Lavrov to Putin: Hold off on Ukraine invasion for now

(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Are the Russians looking for a way out of an expensive military adventure? Or is Sergei Lavrov just playing “good cop”? In a televised exchange on Russian TV, the Russian foreign minister told Vladimir Putin that diplomacy still has some potential and should continue to be pursued before the military option for Ukraine gets ordered:

In a televised exchange, Putin was shown asking Lavrov whether there was a chance of reaching an agreement to address Russia’s security concerns, or whether it was just being dragged into tortuous negotiations.

Lavrov replied: “We have already warned more than once that we will not allow endless negotiations on questions that demand a solution today.” But as foreign minister, he said, “I must say there are always chances.”

He added: “It seems to me that our possibilities are far from exhausted… At this stage, I would suggest continuing and building them up.”

The comments appeared to signal a reduced likelihood of imminent Russian military action after repeated warnings from the United States that Russia could attack Ukraine at any time.

Does it? Or is this just public posturing for Putin’s sake with Russians? An invasion of Ukraine won’t be a walk in the park, after all. Putin took Georgia by surprise, but the Ukrainians have been preparing for this possibility for the past eight years. David Ignatius spells out what Putin will get with an invasion, both in the short and longer runs:

Russian President Vladimir Putin will quickly win the initial, tactical phase of this war, if it comes. The vast army that Russia has arrayed along Ukraine’s borders could probably seize the capital of Kyiv in several days and control the country in little more than a week, U.S. officials believe.

But then Putin’s real battle would begin — as Russia and its Ukrainian proxies try to stabilize a country whose people largely detest them. If just 10 percent of Ukraine’s 40 million people decided to actively resist occupation, they would mount a powerful insurgency. Small bands of motivated fighters subverted America’s overwhelming military power in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Russia’s problems wouldn’t just be inside the borders of Ukraine. As Putin tried to digest what U.S. officials hope will be a Ukrainian “porcupine,” Russia’s economy would be squeezed tight by sanctions; its business and political leaders would become international pariahs; and much of the wealth Putin and his chums have accumulated would be frozen.

Ukraine might seem a triumphal victory for Putin at first, but it’s unlikely to have a happy ending.

This won’t be a replay of the Donbas, which Russia secured largely with ethnic-Russian militias formed in that region itself. The Russian march across Ukraine will be met with some level of military resistance by ethnic Ukrainians and will create significant casualties for the Russian Army — body bags that will return to Russian homes, not those in the Donbas. The amount of capital required to mount such an invasion will require a massive shift of resources away from efforts that would keep Russian subjects quiet.

All of that applies not just in the initial invasion phase, but even more so in an occupation. Putin’s had it easy in Donbas, but the rest of the country will prove miserable for the Russian army to hold. The longer it goes on, the more dead Russians will get sent back to families who will wonder why Putin launched an unnecessary war. This little comedy skit with Lavrov looks suspiciously like a propaganda effort to convince Russians that the West left him no choice but to burn through young Russians in his attempt to make Ukraine Russian again.

One can look at this more hopefully, though. It could be a good-cop/bad-cop effort to wring any last concessions out of the West before Putin stands down. He knows better than most what an occupation will mean in terms of cost and political instability. The long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan broke the military and the country, and Putin’s revenue streams are too vulnerable to sanctions still to avoid that outcome with another ill-conceived military adventure. Putin and Lavrov could be signaling that they want the West to come up with their “best offer” and plan to take whatever they can get on the cheap.

That seems a bit too hopeful, though. Putin has already spent a lot of money in readying an invasion force. A diplomatic concession or two will not make this brinksmanship look very wise even in Russia, not now that Putin has painted Ukrainian independence as an existential threat to Russia proper. Either way, this is going to cost Russia and Putin now.