by Politico Magazine
February 25, 2022

from Politico Website







After his shocking invasion, the world wonders,

how far Russia's autocratic leader is really willing to push...

Experts on Russia from around the globe offer a look at what we can expect next.

This week brought an abrupt and horrifying answer to a mystery that had absorbed the world for months, as Russian troops massed around the Ukrainian border:

Was Russian President Vladimir Putin really trying to start a war?

The full-scale invasion he launched in Ukraine Wednesday night answered that question and then posed another far graver mystery:

What is his endgame?


How far will he go?

Putin's speech announcing what he called a "special military operation" made clear that he wants more control over Ukraine and expects a confrontation with the West and NATO.

How far he plans to take his offensive, and what's really driving him, will help shape the response from America and the West - and determine how far this conflict escalates.

To look ahead to where this conflict is headed and what might be driving an increasingly autocratic leader with deep historical grievances and a nuclear arsenal at his disposal - POLITICO Magazine reached out to a range of,

experts, from Russians who know Putin as their day-to-day leader, to former diplomats and others who've encountered him directly, to experts outside the United States and Europe who have insights of their own.

The good news:

Most of them saw limits to Putin's goals.

The bad news:

Those limits lie far outside the boundaries of the global order we've come to rely on...

Here's what they said:


Evelyn Farkas served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015.

It's clear now that Putin's endgame is nothing short of a revanchist imperialist remaking of the globe to take control of the entire former Soviet space.


He has complete disregard for international law, norms and human rights and will only be stopped by maximum economic, political and military pressure. Russia is nothing less than a rogue state on par with North Korea and Iran.


Now, it is our obligation to protect the Ukrainian people and government, to do better in terms of helping them secure their airspace and to launch an active insurgency.


In addition, we must slap the toughest sanctions on Russia including sectoral sanctions.


We can blunt the impact to allies and partners dependent on Russian oil and gas by launching a Berlin airlift of fuel and pulling out all the stops to avoid this war from spreading to NATO territory and becoming a world war.


A Ukrainian military facility burns

in the aftermath of Russian shelling

outside Mariupol, Feb. 24, 2022.

 Evgeniy Maloletka/AP


Thomas Graham served as senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration and is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

If Putin does have an endgame, it is not clear to outsiders at this point.


For the past several months, he has deliberately deceived people as to what his true intentions are.


Most recently, he suggested he would launch an operation to defend the separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine, and then he ordered a massive strike across the entire country.


So it is not clear what his territorial ambitions are. That said, he has declared that he will "demilitarize" and "denazify" Ukraine.


That would seem to mean that at a minimum he wants to destroy Ukraine's military infrastructure and replace its government with a puppet regime.


Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center in Moscow, Russia.

It is very difficult to determine what the endgame is for Putin.


One could assume that it would be enough for him to be listened to by the strongest leaders in the West. Or that Donbas and Luhansk would officially become his fiefdom.


And all this against the background that he has suppressed civil society in his country, and the elites are afraid of him.


But he probably needs,

a) the authorities in Kyiv under his control as a part of his "empire"


b) the world (or at least part of it) playing by his rules


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy,

French President Emmanuel Macron and

Russian President Vladimir Putin

arrive at a working session in Paris

on Dec. 9, 2019.

Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via AP


Rajan Menon is a professor emeritus at the City College of New York/City University of New York, a senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities.

Putin may well have decided to take down the Ukrainian government and put in place one beholden to Russia.


His statement to the Russian people prior to launching this war, as well as the extensive air and missile strikes on Ukrainian targets, extending to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine's far west, suggests this possibility.


The upshot:

Putin may have decided on objectives in Ukraine that will amount to a burning of bridges with the West and is prepared to pay the economic, strategic and political price.


Olga Oliker is program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group.

I suspect Putin has several endgame options.


There's the one where everyone capitulates and he is proven correct, and he goes on to enjoy a friendly Ukraine and a cowed, reeducated Europe.


He and his advisers are probably not counting on that one, though, much as they'd like it.


There's also the one in which he does a good deal of damage to Ukraine, installs a friendly regime there and settles in to manage Western sanctions and dueling military buildups in Europe for the foreseeable future.


That may be one he finds more likely, and thinks he can live with. There are surely a few options in between, involving Ukraine's surrender on various terms.


But he is likely underestimating Ukrainian resistance, the pain sanctions will inflict over time, and not only Western, but global horror at Russia's cruel and unprovoked attack on its neighbor.


The so-called Gray Zone

between Ukraine-held territory

and rebel-held territory near Zolote, Ukraine,

is visible through a periscope, Feb. 19, 2022.

Evgeniy Maloletka/AP


Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and director of the Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy. His next book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, will be published in May.

I believe that Putin's goal in Ukraine is to bring about the collapse of the current democratic regime in that country and replace it with a puppet government sympathetic to Moscow.


I think, however, that it remains unlikely that Putin will do this by occupying the whole of Ukraine in the short run. Russia right now does not have remotely enough forces in the region to subdue a country of nearly 40 million people.


I think what the Russians are likely to do instead is target and destroy as much of Ukraine's military as possible and then squeeze the country economically until it becomes a failed state.


In this regard, it is important to pay attention to Ukraine's Black Sea ports, Mariupol, Kherson and Odessa.


These ports are critical to the country's economic viability since Ukraine is a huge agricultural exporter, and if Russia can effectively impose a blockade on them, it will have a huge source of economic leverage.


Putin has made a gamble here, and it is possible to imagine scenarios that lead to triumph for him or to utter disaster.


What we need to pay attention to is not so much sanctions - while I am in favor of them, I don't think they will affect Russian behavior much - but rather how the Ukrainian military does on the ground in terms of inflicting costs on Putin's forces.


Lilia Shevtsova is the author of Putin's Russia.

Putin is not secretive about his twofold goal.


First, he wants to subjugate Ukraine, tearing down its statehood.


Secondly, he hopes, by strangling Ukraine, to force the West to accept his ultimatum - rebuilding in Europe a Yalta-esque order with spheres of influence and securing a Western pledge to not interfere in Russia's geopolitical backyard.


The less responsive the West is, the tighter will be the noose. Putin's success depends not only on how Ukraine responds, but also on the West's readiness to practice what it preaches.


He cannot afford to lose!


Kathryn Stoner is the director of and senior fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order.

The Kremlin has employed overwhelming force because the goal is to go far beyond Putin's pretext of protecting Russian compatriots in the rump republics of the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics (provinces in eastern Ukraine) that the Russian government officially recognized as independent states on Monday.


Clearly, the goal is to absorb all of Ukraine into Russia despite the fact that Ukrainians themselves clearly want to maintain their sovereignty and their increasingly robust democracy.


Putin is counting on being able to weather the already stiff sanctions from the United States, the U.K. (where many wealthy Russians have mansions) and the European Union.


The Kremlin has built up a war chest of $700 billion in foreign reserves, among the most of any country in the world, has a low debt to GDP ratio (about 30 percent last year vs. 116 percent for the U.S., for example) and is banking on its good macroeconomic policy in the last decade to stand up, at least for a time, despite what the West may yet throw at them.


Putin looks on during the opening ceremony

of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 4, 2022, in Beijing.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

If we are not willing to put U.S. boots on Ukrainian soil, then sanctions are a start in terms of trying to punish the Kremlin and increasing the cost of continuing the war.


Beyond ratcheting up sanctions and adding export controls, we can likely expect cyberattacks from the U.S. on Russia, but we must be prepared to absorb counter attacks on U.S. infrastructure in response.


There will be little that we can do to stop Putin in his tracks, however.


As President Biden said Thursday,

"America stands up for 'freedom',"

...but Putin is hell bent on standing up for authoritarianism.


Make no mistake, this is a war on Ukraine's democracy and has nothing to do with Russian fears of it one day joining NATO.


For Putin, the example of a free, independent Ukraine on Russia's border is too inspiring a model for his own people who might eventually demand something similar at home, and that would mean his ouster.


So for him, Ukrainian independence and democracy is an existential threat to his personalistic autocracy.


The Kremlin's endgame, beyond ensuring the survival of Putin's regime, is to create a multipolar world where autocratic Russia and rising China challenge Western liberal hegemony; the goal is nothing short of the establishment of a new global order where might is right, and state sovereignty, individual rights and freedoms, and human rights are wrong.


Rajiv Sikri was a career diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service, including most recently as secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and earlier as head of the Soviet and East European Department and political counselor in Moscow.

Putin is determined to go to any lengths to protect what it considers its core national interests, just as JFK blockaded Cuba in 1962 when the Soviet Union put its missiles in Cuba.


After the U.S. thought it had won the Cold War, it relegated Russia to the status of a strategically irrelevant country whose interests could be ignored.


Putin has jolted the West to take a reality check...


Putin doesn't want to occupy Ukraine - that would be a bloody quagmire, much worse than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. I think he will try to achieve Russia's military objectives as quickly as possible and then withdraw.


The operation in Kazakhstan last month is probably the template he would follow.


He would probably want to have a pro-Russian, or at least not a hostile, government in Kyiv, and for Ukraine to be a neutral state like Finland, Sweden or Austria.


But Putin is not going to let go of Crimea, and Luhansk and Donetsk will become puppet states, independent in name but effectively part of Russia like South Ossetia and Abkhazia.


They will be the bases for further encroachments on territory in Ukraine that they claim.


Putin's interest in Ukraine is limited to the eastern, Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, not Western Ukraine which has dominated Ukrainian politics since the Maidan revolution of 2014.


Of course, his calculations could go wrong, and Russia could pay a heavy price, but I think that Ukraine will be destroyed and there will be heavy costs on Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world too.


Terrell Jermaine Starr, currently living in Kyiv, is the founder and host of the Black Diplomats Podcast and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center.

The issue with Putin is that none of what we are seeing has anything to do with geopolitics.


It has nothing to do with NATO. This is about Putin subjugating Ukrainians into a sphere of Russianness.


He is doing this because Ukrainians are not real people to him. That's how he views Ukraine. Ukrainians are supposed to be subjects of the Russian state. This is about Russian supremacy.


He's acting like Southern Republican governors and lawmakers who are making up lies about Critical Race Theory and turning it into a boogeyman.


This is Putin's Critical Ukraine Theory. He's taking Ukraine and making it a boogeyman. He's manufacturing lies about Ukraine.


He has essentially racialized Ukrainians. If he can do that, he can justify to his own people that this is a country that shouldn't exist anyway. He hates these people.


He does not want them to exist.


A young Ukrainian civilian walks among debris

after Russia bombed an apartment complex in Chuhuiv,

Feb. 24, 2022.

Alex Lourie/Redux Pictures


Angela Stent served in the Office of Policy Planning at the Department of State from 1999 to 2001 and served as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council from 2004 to 2006. She is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book is Putin's World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest.

Putin has at least three endgames.


The first and most immediate is to install a new government in Kyiv that will be subservient to Moscow.


The next goal is to get the West to recognize that Russia has a right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space and that NATO and the EU should stop trying to engage these countries.


The third - and most ambitious - is to relitigate the end of the Cold War, revise the current Euro-Atlantic security system and recreate a sphere of influence in the states of the former Warsaw Pact.


James Goldgeier is a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, a visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and a professor at the School of International Service at American University.

Putin has made no secret over the years of his belief that Ukraine does not have the right to exist as an independent country, and he has launched a horrific invasion of the country to ensure Russian control over it.


One goal of this invasion is to topple the current government of Ukraine and try to rule the country through a puppet regime.


With Russian troops stationed further to the West in both Belarus and Ukraine, Putin puts more pressure on NATO's eastern members.


After all the talk of the need for European strategic autonomy, Putin has once again highlighted European dependence on the United States for their security against Russian aggression.


The United States will need to put even more troops into Eastern Europe and to abandon its commitment under the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act not to permanently station military forces in the countries that joined the alliance after 1999.


Russian tanks during military drills

at a training ground in Belarus, Feb. 19, 2022.

Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./AP

Timothy Frye is the Marshall D. Shulman professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University.

Putin would like to break the government in Kyiv, install a friendly regime that is demilitarized and neutral and then turn to bargaining with NATO over new security arrangements that would be more friendly to Moscow.


These arrangements might include restrictions on troops and weapons in the NATO countries that joined after 1997 and steps to turn Ukraine into a vassal state.


Putin likely believed that using overwhelming force against Ukraine would give him greater leverage in these negotiations despite the great costs that will be imposed on Moscow.


It is a risky bet and will likely fail given the vigor of the Western response, the difficulty of managing a puppet state with a hostile population and lackluster support for the move within Russia.


Kadri Liik is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Her research focuses on Russia, Eastern Europe and the Baltic region.

Putin made the aims of the war quite clear:

He intends to destroy Ukraine's military infrastructure and close the relevant supply routes.

He is likely also to replace the country's top leadership - in other words, enact regime change - and possibly carve up the country by adding chunks of territory to the self-proclaimed republics in the East, or even incorporating them into Russia.

The question is, how will he cope with the aftermath?


Ukraine will not be a friendly client-state; one should expect lasting, simmering resistance.


Russia's own political stability may not survive the stress test, either:

This war is not popular among Russian society and has completely shocked the elites.

While no revolution is in the cards for now, the [Russian] system's longer-term viability is certain to erode.


And it is unclear how Putin views Russia's future geopolitical place in the world. By upending its whole relationship with the West, Russia will inevitably end up much more dependent on China than would otherwise have been the case.


One cannot help feeling that in order to subdue Ukraine, Putin has risked both Russia's domestic stability and its future status in the global power system.



Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping

at the G-20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan,

June 28, 2019.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool via AP


Andrei Serbin Pont is director of the Latin American think tank CRIES, regional representative at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict and a fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.

It's hard to see a clear endgame for Putin, but under current conditions we can see some indicators of strategic goals specific to Ukraine, although it may be a challenge to align with a broader geopolitical framework.


For the moment, based on Putin's discourse and his military actions in Ukraine, the prime target seems to be a drastic corroding of Kyiv's political and military capabilities.


This was expressed via his disclosure of intent in setting as objectives the "demilitarization" and "denazification" of Ukraine.


And it was confirmed via clear targeting of central military capacities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces from the beginning of the offensive and the emphasis on advancing on Ukraine's two largest cities as it facilitates a collapse of the country's political infrastructure, leading to an overall weakened state that poses less of a security threat and is prone to external intervention and manipulation.


Molly McKew is a lecturer on Russian influence and the lead writer at

Putin believes that he has found the formula to achieve imperialist strategic objectives while incurring minimal costs.


His formula is simple:

threaten maximal use of force to put the opponent in a mindset of seeking to avoid escalation.

This is a trap. We must see it as it is. Putin's ambitions go far beyond Ukraine.


He invaded Ukraine to win his war against the West. If we do not fight him - economically, diplomatically, militarily - in and for Ukraine, he will move forward faster than we think possible.

Ukraine is the fulcrum. Our refusal to meet Putin's use of hard power with hard power only swells his temptation and hunger for the imagined security of a "divine" empire.


Belarus has been de facto annexed. In Ukraine, Putin wants the elected government removed, a puppet restored, the dismemberment of Ukrainian history and identity.


Adding Moldova, with little territorial defense of its own, would not take long. In his pretext speech and declaration of war, Putin described Finland and maybe Sweden as part of his domain, and he discussed the Baltic states and Poland, which are NATO members, as "results of the Second World War" that belong to Moscow.

The international laws and charters that Russia helped draft have been set alight. If Putin takes Ukraine, he will continue.


But if he loses, it will be the beginning of his end.


We can fight now, and save Ukrainian lives; or we fight later, for more tarnished honor; or we erode bit by bit until the "anomaly" of democracy, as Putin believes it to be, is gone.


A protest against increasing

 Russian aggression toward Ukraine,

Feb. 20, 2022, in Washington.

Kenny Holston/Getty Images

Samuel Charap is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He has previously served as a senior adviser to the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security and is the co-author, with Timothy Colton, of Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia.

Based on everything we've seen, it seems like Putin is out for regime change.


I would expect a move on Kyiv in the next 48 hours. An appropriate analogy is the 2003 race to Baghdad. What happens after a new government is installed is the real question.


Frankly, it doesn't appear that [Putin's] post-war political playbook is more thought through than the U.S. one was in Iraq.


But the Russians in Ukraine have numerous advantages from language to local networks that the United States lacked in Iraq, so it's possible they might succeed.


Nikolai Sokov is a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. He previously worked at both the Soviet and Russian foreign ministries and participated in arms control negotiations, including on START I and START II.

The war Putin started does not make rational sense.


Putin may win the war but risks long-term entanglement - the same dynamic the United States saw in Iraq. Unlike the United States, however, Russia lacks resources for such an involvement and especially to sustain economic isolation.


The damage extends well beyond Putin's rule. Even when he is succeeded by someone else, it will be next to impossible to restore relations with the West.


We are talking a very long-term isolation and hostility. To the detriment of Russia, of course, but also to the detriment of the West.


Among other things, containment of China will be weak or non-existent for a long time.

Putin has declared there would be no occupation, so it seems he plans to install a new government and leave. The problem is the government will be unstable.


It is possible that the population in Ukraine's east and south will be hostile but relatively passive. But in the West, it will be actively hostile. How Putin deals with that is totally unpredictable.


Will this result in division of Ukraine? Very unlikely but no longer outside the realm of possibility.


Military jets fly during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus

military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus,

Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022.

Russia has deployed troops to its ally Belarus for

sweeping joint military drills that run through Sunday,

fueling Western concerns that Moscow could use

the exercise to attack Ukraine from the north.

(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr)

Strobe Talbott is a distinguished fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. From 1993 to 2001, he served in the State Department, first as ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of State for the new independent states of the former Soviet Union, then as deputy secretary of State.

Putin certainly has an endgame in mind:

It's recreating the Russian Empire with himself as tsar.

After more than two decades of iron rule and with no competitors to worry about, he seems to think he is a genius. He also scorns the leaders in the West, notably the U.S. president.


However, even before the attack on Ukraine, the Russian public was becoming less muted about growing concern of bloodshed in both countries.


That could bring Putin down.