Is Putin Bluffing in Ukraine?

AP Photo/Andriy Dubchak

The public has been so busy waiting for the war in Ukraine to start that it hasn’t noticed how much of it has already happened since it started in 2014, when the near-success of the Ukrainian government counteroffensive against Russian-backed militias forced Moscow to commit conventional forces to save the effort. Although “Ukraine, Russia, the DPR, and the LPR signed an agreement to establish a ceasefire, called the Minsk Protocol, on 5 September 2014,” the brigades had entered the stage.


Despite Obama’s contemporaneous disavowal of any American obligation to go to war for Ukraine, it could not be so easily contained. Angela Merkel realized that the seeds of potential international conflict had been planted by a supposedly internal affair. “It’s not just about Ukraine. It’s about Moldova, about Georgia — if it continues like this, we would have to ask about Serbia; we would have to ask about the Western Balkan states,” she added, according to German news agency DPA.

Worse, geography means Ukraine is inevitably about Poland, the Baltics, and the future of NATO too. These NATO members, directly to the west of Belarus, where Russian forces now threaten to move south on Kiev parallel to the Dneiper River, are linked like a dumbbell only by a narrow section of Poland called the Suwalki corridor.  Because they can be so easily cut in two, Poland recently announced it would double the size of its army. It is this linkage that makes the current crisis so fraught with imponderables because even if Biden does nothing in response to an incursion into Ukraine, geopolitics will guarantee that there will be economic, political, and potentially military consequences to any attempt by Putin to reconstitute the USSR.

Related: First Barack Obama, Now Joe Biden: Mumbling Their Way Into War

The biggest mystery of the current crisis is why Putin should even precipitate it. On paper, the forcible reabsorption of Ukraine is a task beyond the capability of Moscow to sustain. While Russia can doubtless crush the Ukrainian army in the short run, with an economy smaller than South Korea’s and its demography in collapse (Russia’s total population of about 145 million is actually lower than it was when Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000), it cannot long endure the costs of pacifying Ukraine while matching the inevitable European arms buildup even without more sanctions. Moreover, getting pinned down in Ukraine would make it impossible for Moscow to respond to China’s belt and road offensive, which is slowly but inexorably tying the resource-rich former Soviet republics to Beijing’s economy.


Following an initially cool reception, many former USSR republics have been lured by the sheer size of China’s investment in the One Belt One Road project, eager to capitalize on the wider initiative in line with their own domestic interests. …

Overall, the Central Asian states – the five “Stans” – may be most affected by the OBOR initiative. Kazakhstan will play an important role as three of the planned Silk Road routes are passing through the country. The Northern Route will be going through northern Kazakhstan, crossing into Russia, then proceeding to the EU either via Belarus or through the Baltic ports.

The Central Route, meanwhile, is intended to cross the Caspian Sea through the ports of Aktau and Baku and then continue to Turkey through Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Southern Route will go through Turkmenistan and then on to Iran. Astana was quick to realize the potential of OBOR and presented its own national infrastructure development plans (“Nur Zhol”) as a part of the initiative that needs to be financed. Kazakh officials and entrepreneurs, however, do have a number of private concerns, particularly that China’s dominance in all contracts will leave no place for local companies, as well as Russia’s likely anxiety about its status and the role of the EEU.

So why should Putin play against such long odds? While history is full of examples of leaders doing stupid things from miscalculation, a WSJ opinion piece points out that Putin rose to power by being a gambler. “When Vladimir Putin was a young KGB recruit, his intelligence assessment noted a character flaw. Russia’s future president possessed a ‘lowered sense of danger,’ it said, according to his autobiography—meaning that he was prone to take unwarranted risks.” He has lived a life of derring-do, bluffing his way out of tight spots. He took a written-off country and put it back on the world stage.


Related: What’s Going on in Kazakhstan, and Why Should It Matter to the West?

So why not gamble again? He’s done well so far. Look how skillfully Putin created a sense of crisis in the West. In reality, the clock is working against Russia. Yet the panic is in Washington. That Blinken made an unsolicited summit offer and Joe talked about accepting Russian “minor incursions” is a tell. Why not keep going? Maybe Vlad thinks he can BS Joe into folding at a closed summit format where he can potentially win concessions he could never wring from an open, alliance-ratifiable process.

The Russian leader’s main hope is that his opponent will make a mistake. Meantime, while there’s only so much you can do with a weak hand, Putin is having the time of his life ripping soft power apart. Perhaps he knows there’ll be a reckoning, but for now, he’s the center of attention, wiping the smiles off the smug, virtue-signaling Western leaders’ faces. How many of us have felt a similar temptation in a personal context but had the sense to let the mad moment pass? The cooler heads must know that the joyride will end badly, but the defect of the Russian system is that no one can grab Putin and tell him “to take it easy, bro.” Perhaps the administration, instead of endlessly pleading and offering bribes, should by now have gone dead silent and let Putin come down from his high and figure the endgame out.


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