Even if Putin doesn’t seize all of Ukraine, he has a larger strategy. The U.S. needs one, too

Russia’s focus on Ukraine is certainly intense. The Kremlin has massed troops and equipment along their common border; launched major cyberattacks against Kyiv’s government computer systems; planted operatives in the eastern Donbas region who could stage false-flag operations as pretexts for Russian invasion; and escalated a long-standing insistence that Ukraine is not a legitimate sovereign state.

In high-profile meetings with Western diplomats, Moscow has called for extensive revision of Europe’s post-Soviet political order and even beyond, threatening to deploy troops to Venezuela and Cuba. The West’s consensus is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is readying to invade Ukraine, finishing what he started in 2014 with Crimea, this time annexing all of Ukraine.

To deter Moscow, the United States and other NATO members have threatened significant economic sanctions. Whether this will suffice is unclear. Russia has already violated European borders this century (Georgia, 2008, and Ukraine, 2014) and sustained “frozen conflicts” across the former U.S.S.R. Even if President Biden is serious, Putin may not believe it, based on past U.S. performance, including the United States’ recent Afghanistan withdrawal. The risks of miscalculation are high.

But is Russia really planning an all-out attack on Ukraine? Putin himself may not know his final objective. His challenge to Biden may be a political “reconnaissance in force” across a front much broader than Ukraine, precisely to develop better cost-benefit analysis of his options. Will the West show lack of resolve, and where? Will it start to fragment, with members attaching lower priority to some territories or issues than Russia does?

Stakes this high are risky for Putin, but he may be willing to gamble out of a fear that Russia’s long-term prospects are weaker than today’s. He thus may be induced to act from relative weakness, not strength. Even so, that doesn’t make him any less dangerous in the here and now.

Consider Russia’s options from its decision-makers’ perspective. Totally annexing Ukraine may not be what they want or need. Putin could order Russian columns to approach Kyiv, making its vulnerability obvious, as Russia did with Georgia in 2008, nearing Tbilisi before withdrawing on its own timetable to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Toppling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government and hoping for (or assisting) a Moscow-aligned leader to appear are eminently feasible.

Russia could seize and hold significant territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, beyond Crimea and the Donbas, with only marginal fears of guerrilla war or anti-Russian terrorism later. Amid reports that the Biden administration might support an insurgency, in addition to imposing massive sanctions, if Russia seizes Ukraine, would the White House take those steps if the seizure were “merely” partial? Would Europe? Or would the West breathe a collective sigh of relief, saying, “It could have been much worse,” and do next to nothing?

Putin might bet on this scenario. Or maybe the pea is under a different walnut shell. Russia could suddenly proclaim an enhanced “union” with Belarus, binding the two far closer than at present. By strengthening Moscow’s hand in Minsk, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, unhappily perhaps, but willingly enough, would effectively overmatch Belarus’s citizen-opposition.

What would Europe and the United States do then? What if Moscow tries to reinforce its puppet Transnistria’s position in Moldova’s frozen conflict through bogus negotiations? What if Russia concocts a pretext for further aggression against Georgia?

John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald Trump and is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.”

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