VLADIMIR Putin is exactly where he wants to be: at the centre of world attention. His aims and objectives are well known: to restore Russia to Great Power, or even Superpower, status; to frustrate the policies of the US and its allies, and to regain influence or control over the ‘near abroad’ – that is, the former Soviet republics of Europe and Central Asia. He has shown his commitment to the first objective by rebuilding the Russian armed forces in size and capability over the past ten years, using oil and gas revenues and effectively mobilising a much smaller GDP than that of most Nato countries. He has shown, also, his commitment to the third objective most recently in his intervention in Kazakhstan, hitherto considered an ally by the US. His involvement in Ukraine has been considerable since the disastrous EU intervention there and all the broken promises that followed the signing of the Minsk Agreement – no wonder he is mistrustful.
Since then, he has used the full range of capabilities of what is termed hybrid warfare in effect to detach the Donbas region with its high proportion of ethnic Russians and its mineral resources. These include the use of irregular forces and special forces infiltrated into the target state (deniable of course), direct conventional military force sometimes dressed up as exercises, non-military pressures, new technologies allied with old Soviet technique such as maskirovka or deception operations, information warfare, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. In Western eyes his moves in the Donbas are often linked with the annexation, or re-annexation, of the Crimea, but the motivation for that was probably quite different. Putin probably calculated that within ten years, Ukraine could be an EU and Nato member. Nato would never stomach a Russian naval presence in Sevastopol and therefore Putin had a simple choice: immediately annex the Crimea (given away in drunken fit, it is said, by Khrushchev) or face Nato conventionally in ten years’ time.
In the last months, there has been a significant Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border: estimates put troop numbers at around 100,000, with units and formations brought from all over Russia. This has been interpreted as evidence of an imminent invasion, either to seize the Donbas and the coastal territory connecting Russia to the Crimea; or to occupy the whole country and put in place a puppet government subservient to Moscow. Given Putin’s record, there are certainly grounds for this view, and he has options which encompass an invasion of the whole country and the annexation of parts of it – but is it the case? There are grounds for an alternative interpretation.
Putin is, as already noted, right where he wants to be, making capital out of the threat of force rather than its use. If he were intent on the use of force, he would certainly by now have called up reservists and deployed his best-equipped and trained formations to the region. This he has not done. The target of this threat is, therefore, quite possibly not the Ukraine at all – it is Nato, more specifically the cohesion of the alliance. Putin knows that Nato has never been weaker. All its member states have reduced their armed forces in size and capability since 1990. He certainly has no respect for Britain and its pathetically weak non-nuclear forces, and little more for the French and Poles. The Germans he discounts completely: on the one hand, although they have increased their army, there is no likelihood of Germany, the prisoner of its 20th century history, committing to any serious military endeavour. As for the EU and its military pretensions, Putin knows that it is a paper tiger of the most derisory kind. And the rest? As far as he is concerned, they are merely street furniture. Britain and France, it is true, have a sizeable nuclear capability – but so does he.
The US is the only opponent worthy of consideration for Putin. It retains a sizable force in Europe, a mix of permanently assigned and rotational units, the latter on nine-month deployments. The US V Corps has been reactivated and its forward headquarters deployed to Poland. However, Putin knows two things: the first is that really serious, heavy capabilities are few and would require months to bring over from the US; and secondly, that US and Nato logistic sustainability in terms of ammunition, fuel and spares is fragile in the extreme. Last, of course, Ukraine is not a Nato member and Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty does not apply. He holds, therefore, the strongest hand that he will ever hold.
So now is the time to crack the alliance. In addition to his disdain for German military preparedness, he knows he has Berlin over a barrel. One of Angela Merkel’s many devastating mistakes was to make Germany reliant on Russian energy. The unseemly German scramble to appease Putin shows exactly which way the wind is blowing. Macron, too, anxious no doubt to shore up his teetering position in advance of April’s French presidential election, is putting himself about as the face of Europe in dealing with Putin – with not exactly startlingly good results. Pronouncements from Berlin and Paris have repeatedly, in recent months, insisted on the need for a ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia in the face of all evidence of what such a partnership really means.
Nato is already, therefore, fractured. For an alliance that is based on the requirement for unanimity in decision-making, this is fatal. The Poles and the Baltic States take a much harder line and will not willingly once more be subject to Russian domination and have foreign troops stationed on their territory; they can be left for a while. There are no such troops in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria and it is no surprise, therefore, that Putin’s ridiculous demands for the withdrawal of Nato troops should have singled out two of these countries – ridiculous because the only Nato troops there are troops of the armed forces of those countries.
The decisive act in fragmenting Nato will be conducted in two stages. First, drive a wedge between the US, the alliance’s most powerful member and therefore its centre of gravity, and the rest. The French and Germans have already assisted him in part in this design. To complete the job, he must make the Americans appear in the role of the aggressor. The weakness of the current US leadership is of inestimable help to him.
Putin has appeared willing for negotiation, and will no doubt continue to do so – but negotiation must be based on compromise, the willingness of all parties to give and take. The problem is that Putin’s demands cannot possibly be met by the US or Nato and there is nothing that he wants that we can offer. Nor is there anything that we want from him – such as a de-escalation on the Ukrainian border or a withdrawal from the Donbas – that he is prepared to give. Negotiation is therefore just another tool in the demonisation of the US. Professor Sergey Karaganov,honorary chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, published an article online in the Russia in Global Affairs journal, reprinted by Russia Today on February 8, 2022.In this article, the Professor puts the Russian view succinctly:
‘The US and Nato are still rejecting Russia’s justifiable proposals – putting an end to further Nato expansion, which is seen as absolutely unpalatable in Moscow and liable to risk a big war, deployment of offensive arms in the eastern part of Central Europe, and a return to the status quo ante of 1997 when the Russia-Nato Act was signed. The US counter-proposals about talks on confidence-building measures and arms control sound pleasant, but they are largely pointless. We have seen it all before. Confidence can only start to be restored when basic Russian interests are met.’
Once this is achieved, and the US is cast as the biggest threat to peace and security in Europe, the second step can be taken. This is probably the detachment of at least one country from Nato. If a single member leaves, it is probably game over for Nato as we now understand it and certainly any further enlargement, say in the trans-Caucasus, would be doomed. Who are the candidates? Latvia with its Russian majority population? Turkey, turning its back on Europe and looking to Central Asia? At present, we cannot see that far into the future. Professor Karaganov again:
‘There are a few ways to solve the narrow Ukrainian problem, such as its return to permanent neutrality, or legal guarantees from several key Nato countries not to ever vote for further expansion of the bloc. Diplomats, I assume, have a few others up their sleeves. We do not want to humiliate Brussels by insisting on repudiating its erroneous plea for the open-ended expansion of Nato. We all know the end of the Versailles humiliation. And, of course, the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
‘But the task is wider: to build a viable system on the ruins of the present. And without resorting to arms, of course. Probably in the wider Greater Eurasian framework. Russia needs a safe and friendly Western flank in the competition of the future . . .
‘The security system in Europe, built largely by the West after the 1990s, without a peace treaty having been signed after the end of the previous Cold War, is dangerously unsustainable.’
Such a move, ‘the creation of a safe and friendly Western flank’, would, as well as neutering Nato, give wings to the EU federalists in their quest to develop a European defence identity. The US superpower would be replaced by the EU and Putin’s legacy would be secure. For all the posturing on the border, therefore, Ukraine qua Ukraine is not the issue – Putin simply does not care about the place. Even if he does invade, and he might, the issue is the cracking of the organisation that has kept Europe secure since 1948: Nato.