If Putin wins, it’s not just Ukraine that loses

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Unless your name is Vladimir Putin, you don’t know if Russian troops will invade Ukraine. And even if your name is Vladimir Putin, you can be uncertain. It is the prerogative of an autocrat to change his mind.

Old Russian think tanks and universities provide contradictory analyses. This must confuse policy makers.

I first visited Russia more than half a century ago. A few years later, I went to university with the current Russian president. Seriously: I was an exchange student at Leningrad State University (Rah! Rah!) while he was studying there. But no, we didn’t hang out and drink brewskis.

What seems to me to be the most common misunderstanding at the moment: saying that Putin only acts on the defensive, that he fears NATO.

NATO has never been aggressive. The US military is by far the most powerful in NATO, but it is clear that Washington wants to avoid armed conflict at all costs, as the recent capitulation in Afghanistan demonstrated.

Putin opposes Ukraine’s NATO membership, but that was already an impossibility for the foreseeable future. Decisions on NATO enlargement must be taken “unanimously”. Can you imagine Germany agreeing to admit Ukraine?

So why not issue an official statement declaring that Ukraine will be permanently banned from the club as Putin requested? First, because it would whet its appetite for additional concessions. Second, because we believe (don’t we?) that citizens of democracies should be free to make their own decisions, including whether or not to join mutual defense pacts if they fear a neighbor. Who could this neighbor be?

Here’s what I think is really going on: Putin sees himself as the modern emperor of Russia. Its mission: to restore the old Russian empire, to reconstitute it after its great fall during the cold war. In 2005, he called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century”.

The proper title of a Russian emperor: “tsar of all the Russias”. This involves not only present-day Russia, which spans 11 time zones, but also Belarus (or White Russia) and Ukraine (sometimes known as Little Russia).

Putin insists that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people, one whole” and that the Ukrainian nation is an artificial creation.

Russians and Ukrainians share common roots. But the “international community” is supposed to have principles. Among them: the right to self-determination and the prohibition on using military force to erase established borders.

Also: In 1994, Ukraine, America, Britain and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum. In exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons, Ukraine received an undertaking that there would be “no threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of the Ukrainian”.

If Putin, with American and British acquiescence, demonstrates that such deals are worthless – as Beijing did by violating its 1984 deal with Britain over Hong Kong – the rule of law erodes and the law of the jungle is advancing.

A significant irony: Putin’s actions in recent years have served to bolster Ukrainian patriotism. Many Ukrainians were outraged by his capture of Crimea in 2014 and have since been upset by his perpetuation of an armed separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, Donbass, and his persistent cyberattacks.

Of course, the roots of Ukrainian identity run deeper. Stalin, furious with Ukrainians for resisting communist collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s, created a famine in which millions perished. The Holodomor (Ukrainian words for hunger and extermination) was recognized by many countries as a genocide. No wonder many Ukrainians are fiercely opposed to the power of the Kremlin.

The United States and Europe should have done more to deter Putin since 2014. But there is still time to send the Ukrainians additional lethal military aid, such as Javelin and Stinger missiles, so they can defend themselves better. They don’t ask us to do the work for them.

A prediction: Putin will not start a war during the Olympics, which are being held in the People’s Republic of China from February 4-20. He has too much respect and fear for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

If Putin unleashes the dogs of war, the sanctions should be massive, including cutting off Russian banks from the global economic system.

Some analysts say Putin has gone too far to back down. Not necessarily. He can boast of having proven once again that Russia is a power to be reckoned with; that it revealed the disunity within NATO and the European Union (Germany being the weakest link); that he has miles to go and worlds to conquer before he sleeps. His most important political rivals can contradict him, but only from their prison cells.

There is another scenario that I want to expose today. Putin could decide to do what President Biden inadvertently advised: stage a “minor incursion.” In 2008, it didn’t take over all of Georgia. He cut off two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As noted, six years later he severed Crimea from Ukraine.

He could send enough muscle to separate the beleaguered Donbass from Ukraine. Maybe add some more strategic territory (a land bridge to Crimea?) before agreeing to a ceasefire. Perhaps he would step up hybrid warfare to coerce Kiev into committing not to attempt to join or even cooperate with NATO. Perhaps he could use his KGB skills to organize the installation of a more flexible Ukrainian government, like that of Belarus.

American and European policymakers are setting precedents and teaching lessons. The leaders of China, Iran and North Korea are taking notes. The basic rules of the international order will either be strengthened or undermined. The consequences will extend far beyond Ukraine’s borders and deep into the future.

Clifford D. May is founder and chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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