Putin’s endgame goes beyond Ukraine

13 January 2022, 12:20 PM

It will take some time for the results of recent talks between the United States and Russia to fully emerge. But even now we can glean some insights into the Kremlin’s long-term goals.

We’ve had no shortage of gloomy and alarming scenarios for Ukraine lately. Of course, we shouldn’t hastily dismiss any of them, especially not the ones detailed by the chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Kyrilo Budanov.

Based on a variety of factors that go far beyond just the concentration of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, Budanov estimates an invasion of the eastern parts of Ukraine to be the most probable scenario.

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Putin will likely first enter areas that are already under his partial control. After all, this is exactly what happened with Crimea, since well before the invasion the peninsula hosted the Russian naval base, which the mayor of Moscow would visit for PR events.

Meanwhile the Russian language dominated the cultural sphere: only a single radio station – the Ukrainian Navy’s Breeze – was broadcasting over Crimea in Ukrainian. A populous “fifth column”, harboring people like Aksyonov and Konstantinov (members of Crimean elite who collaborated with Russians during their occupation and annexation of the peninsula) awaited signal from the Kremlin, a signal that would have come sooner or later.

Putin is slowly “digesting” the lands he militarily occupies in eastern Ukraine, even if it’s taking him some time to achieve. Russian proxies have forced out people who did not support the occupational regime, introduced the Russian ruble as legal tender, and are providing locals with Russian passports.

Now the Kremlin might try to extend the territory of these phony enclaves westward, while carefully gauging the force of the U.S. and EU response, as well as the willingness of Kyiv to compromise.

The full extent of what Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky meant by saying “the time has come for concrete steps towards resolving the Donbas conflict”, is probably going to be probed as well.

Putin wanted these talks as a part of his diplomatic game, intended to impress his own citizens: here he is, steadfast and unyielding, rebuffing the United States, NATO and OSCE.

It’s hardly surprising that Russian representatives were not persuaded of the urgent need to de-escalate.

Putin even went as far as to broaden his appetites, since apparently now he wants the Russian sphere of influence to include not merely Ukraine, but also the bits of Europe that were the outermost parts of the Soviet empire during the Cold War.

Even if he stops short of sending his troops to the west of Ukraine, Putin is expressing his vision for several sovereign European countries to become “no man’s land” between Russia and the EU.

Moscow seeks to turn several nations into demilitarized zones. How else can one interpret the demands that NATO “clears out” of the countries that joined the alliance after 1997, effectively expecting those member states to unilaterally disarm? Are the Poles expected to scrap their F-16s the same way the Ukrainians, fooled by the “guarantees” of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, scrapped their Tu-22M and Tu-95 bombers?

Mind you, no fewer than 14 central and eastern European countries have joined NATO’s ranks since 1997. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and others, in addition to Poland, have since become full members of the alliance.

Obviously, these Russian whims are not only impossible to satisfy – they can hardly be entertained in the first place. Otherwise, the Euro-Atlantic community will lose its security and unravel.

Moscow uses many levers at its disposal to establish dominion over swaths of Eastern Europe: threats, coercion, invasion, annexation, information warfare, economic blockade (e.g.: halting the sale of Kazakh coal to Ukraine), natural gas price gouging.

One can only hope that this is plain not only to the countries being claimed by Putin. One hopes we are not about to be thrown back in time.

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