The Outlier: What if Putin’s Real Target isn’t Ukraine?

Map of Riga in Latvia. Detail from the World Map.

By Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Former Senior Member, British Foreign Office

Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is now Visiting Professor of War Studies at King's College, London. His first overseas posting was in Angola during the Cold War followed by Central America during the instability of the late 1980s. He was also involved in the transition to majority rule in South Africa and in the Israel/Palestine issue.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — We have a long history of misreading Russian intentions. The classic example was the judgement by the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) that Russia would not invade Czechoslovakia in 1968; based on a westernised view that it would not be in Moscow’s interests. Similar misjudgements were made in the prelude to Putin’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

Vladimir Putin calculated this winter as the ideal time to confront the West over those parts of the former Soviet Union which he believes should still be in Moscow’s sphere of influence. Winter inevitably puts Europe’s energy market under stress. Meanwhile NATO has just made a humiliating and chaotic exit from Afghanistan led by a United States president who is struggling in the polls.

Having identified the best moment Putin followed up by mobilising an army of some 130,000 troops in midwinter, distributed in pockets along Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus. Putin never places great belief in diplomacy but he is willing to go through the motions because he does set store by assembling retrospective justification for any future action. In the unlikely event of a major Western concession, he would be willing to stand down the army but the strong probability is that he will use it to facilitate a tangible political and military result.

The assumption of everyone in the West is that Ukraine is the target for either an invasion or an incursion. However, none of the options looks particularly good. Yes, Russian troops could probably dash the 240 miles from Belarus to Kiev and seize the capital. But they would be unable to subjugate the whole of Ukraine, especially west of Kiev, and the invasion could lead to a long and costly insurgency. Alternatively, Putin could try and capture Ukraine’s coast and the port of Odessa but it would leave a long strip of land to defend against future Ukrainian counter-attacks.

The other problem with attacking Ukraine is that it lets NATO and the West off too lightly. President Biden made it very clear at an early stage of this crisis that NATO would not fight to defend Ukraine. Instead, all the talk has been of economic and financial sanctions. This approach has made it easier for Western countries to show a reasonably united front against Putin, although differences exist over supplying weapons to Ukraine and the exact nature of the sanctions.

So, the focus on Ukraine has not worked for Putin. Although some of the responses have been divisive the overall tendency has been to unite Western leaders. It has also enabled them to undertake some showboating with Macron engaging directly with Putin in diplomatic talks and others making high-profile trips to Kiev.

But Ukraine may not be Putin’s main target. Putin’s beef is with NATO which, he believes, has made more inroads into central and eastern Europe than was ever agreed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact the two draft treaties which Russia published on 17th December last year demanded that NATO withdraw its forces and weapons from any country which joined NATO since 1997. That would include Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. It also embraces the three Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) whose secession from the old Soviet Union particularly rankles with Putin.

There are two operations which Russia could launch against the Baltic States which would send NATO into a tailspin. Article V of the NATO treaty stipulates that “an armed attack against one [member] shall be considered an attack against them all” In other words NATO would be obliged to employ armed force. If any Russian incursion were deft, limited in scope and did not kill too many NATO soldiers or local inhabitants this would undoubtedly lead to severe divisions in the Western alliance. Any subsequent failure by NATO to deploy armed force would undermine faith in the alliance and would send a powerful message to aspirant members like Ukraine and Georgia.

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The easier of the two options for Putin would be to annex Narva on Russia’s border with Estonia. It is a majority Russian-speaking town and there has, in the past, been some cultural tension with the government in Tallinn. Putin would ask his intelligence agencies to manufacture a plea for Russian intervention. The annexation could be undertaken by Russian Special Forces. Post facto the Russian line would be that Narva was an exceptional case which should never have been located in Estonia and certainly not worth an armed conflict with NATO. Several European capitals would doubtless agree. But Britain would be in a particularly difficult position as the “lead nation” of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) with some 1,100 troops based at Tapa 100 miles to the west.

The second option would be riskier but potentially more valuable to Moscow. An attempt to link Belarus with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad through the so-called Suwalki Corridor would sever any land border between NATO and EU countries and the three Baltic States. The EFP in Lithuania is led by the Germans who would be reluctant to contest a Russian incursion for reasons which Chancellor Scholz has already outlined. Troops from Kaliningrad could complete the task supported from Belarus. Again, the post facto justification would be about the unfairness of Kaliningrad’s separation from the motherland. This too might be enough for some European nations to argue for negotiations rather than combat, especially if Russia’s incursion were only in the Lithuanian portion of the Corridor and not in Poland.

Many Western commentators will argue that Putin would not be so foolish as to attack a NATO member. Actually, it makes far more sense than invading Ukraine. It would divide NATO and would serve as yet another of Putin’s unresolved conflicts which become valuable bargaining chips for the future. His key calculation seems correct; that Europe (and the US) has no appetite for war with Russia.

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