Once again, I find myself diving into the deep and murky waters of geopolitical issues. Having retired from the US Department of State nearly a decade ago and no longer with any “skin in the game,” I can write freely like the “rogue diplomat” I always was and still am. As we enter the fourth day of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, I’m reminded of an old Elton John song, “I’m Still Standing.” You’ve got to love those tough Ukrainians. The government is arming anyone who can handle a weapon and training those with no experience to use one. Politicians and parliamentarians are ditching their business suits for military clothing and answering the call. I admire President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has declined offers of safe passage out of Ukraine to stay and fight with his people for their country. That’s a far cry from the Afghani president who, once the Taliban were on the outskirts of Kabul, jumped on the first flight to the UAE to enjoy a luxurious exile and the spoils he accumulated while in office. Sorry, I digressed a bit; back to the invasion.
I’m pretty sure Putin and his massive war machine didn’t expect that and are wondering what’s unfolding. This has got to be concerning to him. He may even be uttering those famous military words, “Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot?” It seems, based on reports coming out, that Russian forces are encountering stiff opposition, heavy fighting and experiencing “unexpected difficulties” in supplying their troops. I caution my readers that, among the whirlwind of rumors, disinformation and outright lies, it’s pretty tough to verify the accuracy of anything. I’ll try to remain as objective as possible. Still, for the sake of transparency, I must declare that I’m firmly on the side of the brave Ukrainians. I’m not against the Russian people – just Putin and his band of cronies, oligarchs and crooks. That said, let’s plunge into this mess and look at the possible implications.
Putin rolls the dice
Putin is testing the West. How far can he go? Where will he stop? Is Putin’s ultimate goal to re-take as many former Soviet republics as possible? Does he believe NATO’s much-discussed Article 5 is toothless? Does he believe the West is impotent? Does the delusional, out-of-touch-with reality old codger have a couple of aces up his sleeve that have emboldened him to make this move? As I wrote in my previous post, Putin had been bragging about the superiority of his “unstoppable” hypersonic missiles (equipped with nuclear warheads?) for quite some time. Could this be what he was referring to when he issued his threat about bringing unimaginable consequences, the likes of which the West has never seen? Or could it be something more sinister?
Russia has already demonstrated its ability to use a satellite to destroy another satellite in space. And we know that Russia deployed two satellite stalkers to menace a US satellite in 2020. And what’s worse, recent reports I’ve read warn that the US is 10-12 years behind Russia when it comes to this technology. Putin is taking a colossal gamble, and there’re more questions than answers right now. I believe Putin has been planning this for years, slowly re-building the Russian military and taking measures to protect Russia once he made his move. Ever since Russia illegally seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, Putin has been trying to make the country’s economy and banks sanction-proof. Over the past several years, Putin has been restructuring his country’s economy to better withstand financial pressure. He has reduced Russia’s use of dollars, built up enormous currency reserves, reduced budgets (except the military’s perhaps) and reoriented Russia’s trade to replace Western imports. He’s been hoarding, preparing and saving for a rainy day. And now the rainy day has arrived. The signs have been there for years. How did we miss them? Will Western companies with operations in former Soviet republics need a plan B? I’d sure have one ready.
The irony of it all
Russia is believed to have launched cyber-attacks on Ukraine in conjunction with the invasion. Now, Hackers Anonymous (a decentralized international activist- and hacktivist collective and movement) says it has declared a cyberwar against Russia that temporarily took down RT.com (a Russian 24/7 English-language news channel that presents the Russian view on global news), as well as the websites of the Kremlin, the Russian government and the Russian Defense Ministry websites by employing a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that involved multiple systems flooding a targeted website so that no other traffic could get through. This was promptly denied by Russia, of course. Right back at you, Putin! For decades, Putin has focused on destabilizing and dividing the EU and NATO. And now this?
Galvanizing the West
Putin doesn’t seem to realize that the invasion of Ukraine – allegedly in his own words to rescue the Ukrainian people from an evil band of neo-Nazis, terrorists and drug-addicted bandits masquerading as a government – has galvanized the West and brought us closer together than in many, many years. It makes me wonder if Putin and his gang aren’t the ones using drugs. This invasion is having the complete opposite effect of what he has worked so hard to make happen. And for me, that’s hard to fathom. It’s taken some time, but the West is finally removing “selected” Russian banks from SWIFT, the high-security network that connects thousands of financial institutions worldwide. Why not all Russian banks, including the Russian Central bank? I’ll leave that to the banking experts to explain. Will fortress Russia be able to weather the sanctions?
The threats keep coming
Numerous reports of missiles striking apartment buildings, hospitals, ambulances and other civilian targets are rolling in now. I mentioned hypersonic missiles and satellite stalkers earlier on, but Russia (and the US, for that matter) has another weapon to throw at Ukraine if things bog down. The media has speculated that Russia might be contemplating using thermobaric vacuum bombs, weapons that effectively set the air on fire, creating a massive shock wave and sucking the air out of the lungs of their victims. A CNN reporter spotted and photographed a Russian TOS-1 or TOS-1A multiple-rocket launcher capable of launching thermobaric weapons near Belgorod, Russia, close to the Ukrainian border. I must emphasize, however, that there is no evidence that these weapons have been used in the conflict to date. It does make me wonder, though, why Putin, with his massive number of troops and armaments already deployed, feels the need to position this powerful weapon so close to Ukraine. Is this the sign of a desperate man who is ready for anything, no matter how despicable, to achieve his goals? Only time will tell.
Has he lost it?
The first casualty of war is the truth. The blatant lies, disinformation and propaganda currently spewing forth from Russia and its state-controlled media are designed, of course, to confuse and mislead not only the West but the Russian people as well. But when I look at Putin’s increasingly aggressive facial expressions, body language and rhetoric, I wonder if he hasn’t lost it. I wonder if he has miscalculated. He’s lived in a bubble with his closest advisors, a.k.a. “yes men and women,” for so long that I believe he may be suffering from delusions of grandeur and is completely detached from reality. I know I mentioned that earlier but it’s worth repeating. I sometimes wonder if he thinks he is a modern version of Vladimir I the Great, who used a band of Viking mercenaries in the tenth century to extend Russian territories and proclaim himself “Prince of all Russia.” Good old Vlad also is credited with converting his people to Christianity. Pardon the brief history lesson. Could this be the case? Your guess is as good as mine.
Where does this leave the West?
As I wrote earlier, Putin is testing the West, assuming we’re bluffing, and calling us out on it. I’m not confident that Putin believes he has lost all the former Soviet republics forever. He wants to add the ones who joined the EU and/or NATO to his vassal states of Belarus, two breakaway republics in Georgia, one in Moldova and whatever parts of Ukraine he ends up keeping (if any). Putin continues to believe he alone has the right to determine other countries’ allegiance and security alliances. Just two days ago, a Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson told Sweden and Finland there would be military and political consequences if they joined NATO. Our response or lack of, will shape the future of the European security situation and perhaps the world order. Putin only respects force, strength and power. Will we roll over, pull the blanket over our collective heads and hope the big bad bear will go away? Or will we come together with the courage and strength required to meet his challenge? Somewhere along the line, we (the EU, NATO and other democratic countries) need to “man-and-woman up” if we wish to continue to live in societies where citizens can peacefully protest without being thrown in jail, which is certainly not the case in cities across Russia today. The choice is ours!