Sometimes, everything seems to fall into place. It certainly doesn’t occur often, but it has been known to happen. Vladimir Putin must be feeling that it has happened to him and his country just about now. The circumstances, in all their varied guises, favor his plans and aspirations. The timing is the only open question.
It is not a secret that the president of Russia has always felt that the demise of the Soviet Union was a great historical tragedy; not the failure of the economic and political system so much as the dismemberment of the physical composition of the nation state. He has made no attempt to reestablish the Communist system in his country - quite the contrary - he has championed billionaire oligarchs and counts many of them as his personal friends; hold the borscht, bring the caviar. But Putin looks at a map of the world and sees what once was and should again be “Mother Russia”. He sees countries that to his mind shouldn’t exist: Belarus, the Baltic states, all the “stans” and of course, Ukraine. They were somehow created with the aid of the CIA or MI6 or some sort of Western conspiracy aimed at crippling the Russian, and by extension, Slavic peoples. Proof of the latter is NATO’s war against the Serbs during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. This is his view and it is unshakable.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union there was little Russia could do to prevent this turn of events. Putin’s country was often disparaged as a “gas station with a flag atop it”. But the money from the sale of that oil and natural gas was poured into the military to such an extent that a new army and navy was created which, though only slightly tested, has never known defeat. Putin sees his mission as righting the great wrong the West has inflicted on Russia and he believes he now has the instrument to accomplish this task. That is why he has positioned 100,000 men and thousands of armored vehicles on the Ukrainian border as a prelude to an invasion which will link the Crimea by land to the rest of Russia.
He has also evaluated his Western opponents and this has filled him with even more confidence. The Americans will not fight for Ukraine, President Biden told him so in a notorious telephone conversation. America’s European allies have no stomach for war against Russia, Ukraine is not a member of NATO so they are under no obligation to come to her defense. Individually, and without American support, collectively, they are no match for Russian troops. The prospect of facing the Russian military sends terror through the Germans. The French are good fighting in West Africa, but the Russians? The Dutch, of Srebrenica shame, would probably be implored by the Ukrainians not to send any assistance. The British have no interest; they are preoccupied with COVID restrictions, a Prime Minister who seemingly tries to avoid those restrictions, and the behavior of princes who should thank the creator of the universe that they were not born three centuries ago, thereby escaping Tyburn. As for the rest, they are mostly what the Pentagon refers to as “parade armies”: they look toy soldier splendid, and that’s about it. In addition to all this, most of Europe receives its’ natural gas supply from Russia - enough said.
Putin also knows the caliber of leaders he is facing: a feeble American President, a Vice President who is an incompetent, a hopelessly divided Congress, a French President who dares not venture into public lest he be slapped across the face, a new German Chancellor who is learning the job, and Boris Johnson who is desperately trying to keep his.
Therefore, Putin asks himself, if not here, where? If not now, when?
It is also true that he has placed himself in a difficult position. He has told his people that Ukraine is historically, culturally, and geographically part of Russia. If he backs down now he will no longer be seen as “a strong leader”. And Russians insist on a strong leader, irrespective of the political ideology of that individual.
And there is another factor. Putin understands, or has been informed by his generals, that you cannot keep an entire army in a holding position indefinitely. Morale begins to suffer, supplies start to run short, and the weather is always problematic. Winter arrives early in Russia with biting cold and frozen gears, but spring also brings its problems as well, melting frost swells the rivers and makes unpaved roads impassable. Tanks cannot advance solely on paved highways due to the threat of air attack so they must flank those roads by going into the countryside where they encounter the aforementioned obstacles caused by the changing seasons; hence the argument against waiting until the songbirds sing.
Of course, Putin has been warned by Biden that invading Ukraine will bring “severe economic sanctions” against his country. But he is confident that a people who dug trenches outside Moscow and ate raw horseflesh in the streets of Leningrad while under Nazi bombardment will find the capacity to cope with the inconvenience of not extracting money from an ATM machine.
Recent talks to defuse this situation have been unfruitful. Russian demands that Ukraine never join NATO were dismissed by the alliance and American willingness to discuss the removal of certain missile systems from Ukrainian soil were deemed insufficient. Naturally, when the worst happens, the United States will demand a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Russia’s “hostile aggression” against its neighbor. After lengthy debate and several cocktails, the resolution will be vetoed by Russia. President Biden’s spokesperson will say “well, we did the best we could”.
It seems that Europe is now poised to see a new war, its first in 30 years. How it will react will be interesting given a seemingly endless pandemic, unpopular leaders, and American indifference.
For Vladimir Putin, the stars have aligned.
hi Bruce, thanks for the education. I have a question. When you said, " But the money from the sale of that oil and natural gas was poured into the military to such an extent that a new army and navy was created which, though only slightly tested, has never known defeat. " I immediately thought of Afghanistan. Wasn't that a defeat of the Russians? Am I missing something? Might not matter with Putin being who he is, but didn't little old Afghanistan kick the Russians out? Take care.