Putin’s options: what might Russia’s president do next?

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of his security council in the Kremlin on Monday. Photograph: Sputnik via AP

As Vladimir Putin announced that his decision to recognise two Moscow-backed separatist states in the Donbas extended to large swaths of Ukraine-controlled territory, the Russian president made it clear his options were not at an end.

“Predicting any kind of specific outline for possible actions is totally impossible. It depends on the concrete situation that takes place on the ground,” Putin said on Tuesday.

The decision to send Russian troops on a “peacekeeping” operation into the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics essentially buries the Minsk agreements to try to end the conflict, which has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014.

But Putin, who has massed up to 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, has previously hinted he is contemplating “all kinds” of further options – outlined here – that western countries warn could end in a full-scale assault on Kyiv.

Exert more diplomatic pressure

During an extraordinary televised session of his security council on Monday, Putin grilled his top officials for their stance on recognising the separatists.

The prospect, and implied likelihood of war with Ukraine, made even some of his most hawkish advisers visibly uncomfortable. Nikolai Patrushev, security council secretary, suggested that Putin delay recognition for “two or three days” and used the threat as leverage to force Ukraine to “stop all this bloodshed”.

Though Putin has pressed ahead with recognition, he could be calculating that the spectre of future conflict is enough to secure concessions from the US and Nato.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken was set to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov but cancelled the talks. The Kremlin said French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz had expressed an interest in further discussions during a call with Putin.

A settlement based on the current state of play would go further than the aftermath of Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia, when it sent troops to protect the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Putin demanded Kyiv “demilitarise”, recognise Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula, give up its ambitions to join Nato and pledge neutrality, and negotiate the disputed borders in the Donbas with the separatists.

Kyiv sees all those requirements as unacceptable and has refused to negotiate with the separatists throughout the conflict on the grounds they are Russian proxies.

If a drawn-out negotiation process begins, however, recognising the separatists and ripping up the Minsk agreements may satisfy Putin’s goals for now, according to a former senior Kremlin official.

“It’s better to have a horrific end than an endless horror,” the official said. “A chicken pecks at one grain at a time, not all at once.”

Bring more territory under Russian control in the Donbas

Luhansk and Donetsk, the two Ukrainian provinces of the eastern Donbas region, are only about one-third controlled by the separatists now recognised by Russia. But separatist officials in Luhansk demanded on Tuesday that Ukraine remove its troops from the Kyiv-controlled parts of the province and threatened they would “take measures to restore the territorial integrity of the republic” if ignored.

Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Russia’s interior minister, raised the prospect of recognising the separatists’ “historical borders” in 2014 which encompassed the entire Donbas before they were “occupied by the Ukrainian armed forces”, and Putin later said Moscow recognised separatists’ claim to the entire Donbas region.

If, as is likely, the Donbas border dispute cannot be solved by negotiations, Russia’s overwhelming firepower could quickly beat back Ukraine’s army and seize control of the territory, analysts say.

As lawmakers prepared to ratify recognition on Monday, they watched a video of a December speech by far-right firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who predicted Putin’s moves almost to the hour – and hinted how far he could go.

“At 4am on February 22nd you’ll feel [our new policy],” Zhirinovsky said. “I’d like 2022 to be peaceful. It won’t be peaceful. It will be a year when Russia finally becomes great once again, and everyone has to shut up and respect our country.”

‘False-flag’ operations

Though Russia’s forces have been present there throughout the conflict and turned the tide during its active phases in 2014 and 2015, the Kremlin denied it was a party to the conflict despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even as those claims became increasingly less credible, the obfuscation allowed Russia to paint the war as an “inter-Ukrainian event” and mask casualties among its forces.

Recognising the separatists changes that. The treaties between Moscow and the separatists, signed in a ceremony involving Putin on Monday night, will allow Russia to set up military bases in separatist territory and guard its borders.

An official troop presence raises the prospect for Russia to claim its forces have come under fire from Ukrainian attack. Moscow’s security services and state TV have backed up evidence-free claims by the separatists that Ukraine has intensified artillery fire and “terrorist attacks”.

On Monday, Russia claimed it had exchanged fire with Ukrainian forces for the first time in the eight-year conflict.

Putin said that Russia’s troops would not necessarily go in to the Donbas “right now” but warned that Moscow would “fulfil the obligations it has undertaken if necessary.”

Further clashes – a prospect the US has warned of as “phoney allegations” – would potentially give Putin a pretext to retake the entire Donbas or launch a larger operation against Ukraine.

“There’s no reason for Moscow to just go into the [separatist territories]. It only makes sense if they go further,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik. “In Putin’s logic he needs to take a significant part of Ukraine.”

“I can’t imagine how he’d justify an assault on Kyiv, but I don’t see any alternative,” she added. “The goal is to end Ukraine’s existence in its current form. No Ukraine, no problem.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022