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Ukraine on the Edge

Summary:
Although US intelligence agencies are warning that Russia is mobilizing its ground forces for an attack on Ukraine, it is still tempting to think that Russian President Vladimir Putin would never actually follow through on such a risky move. Yet when a strongman has so few good options for retaining power, the risk calculus changes. WASHINGTON, DC – Today’s Russia poses a clear and present danger to world peace. In July, President Vladimir Putin published a long article, “About the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” effectively denying the legitimacy of Ukraine’s existence as an independent nation-state. He also has pursued a policy of military mobilization around Ukraine’s border, first in April and even more intensively in recent weeks. Senior Ukrainian and US

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Although US intelligence agencies are warning that Russia is mobilizing its ground forces for an attack on Ukraine, it is still tempting to think that Russian President Vladimir Putin would never actually follow through on such a risky move. Yet when a strongman has so few good options for retaining power, the risk calculus changes.

WASHINGTON, DC – Today’s Russia poses a clear and present danger to world peace. In July, President Vladimir Putin published a long article, “About the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” effectively denying the legitimacy of Ukraine’s existence as an independent nation-state. He also has pursued a policy of military mobilization around Ukraine’s border, first in April and even more intensively in recent weeks. Senior Ukrainian and US officials, including President Joe Biden, are warning that Russia may launch a major ground war against Ukraine in early 2022.

Various causes of Russia’s aggressiveness have been suggested, but the most important one focuses on Russian decline, and whether this has made the country more dangerous. Is Putin genuinely intent on attacking Ukraine? If so, what should Ukraine and the West do about it?

The decline is obvious. Russia’s economy has been completely stagnant since 2014 (and mostly stagnant since 2009), and Putin has made clear that he has no interest in delivering economic growth or improved living standards. In US dollar terms, Russia’s GDP fell from $2.3 trillion in 2013 to $1.5 trillion in 2020. Since Putin first invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Russian households’ real (inflation-adjusted) disposable income has fallen by 10%.

With nothing good to say about the economy, Putin has touted Russia’s large international currency reserves and minimal public debt. These statistics appear to support his pursuit of national “greatness,” which has become synonymous with his own strongman rule.

Putin thus aspires to create a modern-day Sparta – a state focused solely on its military prowess. Since Russia’s August 2008 attack on Georgia, which revealed major military shortcomings, the Kremlin has undertaken substantial military modernization, while much of the rest of Europe has continued its post-Cold War disarmament.

But Russia’s relative military might probably has already peaked. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russian military expenditures reached $62 billion in 2020, a year when US military expenditures were $778 billion and China’s were $252 billion. Even India surpassed Russia with its $73 billion military budget.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Putin may now be thinking that if Russia is going to benefit from its military strength, it had better flex its muscles now, before the country’s economic foundation erodes further. Moreover, this year’s commodity price boom (particularly in energy and metals) has strengthened the Kremlin’s incentive to strike while the iron is hot.

Like a cornered animal, declining powers are often the most dangerous ones. As Graham Allison of Harvard University reminds us in

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