Putin ups the ante
As day five of the invasion dawns, Putin is playing the “nuke card.” I’ve been afraid this might happen based on his increasingly unhinged and almost paranoid behavior. This is my “rogue diplomat” view of what he’s up to. Putin, the bully, appears to be going all in and pushing all his chips onto the table now. He seems to be obsessed with nukes, flaunting them now like a matador waving a red cape. He has stated on several occasions that he’s prepared to use nuclear weapons first if he believes he is losing a conventional conflict, which he would if nukes aren’t brought into play, according to military analysts. Putin, who’s now defying the international community, has a pretty successful track record when it comes to dealing with US leaders. American presidents since Ronald Reagan have not done well at all when it comes to the US geopolitical relationship with Putin and Russia. Not one of them seems to have grasped the existential threat posed by Putin and his often-voiced hunger for the glory days of the Soviet Union.
Wake up and smell the coffee
In 2001, President George W. Bush said: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” Bush said in remarks he later regretted. “. . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.” President Obama hoped he could appeal to his sense of reason, but neither of them figured out the enigma that is Putin. Perhaps John McCain came the closest when he said that when he looked into Putin’s eyes, he saw “three letters: KGB.” Our presidents have failed to understand that Putin doesn’t think like them or act in accordance with Western rules and customs. Putin is a cold-hearted, opportunistic leader who pounces when he sees a weakness. Like a child in a parent’s bed who keeps snuggling up close to the parent as the parent shifts positions until there’s little space left in the bed, Putin quickly recognizes a leadership vacuum and moves to fill it, brutally if need be. It’s time for the West to wake up and smell the coffee.
Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy has agreed to meet Russian negotiators at the Belarusian border (although I’ve seen reports that say Zelenskyy himself won’t attend), at the same time that Putin has upped the ante with his nuclear saber-rattling, claiming it was in response to the NATO and EU decision to ship lethal aid to Ukraine and isolate the Russian economy. “We have agreed that the Ukrainian delegation will meet with Russia without prior conditions on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, in the area of the Pripyat River. Belarusian leader “Alexander Lukashenko (my note: Belarus’ leader and Putin lackey) took responsibility for the fact that at the time of the departure, negotiations and return of the Ukrainian delegation, all planes, helicopters and missiles placed on the Belarusian territory will remain on the ground.” Seriously? Why should Zelenskyy and the West ever believe anything coming out of the mouths of Putin, Lavrov and Lukashenko after all the lies we’ve witnessed?
What Russians are hearing
Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief at the Kremlin-funded media organization RT and a mover and shaker on Twitter, has claimed that “Ukrainians were greeting Russian troops with home-baked pies. This is a standard parade rehearsal. It’s just that this year we decided to hold the parade in Kyiv.” Well, I don’t know about the pies and parades, but I do know that for the first time since the invasion (a “special operation,” according to Putin), Moscow has admitted to Russians that their troops have been killed in action in Ukraine. “Unfortunately, there are killed and injured among our comrades,” a spokesperson for Russia’s defense ministry announced in a Russian state television address on Sunday. No specific numbers on the dead or wounded were revealed, but the spokesperson claimed that Ukrainian forces have suffered “many” more casualties than the Russian side. The Ukrainian government has claimed that some 3,500 soldiers have died since the beginning of the war. Home-baked pies and parades? Not bloody likely!
What’s happening now
Failing to achieve the quick military breakthrough he had counted on, Putin took the unprecedented step of threatening to use Russia’s nuclear arsenal in an effort to deter western support for Ukraine. Unfortunately for Putin, support for Ukraine continues to grow. In the last 24 hours, NATO and EU member countries have said they were “speeding lethal aid to Ukraine to help it fight back.” Turkey has said it would close the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to the Russian navy, preventing its vessels from moving between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Even non-NATO but close partner Sweden has pledged to send military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, helmets and body armor, according to its prime minister. Meanwhile, the US said it was sending “$350 million in aid, including Javelin anti-tank weapons.” Even Germany announced Sunday it would immediately begin to spend two percent of its GDP on national defense in reaction to the Russian attack on Ukraine, which matches the amount NATO countries pledge to spend each year but often don’t. Thanks for that, Putin.
What we can expect
Russian and Belarusian troops are undoubtedly tired and probably disillusioned. Both countries will most likely send in new, fresh troops to continue the attack, perhaps even more brutally in the coming days. What concerns me more is a report from The Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/world/europe/russian-ukraine-mercenaries.html) that as many as 400 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group have been flown in from Africa to assassinate President Zelensky and “23 other government figures” to help Russia topple the Ukrainian government. The Wagner Group is a private militia that’s owned by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is a close ally of Putin. The report alleges that this army for hire was flown in five weeks ago. The Wagner Group first showed up in 2014 in the Luhansk region of Ukraine 2014 (remember the “little green men?”). Could these be the people responsible for “marking targets” around Ukrainian urban areas and other acts of sabotage that have been reported recently? It’s certainly not impossible. At 69, with a soon-to-be struggling economy and the world uniting against him, Putin appears to be increasingly desperate and may feel he has nothing to lose now. Once again, I hope I’m wrong. In cases like this, it sucks to be right.