Putin has created a Schrödinger’s war in Ukraine

17 February 2022

12:30 AM

17 February 2022

12:30 AM

In his famous thought experiment, Schrödinger’s cat was both dead and alive in potential, until its box was opened to find out. Likewise, it seems the much-heralded war in Ukraine is at once imminent and unthinkable, and we don’t know which. The date and indeed time of a massive invasion of Ukraine asserted with such confidence in certain newspapers seems, mercifully, to have come and gone. Vladimir Putin is saying that he wants talks to continue, and the Russian military is claiming it is moving some of its forces away from the border area. But where does that leave us?

In many ways, exactly where we were before. The troop movements may simply be a deceptive dance, shifting units from one part of the front line to another — we will have to await proper verification. Even so, they represent only a small fraction of the massive force already mustered. Putin is still in a position to order his army into action at hours’ notice.

It is a strange time to be an analyst of Russian security politics. On the one hand, Washington, London and an increasing tally of European capitals appear certain that they have rock-solid intelligence to the effect that Putin is committed to a full-scale invasion that would not only trigger massive sanctions but also mire Russia in a bloody, open-ended campaign. Russia undoubtedly has the forces to break the Ukrainian military on the battlefield — but not the Ukrainian peoples’ will to resist.

In that context, many of us not privy to classified information presume that Moscow would not be so reckless, heedless or clueless as to launch an attack that carries not just military and economic but serious social and political implications, too.

Of course, what may look like common sense from the West may not correspond with the logic of the Kremlin. But between the certainty that Putin will invade and the assertion that this is nothing more than sabre-rattling for concessions, there might be an answer.

Moscow could, for example, simply maintain the current standoff. There are costs to this, of course. It is expensive to keep forces in the field and Russia’s troops may lose some of their edge after spending a long time in makeshift accommodation far away from their training centres. These costs are eminently bearable though; it is not as if Russia needs to fear an invasion from any other quarter.

Leaving troops near the border would continue to place political pressure on Kiev and the West, and thus ensure Moscow’s continued influence. Schrödinger’s war is also causing severe economic damage to Ukraine. Its currency is slumping, and the government has had to pledge £500 million in guarantees as insurance firms pull cover from airlines flying there.

There is a belief in the Kremlin — not an altogether unfair one — that the West suffers from political Attention Deficit Disorder, that it is quickly distracted by new crises. Give it time and ‘Ukraine fatigue’ will set in, Putin may be calculating. Meanwhile, as successive invasion scares pass, Washington can be discredited. Why, the Kremlin can slyly insinuate to Europeans, were the Americans lying to you about an invasion? And what else might they be lying to you about?

Meanwhile, the State Duma, the lower and most excitable chamber of Russia’s legislature, has just passed a bill urging Putin formally to recognise the Donbas and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’. This is non-binding, and has allowed Putin to play ‘good cop’ with the West by ruling this measure out. But the possibility of passing the bill gives him another option to disrupt the West.

If Putin decides the Minsk 2 peace process — which has neither brought peace, nor been able to proceed — is indeed dead, and with it the hope of forcing the rebellious regions back into Ukraine as Moscow’s fifth column, then Putin can equally play the reluctant conqueror. A decision to ‘listen to the will of the Russian people’ and recognise them would presumably be followed by the swift arrival of Russian ‘peacekeepers’.

Kiev and the West will denounce this publicly as an illegal invasion, but secretly probably feel relief. It may allow the status quo to cool — and in any case, Kiev was hardly eager to take on reintegrating these territories with all the economic, social and security challenges that would entail.

Or, of course, Putin could still escalate. He is in many ways in the position he most favours, having the initiative and numerous options. The current signs are positive that he feels some kind of peaceful resolution is possible, but we should not fool ourselves that the crisis is over. Everything is on the table.

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