TIME is running dangerously short for a peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian crisis.
Having massed an army of 100,000 on the Ukraine border with the apparent intent of invading his neighbour, Vladimir Putin can wait for only so long while making no move before his credibility erodes and with it his careful reconstruction of post-Soviet Russian power.
President Biden has warned the Russians they face an instant and severe – though unspecified – Western response in the event of an invasion, even if the West has no formal obligations to Kiev; he is having difficulty making himself believed.
At stake is the future of Nato – Putin’s real target – as much as the integrity of Ukraine as a sovereign country.
Biden, his foreign policy credentials in tatters after the debacle he personally ordered in Afghanistan and well-founded suspicions that he is being manipulated by Iran and China, leads an internally divided Nato coalition. Germany and other European countries dependent on Russian gas exports are jibbing at economic sanctions, the only alternative to military intervention.
Whether intentionally or not, and although he has Nato encroachment in eastern and central Europe mainly in his sights, Putin has laid bare the limits to European co-operation, the whole basis of the EU, when the interests of its most powerful member state are threatened.
Nato is preparing to put 8,500 troops here, there and everywhere in central and eastern Europe, but not in Ukraine where the putative attack will take place. God forbid that a Russian soldier and a Nato soldier should meet face to face at the end of each other’s rifle on Ukrainian soil.
Ukraine itself has 250,000 men under arms; Putin has much larger reserves than his 100,000 troops on the border and probably enjoys vastly greater superiority in matériel. The Russians would, however, have a serious fight on their hands if they did attack.
The United States and the British government are increasingly convinced that Putin will carry out the invasion despite his repeated denials.
But what sort of attack is planned? A wrecking sortie across the border to demonstrate Russian resolve, despite the West’s warnings, and then withdrawal? Annexation of eastern Ukraine? That would leave an angry western Ukraine with a permanent grievance on Russia’s doorstep.
Does Putin intend to take over the whole country of 45million mostly hostile people who voted overwhelmingly for independence after the Soviet Union collapsed? Could he reasonably hope to pacify such a large nation under Russian occupation? Does he have the resources? Putin cannot afford a repeat of Russia’s own humiliation in Afghanistan.
The only real deterrent option Biden could brandish is the one he has ruled out, which would be to put US troops on the front line in eastern Ukraine and risk the first conflict between West and East since WW2. Even if the Pentagon thought it was feasible, Biden lacks the political leeway to commit the US to an open war with Russia, which it has taken every care to avoid since 1945.
Putin’s game plan is still to push Nato forward forces out of what he considers the Russian sphere of influence and to secure a guarantee that Ukraine will never join Nato. He wants Nato to withdraw from Poland and the Baltic states – all former Soviet satellites – leaving these countries with only their own limited military resources to counter eventual Russian aggression.
Were Biden to concede this, Nato would effectively be dead, since its raison d’être is a commitment to come to the aid of any member state under attack. If Putin were pre-emptively to overwhelm one or all of the Baltic countries it would be all but impossible for Nato to intervene after the fact.
This is the consequence of giving security guarantees which are essentially worthless, as President Obama discovered in 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea. Nato has never been able to explain the contradiction of having mutual enemies Greece and Turkey as members of the alliance. If they went to war, which would Nato side with?
The immediate danger is that to break the stalemate and hurry along his demands regarding Nato, Putin prods Biden, whom he suspects of bluffing with tied hands, with an unpleasant provocation.
We have got ourselves into a nasty and recognisable pre-war predicament with each side winding the other up to the point where fighting might start even if it’s the last thing we want. Is Ukraine worth it? Given Germany’s foot-dragging over Ukraine and France’s desire to create an EU army without the US, the other question is whether Nato is worth it.