Crisis in Ukraine Is a Winner for Putin

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Vladimir Putin

is having a good crisis in Ukraine. True, the Russian army hasn’t entered Kyiv, but Mr. Putin doesn’t need to achieve his maximum objectives to put some points on the board. At minimal cost, the Russian president’s Ukraine moves have increased his political standing and promoted his agenda at home.

First and foremost, Ukraine is a popular issue in Russia. Many Russians care more about Ukraine than their Chinese counterparts care about Taiwan. Ukraine is a larger and economically more important territory than Taiwan. It was an integral part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union for more than 300 years, and many Russians consider it the cradle of Russian civilization. While most Russians wouldn’t welcome a long, ugly war in Ukraine, talking tough on Ukraine and drawing international attention to Russia’s feelings is something a lot of Russians think their president should do.

Second, the crisis is making Russia feel great again. Like many people in Britain and France, many Russians are nostalgic for the old days of empire. They want Russia to count for something. Provoking an international crisis over Ukraine has put the spotlight on Russia, monopolized the G-7 summit and driven the American-led “Summit for Democracy” off the front pages. Mr. Putin has dominated world news and scored a crisis summit with President

Biden

; to many Russians, that already looks like a win.

Third, the crisis divides American opinion even as it unites Russians. The Biden administration has been distracted from China. Progressive doves in the Democratic Party are attacking Mr. Biden for his bellicosity over Ukraine while some so-called national conservatives on the right sympathize with Mr. Putin. Many centrist Democrats and never-Trumpers attack what they see as Mr. Biden’s weakness over Ukraine. From Mr. Putin’s perspective, there is no downside to any of this.

Mr. Putin has other angles to play. India’s relationship with Russia, boosted by Indian dismay over the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan, is a significant problem for Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy. In the past two years Russia has resumed its longtime role as India’s top arms supplier. This month, Mr. Putin made a rare Covid-era trip outside Russia to visit Indian Prime Minister

Narendra Modi

in New Delhi.

In a decision that has caused major headaches in Washington, India has ordered the S-400 air defense system from Russia, the same system that NATO ally Turkey has been heavily sanctioned for buying. If India continues with the purchase, the Biden administration will have a no-win decision to make. It can impose sanctions, or it can give India a waiver. Imposing sanctions will infuriate India, a key U.S. partner in the emerging Indo-Pacific strategy. If Mr. Biden gives India a pass, the hypocrisy will infuriate Turkey and significantly weaken NATO. This is exactly the kind of no-win decision Russia wants to force the U.S. to make.

Alienating Turkey and India over sanctions undercuts American alliances just as Washington needs to deepen them. But issuing waivers on anti-Russia sanctions at the same time the U.S. is trying to round up support for anti-Russia sanctions over Ukraine will make Washington look silly and weak. How eager will Germany be to shut down Nord Stream 2 if the U.S. turns a blind eye to massive Russian arms sales to key allies?

The Ukraine crisis so far has been all gain for Mr. Putin and no loss. The question now is whether he gains more by letting the crisis cool quietly or whether he will continue to turn up the temperature with threats, cyberattacks, incursions by pro-Russian militias or more blatant provocations up to and possibly including the occupation of more Ukrainian territory by Russian forces.

Here one suspects that Mr. Putin doesn’t know yet what he will do. If the coming winter is a bitter one, and Europe will freeze in the dark without Russian gas, Mr. Putin may decide to press his advantage. Would the European Union really risk a Russian hydrocarbon boycott in response to Western sanctions on Russia? Alternatively, if Iran-backed militias attack American bases in the Middle East, and the U.S. is caught up in escalating tensions there, or if China ratchets the pressure on Taiwan high enough to force U.S. Pacific forces into a state of alert, how much energy will the U.S. have to deal with carefully staged and calibrated Russian provocations against Ukraine?

If the winter is mild and the rest of the world remains serene, Mr. Putin can graciously step back from the brink, knowing he can always provoke new crises whenever it suits him. By manufacturing a Ukraine crisis out of thin air, Mr. Putin has created a significant diplomatic and political asset for himself. Until the West finds ways to make the crisis-manufacturing business less profitable for the Kremlin, we must expect Russia to continue down this path.

Joe Biden came to office promising he’d take a tough stance with Vladimir Putin, but his foreign policy decisions to date haven’t deterred Russia amassing thousands of troops in readiness to invade Ukraine. Images: Getty Images/Maxar Composite: Mark Kelly

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