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The View From Here: Dangerous games

Feb 23, 2022 | Featured, The View From Here - Walter Kish

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Volodymyr Kish.

As I write this, there is a strong belief on the part of many world leaders and U.S. President Joe Biden in particular, that a large-scale Russian attack on Ukraine is imminent, likely a matter of days. Many are betting that it will happen as soon as the Olympics end. If the attack happens, it will be one of most telegraphed and predicted military attacks in history.

From a strictly military point of view, this would run counter to one of the most basic tenets of military planning, i.e. that one should always strive for tactical surprise. In this case, there is no element of surprise whatsoever. In our era of satellite technology and electronic surveillance, there is little in Russia’s preparations that is not known in detail to the U.S., NATO and the Ukrainian armed forces. In fact, Russia has almost gone out of its way to showcase its military forces and capabilities on Ukraine’s borders.

All of this tends to make me believe that this is all one big game of psychological warfare being played by Putin who is a master at this art. For months he has carefully choreographed a step by step escalation of intimidation, aimed at ratcheting up the temperature, increasing stress levels and sowing confusion and uncertainty, primarily in the U.S. and the European countries that are part of NATO. He is doing this to pressure them to make concessions, though I doubt that they are the ones he has voiced publicly for global media consumption.

One of the primary ones, that being a guarantee of Ukraine not joining NATO, is almost laughable. He knows quite well that Ukraine has almost no chance of joining NATO for decades to come. The most recent public demand that the U.S. remove all of its forces from Europe is equally laughable. That demand is equivalent to asking that NATO be dismantled, and that is a non-starter, which he also knows very well.

So what exactly is Putin up to? I think at the root of it all is the fact that Putin has come to realize that in all but one respect, Russia has lost its status as a world power, and commensurate with that has lost its influence in world affairs. Putin is a product of the Cold War and has never reconciled himself to the fact that the USSR no longer exists and Russia is now but a pale shadow of that supposedly once “great nation.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the measure of economic clout. In terms of GDP, Russia now occupies 12th place in the world, behind such countries as Canada, Korea, Brazil and India. The U.S. economy is more than twelve times bigger than that of Russia. If it were not for its huge natural resources, particularly petroleum, Russia would be a third world country.

The one area where Russia is still a dominant factor is in the size of its military, and especially its large arsenal of nuclear weapons. But maintaining this has come at a cost, namely the impoverishment of its population. The country’s basic infrastructure, social welfare system and quality of life has suffered immensely compared to most of its European neighbours. To maintain control, Putin has been forced to become increasingly more authoritarian, as well as resorting to manufacturing external conflicts to engender artificial patriotic unity to distract the Russian populace from his economic and domestic failures. Unfortunately, Ukraine, for longstanding historical and cultural reasons, is his favourite whipping boy for this purpose.

So what will Putin do next? He knows very well that he cannot win a direct confrontation with the U.S. and NATO. So, my guess is that he will continue to push the envelope, pushing things to the brink, taking small slices, but avoiding a major conflict that would spell economic ruin for Russia. A nuclear war would end in the total destruction of him and Russia, so that is not an option. Even a major non-nuclear war with significant casualties would isolate Russia economically, and cause enough internal destabilization that would likely lead to his own demise and overthrow. A much weakened and unstable Russia would also likely create the risk that China would seize the opportunity to take over a large chunk of Russia’s Siberian territories, something they have had their eye on for a long time.

My feeling is still that Putin will continue to engage in dangerous brinkmanship, but will stop short of a major confrontation with Ukraine, and by proxy the rest of the free world. I am sure that his intelligence services have been telling him that Ukraine is no longer the pushover that it was in 2014, that NATO unity is now stronger than ever, and that any major attack would be prohibitively costly.

Of course, this all rests on my assumption that Putin is still thinking rationally, though in a warped Cold War way. If he is not, and is really the psychopath that some claim he is, then anything could happen. The coming weeks or even possibly days will tell us one way or another, and I can only hope that my analysis is correct.

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