Three ways Putin’s empire could strike back

19 January 2022, 05:24 AM

What might Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next moves be, now that the United States has refused the recognize Moscow’s “red lines” when it comes to NATO?

The ominous quiet that has followed the recent Russo-American talks indicates a mutual lack of understanding between Washington and Moscow – that’s why both sides are maintaining such an extended silence. In this case, the dramatic pause favors the United States.

The Kremlin would much rather prefer to create an untenable, supremely urgent crisis that would frighten the West into making some concessions. The Russian wish list included an official pledge from NATO to eschew further enlargement, and to never admit Ukraine into its ranks.

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But it is hardly feasible to try and maintain such a high level of military tensions indefinitely. First, it is too expensive to do so. Second, eventually everyone gets used to “the crisis” and stops paying it much attention – “Ah, well, he can keep his troops deployed if he wants.” There was a lot of panicking about Russia invading as soon as the January weather permitted. And yet here we are: everything’s frozen, but still no invasion.

I’m going to reiterate: there is a possibility that Putin goes for a military intervention, but it would have a prohibitively high cost. We can still rely on his instinct for self-preservation: he would not risk exposing Russia that way. We’re still dealing with threats, not some definite and concrete military operations. The Kremlin will keep using its traditional levers: provocations, flaring up the conflict in eastern Ukraine, using Belarus as an additional vector of pressure against Ukraine (Belarus’ self-proclaimed president Alexander Lukashenko is entirely dependent on Putin’s support).

Therefore, Russia can only continue to ratchet up tensions. Threats of Moscow deploying missiles in Venezuela or Cuba are nothing but hot air. The leaders of those two countries would weigh allowing Russian missiles on their soil against the tremendous cost to their relationships with their immediate, and much more powerful, neighbors. So reliving the glory days of the Cuban Missile Crisis will remain but a pipe dream.

That leaves Putin with the need to think of something that would accomplish his goal of intensifying the crisis. The West, seemingly, is ready for such a turn of events, and their silence and calm are making things more difficult for the Kremlin. So, the goal is to heighten the tensions, but how, and where?

The united front of liberal democracies was hardly affected by the seemingly successful resolution to the Kazakhstan ordeal. The next option is to spoil the day for Ukraine or the Baltics, somehow. At any rate, something has to be done – and done by Russia. Meanwhile, Ukraine and its allies need to do scarcely more than make sure Ukraine’s military is combat-ready, prepare to repel a possible invasion, get on with reforms, work on its economy; in other words, all Kyiv has to do is carry on.

Stability and stasis continue to draw people and countries westward, so Moscow persistently tries to shake things up.

Putin, on the other hand, has to look for some kind of military breakthrough, hoping to intimidate his opposition. He needs some kind of a change, since the status quo is a losing game for him. But they are too “chicken” to do so militarily, and are forced to resort to various kinds of cyber-attacks and rhetorical theater. These measures, however, are limited in effectiveness, and I think this limit has been all but reached.

The freedom of action available to Putin is rather limited too. After 20 years in power, he has failed to create an appealing social model, one that would attract people to Russia with its economic, cultural, technological and financial conditions. In fact, all his efforts have created an opposite, repelling effect. At the dawn of his reign, Russia had a clear path before it: to become a prosperous, rapidly developing country with a robust market economy. The reality on the ground is that Russia is continually bleeding people. What can its leader do? How can he justify to his people “running” for president for the umpteenth time? The only move he has left is the old reliable narrative of Russia: A fortress state, besieged by vicious enemies, with Putin being its only possible savior. But increasingly fewer Russians are willing to heed this tired tale.

Pesky little Ukraine has exposed the hopeless backwardness of Putin’s model for the Russian state. His entire ideology rests on the inability of neighboring countries to exist without Russia, outside its orbit. Sooner or later, they will all freeze to death without Russian natural gas and oil, left with no choice but to crawl back to Moscow with their buckets, pleading for a cupful of fuel. But lo and behold – Ukraine dealt a lethal blow to this grand strategy of this “grand strategist,” and left him with but three simple tasks.

First: punish Ukraine, making an example of it.

Second: cripple Ukrainian Western aspirations, to prevent it from inspiring other Moscow satellites to seek their fortunes elsewhere. It is one thing to have let Poland or the Baltics, whose lives have since improved considerably and who are viewed as completely lost by the Kremlin, slip through your fingers. It is another matter entirely if Ukraine manages to reform itself, shake off the oligarchical yoke, preserve democracy, and attract foreign investment. An example like this, in such close proximity, will make it oh-so-difficult to continue to brainwash Russians into imagining Ukraine as a failed state. For now, this view is held by many, but still not all, Russian citizens.

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Simply put, if all is well in Ukraine, things will get sticky for Putin. It will be a vivid example of proper statecraft. If Ukraine is proven to have made the correct choice, Putin’s game will be forfeit.

The conclusion, therefore, is plain: disrupt Ukraine’s Westernization and prevent it from drifting any further towards Europe.

Third: find ways to justify maintaining Russia’s humongous police state, and him as the head of state.

What reasons could there possibly be for him to remain in power? He’s losing to the West on all key points. Brute military force remains the only trump card at his disposal. Geared for total war, the militarized regime of the Soviet Union probably determined this way of thinking for Putin. It necessarily leads to his aggressive rhetoric – enemies abound, we must unite around our beloved Central Party Committee, Brezhnev and Putin, or perish. 

And, should an opportunity present itself, we could pounce and snatch some land for ourselves. We snatched Crimea from Ukraine, like we tried to snatch Afghanistan before that. But nabbing neighbors’ territories is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

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