Putin’s strategic stalling

5 September, 11:05 PM
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin (Photo:Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin (Photo:Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)

In the future, things may happen that no one expects. Prigozhin's story is a black swan.

Today's Russian leadership really wants to sit everyone out. It wants to wait for next year's elections-first in the European Union and then, of course, in the United States. It is not for nothing that Putin is going to China in October to attend an event dedicated to promoting the Silk Road. He is not going to the G-20; he refused to go to Turkey but will go to China. He thinks it's safe and critically needs to agree, if not on a common strategy with Xi (I think that's already "past"), but at least on coordinated steps.

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The Russian elite, including Putin, wants to sit out the entire West. There will be difficult elections this year. This includes Slovakia, where there is a real threat that not pro-Russian politicians will come to power, but let's say, much more balanced politicians, and balanced in our direction. This includes the problematic elections in Poland, which already affect our bilateral relations, agricultural trade, and other issues. Next year, there will be elections to the European Parliament. Putin hopes that fatigue from supporting us Ukrainians, fatigue from high energy and electricity prices will lead to an outbreak of both left and right-wing parties. So far, this has not happened, but there are trends that are dangerous. Then, of course, there are the American elections. The Kremlin is well aware that without the Americans, it is impossible to build our consistent financial, military, logistical, and whatever support we need. The Americans cannot be the only ones, but the Americans must be the leaders of the Western world. This is one of the conclusions of this war.

Putin despises the Western world, despises its values, democracy itself. As one of my journalist friends wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago: In the West, politicians often talk like Churchills but act like Chamberlains. This may not be true of everyone. I know many decent people, Western politicians, who are ready to raise the stakes. But a significant number of them are not ready to raise the stakes. This is critically needed regarding arms supplies, logistical support, and sanctions.

Putin will feel the weakness of the West like a predator

Currently, there is a demand for Russian liquefied gas supplies, including to Europe. There are significant buyers, such as Belgium and Spain. These are the statistics we have seen in the last couple of days. All the key Western media are also writing about this. We know how the West is reacting weakly to ways to circumvent sanctions. Turkey has been circumventing them for a long time. Russian oil is bought by India, refined, and sent to the West. It is being laundered. I could go on for hours with such examples.

The point is that the number one issue for us now is the future security model. If Putin hears that the West is ready to raise the stakes not just for today, but also for tomorrow, in terms of our future security model, then his behavior will be completely different. He may be ready to try to get out of the situation he has put himself and Russia into. But if not, if there will continue to be complicated discussions about this security model, then Putin, on the contrary, will feel the weakness of the West like a predator (and he always reads geopolitics very well and, as a special service officer with experience, he can sense such weakness).

For me, three critical points in the negotiations on our security model are now starting.

The first point is whether they will be sustainable. This means whether they will last after the next elections in the United States and the EU. Will they be recorded as memoranda, political statements, or declarations, or will they be legal obligations recorded by bilateral agreements or laws in the United States and Europe?

The second point is sufficiency. Sufficiency in terms of what it means to contain Russia. Of course, we can get what the West gives us, or get what we want. As we understand it, there will be neither. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. So, this "middle ground" should be agreed upon and discussed with our allies. This should be our participation in a new strategy to contain Russia.

The third element is the most important. It will either be some declarations or commitments, or guarantees. Because, so far, there has yet to be any talk of guarantees. We know that the United States guarantees security, for example, to the Japanese or South Korea, which sometimes people like to compare with us. Although this comparison is largely inappropriate. Or with Taiwan. There is a law in the United States on aid and defense for Taiwan.

These three issues are fundamental. If the West raises the stakes on all three, then Putin, of course, has to crawl into his hole, sit back, and somehow work things out. But if the West also tries to reach an agreement, Putin will feel that he is doing well and will go to negotiate a new strategy with the Chinese, and so on.

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So we are, if you will, very close to the Rubicon. Not yet at the Rubicon, but very close to it, in the security sense. This security sense is essential not only for us. It is critically important for the West. Declarations can replace clear commitments when it comes to security guarantees for Ukraine.

The discussion about this is ongoing. It should be the collective opinion of the collective West. Otherwise, this will only work if there are security guarantees. In the meantime, the attitude of our allies and partners is to push this issue aside. I am consciously talking about this. Not to "move out" of it but to push it back in time. This makes our situation a real challenge because Putin is well aware that he does not have much time. Russia is weaker today – technologically, demographically, economically, and militarily. But in the military sense, Putin is trying to pump up his military machine and overcome all that he lost due to the war against us. So, of course, it is very, very critical for him to pause.

It is imperative for us now to have real guarantees. They can be bilateral. They can be with a nuclear umbrella. They can be in the form of automatic measures from our partners. But this trinity, forgive me for calling it blasphemy, if you will, the holy trinity, must be observed. We critically need elements of guarantees, not commitments. We critically need sustainability so that these commitments are not for an election cycle, but for the future. We need the principle of deterrence sufficiency. Unfortunately, as you know, we do not have this yet, and without it, nothing will work.

Military analysts say that the likelihood of a recurrence of the war is growing regardless of how this war ends. Let me comment on this in the following way: Putin personally and a significant part of the Russian elite (not all of it, of course) have set themselves the task of maintaining their regime. This regime can be maintained only and exclusively if Russia, or rather the current regime, manages to destroy Ukraine and Ukrainian statehood. They believe that this condition is insufficient, but nevertheless necessary. This is their fundamental point of view. They are well aware that the outcome of today's war alone will not destroy the Putin regime, but will trigger the process of a point of no return. Russia is weakening today. This is what I hear not only from those I respect in the West – politicians, experts, journalists. I hear this in almost daily communication from Indians, Chinese, Indonesians, and Brazilians – that is, those who look at the situation from a completely different angle.

But this does not mean that a significant part of the non-Western world, the dominant part, and the West, is ready to raise the stakes to destabilize Russia. Unfortunately, a considerable amount of the West wants a gradual, controlled process that will be painless (I emphasize this word) for the West. To ensure that the Western system remains stable, as they see it, and to ensure that Putin, and through him, the Chinese, cannot test the red lines of the West. Red lines should be pushed back, not tested. Unfortunately, there is a challenging discussion in the West around this. Sometimes, our point of view wins, and sometimes, unfortunately, the point of view of those who want to play around somehow and then see what happens next dominates. I would say this "what happens next" logic that has defined all Western policy in the last 20 years or so has already come out of the wrong place. However, there are supporters of this policy. Now, those in the West are raising their voices, saying, "Let's somehow come to an agreement, since Russia will not be so dangerous in the future, it is still in decline, and Ukraine will still contain it, and we need it for the global geopolitical picture." And people like the Pope will still talk about some kind of imperial greatness, about Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, that we need to look up to them. The problem is that they are not yet producing any Russian narratives. This is what they personally think, and this means that we have yet to reach them with our logic. This needs to be done, so we have a lot of work to do in the coming months.

Putin wants to drag out this war. The West wants to control the process, including the collapse of the Russian Federation, if it becomes inevitable. But there may be a black swan in all this – perhaps even several black swans – 100%. The Prygozhin story is one such swan (although this "bird" does not exactly look like a swan). But in the future, things may happen that no one expects. It may be irrational, illogical things. I believe that this story will not be linear, as many people want it to be, with the mentality of letting everything be.

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