Putin’s bluff – a possible silver lining to the dark clouds over Ukraine

On Monday, Russian formally recognised provinces in the east of Ukraine as independent countries. This then was used as a pretext for Russian forces to be invited into those areas as “peace-keepers.” Things don’t look good for Ukraine right now and I’m sure many will be joining in praying for our brothers and sisters there as well as for the impact that instability there will have on the rest of eastern Europe and potentially beyond.

However, I think that there might be a small silver lining to how things have played out so far and I’ll come back to that later. However, it’s probably worth providing a bit of background to the situation and how we’ve got to where we are.

We need to go back to the 1980s initially.  In 1989 we saw the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the re-unification of Germany and the end of the Cold War.  “The Iron Curtain” was a name given to the patrolled border including the Berlin Wall that divided Germany and cut off Eastern European countries including Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (which later split into two states) from Western Europe. At the end of the Second World War, the key powers had taken responsibility for different parts of Germany but whilst West Germany under the supervision of France, the US and Great Britain had transitioned to a free country, East Germany had become a satellite state of community Russia along with other countries that under the Warsaw Pact were part of the Soviet Union.

I’ve read books recently that have given the impression that the Cold War was just some artificial concoction of US Republicans and right-wing evangelicals.  It wasn’t. The USSR was a repressive regime and whatever your views about the economic and moral benefits of socialism, you will not find examples of anything morally good in its brief, brutal history.  Dissent was suppressed, faith was banned, Christians and dissidents alike were imprisoned and banished to Siberia.  The walls and barred wire were there as much to keep people in the Soviet Union as they were to keep the west out.

By the late 80s, however, the empire was crumbling,  Economically bankrupt, it was impossible to hold things together and the military machine though impressive in size was probably not as strong as the image projected. However, as today, there was still a significant threat from its nuclear arsenal.

That was the backdrop to a push to reunify Germany and eventually a chain reaction of revolutions that ousted Soviet leaders from power.  At the same time, people like Gorbachev and Yeltsin wanted to reform Russia. That was the context for negotiations between the different powers involved and the myth that grew out of it was that NATO powers had promised that Russia that the alliance would never move eastward and offer membership to former Soviet countries.

A careful analysis of the papers at the time suggest that there were lots of conversations between Western powers and with the Soviet Union. These included commitments that NATO would not advance east. However, those commitments were made at a time when the USSR remained intact and when NATO leaders expected it to remain in place. Commitments were primarily about the balance of military power. NATO wouldn’t use a unified Germany to advance its forces closer to Russia as part of the Cold War.  Instead, the hope was that a unified Germany, reform of the USSR and evolution of NATO into a more political alliance with far less need to station huge numbers of troops in Europe would in fact lead to Russia herself being much more aligned with the west and Europe.[1]

It is worth remembering that there was a moment when it was seriously hoped that a new Russia would be a friend and ally of NATO, a democratic country with a free market economy.  Sadly that wasn’t to be. Instead it has become a country that seems dependent upon strongman government and where a few oligarchs have become seriously rich.

So, the first factor in play today is that Russia is a proud but wounded beast.  Putin has described the end of the Soviet Union as a great tragedy and many in Russia would no doubt sympathise with that.  Russians, perhaps like Britons for much of the past 100 years find themselves in a country that has lost an empire but not yet found a role in the world.  This means that there are two reasons for Putin to flex his muscles on the international stage. First of all, because he is a patriot and genuinely believes in the idea of a greater Russia. Secondly, because the narrative plays well with his domestic audience and that is perhaps crucial to holding the country together and keeping him and his allies in power.

So what are Russia’s objectives today? Well we might describe them in terms of a mission to restore her pride and influence.  There are perhaps three aspects to this.

  1. For Russia to be seen as a player on the international stage that other countries have to listen to.
  2. For Russia to regain regional influence particular into Eastern Europe and by implication for NATO and the US to lose influence there.
  3. For Russia to rebuild some of its empire. This has been happening as Eurasian countries have been brought back under her influence.  The focus here is on countries where Russian culture is strongest including through language. Countries that are less likely to be seen as genuinely independent of Russia.

This is important because in a recent post I argued that if Putin’s aim is to achieve the first two of these objectives (the biggest gains then it probably isn’t in its interests to launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine. Instead, he will want to keep tensions high and find ways to destabilise Ukraine and other countries too.  It is possible however, that he might decide that this is impossible, that Eastern Europe is pretty much lost and that he should cut his losses and take what he can. He might then conclude that a full grab of the whole of Ukraine is possible or might consider that an overreach now and settle for those eastern provinces.

And this is where there might be a silver lining of sorts and where Western/NATO powers need to be seeking to understand better what Russia’s objectives are and what lies behind actions and decisions.

You see, Russia’s actions over the past few weeks are a demonstration of her strength. She can behave as she chooses in her region and the west are pretty much powerless to stop her. It is absolutely clear that if Russia were to invade Ukraine then NATO allies would be unable to prevent that and wouldn’t act to send in troops to defend the country or help take it back.

However, we are also seeing something of Russia’s weakness. Despite the fact that those 190,000 soldiers and thousands of tanks could have swept across the border last week, they didn’t. And NATO strategists should be reflecting why.  Why is it that Putin might believe that he needs a pretext for action Why is it that he is relying on destabilising and salami slice action?  This suggests to me that he is at least cautious about full frontal military invasion.

There are a couple of possibilities for this. The first option is that he still believes a bigger prize in terms of influence at the top table is possible.  He still believes he has cards to play here and is looking for concessions from NATO and the EU. Perhaps too he is concerned that his opponents have cards to play, that they could quickly bring other countries, if not Ukraine (e.g. Finland) into the alliance. 

The second possibility is that he does not have confidence in his military to launch a full scale invasion. Perhaps he still has memories of the huge cost of Russia’s attempt to occupy Afghanistan (not to mention more recently the cost to Western powers there as well as in Iraq).  Add to that the problem that a crumbling military has had a further 30 years to suffer decline and a lot of those tanks, aeroplanes and ships may not be as sleek, shiny and powerful as they once were.

The third possibility is that Putin himself does not have the confidence of people around him, those whom he needs support from. At this stage in his life and career there will be younger, hungry and ambitious politicians looking for their opportunity, growing impatient for power and watching for their opportunity when Putin slips up. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”  Then there are the generals who may not be so keen on fighting a war on their own border.  Finally, there’s the question of financial support. The oligarchs, businessmen and financiers have two reasons not to want war. First, war in itself may well be costly to their business plans as it leads to unsettle markets and currencies.  Second, there is the threat of sanctions and the possibility that their own personal accounts will be targeted. So, Putin’s own position may not be so secure.

These would be the possibilities I would be considering if I were part of NATO’s decision making.  Depending on what they conclude to be the answers, they will want to decide how to respond.  This might range from calling Russia’s bluff and bringing Ukraine and other countries into the alliance through to biding their time and waiting to see what happens and whether we see a repeat of the late 80s with the current Russian empire collapsing into infighting.

So, I think there may be some glimmers of hope, that Russia and Putin are not in such a strong position as we have been assuming. Time will tell. However, in the meantime there is great uncertainty and worry still. We are not part of  NATO decision making and have no access to the corridors of power so my opinions here are moot.  However, we do have access to the one who holds true power and authority.  We can still pray that there will be peace in Ukraine and that all those seeking to bring harm will be silenced and stopped.

[1] You can read a lot of the papers here. Prioritise the papers themselves rather than the journalistic spin and commentary on them – though even the detailed commentary itself doesn’t justify a lot of the mythology that has built up around what Gorbachev was supposedly promised. Noting also that he, himself denied that such commitments were made.

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