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Geopolitics

Ukraine, What Now? Here Are Putin's Four Options

The situation in eastern Ukraine is highly explosive. What will happen after the recognition of the self-proclaimed "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states? Will Putin hunker down or double down? Instant analysis from German foreign policy thinkers on what happens next.

photo of putin holding binoculars

Putin has options. None without risk

Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via ZUMA
Christoph B. Schiltz

-Analysis-

It is a rogue play directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Moscow seemed to nurture hopes for a top-level meeting between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden, the Russian president decided Monday night instead to recognize the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics as independent states.

He also ordered the deployment of troops to eastern Ukraine. The units are said to ensure peace, according to a decree signed by the Kremlin leader in Moscow well into the night. It is not yet clear when the soldiers will be deployed. Putin also instructed the Foreign Ministry to establish diplomatic relations with the two regions, which belong to Ukraine under international law.

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According to NATO military experts, this ebb and flow between escalation and the hope of de-escalation is part of Putin's strategy: he wants to build up pressure, deceive, intimidate and unsettle. His goal: "security guarantees" under which the U.S. and NATO agree to withdraw from the territory of the former Warsaw Pact, no longer allow any expansion of the Western defense alliance and withdraw U.S. nuclear weapons from third countries.

What options does Putin have now, and how likely are each one of them? We see four possible scenarios:

Annexation

A temporary military escalation in eastern Ukraine and Putin's recognition of the pro-Russian breakaway "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk on Monday night could lead to Russia's de facto annexation of these territories in slow motion. The economic damage to Ukraine would be minor, but Kiev would continue to lose influence at home.

The "Minsk Agreement", negotiated between the West, Russia and Ukraine to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, would be dead. Ukraine would significantly strengthen its demand to join NATO. In this case, Moscow would probably also try to capture the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and create a land link to the Crimean peninsula, partly to secure water supplies there.

Probability: medium to high

Economic siege 

In this scenario, Putin would indefinitely station troops of varying strength on Ukraine's borders and repeatedly conduct maneuvers — but not attack. According to internal NATO analyses, Russia has sufficient funding to do so.

In that case, investors would leave Ukraine in droves, the transport of goods would be made more difficult, and the country would likely collapse economically at some point. In addition, Moscow could launch cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns as part of so-called hybrid warfare, which mixes military and non-military elements, further destabilizing Ukraine.

Benefit for Putin: if there is no military attack, it would be very difficult for the European Union to agree on far-reaching and painful sanctions against Moscow. Aside from Ukraine, however, Russia has other opportunities to pressure the West for the "security guarantees" it has demanded.

Moscow could stir up unrest in Libya, Mali and Syria through targeted small-scale interventions and trigger new refugee flows toward the E.U. in the spring. Moscow would even be able to directly threaten the U.S. by deploying new supersonic weapons on submarines within immediate range of Washington — it would only take five minutes, according to the Kremlin.

Probability: high

Total occupation

Russia currently has about 160,000 troops amassed on the Ukrainian border. Moscow would be able to attack Ukraine from three sides simultaneously in the north, south, and east. This scenario would likely play out like this, according to intelligence agencies: Russian air forces would knock out Ukrainian command posts with large-scale bombardments and the use of missile launchers capable of firing Iskander short-range missiles, followed by land and naval forces.

Ukraine has little to counter this, people in military circles say. Moscow would thus be in a position to take Kiev in a very short time. But the cost would be immense. According to The New York Times, the U.S. government expects not only 25,000 to 50,000 dead Ukrainian civilians and 25,000 fallen Ukrainian soldiers in the event of an invasion, but also about 10,000 casualties among Russian soldiers.

Putin would come under domestic pressure if it came to dead soldiers. Brussels and Washington would quickly and unanimously impose far-reaching sanctions that will hit Russia's economy hard. In addition, Moscow would have to prepare for a grueling guerrilla war in Ukraine. NATO would also drastically increase its presence in northeastern and southeastern Europe.

Probability: low

Limited advance in the southwest

Meanwhile, at least 12 Russian warships are in the Black Sea, which could engage in landing operations with Marine troops. According to internal NATO intelligence, Russian soldiers could advance toward the major Ukrainian city of Odessa and capture the land corridor between Moldova and the already-annexed Crimea.

In this way, Moscow would further weaken Ukraine economically and move closer to NATO territories, such as Romania, in the southeast. In this case, a controversial debate would arise in the E.U. about which sanctions to respond with.

Probability: medium

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