Russia threat is a first-order priority: unless Western governments get that right, they risk either overreacting or underreacting.
Officials and scholars who have proffered their views of Russian goals tend to see them in quite stark terms. Many have made the case that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a maximalist whose ambitions go far beyond Ukraine. Others portray Putin as obsessed with Ukraine—or more specifically, obsessed with erasing it from the map. Such assessments of Putin’s intentions, however, are often unmoored from any consideration of his capabilities. If one accepts the formulation that a threat must be assessed based on an adversary’s intentions and capabilities, then the limits of what Putin can do establish which of his ambitions are relevant for understanding the threat posed by Russia—and which merely reflect the powers of his imagination.
Over the past 20 months, the world has learned much about what Putin can and cannot do. When one considers that evidence, a different view of Putin and the threat he represents emerges: a dangerous aggressor, for sure, but ultimately a tactician who has had to adjust to the constraints under which he is forced to operate.
WHAT DOES PUTIN WANT?
Some prominent Russia analysts have claimed that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is merely the first step in a much larger attempt at domination that will extend beyond Ukraine. Putin, in this view, is a maximalist. As the scholars Angela Stent and Fiona Hill argued in Foreign Affairs: “[Putin’s] claims go beyond Ukraine, into Europe and Eurasia. The Baltic states might be on his colonial agenda, as well as Poland.” In this view, Russia’s progressively greater use of military force in its foreign policy since the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 is part of a continual process that has yet to peak. Putin, accordingly, will not stop until he has restored some version of the Russian Empire or at least a sphere of influence that goes beyond Ukraine. As Hill and Stent put it in a different article: “If Russia were to prevail in this bloody conflict, Putin’s appetite for expansion would not stop at the Ukrainian border. The Baltic states, Finland, Poland, and many other countries that were once part of Russia’s empire could be at risk of attack or subversion.”
If Putin does harbor such imperialist ambitions in eastern Europe, his intentions would partly resemble those of Hitler and Stalin. Some leaders, particularly in parts of formerly communist Eastern Europe that fell under Nazi occupation during World War II and Soviet occupation and control after it, have not shied away from making the analogy explicit. For example, in June 2022, Polish President Andrzej Duda criticized German and French attempts at diplomacy with Russia by rhetorically asking: “Did anyone speak like this with Adolf Hitler during World War II? Did anyone say that Adolf Hitler must save face? That we should proceed in such a way that it is not humiliating for Adolf Hitler? I have not heard such voices.”
Other analysts and policymakers have portrayed Putin as essentially a génocidaire—a man bent on destroying not only the Ukrainian state but also its people and culture. As the historian David Marples put it: “The Russian leadership seeks to depopulate and destroy the entity that since 1991 has existed as the independent Ukrainian state.” The writer Anne Applebaum concurs: “This was never just a war for territory, after all, but rather a campaign fought with genocidal intent.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described “an obvious policy of genocide pursued by Russia,” a charge backed by the odious practices of Russian forces: the mass killings of civilians, the torture and rape of detainees, the deliberate bombing of residential neighborhoods, and the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. In his September 2022 address to the UN General Assembly, U.S. President Joe Biden stated that “this war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple, and Ukraine’s right to exist as a people.” The legislatures of Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have joined that of Ukraine in formally declaring Russia’s aggression in Ukraine a genocide.
It now seems patently obvious that Putin’s motives went far beyond defense.
The trouble with seeing Putin as a maximalist or a génocidaire is that it ignores his inability to be either one of those things—unless he resorts to use of weapons of mass destruction. When Russia’s conventional military was at the peak of its power at the start of the war, it was incapable of taking control of any major Ukrainian city. Since the retreat from Kyiv and the northeast, Russian forces have demonstrated little capacity to conduct successful offensive operations. Their last attempt—a winter offensive in the south of the Donetsk region—ended in a bloodbath for the Russian side. At this rate, Putin will never succeed at taking control of Ukraine by force, let alone wipe out its inhabitants, even if Western support for Kyiv wanes. If he cannot take Ukraine, it seems far-fetched that he could go beyond it. These Russian weaknesses are widely invoked, but they are usually ignored in assessments that focus on Putin’s intentions.
Moreover, Moscow’s soft-power instruments have been revealed to be equally ineffective as its hard power ones. Despite many fears to the contrary, German dependence on Russian natural gas has not allowed Moscow to stop Berlin from leading efforts to counter aggression in Ukraine. In addition, the shallowness of Russia’s capital markets and the general weakness of its industrial sector have driven former Soviet countries toward the West and China in search of trade opportunities and investments—despite elaborate attempts by Moscow to foster economic integration in the region. In addition, Putin’s Russia, unlike its Soviet predecessor, has no power of attraction with which to co-opt foreign elites into larger political projects. The Kremlin under Putin has neither a powerful, transnational ideology nor a developmental model that could attract elites outside its borders. Whatever soft power Russia wielded to attract elites through more banal means—say, bribery on a grand scale—has been largely squandered by now, thanks to the brutality of its war.
The Ukraine war has revealed that Putin does not have the resources—short of using nuclear weapons—to fulfill maximalist or genocidal objectives. The Russian military has improved its performance during the war; its destructive power should not be dismissed. And Putin’s intentions do matter. But it is now clear that his forces cannot defeat the Ukrainian military, let alone occupy the country. Perhaps he might dream of wiping Ukraine off the map or of marching onward from Ukraine to the rest of the continent. But his dreams matter little if he cannot realize them on the ground.
PAVED WITH BAD INTENTIONS
A smaller but vocal group of analysts takes a markedly different view of Putin’s intentions, claiming that he is a fundamentally defensive actor who seeks (like all leaders of major powers, this group alleges) to prevent threats to his homeland from materializing. Rather than trying to conquer Ukraine, let alone Europe, Putin has been waging a reactive war to keep the West out of his backyard. The political scientist John Mearsheimer, the most prominent exponent of this view, has argued that “there is no evidence in the public record that Putin was contemplating, much less intending to put an end to Ukraine as an independent state and make it part of greater Russia when he sent his troops into Ukraine.” He has also written that “there is no evidence Russia was preparing a puppet government for Ukraine, cultivating pro-Russian leaders in Kyiv, or pursuing any political measures that would make it possible to occupy the entire country and eventually integrate it into Russia.” In other words, Russia has been playing defense, and Putin is merely pushing back against Western encroachment. He seeks nothing more than security for his country.
But this portrayal of Putin clashes with the reality of Russia’s actions. It now seems patently obvious that Putin’s motives went far beyond defense. It is difficult to see the Russian attempt to take Kyiv in the first weeks of the war as anything other than a regime-change operation. And British, Ukrainian, and U.S. intelligence agencies have all judged that the Kremlin attempted to prepare various Ukrainian figureheads to lead a Russian puppet regime in Kyiv and steer the country back into Moscow’s orbit. (One such figurehead, Oleg Tsaryov, even directly confirmed his presence in Ukraine on the day the full-scale invasion began, declaring on the Telegram social media platform that “Kyiv will be free from fascists.”)
Still, to accurately assess the Russia threat, the clear evidence of Putin’s initially expansive intentions must be coupled with the equally clear evidence of Russia’s limited capabilities, which have been on vivid display since February 2022 and which appear to have forced Putin to adjust his aims. Putin may well have been seeking to conquer Ukraine in the initial stage of the war, but following the failure of that plan, he (at least temporarily) downsized his goals. He withdrew his forces from around the capital and other cities in the northeast of Ukraine in early April 2022; they have never returned. As Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, has testified to Congress: “Putin is likely better understanding the limits of what his military is capable of achieving and appears to be focused on more limited military objectives for now.” The best way to understand Putin, then, is not as an offensive maximalist, a génocidaire, or a wholly defensive actor, but rather as a tactician who adjusts his ambitions to accord with the constraints under which he operates. Analysis of the Russia threat should focus less on what he might aspire to and more on what he plausibly can get with the power he has.
DEALING WITH A TACTICAL ADVERSARY
An understanding of Putin as a tactician is not necessarily reassuring. His ambitions may well expand in the future just as they have contracted in the past—and if Russia’s power can enable that expansion, then threat assessments should change. Moreover, even with his current limited capabilities, Putin can still inflict major damage on Ukraine and its people. Russia has pounded Ukrainian ports and industrial and energy facilities and has mined many agricultural fields. Its naval blockade has obstructed exports of grain, steel, and other commodities on which the Ukrainian economy (and that of many other countries) critically depends. In 2022, the Ukrainian economy shrank by a third, and it is hard to imagine how a substantial recovery could take place before Moscow stops bombing major cities and infrastructure and lifts the blockade. Further, Ukraine is by far the most powerful of Russia’s non-NATO neighbors. In other words, even with his current capabilities and a tactician’s mindset, Putin could pose an insurmountable threat to Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and other former Soviet republics. U.S. allies in NATO might be safe, but that’s cold comfort to people in those countries.
For governments, rightsizing the Russia threat—that is, adopting an understanding of Putin as a tactician operating under significant constraints—should form the basis for determining appropriate policy responses to his actions. Policymakers should recognize that Putin’s goals might well be a moving target and avoid static assessments. Regularly testing the proposition that he might have adjusted to new circumstances would be a sensible approach.
Regardless, a proper understanding of the threat Russia poses must begin with an accurate appraisal of Russian power. Putin might harbor fantasies of world conquest. But at the moment, his military cannot even fully conquer any of the four Ukrainian provinces he claims to have annexed last year. Ultimately, those are the constraints that should bound the debate about the extent of the threat.