Why Putin’s gamble on Ukraine is insane

Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown down the gauntlet against the West in a way no Kremlin leader has done since Nikita Khrushchev brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe six decades ago.

It’s a huge strategic gamble by the Kremlin — one that has led to a situation in which Putin must either climb down from his extensive demands or launch a military operation likely to lead to large-scale war in Europe.

None of the fears the Kremlin’s propaganda play on have any foundation in reality. The last consequential NATO expansion was decades ago. No one was seriously contemplating NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia. Plans for U.S. missiles in eastern Ukraine targeting Russia are pure fantasy. No sane person sees the risk of Norway, Estonia, Ukraine or any other border state planning to invade Russia.

In fact, NATO policy has been rather careful. Before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, U.S. forces in Europe had been continuously reduced. The year before, the last U.S. tank in Germany had been shipped back across the Atlantic.

NATO didn’t even have any defense plans for the Baltic states. There was a NATO “air policing” operation there, but that arose from the post-9/11 concern with unpoliced airspace; it was not a defense operation.

Even after 2014, NATO took care not to provoke. Its presence in the Baltic states was battalions rather than brigades. The United States largely stayed out of states bordering Russian territory, and in Norway and Poland, based troops well away from the Russian border.

There were irritants, but not more. A scaled-down ballistic missile defense system, with installations in Romania and planned in Poland, was geared to meet a hypothetical threat from Iran or North Korea, though Moscow was never entirely convinced. And perhaps the United States flying strategic bombers close to Russian airspace wasn’t entirely wise.

So why then this major crisis now?

In 2021, signs multiplied of Putin taking a more assertive approach to Ukraine. In May, he made an emotional outburst against the country at a session of his Security Council. Then, in July, he published an infamous essay in which he essentially argued for a restoration of the Russian Empire — including Ukraine.

His June summit with President Biden signaled that the White House wanted no trouble on the Russian front, so it could focus on China. When Biden unceremoniously abandoned Afghanistan, the message was even more clear; immediately thereafter, Russia’s national security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, remarked that he hoped the Ukrainians understood the futility of relying on the United States.

Step by step, political and military moves were made to deliberately create a crisis and increase pressure, particularly on the United States. Moscow shelved talks with Kyiv, Berlin and Paris on Donbas, and treated the European Union with open disdain. Formally, Russia demanded the rollback of all Western security structures to prior to the first NATO enlargement in 1997√. In reality, this would amount to a rollback to the situation before the 1990 Charter of Paris set out the principles of Europe’s post-Cold War order.

Putin is sometimes seen as a master strategist, but he has a long record of misjudging Ukraine policy. Emotions have clearly overtaken rationality, resulting in Russian policy that has profoundly alienated Ukraine.

There is simply no way in which Putin can achieve the aims he has set by diplomacy alone. That would require a U.S. capitulation of historic dimensions.

And achieving regime change in Kyiv, which the Kremlin clearly seeks, will not be straightforward. For all his vacillations, President Volodymyr Zelensky could simply retreat to the west of the country; if followed there by Russian forces, he could establish a government in exile recognized and supported by the West. Many thousands would be dead in the conflict, and many millions would be forced to flee. Weapons would flow into Ukraine, and the conflict would be very likely to escalate.

Notably, there is an absence of enthusiastic voices in Moscow about invading Ukraine, though this probably means little in a Kremlin where decision-making is a one-man show. Even the Soviet Union had a more institutionalized decision-making structure than today’s Russia.

But Putin should remember that there is no longer an Iron Curtain. Ukraine is a close partner of the European Union in its Eastern Partnership, while defense of democracy has become a key part of the Biden administration’s policies.

The reality is that a Russian invasion would likely start a long-term confrontation resulting in an even larger war — and the collapse of the Russian regime.

Putin’s gamble on the weakness of the West to roll back the fundamentals of Europe’s security order is nothing less than insane and should be treated as such. There is virtually no way, apart from the total capitulation of the West, in which Russia could achieve a positive outcome.

But we must recognize that the crisis will not be over in a week, or even a month or two. Putin has made his calculations, and it will be difficult for him to retreat. The West must be prepared for the worst. Only thus can we prevail.

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for The Post.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *