Going For Broke, Putin Is Counting on the West's Weakness to Win

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Vladimir Putin has decided to go all-in on Ukraine and by so doing has thrown down the gauntlet to NATO and the United States, challenging them to stop him.

NATO and the U.S. are politely declining the honor, hoping against hope that the crocodile will eat them last. It’s a forlorn hope, as any hope born out of weakness usually shows.

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The sanctions contemplated by NATO will hurt Russia, its economy, and its people. But Mother Russia will remain intact and its huge army won’t be affected at all. And Putin and his cronies will hardly be inconvenienced. Their tens of billions of dollars in personal wealth are safely hidden in banks around the world.

Putin’s carefully calibrated risk is being taken after years of observing Western Europe fail to rise to meet his challenges. In Georgia, in Crimea, in Eastern Ukraine — Putin has counted on the West’s reluctance for serious confrontation, and his gambles have paid off.

Now it’s hardly a gamble at all anymore. He plays the Western media like a concert pianist, getting them hysterical about the prospect of war and then getting them equally hysterical about prospects for peace.

Vladimir Putin doesn’t believe that Ukraine has a right to exist as an independent country. He made it clear in his speech on Sunday that he believes Ukraine is an integral part of Russia and always has been. The speech, after a staged, televised lovefest where all of his top advisors agreed with his decision to send in troops to the breakaway republics, was the most revealing speech of his rule.

He hinted that Ukraine was only the beginning as he sets about the task of restoring Russia’s greatness by recapturing former republics in the old Soviet Union.

The Guardian:

Putin said the self-declared republics needed defending from the threat of “genocide”, and parts of Ukraine must be purged of corruption, cells of extremists and the threat of nuclear weapons being pointed “only in a matter of time” at Moscow.

“Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” Putin said. “These are our comrades, those dearest to us – not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.”

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The same might be said of Poland and the Baltic republics who, at one time or another, were ruled by Russia. Are they not also “an inalienable part” of Russia’s “own history, culture and spiritual space … “?

Related: Putin’s Terms Haven’t Changed But His Tone Has

The New York Times notes, “By seeking to redraw the post-Cold War boundaries of Europe and force Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit, Mr. Putin is attempting nothing less than to upend the security structure that has helped maintain an uneasy peace on the continent for the past three decades.”

Putin has been nursing these grievances since the fall of the Soviet Union. As a young KGB officer, he seethed with resentment against the joyous celebrations in the West as many Western leaders took a victory lap at Russia’s expense.

He’s been holding that grudge for more than 30 years. How satisfying it must be for him to destroy what was so carefully built up over those decades?

“Right now I have my doubts that the European political elite and diplomats understand the full complex of problems they will run into” as Mr. Putin works to advance his agenda, said Aleksei Chesnakov, a former adviser to the Kremlin on foreign policy. “He wants more decisive steps militarily, politically and economically. He is ready.”

The Russian president’s address veered from assessments of Ukrainian economic policies to a recounting of debates between Lenin and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to a theoretical estimate of flight times for ballistic missiles from an eastern Ukrainian city to Moscow. The U.S. has said it has no plans to place missiles in Ukraine.

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Even after Putin announced that Russian troops would enter Ukraine’s sovereign territory, Western leaders hesitated to pull the trigger on the serious sanctions they promised would be imposed if Putin made any military move in Ukraine. Those areas in Eastern Ukraine that Putin has recognized as independent republics still belong to the sovereign territory of Ukraine. Putin cannot unilaterally declare them independent.

But what contempt Putin must feel for the West where, even after sending troops to invade the territory of Ukraine, NATO is holding back, refusing to issue the sanctions they promised.

Putin must be openly gloating over this show of utter weakness.

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