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Will Putin attack Ukraine – or is that the wrong question?


Will he, or won’t he?

Part one – the brinkmanship play

Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum

Flavius Vegetius Renatus

Upping the ante with propaganda and bullying salvos, Putin has raised the stakes, and his recent ultimatum, almost a call to surrender, keeps many in the West asking the sacrosanct question – will he attack? The Russian president has taken the initiative, leaving the US and the EU in reactive, instead of proactive mode, with few options beyond minimising the damage of his seemingly irrational behaviour. However, this is a recipe for disaster and not responding in kind to his overture has its silver lining – the self-fulfilling prophecy of faites accomplis. At least, that is what the Kremlin believes is happening.   

Keeping people guessing, in fact, fits perfectly into Mr Putin’s plans. Whether and when Russia will attack is secondary to brinkmanship. Brinkmanship is Mr Putin’s main strategic tool.

It’s also what he’s really good at.

Look at its results: Mr Putin upped the ante in spring, and he secured a meeting with Mr Biden and the latter became more cautious on sanctions. The US president is not just holding back on putting US boots on the ground in Ukraine – nobody seriously expected him to do that – but is also withholding military aid and military supplies of various sorts. And he’s even wavering about sending military advisers.

The Ukrainians are being kept guessing too. The mere possibility of invasion, without invasion itself (or rather, after 2014, without further invasion), is forcing Ukraine to spend insupportable amounts on defence – which will account for a scary 6% of GDP according to the recently approved budget for 2022. That helps derail Ukraine’s development. And it must really warm the hearts of the top brass at Russia’s Security Council. For chronic crises bring protests and chaos. Freezing temperatures feed hunger for Russian gas. And with them comes an opening for intervention on humanitarian grounds. There’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here, or maybe of the virtual reality induced by Kremlin propaganda. Which is no surprise, since virtual reality can sometimes be a lot more cost-effective and damaging than actual reality.

So the question of whether Mr Putin intends to invade, wants to invade, or is willing to invade – these are all slightly differently nuanced questions and all difficult to answer. And they probably are the wrong questions in the first place.

The probable truth is that Mr Putin is prepared to invade, in the sense that he has the troops and tanks in place, has made the necessary preparations, and has made very sure than everyone knows this. He will invade if he feels that he must or that it’s very clearly to his advantage to do so –especially if he thinks he can do it safely. Now, he probably hopes to get by – and, especially, to achieve his objectives – without resorting to military force, or at least, without resorting to an intervention that consists primarily of military force. And his nightmare is a protracted military conflict, which he knows he probably couldn’t win, and which would certainly damage him: so, he won’t invade if he thinks such a conflict will result.

However,… Two, “howevers”, in fact:

First, it should be stressed that Ukraine isn’t just a sideshow, one policy consideration among many. It is central to what Mr Putin thinks he must achieve to protect his system and to go down in history as he wishes. Ukraine is a thorn in his side.

On the one hand, it epitomises his greatest failure, the loss of “Kievan Rus”, and impairs his claim to be the “new Alexander Nevsky” – the Unifier of the Russian Lands. So, Mr Putin believes a Ukrainian adventure could supply the main item that is now missing from his legacy. 

On the other hand, if Ukraine is self-contained, dynamically developing, democratic, European, and pro-Atlantic, it could become a role model and a magnet for dissatisfied Russian citizens. That’s just what Mr Putin certainly doesn’t want. He knows such a development is a possibility and, like his erstwhile “chief ideologist” Vladislav Surkov, he knows the long-term potential for such dissatisfaction.

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So, he wants to put Ukraine in its proper place. Whether he does this by invasion is secondary. But he certainly wants to do it.

Second, Mr Putin is cautious, cunning, and calculating. But he’s also an inveterate political poker player, a bluffer, and an opportunist, always open to the possibilities presented by a developing situation. So, if, in the process of bluff and brinkmanship, he weakens Ukraine and undermines the West’s resolve – or confirms his suspicion that said resolve wasn’t very resolute in the first place – he may see an opportunity and bite off what he can chew.

Or thinks he can chew which is where Mr Putin may come unstuck.

The EU – Russia equation

Now, EU policy towards Russia has – taken in terms of overall outcomes – so far been rather weak-kneed. That was certainly the outcome when Mr Putin went into Crimea in 2014. But the constellation of forces is quite a complicated one and its outcome now would probably be that EU reactions to a similar move would not be muted.

First, consider Germany. Berlin’s approach has probably not been much changed by the exit of Angela Merkel from the scene. Under the new coalition, Germany will remain soft on NS-2 and messianically focused on climate change. However, the absence of Mrs Merkel’s authoritative voice may make Germany marginally less influential within the EU – though only marginally – while the Greens, as an element in the new coalition, are more suspicious than average of the Russians and very suspicious indeed of Russia’s weaponisation of natural gas.

It should also be remembered that, for reasons of ingrained custom and complexes grounded in “unfortunate” history, Germany does not call the shots in military and security-related matters, never has done, and does not aspire to do so. And “security”, incidentally, includes energy security. So, Germany will not lead but follow, whenever geopolitics and energy security override other considerations.

However, Berlin has a mind of its own and, while not taking the initiative, may be a drag on others’ initiatives. Germany will be reluctant to participate in NATO’s defence plans and military assistance against Russia in Ukraine, or even consider NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. And that reluctance could have serious consequences: Germany will veto the more radical forms of countering Moscow’s moves and leave the only option open “a coalition of the willing”. Conversely, Germany is most likely to respond positively, on the diplomatic front, to calls for an EU-Russia or NATO-Russia summit to consider Vladimir Putin’s demands for binding security guarantees.

All this is not to say that Germany’s stance will preclude effective action. But it may make it more complicated to achieve. And that complication will need to be considered.

Second, it should be noted also that there’s some institution-based division within the EU. The European Parliament (EP) is strongly opposed to NS-2, voting consistently against it coming online, and it is also pro-Ukraine and firm against Putin. EP resolutions are non-binding, of course, but they are taken seriously as measurements of the EU’s temperature – and for this reason contribute to undermining Berlin’s claim to hegemony in EU-Russia relations. As to the European Commission and the European Council, they occupy intermediate positions as well as being internally divided. And everywhere there’s a growing hostility to Germany’s Deutschland uber alles position.

Third, the bigger West European states of the EU increasingly make up a sort of “in-house opposition” to Germany. True, Brexit has removed a natural counterbalance to the extremes of German Ostpolitik, as well as a voice in EU debates that, belonging to a nuclear power, tended to carry weight whenever issues of security topped the EU agenda. But both France and Italy have been lukewarm if not hostile to NS-2, considering German pretensions generally irksome. Both countries are specifically at odds with German-led climate policy and the lack of cohesive reactions to exorbitant energy prices.

Climate-change consensus is, in fact, quickly eroding. France has pushed back the closure of its nuclear reactors. And the recent change of mind at European Commission level allowing nuclear energy and gas as an interim fuel is a mark of a change that has yet to unfold in full – and that will do so once the saga of UGS depletion is dramatized by looming gas supply shortages at end-February 2022. Especially interesting to observe will be reactions in the most vulnerable countries, those with the lowest stocks of gas in their UGS facilities, namely Germany and Austria, the closest EU allies of Putin’s Russia.

Fourth, there are the EU’s Central and East European (CEE) member states. It can be taken for granted that Poland and the Baltic states are not on the same page as Germany and painfully aware of the Russian threat. It also must be admitted, sadly, that Hungary’s Viktor Orban is both firmly in control of his country and, for whatever reason, under the control of Mr Putin. But, within the “Visegrad Group”, both Slovakia and the Czech Republic might be responsive to resolute common action to protect Ukraine. So would Romania and to a much lesser extent Bulgaria. The tide of politics in many of these countries is turning against elite factions that are either in the pockets of Mr Putin and Russian economic groupings or, at least, have made excessive compromises with them. And the threat of further Russian moves against Ukraine is a game-changer: CEE countries that were not scared before – being reassured by bloc membership – are on edge now. By the same token, EU and NATO members know that, if there’s no response to serious Russian aggression against Ukraine, CEE countries’ confidence that Russia can be stopped would be shattered – and with it the very foundation of both organisations.

So, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The red herring of Liberal Old Europe vs Illiberal East Europe

By the way, one red herring should be identified as such and ignored. This is the idea that there’s a potentially debilitating division within the EU between a “liberal” West and a CEE – “illiberal”, “authoritarian”, or whatever other label you please – that does not subscribe to liberal European values. At best, that’s a drastic and misleading oversimplification. And at worst it’s just wrong.

Why? There are two reasons.

Reason No1 is that “illiberalism” in CEE is mostly a matter, not of fundamental values, but of reaction to shortcomings of leadership and policy in the EU and in the Westerners (above all Germans) that have dominated it. The old-EU dominated Brussels has been downright dysfunctional in addressing major challenges: the pandemic, energy policy, the refugee crises, the implications of climate change, and pressure from Russia and other autocracies. And the effect has been amplified in two ways: one is that, since Mr Putin seems to succeed so regularly where the EU fails, many in CEE understandably conclude that, to counter an autocrat, you need to act like an autocrat; the other is that, in the case of energy and climate change, Brussels’ political agenda increases vulnerabilities and pressures on the vulnerable. So, it’s no wonder that local politicians seek to distance themselves from Brussels.

Reason No2 is that there’s a basic misunderstanding of what really is “liberal” or quintessentially “European”. “Liberalism” has got a bad name in CEE – and elsewhere – because it has ceased to be associated with basic democratic and Christian values. Instead, it has somehow become identified with weak leaders that bend as Mr Putin requires and have some frankly weird ideas about policy and how the world works. Faced with the need to steer the EU into a more globally competitive mode, the EU’s new elite trust they can do so via climate and energy policies that have no anchor in any credible and resourceful action plan or strategy. Instead, they rely on the notion that mandatory enforcement, via legal and regulatory means, of their climate change policies without an adequate market agenda can allow the EU the call the shots in world politics and the world economy. Which is nonsense – and dangerous nonsense at that.

To sum up a rather tortuous argument, then. The EU is a complicated political environment and is not to be seen as simply dominated by Merkel-style Ostpolitik. In both economic and political terms, there is a firm ground for an alliance between France and Italy, on the one hand, and almost all of CEE on the other (the possible exception being Hungary): and Germany would be unable to counter such an alliance once it crystallised. In terms of its credibility in CEE, the Russian threat to Ukraine is an existential one for the EU, and Brussels almost certainly knows it. And in terms of what divides CEE from its more Westerly partners, that’s less a matter of fundamentals than of inept policies that are specifically German-inspired and may be on the way to being corrected.

All this being so, it’s now a matter of decisive and imaginative politics. To oppose Putin, CEE needs to see a strong resolve in the EU and the US.

There’s hope that given the ultimatums and call for surrender from Mr. Putin the US and the EU will chose to challenge him in both word and deed.

Part two:

Ilian Vassilev

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