Vladimir Putin Caught Between Choosing Expensive Ukraine War or Humiliating Retreat

Vladimir Putin will soon have to decide what to do with the huge number of soldiers he has sent to the border with Ukraine, a former CIA analyst has told Newsweek.

The Russian president "has to be concerned about the cost of keeping Russian troops deployed in the field—not just financially, but in terms of military morale," said Nicholas Dujmovic.

"At some point, probably within three weeks, he'll have to decide to use the troops or end the deployment."

Military analysts say the presence of an estimated 130,000 troops—with some of the units coming from far-flung parts of Russia—presents a logistical and fiscal challenge that becomes trickier the longer they are there, The New York Times reported.

There are around 100 Russian battalion tactical groups (BTG) stretching across the border with Ukraine, in a deployment that has been building up for months.

As he seeks concessions from the West to lessen NATO's influence at Russia's borders, Putin may not want to lose face by sending personnel back to base before he can declare a diplomatic victory.

However, with the U.S. and the alliance clear that it will not give in to his demand to halt NATO expansion, launching an incursion will have a large financial and human cost.

"While an invasion would be more costly financially and in Russian lives, he might not care. No one knows what his intentions are," said Dujmovic, a former CIA analyst for Ukraine and now assistant professor of intelligence studies at the Catholic University of America.

"That's the perennial problem for intelligence. Capabilities are relatively easy to observe, while intentions are usually mysteries."

Putin continues to blame the U.S. and NATO for the knife-edge tensions over Ukraine, but he appeared to try to dial down the rhetoric last week when he said he hoped "dialogue will be continued" with Washington.

He also did not repeat the threat he made last month—to take "military-technical" measures if NATO did not comply with Russia's security demands.

President Joe Biden has issued strident warnings that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent—which even Ukrainian leader Volodomyr Zelenskyy sought to downplay—but has also warned of "swift and severe consequences" if Putin approves a military incursion.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Senate foreign relations committee has threatened "the mother of all sanctions."

These highlight macroeconomic measures, such as kicking Russia out of the international monetary system. But there are also calls for targeted measures on Putin's inner circle to be a focus—or at least for both sets of sanctions to work together.

Russian wealth is so entrenched in European cities such as London, however, that following the money of Putin's inner circle could be difficult.

Russia is also buffered by enormous central bank reserves of $640 billion, which would make quite manageable the $62 billion that it could cost the Kremlin to seize the remaining Donbass areas and from Mariupol to Odessa, Bloomberg has reported.

This might not be Putin's main concern, however.

"The current emphasis on Russian cost, whether from the deployment of military forces or potential costs from sanctions, downplays the importance of ideology and domestic politics in Russia," said Dennis A. Velazco Smith, co-director of the Project on International Peace and Security at William & Mary's Global Research Institute.

"Vladimir Putin is a Russian nationalist," he told Newsweek, a description that also applies to the president's base in the military, intelligence services and internal security services.

"He and they fear and resent the West's growing influence in Eastern Europe, which in their view looks like a form of Russian containment. Even worse, growing Western political and economic influence could potentially threaten the regime in Moscow, bringing back the chaos of the [Boris] Yeltsin years.

"Given that threat, I doubt that Putin will be too heavily influenced by the cost of a large military deployment."

As the U.S. and its allies continue to push the line that the cost of an invasion would be too high for Putin, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military, General Mark Milley, warned last week that the outcome of an invasion would be "horrific," with significant casualties.

"I don't think it is just a financial cost," said Sarah Mendelson, who served in the Obama administration as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. "Putin may not care about casualties but the Russian population does."

"It is not an exaggeration to say this could be incredibly bloody," she told Newsweek. Although the Russian army may have better resources, she said, "there is going to be house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat and they [the Kremlin] are not going to be able to hide bodies coming home."

Moscow was able to conceal the number of casualties it suffered during the Second Chechen War, in the Russian republic where the human rights group Memorial has faced persecution.

Mendelson said it was significant that Memorial, which would have been at the forefront of reporting on casualties in Ukraine, had been targeted recently by the Russian authorities.

"There is the financial cost and also this casualty issue," she said. "Maybe he is trying to dial back the rhetoric," however, "if you lose somebody and they are in the military, you can't hide it."

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on February 3. U.S. lawmakers have threatened to impose "the mother of all sanctions" if the Russian president approves an invasion of Ukraine. ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Getty