Moscow opts for attrition vis-à-vis Kyiv. What to expect from Putin
The Kremlin's new behavioral strategy. First, let's consider the current situation.
The West refused to comply with Russian President Vladimir Putin's key demands about the non-expansion of NATO and rolling back to NATO’s borders of 1997. Even the immediate threat of unleashing a major war in Europe did not force the United States and the EU to abandon this principled position.
They made it clear that despite all their disagreements, they would not allow Putin to dictate the modus operandi for NATO and establish his own rules in Europe.
The fact that the West did not even enter into negotiations on this issue is a very important achievement in its confrontation with Russia. Its blackmailing was futile. Another critical point is Ukraine's refusal to implement the Minsk agreements, which are extremely unfavorable from its standpoint.
Kyiv has shown that even the direct threat of a Russian invasion is not sufficient reason to force it to give up its own sovereignty and grant the occupied Donbas “republics” some special status.
Why is this important? The firmness of the West and the intransigence of Ukraine have stripped the Kremlin of its main and only foreign policy tool – intimidation.
Under the leadership of Putin, Russia is in decline: its population is plummeting, its economy has stagnated, science is almost dead, education is crushed, culture is being expelled from the country. As a result, Russia is bereft of every single lever of pressure on its neighbors, or at least ways to attract their attention: except for military force or the threat of its use.
If those tools stop working, then Moscow finds itself in the position of an emotionally unbalanced and impotent old man. His memories still rankle, he demands an answer for old grievances, he threatens to have everyone for breakfast and bring some incredible vengeance down on all – but he is powerless in the matter, and there is nothing he can do.
And Putin has followed exactly that behavioral pattern. He brought the entire Russian army to the Ukrainian border and put on the “most terrible show” he could come up with. But he did not succeed.
In Ukraine, this show did not impress anyone at all, and in the West, only some politicians and journalists experienced a certain nervous tremor, for whom a war in a foreign country is their bread and butter (with black caviar to top it off). Such wars do not scare them, and are instead exciting, alluring and invigorating to them.
At this moment, when the threats failed, Putin had to urgently decide whether to launch an offensive or, on the contrary, retreat.
Both options are bad for him. The first is fraught with defeat and the collapse of his regime, while the second completely devalues his threats. No one will be afraid of a dictator who issues threats, but then fails to act upon them.
Therefore, Putin immediately began to look for an acceptable way out of the situation for himself, which would allow him, on the one hand, not to start a war, and on the other hand, to retain the opportunity to continue to put pressure on the West and Ukraine. And that is where we find ourselves now.
Chronic form of the conflict
So shifting the whole affair – with threats and troops on the Ukrainian border – from an acute crisis to a protracted, chronic one has given him his way out.
Strictly speaking, a “shock and awe” style psychological attack failed. He could not take Kyiv by intimidation just like that, and therefore, he resorted to a long military, political, economic, and diplomatic siege.
Judging by what Putin said at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Feb. 15, the Russian army will continue to threaten Ukraine, because only then will the West even pay attention to Russia itself and its demands.
Here is what Putin said: “How will Russia proceed? According to plan. What will it be made up of? Depends on the situation on the ground. Who knows how the real situation will develop? So far, nobody. It doesn't depend on just us."
This means that Russia will not withdraw its troops until it gets what it wants. And it wants Ukraine to fulfill the Minsk agreements in its own rendering, which stipulates Kyiv's renunciation of sovereignty.
And that is already the official position of the Russian leadership.
The fact that Putin has not dared to invade now almost guarantees that he will not do so in the future.
“It is quite possible that, without receiving full diplomatic benefits, and not daring to use force, Russia will turn the army’s current positioning near Ukraine into a constant or regularly renewed source of risk that will continue to damage Ukraine, outweighing the benefits derived from Western aid,” says senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Alexander Baunov.
This means that the constant threat of invasion will lead to the growing decline of Ukraine: to the flight of foreign capital from it, to the fall of its national currency, to the departure of its most active and productive citizens to other, more peaceful countries and, as a result, to a protracted economic crisis.
“This state of affairs will also keep the West in suspense, so that Ukraine itself and (its Western partners) will eventually be forced to exert more flexibility. Attrition over blitzkrieg then,” said Baunov.
The following quote from a Russian political scientist fully explains Russia’s entire foreign policy towards Ukraine.
“The West cannot yet decide whether it is enough for it to save Ukraine or whether it needs to emerge from the crisis as an absolute winner, that is, without conceding anything (to Moscow), even such a trifle as the implementation of uncomfortable clauses of the already signed Minsk agreements.”
I have said many times here and on other platforms that the Kremlin is trying to instill in the West one thought: “All I want is a drop in the bucket, merely a trifle – a couple of clauses of the Minsk agreements. That's all. After that, I will leave you in peace forever!”
It's very sweet how Baunov calls the clauses triggering the practical end of Ukrainian sovereignty "uncomfortable". Although, of course, he understands that for Kyiv, the implementation of these points is fraught with a national catastrophe, and not at all some kind of “minor annoyance”.
But nonetheless, we should thank him for explaining to us the meaning of Putin's tirade that Russia "will act according to the situation."
Nothing new on the western front
So what to expect next from Russia? I think I have a rough idea of what is going to happen. Naturally, this is just my speculation, but it is based on some understanding of the subject.
So, Russian troops will for the most part stay at the Ukrainian border and will constantly conduct various kinds of surprise exercises in order to continually maintain a certain level of anxiety in the West and in Kyiv.
We are already seeing the first signs of it. Embassies of Western countries are leaving Ukraine and are advising their citizens to follow suit.
The insurance association Lloyd’s has added the Ukrainian and Russian waters of the Black and Azov Seas into the zone of "piracy, terrorism and war." This will significantly reduce the competitiveness of the Ukrainian economy and deal a blow to exports.
I am certain that Moscow will go out of its way to ensure that more and more restrictions and difficulties of this kind appear. The official goal of the Kremlin's international policy is to strangle Ukraine. In this context, we must prepare for the fact that the current situation of "aggravation" on the eve of a possible invasion will become permanent. I appreciate that this is not very good news, but there are some positives in this.
The fact that Putin did not dare to invade now almost guarantees that he will not do so in the future. The Kremlin was eager to attack now in order to resolve the Ukrainian issue once and for all. But the power of the Ukrainian army and Western sanctions scared it too much.
Besides, Putin is to a large extent flattered by taking the center stage globally. All Western leaders are lining up to get an audience at his long table. All of them are now offering him something, flattering him, trying to appease and coax him. He is like the birthday boy at a children's party.
In the event of a war, the situation will change dramatically.
Currently, he is a solid world leader for his population, defending the interests of his country, but would then turn into an ostracized outcast.
This is in no event suitable for Putin. Let alone the fact that he will not be able to win the war against Ukraine, and nor will he achieve any strategic goals.
There is another important point. Putin's policy is through and through based on ambiguity, uncertainty, and the chaos and disorientation of the enemy. Even the invasion of the Crimea was carried out by "little green men", in the Donbas – it was "miners and tractor drivers", and so on. It is important that no one understands what is going on, what happens next, and what is on his mind.
Therefore, Putin is not responding to the written reactions of Washington and NATO to his ultimatums. He now demanded that they write to him again and elaborate on their answers. It's the same with Ukraine. An invasion will set the record straight. Chaos and uncertainty will be no more. It will become clear as day to everyone what is happening, who attacked whom, and what needs to be done in the circumstances. This is a no-no for Putin, so I am now inclined to believe that he will not wage war during the current escalation.
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