To extract concessions, game theory suggests you need a credible threat. Right now, Russia has built up something that looks a lot like that on the borders of Ukraine. When troops amassed in April 2021, they lacked the logistical support to launch a full-scale assault. This time, they have come prepared. The Kremlin has loaded a gun and cocked it. Will they pull the trigger?
Russia still hasn’t limited its withdrawal options. Senior leadership insist they have no intention of attacking Ukraine, and they can anyway swerve from that course before war erupts. Meanwhile, the Russian government is achieving plenty: sowing discord in the West, dragging NATO to the negotiating table and demonstrating how far defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty would go. Additionally, the Kremlin may achieve a stronger position in Belarus. It’s not been a bad non-war for Vladimir Putin, even before diplomatic concessions that might be achieved.
If troops enter Ukraine, however, things might start to look worse. Russia will be instantly sanctioned. The Ukrainian army, while overmatched, will no doubt fight tooth and nail. Thousands will die. The idea of war is not particularly popular in Russia; the ‘Crimea consensus’ long since faded. Spending blood and treasure on it is unlikely to improve the domestic mood. A smaller incursion would achieve little, but still invite retaliation. The logic just doesn’t stack up.
Perhaps strategists in the Kremlin disagree. Perhaps this is seen as their last best chance. Perhaps logic will be overruled by a hubristic desire to rewrite history. Perhaps they will miscalculate. When the gun is loaded and cocked, you can’t be certain the trigger won’t be pulled. But Russia still has a full hand of options. In the end, the Kremlin may be gambling that they can stand the uncertainty better than Kyiv and the West, who might agree concessions are worth paying for a quiet life. When Moscow holds the best cards, why not push the ante? Brinkmanship remains the order of the day.