Putin’s tailspin

4 February 2022, 09:19 AM

Moscow is creating a new reality which Russia will have to inhabit, and it will be far from comfortable. The West assembled a retribution mechanism that can be deployed at a moment’s notice.

History is a cruel mistress. In taking advantage of a lethargic West, the Kremlin tried to reshape the European order into one that would bow to autocracy. But so far, they only managed to prod western allies to wakefulness. Moscow now finds itself in a snare of its own making: head on for a collision with the free world, or retreat.

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“Principal Russian concerns were ignored,” Putin laments. But then says: “I hope we will eventually find … a solution.”

It’s now plain that the Kremlin is looking for a way out that wouldn’t seem like a defeat. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov keeps asking the West to “frankly” spell out its position. It seems Moscow is stalling for time; navigating a way out of a dead-end is always more arduous than getting there.

Tired of the Russian game of “tensions chicken”, Washington and NATO have decided to start preparing for war. The stakes are so high that backing down would be a defeat for Russia, and, conversely, a victory for NATO - most unfortunate for Putin, who hoped to achieve his goals with threats alone.

Whatever the eventual outcome of this staring contest will be, the cause for discord between Russia and the West will remain: divisive, incompatible values and worldviews. Because of that, any deal they might strike is bound to be temporary.

The Kremlin sees signs that the game isn’t over just yet.

Washington didn’t manage to establish a water-tight united front with its allies with regards to sanctions against Russia.

U.S. President Joe Biden isn’t looking too confident. Germany and France are hindering U.S. efforts, each in their own way. Berlin prioritizes its economic interests over political solidarity. Together with Paris, the efforts to revive the Normandy Four talks (Ukraine-Russia-France-Germany) muddy the waters and confuse the Western response to Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron is eroding transatlantic unity with his constant talk about a “European security system.” Purchasing 40% of their natural gas from Russia nudges the EU towards cutting a deal with Moscow.

The United States eventually pressured Europe into agreeing to slap additional sanctions on Russia if it decides to start smashing windows again. But the European allies are very much divided on what shape such sanctions would take. If Russia launches a full-blown invasion of Ukraine – sure, the West will retaliate. But it will be difficult to agree on a collective response to some sort of a “hybrid” attack by Moscow.

Persistent attempts by European leaders – such as Macron and UK PM Boris Johnson – to talk some sense into Putin and convince him to take a step back are succeeding only in making the Kremlin believe it can drive a wedge between the Western allies.

It’s dangerous to underestimate the role of the so-called “realists.” They are convinced that Russia cannot be reformed and therefore its demands should be accepted. They would suggest a deal made behind closed doors in a smoke-filled room; a deal that would affix Ukraine to Russia’s orbit. After all, the history of diplomacy has no shortage of treaties with “secret protocols!”

Ukraine is trapped between both the Russian attempts to threaten the free world with war, and the inability of Western allies to resolve tensions between their interests and their values. Western “realists” think Ukraine is a fair price to pay for peace of mind. But in that case, the West will have to pay for abandoning its core principles.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s “blitzkrieg” is starting to inflict strategic losses on Russia. “Great job, Volodya!” – NATO thanks Putin for giving the alliance its raison d'etre back. By remaining focused on engaging with the United States, Moscow is undermining the French concept of “European security” which reserves a great deal of influence for Russia. Putin is dragging Washington back into Europe, even though the Americans would be happy to focus exclusively on China, instead.

Russia is teaching the West the way of the fist. A whole range of countries – from the UK to Denmark – are either dispatching small detachments of their soldiers to Ukraine, or arming Kyiv. It’s no small feat to force the Swedes to militarize Gotland (an island in the Baltic Sea). Moscow can hardly count on broad international support of its European security “project”, after only China, and Russia itself, voted against calling a UN Security Council meeting to discuss Ukraine.

The world is paying close attention to Russia’s attempts to achieve its goals by threats alone. Who’s to say that Moscow will never find itself on the receiving end of blackmail and ultimatums, backed by threats of force?

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By backing Europe into a corner, Russia is stimulating Brussels to look for ways of escaping Moscow’s bear hug. Even seemingly loyal Russian allies would choose the United States over Russia, if faced with such a binary choice. Western business interests are starting to look for a way out of Russia: nobody is keen to suffer the same fate as Exxon Mobil, which lost $200 million due to Western sanctions against Russia.

The U.S. political establishment has banded together on the subject of sanctioning Russian banks. London getting ready to sanction Russian oligarchs is particularly noteworthy: the UK usually avoids picking fights with countries that tend to park their wealth in the Sceptered Isle. But since Mikhail Gutseriyev’s UK assets were frozen, it seems London is not kidding.

Thanks to Putin, some countries have rediscovered their mission. Post-Brexit UK now finally has a purpose to its foreign policy: standing up to and containing Russia. Spain uncovered ambitions of its own, and sent some ships to the Black Sea.

Washington and the EU are in talks with Qatar and Azerbaijan to establish backup supply lines for European natural gas needs – more bad news for Russia. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult for Germany to maintain its Ostpolitik.

Moscow’s “fellow travelers” in the West are suddenly under immense scrutiny. Former German Chancellor and Nord Stream-2 board president, Gerhard Schröder, is facing a torrent of criticism in German media.

Russia now has to resolve the tension between its belligerent stance and economic reliance on the West. The recent meeting Putin had with Italian investors was meant to reassure European business elites, but will they buy it?

The Kremlin is basically saying that Russia is a separate civilization, with its own concept of sovereignty and rules, and is willing to press its claims by military means. What should Russia expect in return, then? Not to mention, its opponents are much more capable, militarily speaking.

Moscow convinced the West to treat it as an adversary. The cost of transitioning from being a partner of the free world to being its enemy will eventually outweigh any tactical gains Russia might have nabbed on the way. Russia will face a containment policy very much unlike an orderly boxing match. Foreign affairs have no shortage of “boomerang effects.”

“Of course, they will back down,” Putin and his sock puppets are reassuring each other. I agree, “they” will compromise on secondary issues, while regrouping to reassert themselves on major points.

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