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Tsar Vlad's Roulette

By Brendan Wilson

In December, Russia marked the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union by amassing 130,000 heavily armed troops on Ukraine’s eastern border. With the stage set for a full-scale invasion of its former vassal state, Vladimir Putin sits down with NATO to negotiate “security guarantees,” a loaded Kalashnikov on the table.

Russia claims its security is threated by western encroachment. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, America and its allies have crept east, adding former Soviet bloc nations like Estonia, Latvia, Poland and Hungary to NATO, the military alliance created in 1949. Hemmed in by “hostile” western enemies, Tsar Vlady claims he must act assertively to protect Mother Russia. His demands are mostly ludicrous: NATO must guarantee that Ukraine will never be admitted to the alliance, western military positions taken since 1997 must be abandoned, and guarantees must be given that no missiles will be parked in countries bordering Russia. These have been largely dismissed as nonstarters.

This is not Putin’s first foray into “coercive diplomacy.” In 2004, Georgia elected a pro-western president willing to contribute forces to the America-led war effort in Iraq. In the same year, Ukraine shrugged off Russian influence in favor of closer western relations in their “Orange Revolution.” Given these developments, NATO declared in 2008 that membership for both countries was an inevitability. Putin politely disagreed…. with tanks.

In August 2008, Russian troops poured over the Georgian border seizing control of much of the country within five days. The stark message was received, and the government fell in line. A distracted west turned a blind eye to the minor Baltic skirmish.

Russian tanks roll into Georgia - Source: Associated Press

Six years later, violent anti-government protests in Ukraine ousted the Russian puppet president Viktor Yanukovych in the “Revolution of Dignity.” A pro-western government was installed that began negotiating an economic association with the European Union. Putin correctly identified this move as a backdoor to eventual NATO membership and again sent in the brass. Within weeks, Russia had annexed Crimea at the point of a gun and sent in separatist agitators to seize parts of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass. With 40,000 Russian troops amassing on Ukraine’s border, Putin sat down with NATO to negotiate de-escalation. The West imposed financial sanctions, the Russian troops dispersed, and Putin was allowed to keep Crimea at little cost. Within Russia, his approval ratings soared.

Today, as history repeats, some view Putin’s aggression as a bid to boost his flagging approval rating at home with a military victory abroad. Others see it as a revanchist attempt to reassert the global dominance it once enjoyed before the Soviet Union fell, which Putin characterized as the most cataclysmic event of a century that witnessed two world wars and the Holocaust. While both likely play a role, the truth is that Russia's Ukraine misadventures are rooted in fear.

Putin is correct in his claim that he is under siege, but not by NATO tanks and artillery. He suffers from flagging approval ratings in the wake of the pandemic and a sputtering one-trick economy dragged down by low energy prices. The Tsar’s people desperately want reform, and they are tired of asking nicely.

The troop buildup occurs against the backdrop of a crackdown at home. He poisoned, then jailed popular opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Last year, he shuttered Memorial, Russia’s last human rights advocacy group, on the charge that it was at tool of “foreign agents.” To win a recent bid for reelection he resorted to electoral corruption absurd by even Russian standards.

One of Alexey Navalny's many arrests - Source: Associated Press

Former Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia, in his view, are buffers against the creeping western liberal ideology that seems to be taking hold within his own borders. If Slavic states that share the Russian culture, language, and history can fall under the sway of western values, so could Russia itself. He knows that dictators like himself leave power in one of two ways: a grandiose state funeral or strung up to a light post. He is in survival mode.

Putin gambled that America had turned inward under Biden and that NATO was left fractured under Trump. To his surprise, the west seems determined to not allow history to repeat itself. The United States has shipped weapons to Ukraine and announced this week that it would send troops to eastern Europe. Spain is sending ships to Bulgaria and Denmark sent a frigate to the Baltic Sea. NATO has collectively promised crippling sanctions, including the stoppage of the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 Pipeline and a possible cutoff of the internal SWIFT system. This is the collective, sharped toothed response that the west should have pursued on the heels of Russian aggression in 2008 and 2014.

His bluff now called, Putin must decide whether to beat a humiliating retreat to the Kremlin empty handed or carry out a risky and costly invasion. Of the two unfavorable options, the latter would be worse for three reasons:

First, invading Ukraine would drive its people even closer to the west. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia turned cold and a majority now favor joining NATO. A second invasion would accelerate this trend.

Second, rather than vacate eastern Europe, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would stiffen NATO resolve, resulting in a more united alliance intent on bolstering fortifications along Russians European border. Russia would be more hemmed in than it was before.

Finally, a massive influx of western war materiel would turn Ukraine into a snake pit. Seizing control of Ukraine may be easy at first but holding it would be painful. Ukraine today would become the Afghanistan of the 1980’s.

How the west counters Putin today will shape his behavior tomorrow. We can also be sure that China will weigh the American response when planning their own invasion of Taiwan. To preserve stability in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, the errors of 2008 and 2014 must not be repeated.

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