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HomeNewsUkraine II: The West blinked, and Putin won the staring match

Ukraine II: The West blinked, and Putin won the staring match


THAT was close! At the weekend, a war in eastern Europe was imminent, according to the US and Britain. Within hours of those headlines, some of the Russian troops said to be on the brink of invading Ukraine were packing up to go back to their bases.

They’ve finished their ‘drills’ is how the Russian defence ministry explained things. Boris Johnson and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said separately that there was room for more diplomatic activity.

What changed? Nothing on the military front, since it is unlikely Vladimir Putin wanted to invade Ukraine, on whose border his forces have been manoeuvring since October amidst a crescendo of diplomatic and media fearmongering in the West.

The likelihood is that Joe Biden and other Nato leaders accepted that both sides were in a no-win situation if Putin did attack but that the West had more to lose.

Putin certainly would have risked being stuck in a tough fight with a well-armed neighbour. But if it came to war, the West’s inability to do much about it risked being exposed, which would have been much more dangerous for its credibility.

What has been pulled from the hat is an apparent win-win situation for both sides. Putin seems to have lifted a threat he never explicitly made. Biden can claim it was as a result of his warning to the Russians of severe consequences if they invaded. Never mind that this could have been achieved at any time since 2014 without the geopolitical theatrics.

It is clear is that Putin won the staring match. The West blinked as it did when Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine and President Obama acquiesced after a realistic evaluation of the limited options open to him.

Remember that 2014 was the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, into which the Europeans seemed to wander through a mechanistic diplomatic process which governments could not stop and whose disastrous outcome, for all the countries involved, they either could not foresee or prevent after conflict began.

Obama knew that fighting a small, localised war with Russia in its own backyard thousands of miles from home would always risk escalating out of control. Biden has bowed to the same reality, but more clumsily after using the media to whip up a war fever that was never more than a smokescreen.

The public of the United States and Europe can legitimately claim to have been misled by their leaders who now look foolish.

What will emerge next are plans for the serious negotiation about post-Soviet security in east and central Europe that Putin has been able to force by exploiting Ukraine’s aspiration to join Nato.

Putin would not have threatened Ukraine without the aggressive Nato and EU advance on Russia’s borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine in 2022 is a mess we in the West created for ourselves by not learning the lessons of 2014.

We owe Ukraine nothing. Its fate inevitably will be Finlandisation, which has worked perfectly well for the Finns. They are said to be interested in joining Nato along with neutral Sweden but why would they do that? Finland in Nato would potentially recreate the same scenario between Russia and Ukraine on the Finnish border without any increase in its security. This is currently not under threat.

Had Biden been serious about defending Ukraine, there would have been 100,000 US marines deployed on its eastern border telling Putin to bring it on, but that was never going to happen under any set of circumstances.

There are democrats in Ukraine just as there are in Russia, but Ukraine is no more a democracy than Russia is. In fact, it has more in common with Russia than the West and as such has no place in either Nato or the EU until it becomes a proper democracy.

The West’s permanent fear is that Putin might make mischief in an existing Nato country, which really would test the security guarantees the West has handed out. Without the US, Nato is a shell. Would the US go to war with Russia over the Baltic states? Far from sure.

Poland, which for well-founded historical reasons has been in the van of Western support for Ukraine, might be a different matter. But Poland would be a much more formidable opponent than Ukraine or the Baltic states in a conventional war.

Putin doesn’t need Poland but he does need to keep Ukraine out of Nato, where its admission would be the step too far from the Kremlin’s point of view. Putin’s aim is to neutralise Nato’s presence in the region, not to allow it to expand.

This is the deal he wants from Biden now that he has resurrected Russia as a great power militarily. The problem for Biden is how he squares this with Nato’s future purpose, which has been an open question for three decades and needs to be resolved. It’s been sailing the seas of European geopolitics as the Mary Celeste for too long and needs to find a home port.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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