What to make of the Putin - Lavrov - Shoigu recent sessions?

17 February, 09:26 AM

Well forget about what was said, look at the tables. It’s really crazy but we are back to early 1980s Soviet studies, Kremlinology, trying to look at settings, for messaging as to what is going on. 

The fact that during the Feb. 14 meeting a long table was pulled out again, and Putin was placed far distant from the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, suggests the Kremlin’s leader Vladimir Putin is trying to send a message that he is still undecided on the course of action. 

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Then Putin asked Lavrov for his advice, and Lavrov hinted that there is still room for a diplomatic solution but said again that time has limits.

And Shoigu, wearing civilian clothes hinted that the military are not yet about to strike. But Shoigu’s message that the drills are close to completion suggests the Russian military are prepared – and they can use the drill excuse to back down. 

Maybe no further attack for a few more days – maybe not Feb 16 as suggested by some Western media sources reading of US intelligence – but for me the threat is still live through to the end of March and the annual Russian troop conscription cycle in April.

But Moscow still needs concessions – and I just cannot see where they can come from. The Biden - Putin call on Feb. 12 appeared to achieve very little. And President Zelensky has since categorically ruled out Ukraine pulling its NATO bid – even though the words of the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK were twisted to this effect in reports of an interview he gave on Feb. 13. 

I still ask myself what Putin will have achieved from the latest escalation – and I still conclude his position has been weakened: Ukraine and West resolve to stand up to Russian bullying affirmed, Ukraine armed at accelerated pace. And his bluff called – Putin not prepared to pull the trigger when faced with a unified Ukraine and West.

And a next to last point – it amazes me how poorly Putin always calls Ukraine.

He fundamentally misreads it. His use of bullying and bribery during the Orange Revolution (2004), the EuroMaidan (2014) and now just unifies Ukraine against him and accelerates the country’s now unstoppable shift West. 

But if Putin backs down then I think the Biden team’s strategy of calling out Putin on the intelligence they are receiving will have been genius.

Their message, even by withdrawing U.S. nationals and non-essential diplomats, to Putin is “you go in at your own risk.”

“We are not going to bow down to you but will prepare brutal sanctions and you will have to win a military campaign in Ukraine. The latter won’t be easy and we (the West) will do our utmost to back the Ukrainians and increase the cost to Russia therein.”

The Biden team seem to be willing to play Putin at his own high stakes poker game. If Putin has really blinked this would be huge win for Biden, Zelensky and the West.

They called out Putin for threats/menacing military actions and failed to concede anything much on Putin’s red lines.

And would be hard to see this as anything but a big defeat for Putin. What did he achieve?

* He managed to rally the West back around NATO which again has common purpose.

* Ukrainian sovereignty affirmed, even strengthened. 

* Ukraine military better armed as a result - better able to defend itself. 

* Russia called out as unreliable energy supplier. The West will accelerate diversification away from Russian energy sources.

* His bluff was called. He may have written a long essay over the close historical links between Russia and Ukraine but some will say he was the Russian leader who actually lost Ukraine. That will be his mark in history. He accelerated Ukraine’s Western orientation/move.

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