Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Nobody Actually Knows What Russia Does Next

| Apr. 02, 2024

The West's warnings about Vladimir Putin's future plans are getting louder—but not any more convincing.

Apparently, key members of the Western foreign-policy elite are mind readers: They claim to know exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin's intentions are. Prominent officials and political commentators increasingly agree that his ambitions are limitless and that Ukraine is just his first target.

 U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has said, "Putin will not stop at Ukraine." Former CIA Director David Petraeus told CNN's Christiane Amanpour, "Putin won't stop there." Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned, "Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova may be next," and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Jane Hartley said that "anybody who thinks that Russia may stop after this … is wrong." Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis is on the same page, having said, "Russia is not going to stop. … [Putin's] obviously got plans to go further." U.S. President Joe Biden issued the exact same warning back in December 2023, and so did NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Western officials aren't sure when Russia is going to go after NATO, but a growing chorus seems to believe a wider war is inevitable if Moscow is not decisively defeated.

As Walter Lippmann warned, "When all think alike, no one thinks very much." The plain fact is that none of these people know what Putin or Russia will do if the war in Ukraine ends with Russia in control of some of Ukraine's pre-2022 territory. Neither do I, and neither does anyone else, except maybe Putin himself (and he may not know for sure). It's possible that Putin does have vast ambitions and will try to follow a costly success in Ukraine with a new attack somewhere else. But it is also entirely possible that his ambitions do not extend beyond what Russia has won—at enormous cost—and that he has no need or desire to gamble for more. Putin recently declared that Russia was not going to attack NATO, for example, though he also pointed out that F-16s or other aircraft being provided to Ukraine would be legitimate targets once they are deployed there (duh). No one should take Putin's assurances at face value, but neither should one automatically assume that everything he says is a lie.

Of course, those Western experts issuing lurid warnings about Putin's future actions are trying to convince Western publics (and the U.S. Congress) to pony up more aid for Ukraine and more money for European defense. To be clear, I'm also in favor of continuing aid for Ukraine, and I'd like to see NATO's European members bolster deterrence by building up their conventional forces. What bothers me is the reflexive threat inflation that inspires such pronouncements, along with the tendency to treat these gloomy forecasts as if they were established truths, and to portray anyone who questions them as naïve, a pro-Russian stooge, or both....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Nobody Actually Knows What Russia Does Next.” Foreign Policy, April 2, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt