Here's another beginner-level question about Russia vs. Ukraine
May 13, 2022 11:26 AM   Subscribe

I see that Putin is not happy that his war is driving Finland and Sweden closer to NATO membership, and strengthening NATO's resolve in general. This seems to me like a completely logical outcome of his invasion, so what am I missing here? Can you give me a simple explanation of why Putin thought that wouldn't happen?

I have seen some references to the idea that "Putin thought the invasion of Ukraine would weaken NATO" as well, and I'd like to understand that thought process.

Perhaps an ancillary question would be "Okay, so what did Putin think was going to happen?" I know the first part of the answer is "Ukraine will immediately fall and come under Russian rule" but what would have been next after that?

Thank you for explaining this to me in a general way, much like with my previous question about the general reason behind the war.
posted by BlahLaLa to Law & Government (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Putin believed that the Western nations would fall into squabbling among themselves about what to do. Eventually, thanks to Europe's dependence on Russian gas, things would settle back down to "normal" and Putin would be free to plan his next invasion.
posted by SPrintF at 11:51 AM on May 13, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I think it's impossible to know what Putin really expected to happen, but the most logical conclusion is that he expected the invasion to follow the same pattern of the earlier annexation of Crimea.

Specifically he most likely thought that his troops would take strategic locations, like airports, within the first few hours. The main invasion force would quickly swoop in from the north and occupy Kyiv without facing any real opposition.

The Ukraine government would collapse and he could install a puppet regime and the whole thing would be over within a week. Russia would later fold Ukraine into Russian territory. Everything would have happened too quickly for the West to do more than sputter a few objections. The world would see how powerful Russia was and how weak NATO is.
posted by Eddie Mars at 11:55 AM on May 13, 2022 [14 favorites]

Best answer: He's repeatedly threatened neighbouring countries that if they join NATO, they'll be a target. He expected this to cow them into staying outside NATO.
posted by pipeski at 11:58 AM on May 13, 2022 [8 favorites]

^^ That's not only the right answer; it's also a pretty strong argument, TBH. Ending up like Ukraine is not something I'd be particularly excited to have happen. It's actually a pretty brave move, especially for Finland. Of course, Sweden and Finland have exponentially closer ties to Western Europe and exponentially weaker ties to Russia than Ukraine did, so the acceptance process probably won't take long. But they are exposing themselves to some potential danger by doing so.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:08 PM on May 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Finland essentially spent the whole of the 20th century managing its foreign relations in order to avoid upsetting the Soviet Union. To the extent that they are the trope namers.

Sweden has been a neutral state for 200 years.

That they have taken a different tactic this time is historically surprising in general, I'm sure it was a surprise to Putin.
posted by plonkee at 12:18 PM on May 13, 2022 [12 favorites]

Best answer: One component of the miscalculation of the likelihood of their respective moves toward NATO membership is that Finland and Sweden have long-standing histories of being "non-aligned" (not to be mistaken with Swiss-style neutrality).

Putin wanted less NATO on his border. Finland and maybe Sweden will give him more:

"The non-aligned policy and before that neutral policy has served us well. But, Russia's attack on Ukraine has really profoundly changed the European security climate." Finland's Chargé d'affaires in Canada Kaisa Heikkilä on the shift in public and political will to join NATO.

Public opposition to NATO membership in Finland has hinged on a bunch of things other than non-alignment, as I understand it. One is the fact that NATO membership comes with certain obligations - including a financial cost. Finland has a reasonably well-developed welfare state, and people opposed to NATO membership have a concern that more military spending means the tradeoff of less social spending. There are also other reasons, both practical and ideological, that people will cite for opposing NATO membership.

Russia also has the ability to harm Finland, economically, at will. The Finnish and Russian economies, owing to a shared border, are heavily intertwined, and then there's scale: Finland's 2020 GDP was around $271 billion USD, while Russia's was around $1.5 trillion USD. And population-wise, Finland is tiny in relative terms. See, for example, Russia's 2014 counter-sanctions.

But. Finland still has Europe and the rest of the world to trade with. Short-term pain from cuts in Russian gas and electricity supplies, along with a collapse in Russian/Finnish trade that outstrips the impact of the Soviet collapse in the 1990s have figured into views that it's an acceptable tradeoff as far as the country's security is concerned, because what Putin is doing to Ukraine can't be ignored or brushed off.

So long-standing and decades-old Finnish cost-benefit calculations about this have shifted seismically in two short months.

One way of thinking about it is that, instead of instilling fear as he'd hoped, Putin's created a "Well, fuck it. All bets are off. NATO is probably the insurance we need right now" mindset.

My grandparents were Finnish veterans of the Winter and Continuation wars - Finns were quite aware of the genocide committed in Ukraine in the 1930s by the Soviets, so when the Soviets invaded Finland in 1939 they weren't going to sit still and take their chances with what would follow if they fell under Stalin's thumb.

Flash forward to 2022 and...well...Putin wouldn't be the first dictator to show Finland that Ukraine is an example of what he's willing to do to a neighbouring country, and to underestimate Finnish resolve in responding to it.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:40 PM on May 13, 2022 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Putin's NATO stance is the result of internal misinformation and a dependent series of miscalculations that he's too proud to back down from.

There is a theory that Putin was in essence high on his own supply of propaganda. He believed that his military was unstoppable. He believed that trained soldiers, not conscripts, were being sent to the front lines. He believed that Russia's weapons were properly maintained. He also misunderstood the feeling on the ground in Ukraine. It seems he really had a mindset (because of Russia's meddling in the "contested" Donbas region) that Russian soldiers would be greeted as liberators by a culturally Russian majority and that the territorial gain would be instantaneous.

Basically he thought it all was going to be easy and over fast, and since then he has failed to adjust his calculations. The initial invasion took too long, and was too bungled, and Russian weaponry turns out to be much less reliable than expected. Also while the Donbas region had a Russian-speaking majority, politically it may have been more aligned with Ukraine than Putin initially thought even before the military strikes inspired broad resistance.

Because of all of his initial miscalculations, he miscalculated the resolve of NATO and Western Europe. He thought (based on previous unchecked Russian aggressions, especially in Chechnya and Crimea) that European dependence on Russian fossil fuels would result in, at most, a disorganized, disjointed, and temporary response. He also seems to have calculated that a display of overwhelming military might would weaken NATO's military posture. No member state would be willing to provoke further escalation, and none of the non-member states would possibly consider making a move that Putin has clearly stated he would interpret as unprovoked aggression.

Instead, Europe broadly decided that this time it could, in fact, live without Russian fossil fuels. Meanwhile, NATO member states that have been reluctant to provide real military support (namely, Germany) have been forced to reckon with a trading partner that really can't be trusted not to make aggressive military moves. The NATO non-member states Finland and Sweden have found themselves recalculating the cost and benefits of NATO membership as a deterrent against an unpredictable foe whose crippled military could still inflict significant damage. What might have been a situation where they dare not even consider joining NATO instead turned into a moment where Putin has shown real weakness. Between losses to the reputation of Russia's ground forces, Russia's failure to establish air superiority over Ukraine, and unreliable Russian weaponry, Putin has now created a prime opportunity for NATO to expand, because by all appearances he can't even keep up a war on one front, much less two.
posted by fedward at 1:20 PM on May 13, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Europe has historically had a very had time remaining unified on foreign policy. The EU is not a country. Every individual member of the EU has veto power over any EU policy change. Each country has pride of sovereignty and has its own particular interests to keep in mind. Add to that 4 years of Donald Trump undermining NATO, and a President Joe Biden who Putin probably respected about as much as he respects a piece of quiche.

Add to this European dependence on Russian fossil fuels, and Germany's financial interest in Russian fossil fuels.

Finally, Putin expected to roll into Ukraine and have a new reality on the ground within a week. A new puppet government set up. The deed done.

He did not foresee the brilliant work done by the Biden intelligence and foreign policy teams to discover his plans and telegraph them to the world days before they were implemented, time after time after time. He did not expect Biden to successful orchestrate a massive campaign of financial isolation. He did not expect anyone could unify the Europeans to support this campaign. He did not expect the west providing ongoing military support to Ukraine. He did not expect former comedian Zelensky to becomes the bravest, greatest leader of the 21st century. He did not believe that Ukrainians had a national identity, and so he did not understand that they would fight for their homeland. He did not expect the war would go on long enough for any of this to make a difference.

I'm reminded of a quote about the second Iraq War, such a terrible war, started by the US. This foreign policy person said, "I could think of 500 ways it could go wrong. I did not expect it to go wrong in every one of those 500 ways."

Many people in the US predicted what would happen in Iraq. It turned out to be even worse (and it is still hurting the US and hurting the world today). Those Americans made their voices heard, and they were ignored.

In Russia, there was no opportunity for anyone to even make their voices heard. Even Putin's intelligence officials and advisors were not able to tell him anything that went against his own preconceptions. It's not surprising that the war went badly for Russia, but is astonishing how badly it has gone, in so many different ways.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 2:06 PM on May 13, 2022 [16 favorites]

It may be the case that Putin simply does not care that much about Finland and Sweden joining NATO as compared to states that were previously part of the USSR. Russia would presumably fare quite badly against Finland or Sweden in any attempted invasion, so Russia won't attempt one, so Finland and Sweden joining NATO doesn't really change anything for Russia.

All the noise about security and a buffer from NATO may not be Putin's real position. After all, NATO is defensive (which even Putin knows) so the expansion of NATO only matters insofar as it prevents Russia from invading neighbouring countries. Putin's position is pretty clearly that Russia is willing and able to invade some countries he feels are historically part of Russia. NATO matters for him because those countries joining NATO would prevent Russia from invading them. Other countries joining NATO, no matter their distance from Russia, are simply not as important.

Obviously, there is a long history of at least parts of Finland being part of Russia, but realistically an invasion of Finland would be unlikely.

No one really knows what's actually in Putin's mind, but I do think we should not just take his statements about NATO at face value.
posted by ssg at 2:29 PM on May 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

Sweden and Finland, Ukraine, NATO and the countries that comprise it, are very, very different places from those they were in the 1980s and previously.

I think, I hope, the extent of that change, the power of it (despite its evident problems) and the realisation that it adds up to something, on balance, real and actually worth fighting for has come as a watershed surprise to many more people than just Vlad the Imputer.
posted by protorp at 2:35 PM on May 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: All these answers are good and reasonable. I'd just add that this is one of the many reasons that lots of smart people didn't think Putin would go through with the invasion when he was amassing troops and arming planes and building field hospitals along Ukraine's border - because to nearly every outside observer, it just made (and makes) zero strategic sense.
posted by exutima at 2:52 PM on May 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Putin also misjudged Biden. He saw Trump souring on NATO, and perhaps thought that Biden wasn't all that big on it either. He may have misread Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan, following the timetable set by Trump, as a general U.S. turn toward isolationism.

Instead, of course, Biden released U.S. intelligence assessments highlighting Russia's threat to Ukraine, and has strongly supported the Ukrainian war effort, while also rallying NATO.

The difference Biden has personally made in this situation is tremendous. They will probably erect a statue to him in Kyiv when this is over.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 3:25 PM on May 13, 2022 [12 favorites]

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