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Dec. 8, 2021, 8:40 a.m. EST

Even though Putin knows he probably cannot win in Ukraine, a weakened strongman will often take the greatest risks

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By Anders Aslund

WASHINGTON—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 U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, are  warning  that Russia may launch a major ground war against Ukraine in early 2022.

Russia’s decline

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 U.S. dollar terms,  Russia’s gross domestic product 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 U.S. military expenditures were $778 billion and China’s were $252 billion. Even India surpassed Russia with its $73 billion military budget.

The time to strike

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 /zigman2/quotes/210034565/delayed GC00 +0.38% ) 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  , it was a declining power, Austria-Hungary, that started World War I by declaring war on Serbia. In the current context, the Russians appear to be  planning  a tank and artillery campaign reminiscent of World War II; if so, their war machine is as outdated as Putin’s view of Ukraine.

A contemporary, peace-loving Western reader might wonder why Putin would want to start a war.

Surely he is familiar with the legacy of Vyacheslav von Plehve, the Russian interior minister who, in 1904, famously  argued  that, “To avert a  revolution , we need a small, victorious war!” Soon thereafter, von Plehve was assassinated by a revolutionary. Even so, the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War ensued. That conflict was neither small nor victorious—and it ended up catalyzing the revolution of 1905.

Putin is most likely focused more on his own small, successful wars in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, which led to his highest  approval ratings  ever. Since then, his approval has reached new lows, and with public discontent building, he has ratcheted up political repression to a level not seen since his hero, the late Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, was in power (1982-84).

Propaganda machine

To justify his increasingly extreme repression, Putin has cranked up the Kremlin’s propaganda machinery to Soviet levels. But anti-Western messaging will not persuade the population to support him. For that, he needs another highly successful war. And because Russia stands no chance in a big war against the whole West, it needs a much more limited conflict. Hence, Putin’s choice of Ukraine, which he calls a  Western vassal .

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