War in Ukraine

The logic and nonsense of Putin’s war

As Russia’s geopolitical isolation deepens and economic sanctions begin to bite hard, one wonders what possessed Vladimir Putin to start his war in Ukraine? Will international sanctions help end the violence? And is there still a way to deescalate? FASoS’ Giselle Bosse on the anatomy of a humanitarian catastrophe.

When, in early February, Vladimir Putin suddenly moved one of his luxury yachts out of a shipyard in Germany before the scheduled repairs were finished, EU external relations expert Giselle Bosse already suspected it might be with a view to escaping personal sanctions. The plan to invade Ukraine must have been in place – but maybe not for very long - at this point.

“It’s hard to say how long it had been planned. In Russia’s 2014 military doctrine, NATO expansion is described as a threat to national security.” The same doctrine also saw billions invested into modernising the army – which indicates a shift to a more aggressive strategy. “His terms for a withdrawal from Ukraine were so unrealistic that it’s clear he wanted the war – but why?”

Cruel cost-benefit analysis

Bosse tempers the slightly hackneyed idea of Putin as a mastermind always two moves ahead of everyone else. “Putin is a shrewd tactician – but mostly of the opportunistic kind. What he did used to be underpinned by a rational cost-benefit analysis.” She cites his support of Belarusian President and self-styled dictator Lukashenko and the unquestioning loyalty that has yielded, as well as his support of separatist republics and military interventions to destabilise Georgia and Ukraine, thus precluding them from talks to join NATO.

Then why change strategy to a full-blown invasion? “Maybe he saw his chance in an unproven coalition government in Germany, French elections underway, and the US focusing on China. Maybe he expected a quick win and a subsequent surge in domestic popularity – as had been the case following military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine.”

Bosse points out that there is a certain Cold War logic to striving for a sense of security through expansion and establishing buffer zones: “Scholars call this ‘offensive realism’ – but even under this outdated framework, a drawn-out war is a disaster. Even he wins this war – which is far from certain – sustaining a military occupation is almost impossible.”

Mad in the corner?

One thing Bosse worries about is that Putin might not have a contingency strategy. “Maybe he didn’t think he’d need one… It’s an incredibly high-stakes gamble. Having demanded NATO withdraw from Eastern Europe, deescalating and agreeing to peace terms without losing face is almost impossible: everything will look like defeat for him. At the same time, the international community couldn’t possibly agree to an occupied Ukraine as the new status quo.”

Being cornered makes Putin only more dangerous. “In one of his calls with Macron, Putin held an hour-long monologue with a revisionist account of Russian history dating back to the Tsarist Empire. Does he really believe this? Is he trying to appeal to ethno-nationalists domestically? It could even be his strategy to come across as unhinged.”

Simulating madness is hardly mad – to paraphrase the Renaissance management consultant Niccolò Machiavelli. “Henry Kissinger practiced this too. Being unpredictable and having nuclear weapons is an intimidating combination.” To an extent, it works: the international community is hesitant to interfere since, understandably, everyone wants to avoid nuclear escalation. 

Florian Raith
Ukrainian refugees

Ukrainian refugees on Lviv railway station waiting for train to escape to Europe.
Photo: Ruslan Lytvyn | iStockphoto



The most obvious means for the international community to respond are economic sanctions, which, Bosse points out, had already been in place to a lesser extent. “The EU only managed to agree on them not as a result of the annexation of Crimea or Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine but following the MH17 crash in 2014 [when a passenger flight from Amsterdam was shot down, killing 298 passengers and crew].”

“The EU have really got their act together: the type and design of sanctions have improved markedly over the last decade.” Bosse reflects on the first targeted sanctions against Belarus about ten years ago: “They were so badly designed that the oligarchs on the list went to the European Court of Justice to appeal and got every single one of them overturned.”

Europe has learned its lessons though and the recent sanctions are legally sound. It was a slow process to have them approved unanimously, with national economic interests being the main roadblock. “However,” Bosse adds, “the scope, design and speed with which they were passed are still unprecedented.”

From the head down

The initial strategy of targeting elites revolved around visa restrictions and asset freezes against individuals or companies. Success, though, was limited. “Over the past decades, Putin has created a system where few people or institution can actually challenge his power.” Therefore, current sanctions, e.g. against the Russian central bank, also affect the broader Russian population.

“Maybe this is collateral damage, or maybe it’s a strategy to build pressure domestically.” Bosse says the Russian public’s opinion is hard to gauge due to a lack of reliable polls but a tipping point might be on the horizon. “Putin’s domestic legitimacy is based on his promise to deliver economic stability – but he has broken that social contract. Russia’s economy is ailing and over-reliant on oil and gas exports.”

Those oil and gas exports, crucially, are exempted from the sanctions; a point worth scrutinising, seeing that this is the revenue stream that effectively finances a war effort worth an estimated 7-20 billion euros per day. “Europe’s industry is dependent on those imports. Excluding them was the only way of making the sanctions economically sustainable. At the same time, this economic interdependence is also something that brings both sides to the table. It’s also the reason why, in the West, we had presumed a situation like this unthinkable.”

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