That’s the question asked in Foreign Affairs by Alexander Motyl, who concludes “probably.” Here’s the beef:
No one can fully know Putin’s intentions. One’s best guess depends on one’s assumptions of his rationality. If he is irrational — unable to correctly judge the costs and benefits of invading Ukraine because he is in thrall to some ideology or the pursuit of power — then it is safe to assume that he will continue on his current course. Lilia Shevtsova, a liberal Russian analyst, and Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s former economic advisor, make that case. “He believes that he is chosen by divine providence to punish liberated Ukrainians,” Illarianov writes, “He believes that now there is a unique historical situation: Ukraine is in [a] state of severe crises, its authorities and institutions do not function effectively. He dreams that providence demands him to fulfill this mission.” If Illarionov and Shevtsova are right, nothing can stop Putin from launching a massive land war against Ukraine, regardless of how much it would cost in human life, property, and prestige. Such a Putin could conceivably keep marching up to the Atlantic, as Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian political scientist and Putin’s ideological mentor, believes Russia must. “If we win,” he recently wrote, “we will begin the expansion of liberational (from Americans) ideology into Europe. It is the goal of full Eurasianism — Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Great Eurasian Continental Empire.”
That’s just it, isn’t it? We taped our Trifecta segments for the week yesterday, and Scott Ott handled the big Ukraine headline story. And it occurred to me on the show that a failing state like Russia (shrinking population, natural-resource dependent, lawless) must either expand or die. Today Putin is happy with Crimea, but tomorrow his needs might extend to the Dnieper, then to the Bug, then to the Rhine, then to the South of France.
I don’t believe the Ukraine was the place for the West to take a stand, for various reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere on this site — not the least of which is the President who would have to lead the West. But at some point, given Putin’s ambitions and his read on Western weakness, the West will have to make a stand and we will need a President capable of leading.
So then it might just behoove Putin into moving quickly — but rapid moves can lead your opponent to panic, and that’s one lousy way for great nations to stumble into stupid and needlessly destructive wars.
Starting a real shooting war with the West would be completely irrational, because the correlation of forces does not favor Putin’s Russia.
But in actions short of war, the correlation of leadership seems to be tilted mightily in their favor.