In August 2023, the United States marked the two-year anniversary of its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. After nearly 20 years of fighting in the country, Washington bumbled its way through a disorderly exit. U.S. officials were caught off guard by the rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces and seemed unprepared to evacuate American citizens or Afghan partners. U.S. President Joe Biden’s handling of the pullout gave his administration a black eye that never fully healed. When the scale of the calamity became apparent at the end of August 2021, Biden’s approval ratings fell from 54 to 46 percent, and they still have not recovered.
Over the last year and a half, some of Biden’s critics have even argued that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan helped inspire Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch his 2022 full-scale attack on Ukraine. Putin clearly felt that he had unfinished business with Ukraine well before Biden took office: Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 had not prevented Ukraine from pursuing deeper ties with the West, even while President Donald Trump, an admirer of Putin’s, occupied the White House. But in March 2022, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed that the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan was the precipitating event that emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine, arguing that Russia would not have attacked its neighbor if Biden had not “cut and run.”
Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, reiterated that claim at a June 2023 CNN town hall in Iowa, blaming Biden’s disorderly withdrawal for Putin’s aggression. But it is not only Republican politicians who have advanced this theory. Fiona Hill, a former U.S. National Security Council staffer and a leading expert on Putin, has argued that the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan showed weakness, inducing Putin to invade.
Washington seemed too distracted, this argument goes—by domestic priorities, other foreign policy issues, and infighting—to respond effectively to a Russian attack. The very decision to leave Afghanistan appeared to be just the latest example in a long history of the United States abandoning its partners, and Putin would conclude that Washington would do the same with Ukraine. Overall, these critics allege, as Putin watched the United States flounder in Afghanistan, he became convinced that he could attack Ukraine without fearing that the United States would stop him.
It is crucial to consider whether the United States’ handling of its Afghanistan withdrawal truly played any role in Putin’s war. Understanding Putin’s thinking in the lead-up to the invasion can offer clues to Washington about how to approach the war today and how to deter Putin in the future. Many U.S. policymakers have drawn the wrong lessons by believing that U.S. weakness, displayed in the pullout from Afghanistan, factored heavily in Putin’s choice. But, in fact, a close analysis of Russia’s actions and Putin’s comments in the summer of 2021—including subsequently revealed information—indicate that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan had no influence on Putin’s calculus. Putin had likely already decided to invade Ukraine in the late spring of 2021, well before the U.S. withdrawal.
During that time frame, the United States had shown notable strength on behalf of its partner Ukraine. Putin was almost certainly not trying to take advantage of perceived U.S. weakness. It is more likely that he was acutely concerned about U.S. strength. Putin decided to proceed with a large-scale invasion of Ukraine despite witnessing a show of U.S. resolve. This demonstrates that deterring him is not a simple matter of projecting strength. It may even show that in some circumstances, U.S. displays of strength can backfire.
THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED
Compelling information now suggests that Putin probably decided to invade Ukraine sometime between late April and early June 2021. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and launched a war in eastern Ukraine. The fighting eased after the Minsk agreements, a hastily drawn set of measures that were intended to impose a ceasefire, remove heavy weapons, exchange prisoners, resolve the political status of the occupied regions in eastern Ukraine, and transfer the international border back to Ukrainian control. Putin thought that the Minsk agreements would put the brakes on Ukraine’s efforts to develop stronger ties with western Europe and the United States.
But between 2015 and 2021, it became clear to Putin that the Minsk agreements were not delivering the outcome that he wanted. In early 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrested Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian opposition politician and Putin’s confidante. The new Biden administration, meanwhile, ramped up sanctions against Russia for interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, hacking SolarWinds—a U.S. technology company—and poisoning Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Putin sought to remind both Biden and Zelensky that Russia intended to influence events in Ukraine: beginning in mid-March of 2021, Russia commenced new military exercises and began to move additional forces to Crimea and to its border with eastern Ukraine.
By the beginning of April, Putin had positioned over 100,000 Russian troops in and around Ukraine, prompting concern from the United States and European governments that an invasion was imminent. On April 2, as Russia moved troops to the Ukrainian border, Biden called Zelensky to offer his “unwavering support.” Four weeks after that, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv, condemned Russia’s buildup, and indicated that the United States would increase security cooperation with and assistance to Ukraine.
But that acute phase of military buildup occurred only after Biden called Putin a “killer” in an ABC News interview on March 17 and after Putin met with the Russian defense minister in Siberia the next week. This sequence of events strongly suggests that Putin was signaling strength to Biden in the face of an insult rather than preparing for a real invasion. The director of the U.S. National Security Agency at the time, Paul Nakasone, later said that the United States knew that Russia was not going to invade Ukraine in April 2021 and that Russia’s military activities were just an exercise. Indeed, in late April, after a phone call with Biden, Putin calmed tensions by halting Russia’s military exercises near Ukraine and moving tens of thousands of soldiers away from the Russian-Ukrainian border.
Putin probably decided to invade Ukraine sometime between late April and early June 2021.
Putin’s subsequent comments and actions narrow the time frame in which he likely made the decision to invade. On June 9, 2021, in an interview with Russia One, Russia’s main state television channel, Putin delivered a sharp response to questions on Ukraine. He compared some of Kyiv’s draft laws on nationality to those instituted by the Nazi regime in Germany and cautioned that Moscow would not remain indifferent. He also noted that, even in the best of times, the West “spit on Russia’s interests” and warned that Ukraine’s accession to NATO would be a redline for Russia. That June television appearance was noticeably more aggressive and emotional than the public comments Putin made during his spring military buildup and likely marked the beginning of a campaign to garner Russian public support for an invasion.
Then, on June 16, Putin met with Biden in Geneva at the Biden-Putin summit. This meeting’s ostensible purpose was to further ease tensions after the Russian military buildup in April. If Putin had still been undecided on whether to invade Ukraine, he probably would have threatened further military action or privately offered Biden something of interest such as moving more Russian troops and equipment from the Ukrainian border in exchange for a promise that the United States would limit its relationship with Ukraine. But according to both Biden and Putin at subsequent press conferences, Ukraine was not a major point of discussion during their meeting. Putin noted that the two leaders had not touched on Ukraine in detail and that there was little to discuss regarding Ukraine’s relationship with NATO. Biden merely noted that he had communicated the United States’ continuing support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It seems that Putin, by then, saw little point in trying to negotiate a modus vivendi with Washington on Ukraine.
Biden announced his plan to withdraw from Afghanistan three weeks later, on July 8. By that month, however—according to Ukrainian military and intelligence officials—Russia’s Federal Security Service had already expanded the ninth section of its Fifth Directorate, the unit responsible for political warfare and covert operations in Ukraine into a separate directorate, increasing its manpower and capabilities. These Ukrainian reports also indicate that Russia’s security agency was tasked with planning for an occupation of Ukraine.
Then, in mid-July, Putin published a 5,000-word article on the Kremlin’s website. Titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” it argued that the Ukrainians and Russians are effectively one people and that arbitrary decisions made by Soviet leaders divided the two countries, largely at the expense of Russia. The essay went on to claim that the West was trying to turn Ukraine into an “anti-Russia.” It seems likely that Putin published this article to publicly rationalize a decision that he had already made to occupy Ukraine. A 2023 investigative report by Verstka, an independent Russian news website, even alleged that Putin had intended to explicitly threaten an invasion in an earlier draft of the article.
Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, 2021. But by at least the beginning of that month, the Russian military began recruiting troops to establish a new ready reserve, aiming to raise roughly 100,000 men. New reserve troops in such numbers would be key to building the manpower necessary to occupy Ukraine. It is unlikely that Putin would have pursued this costly step if he had not already decided on a large-scale military operation.
How Putin interpreted Washington’s response to his spring 2021 military buildup is key to understanding his decision to invade Ukraine a year later. The United States’ support of its partner Ukraine was unflinching during that time frame. Even when a Russian invasion seemed possible in April 2021, Washington was unwilling to negotiate with Moscow about Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO. The fact that Russia did not immediately invade that April, after the United States staunchly expressed its commitment to supporting Ukraine, suggested to many observers that a show of resolve and strength deterred Putin.
But the precise timing of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine strongly suggests that his choice was not a reaction to his subsequent perception that the United States showed weakness in Afghanistan. Rather, it appears to have been a strategic calculation (or miscalculation) based on a fear that Russia’s position was weakening. After April 2021, Putin would reasonably have concluded that Biden would never be willing to reach an agreement with him on Ukraine that sufficiently addressed his interests. And given that the United States and its European allies were increasing their support for Ukraine’s defense, intelligence, cyber, and security capabilities, Putin may have calculated that he needed to invade while he still could. In October of 2021, at the annual Valdai Discussion Club—a venue for Putin to engage Western academics—Putin noted that he believed that increased Western military support to Ukraine posed a threat to Russia even if Ukraine did not formally join NATO.
The United States’ apparent abandonment of an ally when it withdrew from Afghanistan almost certainly had nothing to do with Putin’s war. But the idea persists. Many policymakers have drawn the conclusion that the best way to handle an opportunistic bully such as Putin is to show strength and resolve. That belief has made some U.S. officials hesitant to work to negotiate an end to the Ukraine war. They believe that any attempt to negotiate would show weakness and goad Putin into behaving still more aggressively.
In fact, a different, potent lesson arises from a better understanding of the timeline of Putin’s decision: that U.S. strength and its commitment to its partners motivated rather than deterred him. This represents a classic security dilemma: U.S. efforts to improve the security of its partners on Russia’s periphery are viewed by Moscow as a potential threat to Russia. The sharp U.S. response to Putin’s spring 2021 troop buildup appears to have been the last piece of evidence that convinced him that he could never use diplomacy to satisfy his goals when it came to Ukraine. In the future, Putin may determine that U.S. shows of strength meant to deter Russia are threats that require a direct Russian military response, bringing the two sides to the edge of direct conflict. If powerful players in Washington continue to misunderstand the origin of Putin’s choice to invade Ukraine and to believe that shows of strength are the only way to deter him, they risk prompting the opposite response—or even risk triggering a direct conflict with Russia.