Putin’s Risky Move

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Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree on Monday to recognize the two self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk (the Donbass) in eastern Ukraine. His decision, announced in an hour-long live address, was immediately followed by an order to Russian units to move into the disputed territories in a “peacekeeping” mission. By Monday evening their deployment appeared complete.

The key question is whether this move is a precursor to a comprehensive invasion of Ukraine. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, was careful in his qualification: “Russian troops have entered Donbas,” he told reporters in Brussels. “I wouldn’t say that it is a fully-fledged invasion, but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil.” According to The Washington Post, the White House still “wrestles with whether Russia has ‘invaded’ Ukraine.

The European media took note that the U.S. stopped short of using the term “invasion.” One of Germany’s largest newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung, said that this reluctance to use the word “invasion” indicates that “the U.S. does not want to completely slam the door on new negotiations to Putin.” Another German newspaper, Frankfurter Rundschau, noted that Putin’s order “does not mean an invasion is certain,” but Britain’s The Guardian warned of the possibility that a broader military action may follow.

On balance, Putin’s action may get him the worst of all worlds. Russian regulars are moving into the areas which are legally Ukrainian territory but controlled by separatist rebels, and that in itself will not change the strategic balance on the ground. On the other hand, it is now certain Russia will be burdened with a new round of Western sanctions. In addition, Putin effectively has to assume the direct responsibility to protect the two self-proclaimed republics from Ukrainian military response, which is likely to follow.

Putin seems to have run out of good options. His move is reminiscent of Russia’s action in the Crimea in 2014. It resolves nothing regarding what Russia’s leaders perceive as existential challenges from the West. I have always maintained that Putin would not invade Kiev, or even advance to the river Dnieper, and I still see an all-out conflict between Russian and Ukrainian armed forces is unlikely. Nevertheless, remaining coldly aloof would have been better for Putin than resorting to a half-measure which is likely to bear the same external cost as an all-out invasion. If his primary objective was to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO any time soon, he had already achieved that before this military action.

The U.S. now is demanding drastic sanctions, which France and Germany had been reluctant to support. Following Russia’s recognition of the two breakway Ukrainian republics on Monday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the certification of the strategic North Stream 2 natural gas pipeline would be postponed. This had been a key demand of the United States for years: Washington was loath to let the critical infrastructure connection between Europe’s biggest economy and Russia’s enormous energy reserves become operative. Furthermore, Nord Stream was supposed to provide the key energy component of China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Putin may have expected that Moscow could repeat the Georgian scenario from the summer of 2008, when the Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia served as a shield against NATO’s expansion into the Caucasus. This is beginning to look like a miscalculation.

But there will be no war, for now. If there is no escalation from the Russian side, Putin probably expects that the crisis will return to its chronic mode, like the one which prevailed from 2015 to 2021. It will soon be apparent whether Moscow has further measures planned. It is unclear whether its recognition of the two entities applies only within the line of their control or to their claimed borders, considerably further west inside the Ukrainian-controlled territory. 

For the time being all key players accept—tacitly or explicitly—that there is no “invasion,” although a half-dozen invasion dates had been predicted by President Joseph Biden, by his Secretary of State and his National Security Advisor, by the intelligence community, by NATO sources and their media cohorts. Even the White House’s much-heralded Feb. 16 invasion prediction passed quietly (an exchange of shelling notwithstanding). On Feb. 20, as the Winter Olympics closed in Beijing (another alleged deadline for Putin’s attack), The New York Times carried a long, puzzling headline: “U.S. intelligence learned last week that the Kremlin had ordered an invasion of Ukraine to proceed, prompting President Biden’s dire warning.” At the State Department briefing on Feb. 16 a reporter asked spokesman Ned Price whether the U.S. intelligence was wrong to cite that date as the likely day of the Russian attack. Price simply replied, “No!”

The quality of intelligence was exemplified by the British government’s assertion in January that Russia was planning to install a puppet leader in Kiev. No evidence was provided to support the claim, but The New York Times reported that U.S. officials believed “the British intelligence is correct.” In the same league was The New York Times report of a purported Russian list of Ukrainians to be killed or else sent to camps after the invasion, or the claim that Russia was about to “produce a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors,” as a pretext for its coming attack. When AP diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee asked spokesman Price for some proof that Russia is creating such a video. Price replied that the very act of him briefing reporters was proof enough.

In post-postmodern times no “proof” in any conventional sense should be needed anyway. In a tweet on Feb. 11, Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, admitted that her earlier predictions about a “Russian invasion” were based on her feelings: “Emotions running high and I let them get the better of me. I still expect action this week but Putin may drag this out.” There is no need for apologies: Ms. Haring’s prognostications are at least as solidly based as those of any other Beltway apparatchik.

So, what’s next. As I have repeatedly noted in these pages, having a Finlandized Ukraine as a bridge between Russia and the EU/NATO, rather than a disputed land, would be a plus-sum-game for all concerned. On the other hand, by extending her protectorate deep inside Eastern Europe, America is wantonly diminishing, rather than enhancing, her security. 

America’s security is the only yardstick that matters in devising foreign policy strategies and making decisions of global import. It always has been, always will be. By that key standard the behavior of America’s deep-state elite on the subject of Ukraine has been irrational, mendacious, and potentially tragic in its consequences. To paraphrase General Omar Bradley, fighting Russia in 2022 would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.

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