The West is being stress tested. Multiple crises across the world are going down.
First and foremost, we have Ukraine. Putin sees Russia in decline. Russia’s population is falling. Their economy is in freefall. Soon Russia will lose its position as the number 2 military in the world to China. Eventually even down to number 4 behind India. Once that happens they are at risk of becoming a Chinese client state.
Putin yearns for the glory days of the old Soviet Union. But he is even at odds with his own people. I saw some recent polling that indicated a majority of Russians do not care if they are a world power. They want to join the EU. They want security and a better life. Something like 20% of Russians want to emigrate. (However, Putin’s approval ratings are still high overall.) Political freedom is not high on the list but a better standard of living is. Being a global superpower is way down in priority.
Russia is now receiving the attention Putin craves. NATO is showing a few cracks. Some countries are firming up while others are running for cover. The people at home are being distracted from the abysmal economy. Patriotic fervor is replacing financial misery.
It’s a big gamble. I don’t see a good outcome if Russia launches a full-blown invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine shows no signs of knuckling under and it is a huge country. That size makes for a long border to defend but it also makes for a vast area to try to control. Russia could do it – but at what price?
The biggest war in Europe in 75 years.
NATO is pumping defensive arms and ammunition into Ukraine as fast as it can absorb them – anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and small arms ammunition. Training their troops as quickly as we can but not sending in combat units. They will get the best battlefield intelligence US satellites can supply. Ukraine is taking a low-profile approach, not increasing its offensive capabilities or undertaking large maneuvers to avoid giving the Russians a pretext. Their president still does not think an attack is likely.
The Ukrainian voice is drowned out in all of this.
The nonsense of Ukraine being culturally bonded to Russia does not fly. The “historic bonds” the Ukrainians remember are millions starved to death and another million shipped off to death in gulags by Lenin and Stalin. The war to re-subdue Ukraine following World War II. The nuclear catastrophe of Chernyoble was visited upon them by Russian incompetence. The taking of Donbas and Luhansk and Crimea by force. There is no love lost there.
He makes a good point.
On the other hand, we cannot assume Russia is a rational actor in all this. Two World Wars and tens of millions of deaths have left a deep distrust of the West. Even tho NATO’s forces are weak and divided, Russia can’t shake the past. Putin thinks we are far more threatening than we are. I agree with him that Ukraine probably should not be in NATO but he needs to give security guarantees that Ukraine accepts.
I disagree that they shouldn’t be part of the EU. Hell, Russia should be in the EU.
I’d be happy to write off the lost territories, offer the Russians a guaranteed land bridge to Crimea, and no NATO membership. It would be predicated on a guarantee of no further incursions and no more support for insurgencies. But I’m not the leader of an angry nation full of people who feel recently violated.
There is still bitter memory in Russia of how effective US small arms aid was to the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. How will Russian families react once the boys start coming back in body bags in the thousands? How would they replace all that equipment and ammunition that would be lost? They could take Kiev and install a puppet government but they would then face a long-term, NATO supplied, guerilla war.
What will happen to the Russian economy when sanctions turn into total isolation?
NATO is no threat to Russia. Much of NATO’s miltary is sleepwalking. Token forces in its eastern member states and pacifist sentiment in western members rendered any kind of offensive operations impossible. The tension over Ukraine has woke them up and reversed this trend and an invasion would accelerate this process. It could even stimulate more countries to join NATO. Finland and Sweden have started making noises in that direction.
I don’t see any gain from a full-blown invasion. What Russia might try is to take away the remaining Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine. It would be bloody but quick and the local ethnic Russians would be unlikely to resist. Ukraine cannot defend itself everywhere, Russia can attack anywhere.
The remainder of the Donbas and Luhansk regions are a given but forcing a land bridge to the Crimea would be a big strategic gain. The Black Sea Fleet and Russian Marines would be able to support the action. (Ukraine is already effectively blockaded by sea.) The Sea of Azov would be a Russian lake and their military assets on Crimea would be more secure. He might be thinking about how much can he bite off without triggering maximum blowback.
Russia did just send troops into Kazakstan to keep a friendly government in power. Can’t have them go the way of Ukraine. Kazakstan is part of the crumple zone between Russia and China.
Or maybe the whole point is a probe to see if we are really as weak and indecisive as Putin hoped. Biden is not the doddering fool that he’d expected. France and Britain have not surrendered their military significance in Europe. The former Soviet satellites remember the hell of life under the Soviet Union and instead of cowering, they are stiffening.
So look big and threatening, put on a show, and watch the west dance. Maybe get whatever concessions that the west can live with, avoid big sanctions, walk away as a hero to his people, and chalk everything up to large-scale maneuvers for training purposes. I really hope that’s his end game. But even if it is, events can have their own momentum independent of the actors who generate them.
Let’s get conspiriatorial here.
Maybe the US is greasing the skids for an invasion of Ukraine? It would greatly strengthen NATO and mire Russia in an ongoing insurgency as bad as Vietnam and Afghanistan combined. It could lead to the fall of Putin and his replacement with a more western-tolerant leader.
I have no doubt the US/NATO is capable of attempting such a Machiavelian move. But are we so clever as to trick a smooth operator like Putin into falling for it? What do you think?