Putin’s Zugzwang: The Russia-Ukraine Standoff

The choice of outcome in the Russia-Ukraine standoff is largely Vladimir Putin’s. Ukraine and the West are not powerless, but they can at most anticipate, prepare for, and deter what might be Putin’s next move. This does not mean that they are victims of superior statecraft, however. His admirers may regard Putin as a master strategist, whose petulance and unpredictability give him the upper hand in relations with the West and Ukraine. In fact, the opposite is true. Putin has maneuvered himself, and Russia, into a position of Zugzwang—a chess term denoting a condition in which any possible move will worsen the player’s position.*

Putin has twisted himself into policy as well as rhetorical knots as a result of his absurd insistence that Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych government is unconstitutional. Thus, even though Ukraine’s two unreservedly
 pro-Russian parties, the unreformed (formerly ruling) Party of Regions and the Communists, fielded candidates for the May 25th presidential ballot, Moscow declared the elections illegitimate well in advance and, with its sponsorship of terrorism in eastern Ukraine, indicated that
it would do all it could to sabotage them. But wouldn’t fair and free elections diminish the existential threat Putin claims Russians face in Ukraine? And wouldn’t unfair and unfree elections just prove his point that the Kyiv government is illegitimate? Even more illogically, Moscow demands constitutional reform from Kyiv, while continuing to insist the government is unconstitutional. But how can an unconstitutional government implement constitutionally valid constitutional change?

Far from indicating a master strategist at work, Putin’s twisted logic and contradictory rhetoric have created a web of preposterous claims that, together with his imperialist policies, have forced him and Russia into a dead end with no easy way out. A would-be strongman who rips off his shirt to the delight of adoring Russian crowds, he dares not look or sound weak, while being hard-pressed to pursue policies that benefit Russia. Worse, uncertainty about Putin’s moves will force the West and Ukraine to pursue policies that oppose Russia’s interests. Since Putin is both unpredictable and dangerous, the world must prepare for the worst in its dealings with Moscow, causing Russia and the Russian people to suffer.

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If Russia continues to rattle sabers, threaten to invade, and foment unrest in Ukraine’s southeast, there will be cold war. If, instead of promoting instability, Russia merely refuses to recognize Ukraine’s democratic government and alter Crimea’s status, while simultaneously promoting terrorism and bogus referenda in eastern Ukraine, there will be cold peace. If Russia acts on the bogus referenda and invades more of Ukraine, there could be a hot war. If Russia recognizes Kyiv and “de-annexes” Crimea, warily neighborly relations—or a hot peace—will be possible. Which of these outcomes is Putin’s preference? No one, including quite possibly Putin himself, knows. Putin has become what Winston Churchill once called Russia under Joseph Stalin: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Given Putin’s unpredictability, the best we can do is prepare for any of these outcomes.

The least likely of the above four outcomes is a hot peace. Russia has made it amply clear that its annexation of Crimea is permanent. Since this Anschluss has become the basis of Putin’s appeal to Russia’s hyper-nationalists, he cannot easily embark on de-annexation, even if he wanted to. Whatever the Kremlin’s justifications for the occupation—Crimea was always Russian (not true), the ethnic Russians were being persecuted (not true), Crimea is no different than Kosovo (not true), the referendum was a genuine exercise of the popular will (not true)—the brute fact is that Russia’s imperialist landgrab violated every international norm in the book and threatens world peace. The United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—along with the United States, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Group of 7, and a slew of European and other countries (including, importantly, Turkey)—had no choice but to declare the annexation illegal. Russia’s relations with the West and Ukraine will remain “non-neighborly” for as long as Russia insists its imperialist adventure is legitimate.

None of this means that détente is impossible, but it does mean that rapprochement is extremely unlikely for as long as Putin remains in power. Western businesspeople may push covertly for sacrificing security for the sake of prosperity, and former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt may call the Crimea landgrab “completely understandable,” but the reality of imperialism on Europe’s doorstep, and the possibility of Russia’s expansion to the EU’s borders, limits the degree to which economic interests can determine Western strategy. Even pro-appeasement types like Schmidt might find Russia’s occupation of northeastern Estonia, which is inhabited by Russians, less than verständlich.

Permanently tense relations with what is acknowledged to be a rogue Russia need not result in hot war: that could come about only if Putin wills it. A hot war will always remain possible as long as Russian troops remain amassed on Ukraine’s borders and Putin retains the right, granted by the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian Parliament) on March 1st, to intervene wherever he believes “Russians” are threatened. That said, a hot war would be a high-risk undertaking for Putin, involving significant Russian casualties, a bloody long-term occupation, and enormous financial costs—as well as Western sanctions on Russia’s banking, energy, and armaments sectors and the likely provision to Ukraine of military hardware by the West. Occupying Crimea was a cakewalk; occupying Ukraine, or parts thereof, could be another Afghanistan.

The most likely long-term outcomes are, thus, cold war or cold peace. Here, too, it is Russia that, ironically, is in Zugzwang. Because the central rationale of Moscow’s occupation of Crimea was the defense of supposedly threatened Russians, Putin and his minions must continue insisting that Ukraine’s Russians are under threat and that their rights are being systematically violated. But since there is absolutely no evidence of persecution, whether partial or total, Russia’s charges are as irrefutable as the beliefs of rabid anti-Semites who insist that Jews run the world: the very absence of evidence is ultimately employed as proof of the vast extent of the conspiracy.

Russia must keep its troops stationed along Ukraine’s borders for as long as it claims Russians there are being threatened. And Moscow will claim that Russians are being threatened for as long as it insists that the democratic government in Kyiv is unconstitutional and that Viktor Yanukovych remains Ukraine’s legitimate president. It matters little to Putin’s twisted logic that the criminal Yanukovych regime had violated its social contract with the Ukrainian people, thereby enabling them to assert their natural democratic rights, in the exact same manner as the drafters of America’s Declaration of Independence did in 1776. Nor does he blush, as he should, at the idea of delivering lectures about constitutionality when, in 2004 and 2012, he prevailed in unfair and un-free presidential elections and thereby violated Russia’s Constitution. Putin’s devotion to constitutionality is selective: the outrage he expressed at Yanukovych’s ouster was decidedly absent when, in 2010, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was driven from power in Kyrgyzstan and replaced by a (pro-Russian!) interim government headed by opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva.

Putin’s twisted logic, militarist rhetoric, and neo-imperial ambitions may doom Russia to cold war, even though the benefit Russians would derive from being on a constant war footing is nil and the costs increasingly high. Those costs include loss of prestige and influence, capital flight, declining foreign direct investment, the loss of the Ukrainian market, and growing isolation from the international community and the West. None of this may matter to Putin and his fans in the short run, as his popularity soars; but over time Russia’s economy will decline further, it will be more isolated from global structures, and will feel the full weight of hostility from those disgusted by Russian imperialism.

Putin and his acolytes rationalize Russia’s growing isolation in terms of a civilizational clash between a declining West and a resurgent Russia. They are delusional to believe that the West is in decline and Russia is on the rise. Russia’s rise is illusory and contingent. The society is physically ill (with widespread diseases, high alcohol use, and low life expectancy and birth rates) and, thanks to the imperialist hysteria unleashed by the regime, psychologically unstable, while the state is over-centralized, inefficient, and corrupt. The army is large, but no match for a world-class power or even probably for the armies of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. And with the shale gas revolution, Russia’s energy reserves will no longer provide Putin with the vast wealth to grease his cronies, enrich himself (to the tune of some $45 billion), and keep the population docile. The West has serious problems, but Russia is a paper tiger whose roar is bigger than its bite. Even many Putinites must realize that a long-term confrontation with the West will result in Russia’s humiliation.

A cold peace would be the most advantageous of the four courses open to Russia—as well as the most advantageous to Ukraine and the West—but Putin’s rhetoric and bluster make it impossible in the short run. In the medium term—say, in a year or two or three—it’s not impossible to imagine Putin coming around. Ukraine is planning to decentralize authority in a way that would radically transform the architecture of the Ukrainian state. Kyiv could easily meet eastern Ukrainian demands for enhanced status of the Russian language, already the status quo: the government need only place its imprimatur on the existing state of affairs and call it a concession. Finally, presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine will take place in 2014; both ballots should be fair and free and produce a legitimate government. If so inclined, Putin could use these linguistic and constitutional results to claim victory, asserting that, since Ukraine “finally listened” to Russia’s sage advice and adopted the changes it deemed necessary, the illusory threat to ethnic Russians has disappeared, thereby obviating the need for a Russian troop presence along Ukraine’s border. The only sticking point between Russia and the West and Ukraine would be the Anschluss of Crimea, which could slip into the status of a noxious but acceptable fait accompli if all other things become “normal.”

For now, however, hot war, cold peace, and cold war will remain possible until Putin makes up his mind which course to choose. Some analysts claim he is captive to an all-encompassing imperialist ideology pushing him to continual expansion and war. Others argue that, although he may have a vision of a globally powerful Russia, he is also motivated by geopolitical interests and personal goals. Statements he has made offer little insight into his thinking, since so many of them were misleading or mendacious in the past. In sum, although we do know he has spun a rhetorical web in which he is trapped, we cannot know what Putin’s intentions vis-à-vis Ukraine and the world are.


If states cannot calculate how an adversary will behave, they have no choice but to hope for the best and prepare for the almost-worst and the worst: the almost-worst is Russia’s full embrace of a cold war, while the worst is a hot war. Ukraine and the West must assume that Putin is unreliable, unpredictable, and dangerous—and plan accordingly. For now, Ukraine’s short-, medium-, and long-term priorities are threefold.

First, it must safeguard its own security. International agreements such as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances can be violated, as Russia did by annexing Crimea, or not enforced, as the United States and the United Kingdom did by acquiescing in this Anschluss. Ukraine must look to itself and develop a credible army at all costs. Ukraine need not be able to defeat Russia; it need only deter it and crush the terrorist assaults that form a large part of Putin’s strategy to keep Ukraine unstable and thus pliable.

Second, Ukraine must jump-start its economy with radical economic reforms. A strong economy is the only long-term guarantee of a strong military, which is the sine qua non of Ukraine security. Russia’s aggression in the Crimea, its support of terrorist commandos in eastern Ukraine, and its permanent threat of hot war should consolidate Ukrainians around painful reforms that enhance their security. Transferring many state functions downwards will reduce corruption: central bureaucrats will have fewer opportunities to demand bribes, while local bureaucrats will have to temper their thievery or face the ire of their neighbors.

And third, in order to remain democratic in a tough neighborhood dominated by a neo-fascist bully, Ukraine will have to embed itself in the West. Membership in the European Union is the ultimate prize, but any form of affiliation that promotes the deeper Westernization of Ukraine’s culture, education, laws, and institutions will help ensure survival.

Looked at from the West’s perspective, a strong and democratic Ukraine is its own best defense against an imperialist Russia. That’s why doing everything possible—immediately—to help Ukraine build a strong military, a dynamic economy, and a Western-oriented democracy is crucial. Loans are fine, but the West must go the next step and provide its military with hardware, training, and advisers as a way of making cold peace more attractive than cold or hot war. The West should not be content with threatening Russia with draconian sanctions if its imperialism goes too far: that’s an invitation to Putin to test the “decadent” West. Instead, the United States and Europe should impose painful sanctions immediately and offer to withdraw them only in exchange for good behavior. The West’s third line of defense consists of promoting strong non-Russian states, especially Moldova, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, where large Russian minorities could invite Russian imperialism.

These harder-line policies presuppose a strategic shift in the West’s thinking—from the illusory belief that Russia will cooperate in resolving the issues it has inflamed to a hard-headed realization that Putinism threatens world peace. As difficult as it may be for Germany, France, and the United Kingdom to sacrifice lucrative economic ties with Russia, they—and especially Germany, whose social-democratic elites have an incomprehensible love affair with a dictator who resembles Adolf Hitler in both word and deed—must understand that, if Putin continues to call the shots, the EU’s security, stability, and survival will be at risk. Der Spiegel editor Christian Neef’s advice to Berlin is right on the money and applies to Germany’s allies as well: “If we don’t finally take a sober look at Russia, one that is erased of all romanticizing and historical baggage that distorts our view of Putin’s world, then we will never succeed in finding a reasonable strategy.”

Over time, some combination of cold war, cold peace, and hot war will transform Ukraine into a South Korea, Taiwan, or Israel. Ukraine will have to live with the permanent threat of Russian aggression, but that threat could have a silver lining: compelling it to become a vigorous democracy with a strong economy and a strong army.

Russia’s future is less clear. If Putin stays in power for another twenty years, it could become an impoverished garrison state such as North Korea. If Putin departs well before he becomes an octogenarian, Russia could become a second China. More likely than not, Putin will keep on posturing, and Russia will remain an ossified and increasingly unstable petro-state like Saudi Arabia.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. He blogs about Ukraine weekly for World Affairs.

*The print version of this article, as well as a previous online version, mistakenly described Zugzwang as “a chess term denoting a condition in which one’s king has to move, but cannot, because any move would result in check.”

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