President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive to meet at the 'Villa la Grange', on June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

With 130,000 Russian troops stationed along the Ukrainian border, Vladimir Putin is challenging the West with Machiavellian machinations aimed at restoring the Russian empire. The military buildup is the largest since the Cold War. If the Russian president invades Ukraine in the coming weeks, it could escalate into the most destabilizing conflict in Europe since World War II. No one knows for sure what’s in Putin’s mind, but he has been clear about his intention to revive Russian glory since he took power in 1999. 

Why is he doing this now? Why didn’t he do it in 2014, when Russia gobbled up Crimea and stirred up war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine during the Obama years? Or in 2018, when Russia opened fire on and rammed three Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea and backed illegitimate elections held by Ukrainian separatists in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic? Was it some kind of perverse authoritarian courtesy to then President Donald Trump?

Experts in the U.S. and former Soviet republics believe that one reason Putin may have pushed the world to the brink now is a calculation that American democracy is in a particularly weak state, given the attack on the U.S. Capitol a year ago, the January 6 Select Committee’s investigation into a possible coup attempt, and a deeply divided public. What’s more, the United States is heading into a hugely consequential midterm election cycle; initiating a foreign policy crisis could weaken President Joe Biden domestically—and thus the Democratic Party—and help Trumpists.  

“You can challenge America by creating more domestic division that makes U.S. politics polarized,” Batu Kutelia, a former ambassador from Georgia to the U.S., told me. “It becomes more isolationist, and that leaves Putin more room to maneuver. The idea of America first and isolationist, that is exactly what Putin wants. And then it’s easier to put cracks in the trans-Atlantic alliance.”

At the same time, the former KGB officer may be hoping to exploit an alliance weakened by Donald Trump during the years in which he coddled dictators, questioned NATO’s value, trumpeted “America first” policies, and contemplated withdrawing U.S. forces from the pact. 

Indeed, Putin may have left Ukraine alone during the Trump era in part to avoid hurting an American president who had shown him favor and was facing reelection. Some experts I spoke with believe that Putin sees a chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as having weakened the United States—while signaling a reluctance to involve itself in a military conflict overseas. In turn, the Russian president could plausibly view this as a prime opportunity to hang another political albatross around his American counterpart’s neck. 

He’s an opportunist eager to exploit a situation that might get him something he has wanted from the start: control over Ukraine. “Putin will take as much as the U.S. and Europe will allow him to take,” Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, an expert on Ukrainian history and the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern, told me.

An emboldened Putin has made no secret that he is out to challenge the West’s liberal democratic order, which he has called obsolete. He also views it as a threat to his territorial ambitions. Officials in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova—all former Soviet republics—increasingly want closer economic and security ties to Europe. Now, Putin is demanding that NATO withdraw troops from former Warsaw Pact states and nations that were once Soviet republics and promise never to admit Ukraine as part of the alliance. The Biden administration quite rightly rejected those demands and is pushing for a diplomatic solution. 

A new provocation from Putin isn’t surprising. He has run these destabilizing scenarios from his military playbook before, in both Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Since then, his attacks on the West have intensified. Given Russian cyberattacks and meddling in American elections in the recent past, it’s highly plausible that Putin may have timed this crisis to impact the upcoming midterms, or at least have an adverse effect on the Democrats in power.  

Notably, Putin did not invade during Trump’s presidency, when Trump publicly sided with Putin against U.S. intelligence agencies that concluded Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election to Trump’s benefit. NATO and the U.S. have not done anything specific this past year to provoke him. Putin might also see a limited window closing soon. If Democrats lose control of the House or the Senate in 2022, Republicans back in control could pressure the Biden administration to get even tougher with Russia to score political points and fend off criticisms that the party, like Trump, is beholden to the Kremlin.

In the coming days, as each side waits for the other to blink, the threat of war—both a theoretical one between democracy and autocracy and an all-too-real one for troops on either side—looms. But the military option is not working out well for Putin this time. Biden appears to have stiffened NATO’s backbone and overall resolve—so far at least—and it’s presenting a largely united front that experts say may have surprised Putin. 

The West’s firm stand against Putin’s threats has given hope to not just European allies, but also to Ukraine and other independent states on Russia’s borders that were once part of the Soviet Union. Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, like Ukraine, value their independence from Moscow, and all four nations have had to deal with the presence of unwelcome Russian troops on their soil. When once-captive nations reached out to partner with the European Union or NATO, Putin has repeatedly retaliated with coercion or military force. 

“This is what Putin does,” Ian Kelly, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe from 2010 to 2013, told me. “If you say you want to join the West, you’re going to have your borders called into question. He has done that in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.” Kelly, now ambassador-in-residence at Northwestern University, added, “The tactics are all the same. If you want to leave the orbit of Moscow, you’re going to be occupied.”

Biden and NATO understand that the threat to Ukraine has direct implications for the sovereignty and stability of other nations. To be sure, the saber rattling on both sides is risky, but seasoned diplomats are relieved that NATO is stepping up this time. “When Russia sees the West is united and strong in its resolve to enforce rules-based international order, security, and stability in the region, that actually makes war less likely,” says Dato Sikharulidze, who was the Georgian ambassador to the U.S. during the Russian invasion in 2008 and later defense minister. “It’s like the Reagan formula of peace through strength. This is the only formula that works,” he told me.

It’s a dangerous game when a nuclear power raises the prospect of military aggression against its neighbors. The Biden administration must walk a very careful line to show steely resolve in responding to the threat while continuing to seek a diplomatic solution. That means holding NATO together with robust diplomacy, bolstering Ukraine with more security assistance, and threatening Putin with swift, punishing sanctions if he invades.

There is bipartisan support in the U.S. for holding firm. Russia must pay a price for its continued aggression, or Putin will simply persist. He may have miscalculated this time, though, and fallen into a trap of his own making, with few options now but military ones. He has helped make NATO more unified and further alienated the very neighbors he seeks to dominate.

Of course, the Ukraine crisis will hardly be the main issue for U.S. voters in 2022. As polling and the off-year 2021 elections show, Americans are focused mainly on the pandemic, inflation, and their schools. But it’s not hard to see Republicans holding up any mishaps as a mistake and reflective of poor Democratic leadership. 

Indeed, there’s a bit of a Catch-22 at play. If Biden’s response is not strong enough, the GOP will say he let Russia walk all over NATO. On the other hand, if he overplays his hand, particularly in an environment when Americans are incredibly weary of war, he could be criticized for wasting resources or, worse, costing American lives. Either scenario creates discord and plays into Putin’s hands, raising the stakes for Biden, who will need to successfully walk the political tightrope the Russian president has created.

Storer H. Rowley

Follow Storer H. on Twitter @BobSHRowley. Storer H. Rowley, a Washington Monthly contributing writer, is a former national editor, editorial board member, and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He teaches journalism and communication at Northwestern University.