Russia and Ukraine, Explained

Russia has stationed about 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s government has issued a list of demands that Western powers are highly unlikely to meet. And President Biden said yesterday that he expected Putin to send troops over the border. “But I think he will pay a serious and dear price for it,” Biden added.

Today’s newsletter offers a Q. and A. on the risks of war in Eastern Europe.

“The overall threatening rhetoric from the Kremlin and the movement that military analysts are seeing on the ground give us a lot of ground for concern,” Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, told my colleague Claire Moses. “It’s a very serious situation.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s foreign minister are scheduled to meet for talks tomorrow in Geneva.

1. Why is Putin threatening war with Ukraine?

The honest answer is that most diplomats and experts aren’t entirely sure. “It’s not clear what Russia’s central demand is,” Blinken told reporters yesterday in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

Even Putin’s top advisers may not know what he is trying to accomplish and how seriously he is considering an invasion, as Anton has written. “The expert opinion that I can authoritatively declare is: Who the heck knows?” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign-policy analyst who advises the Kremlin.

This murkiness allows Putin to declare the confrontation a success in multiple scenarios.

2. Why is the U.S. so alarmed?

A successful invasion would establish Russia as a dominant, expansionist power in Eastern Europe. It would make other democracies (like Taiwan) worry that they could be vulnerable to takeover by nearby authoritarian countries (like China).

3. What does Putin say his rationale is?

Perhaps the best-known statement of Putin’s 20-plus years as Russia’s dominant political figure came from an annual state-of-the-nation speech in 2005 at the Kremlin. The collapse of the Soviet Union, he said, was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Ukraine was arguably the most painful loss for Moscow. It was the most populous former Soviet republic to form its own country apart from Russia. The two now share a 1,200-mile border, and Putin often cites their deep cultural ties.

But Ukraine has drifted toward the West in recent years. The U.S. and its allies have increased military aid to Ukraine and also said — albeit vaguely — that Ukraine will one day join NATO.

Putin has defended the troop buildup by saying it is merely a military exercise. Russia has also released its list of demands, including a NATO pledge never to admit Ukraine and a pullback of NATO troops in Eastern Europe (effectively to where they were in the late 1990s).

Biden, responding to a question from The Times’s David Sanger at a news conference yesterday, said Ukraine was unlikely to join NATO “in the near term.” But Biden ruled out the idea of removing NATO troops from Eastern Europe.

4. What isn’t Putin saying?

Some observers believe that the troop buildup is a mixture of bluff and distraction.

A group of Russia experts — including Frederick Kagan, who has advised U.S. military leaders in the past — made this argument in a recent report called “Strategic Misdirection.” A full-scale invasion of Ukraine could be bloody and expensive, they wrote, potentially damaging Russia’s economy and Putin’s political standing.

As Kori Schake explained in The Atlantic: “Half a million Ukrainians have military experience; 24 percent of respondents in one recent poll said that they would resist Russian occupation ‘with a weapon in hand.’ Russia might succeed in taking Ukraine, but it is unlikely to hold it.”

Another reason to be skeptical of invasion: So far, Putin does not appear to be preparing Russians to go to war. Russia’s deputy foreign minister continued this pattern yesterday, saying, “We will not attack, strike, invade, quote unquote, whatever, Ukraine.”

Putin may instead be trying to redefine what the West considers unacceptable behavior, Kagan and his co-authors argued. By making an invasion seem possible, Putin can try to win other concessions, such as a freer hand in Eastern Europe.

“In the worst-case version of this scenario, the West will be congratulating itself for having avoided a Russian invasion Putin never meant to launch while Putin quietly celebrates an important nonmilitary victory that the West does not even recognize,” Kagan and his colleagues wrote.

(Thomas Friedman, the Times Opinion columnist, argues that the threat of war also helps distract Russians from their economic problems.)

5. So the risk of war is low?

Not necessarily. Even skeptics like Kagan acknowledge it is possible, given the lack of transparency about Putin’s thinking.

A few analysts, like Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council, believe war is the most likely outcome: Putin has lost patience with Ukraine, she has written, and believes the U.S. would not go to war over it. (Biden said yesterday that a “minor incursion” would not necessarily pull the U.S. into the fight.) Putin also craves a historical legacy that a territorial expansion could ensure, by helping reverse the catastrophe of the Soviet collapse.

“It’s very hard to gauge the probability,” Michael Crowley, a Times reporter who is covering Blinken’s European trip, told me from Kyiv yesterday. “This is going to require very creative diplomacy to resolve, if it can be resolved.”

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André Leon Talley’s approach to fashion could best be described as “more.” More glamour, more decadence, more delight. He evoked drama in both his personal style — wearing capes and furs — and his declarations. “It’s a famine of beauty, honey!” he once proclaimed. “My eyes are starving for beauty!”

Talley, who died this week at 73, was a pioneering figure in fashion. Using his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and his quick wit, he became an editor, author, adviser and TV personality. In the 1980s, he worked his way up to creative director at Vogue, and he spent decades there in various roles.

A 1994 New Yorker profile called Talley “The Only One” — a reference to him often being the sole high-powered Black editor in a field that is notoriously white. His influence is hard to overstate: He mentored the supermodel Naomi Campbell and helped dress Michelle Obama as first lady.

Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Talley wallpapered his bedroom with images ripped from Vogue. “I went to school and to church and I did what I was told and I didn’t talk much,” he told Vogue in 2018. “But I knew life was bigger than that. I wanted to meet Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol and Naomi Sims and Pat Cleveland and Edie Sedgwick and Loulou de la Falaise. And I did. And I never looked back.” — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer

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