The Russian-Ukrainian crisis (24/2/2022)
I don’t usually write about geopolitical issues, as I’m no longer in that business and no longer have access to the variety of reports I had in the past. I wrote a post on Afghanistan, but now with tens of thousands of Russian troops pouring into Ukraine from the east, north and south in a brutal attack that has sent shivers through Europe and the West, I’m compelled to write again. I’ll begin with Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” which is as true today as ever. Back in my diplomat days, I attended a senior European security seminar at the Swedish National Defense College in 2012. I was surprised when the resident Russia expert at the war college poo-pooed my observation that Russia was an emerging threat on the horizon. In 2014, I gave a talk at the Stockholm School of Economics about Putin and the “new” Russia. Again, I cautioned that Putin had some nefarious intentions. Sometimes it sucks to be right.
The Russian psyche is difficult for the West to understand and Putin perhaps even more so. He is clearly paranoid and only understands strength and power. He has frequently stated publicly and privately that he believes there are plots and conspiracies by the United States and the West directed against him and against Russia. He thinks the West orchestrated the Orange Revolution, a series of protests and political events in Ukraine from late November 2004 to January 2005, immediately after the run-off vote of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. Putin also sees internal threats to Russia. He believes the West is guilty of doing everything possible to exploit Russia’s internal contradictions and divisions. What drives him to think like this? What drives him to take these measures? Why has he invaded Ukraine? Why has he dipped into his sinister bag of tricks and unleashed disinformation, false claims of genocide, cyber-attacks, lies, manipulations and provocations? Is it because he’s a bully or suffers from delusions of grandeur? Or is it because he’s afraid?
The real reason
The real reason, in my opinion, has nothing to do with any “perceived” military threat from Ukraine or NATO, for that matter. There is a far greater threat that concerns him. What Putin fears most is a prosperous, Western-leaning democratic Ukraine because it would constitute a serious threat to Russia, Belarus and any other autocracies/kleptocracies in the region. (Mind you, Belarus is already a vassal state of Russia for all practical purposes.) Putin cannot always distinguish fiction from fact, as evidenced by his wildly incorrect history lesson about the relationship between Ukraine and Russia that he spewed forth the night before the invasion. Putin has made his long-term goals very clear from the get-go. Just look at some of his famous quotes from his 2014 State of the Union address.
– “The fall of the Soviet Union had been the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.”
– “Either we remain a sovereign nation, or we dissolve without a trace and lose our identity.”
– “No one will ever attain military superiority over Russia.”
– “If for some European countries national pride is a long-forgotten concept and sovereignty is too much of a luxury, true sovereignty for Russia is absolutely necessary for survival.”
What the West gets wrong
Western leaders find it challenging to understand how different Putin is and why he is different. Putin is a one-man show witha small inner circle of cronies that pivot around him. For Putin, the Soviet-era international paradigm has changed very little. The Soviet Union is gone, but Russia is still here. He believes in the old adage, “Military might still makes right, and wars still frame the playing field.” We see evidence of this in Russia’s military operations in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine (2014 and now). Putin runs Russia without any political oversight or constraints. “No other leader has worked his way, as Putin did, through the back corridors of the intelligence services (KGB) to become the president,” according to an anonymous Russian expert.And this is what makes him different and more dangerous. I believe Putin is a skilled “KGB-oriented” strategist who plans for contingencies, keeps all options open and makes the most of unexpected opportunities.He exploits mistakes, weakness and indecision.He can act quickly and change plans at the last minute, which gives him a considerable advantage over Western leaders, who’re always constrained in their decision-making and the methods they can use to respond to a crisis.
A different worldview
Russia is not the first country to invade another country to save its citizens. There are many examples of this. But let’s face it, we’re not dealing with a “normal” regime that responds to economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks. If we are to understand why Putin does what he does and what he is likely to do next, we had better not make the mistake of thinking that he sees the world as we do. When Putin says he’ll do something, you can be sure he’s prepared to do it. Russians understand this, but the West doesn’t. Putin’s recent statements, especially his warning to anyone who interferes with the Ukraine invasion, have made it clear that Russia will act on multiple fronts at the same time and take measures, including escalating to nuclear weapons first. Is this a threat to unleash his much-bragged-about hypersonic missiles that he claims no one can stop? Has the fact that the West is behind Russia and China in developing this technology emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine and issue these increasingly aggressive statements?
The West can’t sit back and hope Putin will back off. He won’t! Unless a united West responds swiftly and harshly with measures that hurt Russia severely, Putin could be licking his chops about the prospect of sitting down to an all-you-can-eat buffet of former Soviet republics and perhaps other countries. The West has promised severe sanctions, as usual, but sanctions are blunt instruments and are more likely to hurt the average Russian than Putin’s inner circle of cronies, oligarchs and elite. Russia has already been living under sanctions for many years, but it hasn’t stopped Putin. Can we really expect more sanctions to stop him now? Putin is on a quest. And let’s not forget that China will be watching closely how the West responds to the crisis as part of their plans to take Taiwan (yes, I called it Taiwan). There is a great deal at stake in the world today, not least the security situation of Ukraine and the rest of Europe. Where will Putin stop? Your guess is as good as mine. We’ll just have to wait as Putin continues to open and reveal his babushka dolls (increasingly smaller dolls nested in each other) and see where we end up. I’m sure some will disagree with my assessment, but I’m OK with that. Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion. And this one is mine. As I wrote in the beginning, sometimes it sucks to be right.