Essential Politics: What is Vladimir Putin thinking?

A Ukrainian border guard patrols the border with Russia not far from Hoptivka village, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 2.
A Ukrainian guard patrols the border with Russia not far from Hoptivka village, Ukraine, on Wednesday.
(Evgeniy Maloletka / Associated Press)

The volatile confrontation between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine is testing U.S. relationships with nervous Western allies and straining already fractious domestic politics here in the United States.

And that is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants.

For the record:

8:44 a.m. Feb. 7, 2022An earlier version of this newsletter incorrectly stated NATO’s full name. The acronym stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Hi. I’m Tracy Wilkinson, your guest columnist this week. I cover foreign policy and the State Department.

Even without firing a shot or moving a single soldier into Ukraine, with more than 100,000 troops amassed near the country’s eastern and northern borders, Putin is able to achieve many of the goals that an invasion could also, presumably, achieve.

In fact, Putin may not need to invade at all.

Global focus on Russia

Already, Putin has managed to focus world attention on Russia. The country that he believes should top a global empire, a world power, again dominates urgent conversations in numerous capital cities and has caused the hasty convening of international summits.

It is possibly more attention than at almost any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event that Putin has said is the greatest disaster of the 20th century.

And as leaders scramble, they inevitably bicker. Is Germany really on board with arming and assisting Ukraine? Why is French President Emmanuel Macron having his own talks with Putin? And why aren’t more European countries chiming in on imposing sanctions on Moscow?


Those divisions, even as the West tries to present a united front, are music to Putin’s ears. Undermining the transatlantic alliance of Europe and the United States is and always has been a major goal of the ex-spymaster who has led Russia for two decades.

Putin “wants to create the consequences of an invasion without actually invading,” Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations and a former State Department official, said Thursday on MSNBC.

It’s a lot of disruption for the West and spotlight for Moscow with little Russian sacrifice of blood and treasure — all while Moscow continues to deny any intention of invading.

What Putin says he wants is a promise from the West that Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, will never be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He also wants NATO to cease expansion in Eastern Europe and even pull some forces back from the region that was once part of the Soviet sphere of influence. The U.S. and NATO and the European Union have firmly rejected those demands, saying it is up to individual, sovereign nations to decide whether they want to apply to join NATO or any other alliance.

Putin has numerous options aside from a conventional land invasion of Ukraine. The former KGB officer is a puppet master of cyber sabotage, and officials in Kyiv have reported numerous cyberattacks on government websites that they blame on Russia.

He also works through proxies, without deploying formal troops. In eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014, with more than 14,000 people killed in the conflict.


“The Kremlin has been much more willing to deploy — and then even to accept casualties among — various types of paramilitaries as well as Russian private military companies,” said Seth Jones, a former Defense official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“Russian conventional combat deaths, I think, would be a very different situation and almost certainly would put pressure on Putin if we were to see conventional forces dying,” Jones added.

Another factor at play is the damage that threatened sanctions might have on Russia’s energy sector. Much has been discussed about Russian gas supplies to Germany and other parts of Europe, and how Putin might cut those off to punish European efforts against Russia. But Putin also has to worry about the sizable portion of his country’s income that comes from those exports. U.S. officials say that sanctions under consideration include export controls and banking restrictions.

“If you have a wholesale cutoff, that will basically destroy whatever remains of Russia’s reputation as a reliable [oil and gas] supplier,” said Nikos Tsafos, an expert on energy and geopolitics. Because Russia has reserves of about $640 billion, he said, disruption would be less about money than reputation.

Similarly, merely the talk of an invasion of Ukraine is achieving another of Putin’s goals: undermining the government and economy in Kyiv.

A suggestion of this has come from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who worried publicly that talking about an imminent invasion made it even more so. He has sought to publicly downplay the looming threat. This week, the White House said it would stop using the word “imminent” to describe a Russian invasion.

“We don’t want to do Putin’s job for him,” said Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat from Elk Grove and one of several U.S. lawmakers who have traveled to Kyiv, and met with Zelensky, in recent weeks.

U.S. officials have described what they believe are Putin’s plans to stage a “false-flag” operation as a pretext for invading Ukraine. It could be quite elaborate, officials say, including actors hired as mourners lamenting a supposed Ukrainian attack that kills Russian citizens.

It is not as outlandish as it might sound, U.S. officials say. They say they’ve seen this playbook before.

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The latest on Ukraine

— The U.S. said Thursday that it obtained intelligence indicating that the Russian government developed a plan to stage a false-flag attack as a pretext for military action against Ukraine. An official said the scheme included production of a graphic propaganda video.

— Biden ordered 2,000 U.S.-based troops to Poland and Germany and shifted 1,000 more to Romania, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

— Amid rising tensions with other nations over Ukraine, Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday. In their first in-person meeting since 2019, they jointly pushed back against U.S. pressure, declaring their opposition to any expansion of NATO and affirming that Taiwan is a part of China.

— From Nabih Bulos: A blasé attitude is not uncommon in Kyiv, where many residents appear to be confronting the prospect of an enemy at the gates with a mix of stoicism and resignation, if not outright bewilderment at so many foreigners asking about imminent conflict.

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The view from Washington

— Biden traveled to New York City on Thursday to embrace its new mayor and his approach to handling crime and public safety, report Eli Stokols and Erin B. Logan. As the midterms approach, Mayor Eric Adams’ election underlines the issue’s growing significance with swing voters and even Democrats.

— Biden announced Thursday that the leader of Islamic State blew himself up during an overnight raid by U.S. forces in Syria that also left a number of civilians dead. He called the operation a success because it eliminated a “major terrorist threat to the world,” report Del Quentin Wilber, Noah Bierman and Bulos.

— Also from Wilber: A federal appeals court indicated Wednesday it may overturn a ruling that blocked the public’s access to a search warrant for Sen. Richard M. Burr’s cellphone, which was part of an investigation into his stock trades.

— When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her reelection bid last week, she made no mention of her leadership post. Several lawmakers said they were not surprised Pelosi left the question open, Nolan D. McCaskill writes.

California politics

— Today in our sister newsletter, California Politics: John Myers writes that a pair of former California lawmakers are organizing a start-up effort to break the state’s two-party orthodoxy. They hope the California Common Sense Party will appeal to voters who place value in collaboration, compromise and pragmatism — but can the group can get officially recognized in time for the June 7 statewide primary?

— For nearly three decades, California law has forbidden the state’s medical board from considering victim statements in their decision-making. Melody Gutierrez, Brittny Mejia and Jack Dolan report that a new bill could change that.

State lawmakers declined to vote on a high-profile effort to overhaul California’s healthcare system on Monday, putting an end to a proposal that would have guaranteed medical coverage to every resident by levying billions in new taxes, Gutierrez reported.

— A recent recall election in Shasta County pitted a Republican ex-police chief against a far-right faction backed by a local militia. It’s a wake-up call ahead of the 2022 midterms that elections can go very wrong, even in liberal California, writes columnist Anita Chabria.

— Is recall fever waning? The failure to take down Gov. Gavin Newsom reflects a broader pattern among voters, writes columnist Mark Z. Barabak.

— Meet L.A. on the Record, your weekly guide to a crowded local election season in Los Angeles. Beginning Feb. 19, this new newsletter from The Times will offer a detailed look at the too-often-unexplained underworld of L.A. politics.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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