The buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine's border has prompted fears of an invasion.
Former US diplomats and officials say there's a significant risk of a Russian incursion, given Putin's history.
"One way or another, he wants Ukraine neutralized," Fiona Hill, a top Russia expert, told Insider.
For the second time this year, there are serious concerns that Russia is on the verge of invading Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Russian troops have amassed along Ukraine's border, raising alarm across the West. Ukraine's president on Friday claimed to have uncovered a coup plot involving Russians. The world is on edge, with leaders in Washington and beyond contemplating what Russian President Vladimir Putin will do next.
"We don't know what President Putin's intentions are, but we do know what's happened in the past," Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently told reporters. "We do know the playbook of trying to cite some illusory provocation from Ukraine or any other country and then using that as an excuse to do what Russia is planning to do all along."
Former US diplomats, ex-officials, and experts say that a Russian military incursion into Ukraine is a strong possibility in the near future, emphasizing that Putin has a significant advantage over the US and NATO at a time when many Western countries are plagued by domestic disarray.
"There is a major risk of Russian military activity in Ukraine in the next few months. All the signs point to a major build up of military capability," Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013, told Insider.
Moscow's rhetoric at the moment is "designed to heighten tensions" while "placing blame on the US and NATO for any possible escalation," Daalder said.
Putin is "deadly serious" about taking action on Ukraine, Fiona Hill, who served as the top Russia advisor on the National Security Council under the Trump administration, told Insider. "One way or another, he wants Ukraine neutralized," she added.
"You've got to take it seriously because Russia has crossed the Rubicon many times before when people said they wouldn't," Hill said, pointing to Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008, Putin's unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the Kremlin's support for rebels in an ongoing war in Ukraine's eastern Donbass region, among other examples. The Kremlin, for its part, has denied any involvement in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed over 13,000 lives since 2014.
With historic political polarization in the US, a growing divide between the US and European allies, and disunity within a number of European countries, Putin views the West as weak at present and sees an "incredible opportunity" to exploit, Hill said, adding that the Russian president "knows none of us want to fight for Ukraine."
The US has provided over $2.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014. There's strong bipartisan support in Congress for ramping up that financial assistance, but it's extremely unlikely that the US would send in troops to support Ukraine even if Russia did invade.
'A country that has invaded Ukraine before'
Steven Pifer, the US ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, told Insider that he puts the odds of Russia invading Ukraine on the "low side" because the "potential costs to the Kremlin could be very high: political isolation, more economic and individual sanctions, NATO more rejuvenated and, most importantly, Russian soldiers coming home in body bags, which would not be popular at home."
But Pifer also underscored that Putin has his "own logic," making it hard to rule anything out. The US and Europe need to make it apparent there would be "big costs" if Russia took military action, Pifer said, suggesting that it should be privately communicated to the Kremlin what type of sanctions would be implemented.
"If Russia does invade, NATO will not take direct military action against Russia," Pifer added. "But you will likely see more arms supplies by individual NATO members to Ukraine, and the Alliance as a whole will become even more serious about bolstering its deterrence and defense posture against Russia."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday warned Russia there will be "costs" and "consequences" if force is used against Ukraine, the Associated Press reported. Stoltenberg said Russia's military buildup "is unprovoked and unexplained," warning that it raises tensions and risks miscalculations.
"There is no certainty about the intentions of Russia," the NATO chief said, but added "this is a military buildup by a country that has invaded Ukraine before."
The top US diplomat for European affairs, Karen Donfried, on Friday told reporters that "all options are on the table" in terms of a response to the Russian troop buildup, per Reuters.
Ukraine is 'unfinished business' for Putin
The Kremlin has denied any plans to invade Ukraine, while blaming NATO for the contentious dynamic. Last Thursday, Putin said the West was not taking Russia's "red lines" seriously enough.
"We're constantly voicing our concerns about this, talking about red lines, but we understand our partners — how shall I put it mildly — have a very superficial attitude to all our warnings and talk of red lines," Putin said in a speech on foreign policy. Putin claimed that Western strategic bombers had been flying within roughly 12.5 miles of Russia's borders.
This came after the Kremlin in September warned that NATO expanding military infrastructure in Ukraine would cross Putin's "red lines." Russia has repeatedly denounced US and NATO military activities in the Black Sea region.
Though Ukraine is not a full NATO member, it has repeatedly expressed a desire to join while maintaining a robust partnership with the alliance. This has infuriated Putin — a former KGB operative — who views the increase of US and NATO military activities in Ukraine as a major threat to Russian security. Moscow has moved to crush virtually any Western influence in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic and its nextdoor neighbor.
Putin is "engaged in a strategy of disruption," Daalder said, with the goal of sowing "disunity in Europe and the region" to ensure that "he and Russia aren't ignored."
The Russian president places Ukraine "at the top of the hierarchy of issues that he wants to resolve" in terms of his red lines in Europe being recognized and respected, Hill said, underscoring that Putin views Ukraine as "unfinished business." Putin would be open to achieving a diplomatic resolution, Hill said, but could take things further if he feels that Russia isn't being taken seriously.
The only way Putin will lose the "upper hand" he has over the West when it comes to Ukraine is if there is a "collective, forceful, diplomatic response," Hill said.
"The big challenge is for Europe," Hill said, emphasizing that the US can't resolve this on its own.
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