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Putin, Ukraine, and the Failure of Western Elites
Our foreign policy elites are mystified and unsure how to respond as Vladimir Putin is about to do what he has talked about doing for years
Europe is approaching its greatest crisis since the end of the Cold War three decades ago. Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved a large portion of his military to the borders of Ukraine and appears to be almost ready to unleash a major, multi-axis attack on his neighbor. According to Ukrainian intelligence, something like 130,000 Russian troops have marshalled on their country’s frontiers, ready to strike. More than 60 Russian Battalion Tactical Groups are deployed on or near Ukraine’s borders, in the south, east, and now the north.
The appearance of several Russian BTGs in Belarus, some arriving from the Eastern Military District (i.e. Siberia), ostensibly for joint exercises with Belarusian forces, has particularly unnerved Western observers, since any attack into Ukraine from the north would likely result in the fall of the capital Kyiv to the Russians rather quickly. In military terms, the Ukrainians are outmatched by Putin’s forces. In the event of war, Russia would dominate Ukrainian airspace while the Russian Navy would control access to Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. In terms of ground combat, despite progress in recent years, Ukraine’s brigades remain broadly outclassed by the Russians, and no number of last-minute arms shipments by NATO can change the fundamental equation here. While Putin would be foolish to get bogged down in any protracted campaign in Ukraine, with the prospect of urban combat and guerrilla-type resistance, any short-term “shock and awe” offensive by the Russian military seems likely to enjoy success.
The Kremlin’s political rhetoric has matched its aggressive military moves. Moscow has rudely brushed away NATO efforts to reach a compromise on Ukraine, while last week a top Russian diplomat dismissed negotiations with the brusque comment, “If we don't hear a constructive response to our proposals within a reasonable time frame and an aggressive line of behavior towards Russia continues, we will be forced to draw appropriate conclusions and take all necessary measures to ensure strategic balance and eliminate unacceptable threats to our national security,” adding ominously: “Russia is a peace-loving country. But we do not need peace at any cost. The need to obtain these legally formalized security guarantees for us is unconditional.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sounded similar when he bluntly stated, “We have run out of patience,” meaning that NATO won’t agree to Moscow’s demands that the Alliance withdraw its offer of membership to Ukraine while granting the Kremlin a veto on NATO military deployments anywhere near Russia. The former point might be possible, at least in theory, given the painful reality that NATO never really meant for Kyiv and Tbilisi to join the Alliance, yet NATO will never give Moscow a say in what it does with its own military forces. Diplomatic possibilities are, if not entirely exhausted, nearly so. A venerable Kremlin joke has it that “Those who do not want to listen to Lavrov will have to deal with Shoigu,” the latter being Russia’s defense minister, which doesn’t sound very amusing to Ukraine right now.
Hence yesterday’s admission by the Biden White House that the Ukraine crisis represents an “extremely dangerous situation” where “We believe we're now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” in the words of press secretary Jen Psaki. The U.S. Intelligence Community assesses that the Kremlin may launch major combat operations against Ukraine at any time, perhaps employing a “false flag” attack on Russian forces as casus belli, a prospect which is unsurprising to anyone acquainted with recent history. In 1999, when Putin was transitioning from heading the Federal Security Service, the powerful FSB, to running the Kremlin, Chechen jihadists attacked Russia, led by a famous fighter who happened to be an agent of Russian military intelligence or GRU, while shadowy terrorists blew up several apartment buildings around Moscow, killing more than 300 civilians – attacks which the FSB, or elements thereof, seemed to have a hand in. These bloody activities gave Putin an excuse to restart the Chechen war, which Russia eventually won, so the notion that similar dirty tricks might be employed against Ukraine hardly seems far-fetched.
The response of Western foreign policy elites to the Ukraine crisis has been underwhelming, to be charitable. Confronted by the prospect of renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine, Western security mavens seem to have no idea what to do. Pleading with Moscow to be reasonable, buttressed by the usual diplomatic junkets, sharing Spotify playlists, gently explaining to the Kremlin how unreasonable their demands are…none of it has worked. Moscow hasn’t backed down an inch, indeed Russian rhetoric towards NATO has only grown more belligerent the longer Western supplications have continued.
A CNN analyst gave the game away yesterday by stating, “‘I really don't know where this all came from,’ is a phrase I have heard Western officials sigh multiple times over the past months” regarding the Moscow-manufactured Ukraine crisis.
How is that possible? Putin waged a hot war of aggression against Ukraine in 2014-15, starting with Russia’s theft of Crimea by GRU’s Little Green Men, followed by the seizure of a good-sized chunk of Ukraine’s southeast by the Russian military. That conflict has ever entirely faded out, and Moscow’s de facto holding on to pieces of Ukraine means that country will never be allowed to enter NATO. Given the recent past, and the not-entirely-frozen conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk, how on earth can anybody be surprised that Putin might attack Ukraine again?
Moreover, the Kremlin strongman has been admirably forthright about his aims regarding Ukraine. For years, Putin’s public statements have indicated that he does not consider Russia’s neighbor to be a bona fide country, rather an extension of Russia, no more than a “region,” while his comments last summer, including a detailed pseudo-historical tract complete with Orthodox mysticism expounding Putin’s view that Russia and Ukraine are inextricably linked, left no doubt to anyone paying attention that the Kremlin was prepared to act by any means necessary to keep Kyiv far away from NATO and the West.
The signs have been there 15 years, flashing brightly. Putin’s anger at NATO and especially the United States over Alliance expansion into the post-Soviet space burst into the public domain at the Munich Security Conference in early 2007 where the Russian leader unleashed a broadside aimed at the West. Putin’s fiery speech attacked NATO expansion, accusing the Alliance of putting “its frontline forces on our borders,” criticizing America’s “unipolar” dominance over the world, while condemning Washington’s “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations.”
Disappointed Western experts noted that Putin sounded rather angry, while he rejected American global hegemony, also considering NATO expansion to be a direct threat to Russia. Two months later, “somebody” shut out the lights in Tallinn with a massive cyberattack on Estonia, which happened to coincide with pro-Russian riots there. The next year, Putin unleashed a brief, painful war on Georgia which cemented de facto Kremlin occupation of one-fifth of Georgian territory, thus ensuring that Tbilisi cannot enter NATO. The George W. Bush administration, mired in losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, paid insufficient attention to Moscow’s aggression. Western experts acted shocked by Putin’s brazen behavior then moved on to more pressing matters.
A rising tide of Kremlin anger against the West was impossible to miss in Moscow’s conduct and rhetoric unless you wanted to. During the 2012 U.S. presidential race, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was mocked by President Barack Obama for suggesting that Russia represented America’s “biggest geopolitical threat.” Hip Obama castigated the square Romney with the acidic quip, “the 1980s are now calling for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
In September 2013, Putin made his feelings towards the West transparent in his speech to the Valdai Club in Moscow, including the reminder, “Russia’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity are unconditional. These are red lines no one is allowed to cross,” while casting Russia’s rising conflict with the West in spiritual as much as political terms. Putin portrayed himself and his regime as conservatives trying to protect Russia from the West’s progressive cultural pollution. As he stated:
Another serious challenge to Russia's identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.
Putin’s describing the postmodern West as the enemies of God, in league with the Devil, got less attention abroad than it merited, no doubt in part because Western elites are highly secular and feel uncomfortable discussing religious matters of any kind. Western experts, however, could not ignore it when, at virtually the same time as Putin’s unleashed his Valdai Club speech, Obama abandoned his own “red line” in Syria, offering a needless gift to Moscow. It’s never a good idea to show weakness towards a career Chekist, and the Kremlin took Obama’s move as a green light elsewhere, as I predicted at the time, with a colleague. Just a few months later, Putin unleashed his aggressive war against Ukraine, of which the current crisis is merely an extension. Again, Western experts acted shocked and disappointed by such brazen Russian smash-and-grab behavior.
Why on earth such “experts” are surprised, in 2022, after a decade-and a-half of Putin’s angry rhetoric aimed at the West, followed by his repeated acts of aggression against Russia’s neighbors, constitutes an important question. Answering it is relatively simple if you possess the fortitude to face depressing answers.
The painful truth is that the foreign policy mavens who are driving American diplomacy right now are largely the same cast of characters who failed to stop (or even understand) Putin during the two terms of the Obama administration. These are all book-smart people with impressive degrees on the wall, yet who understand little about how the world really works. They came of age during the post-Cold War period of unchallenged American hegemony, when foreign policy gurus assured them that “soft power” was the wave of the future and major wars were no more. Their European equivalents are, if anything, even less reality-based, as witnessed by the unilateral disarmament of most of European NATO since the 1990s. At the Cold War’s end, the West German Army possessed a dozen active divisions with 36 brigades and some 50 tank battalions; today the Bundeswehr has three divisions (on paper) with 7.5 brigades and six tank battalions (until recently, just four). Who needs tanks when the toughest issue you ever expect to confront is tidying up agricultural subsidies in Brussels?
To such elites, all of whom fall on the spectrum of Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic, WEIRD for short, Putin represents an atavism whose motivations they cannot understand. The Kremlin strongman adheres to a distinctly throwback view of international relations where the use of force is normal, and countries protect their national interests unapologetically, with all the instruments of national power. Putin’s wholehearted embrace of religiously-infused nationalism, which boasts a venerable history in Russia, leaves WEIRDs befuddled yet has real resonance among average Russians. Western doubts that the former KGB man has “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” miss the point, but then the West has never understood Russian Orthodoxy very well. No matter what Putin really believes, his public embrace of religiously-grounded national conservatism provides his regime with an ideological anchor, one which happens to view Ukraine’s subservience to Russia as a spiritual as well as geostrategic necessity.
President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have assured the Kremlin that, while NATO will not fight for Ukraine, since it’s not an Alliance member, any renewed Russian aggression there will be met with severe economic sanctions on Moscow, a prospect that cannot be edifying for Putin and his oligarch allies. Experts have noticed that Russians are dissatisfied with the state of the underperforming Russian economy already, while there is no popular groundswell of support for waging war on Ukraine. Let it be noted that there were no popular calls for recent Russian military adventures – Georgia, Ukraine, Syria – yet that proved no break on Putin’s actions.
Moreover, what does short-term economic pain matter when compared to the benefits of bringing Kyiv to heel with military force? For Putin, humiliating Ukraine with a “shock and awe” offensive would reduce Kyiv to Moscow’s vassal, thereby showing NATO to be impotent, while bringing down the curtains on American global hegemony. This would halt any further NATO expansion while showing Russia to still be a great power demanding respect, plus reuniting historic Rus for Holy Orthodoxy, thereby guaranteeing that Putin someday will be remembered by the Russian Orthodox Church forever as Saint Vladimir the Great.
(If you think I’m joking here, I’m not – and the less we ponder the complete collapse of American global power if any Russian attack on Ukraine happens to coincide with a Chinese move on Taiwan, or even an Iranian effort to shut the Strait of Hormuz, perhaps the better.)
Vladimir Putin has placed himself in a corner by making diplomatic demands of NATO that the Alliance cannot deliver, while publicly requiring a pro-Russian solution to the Ukraine crisis. The military option is the only one the Kremlin has left if it feels it must triumph here, unconditionally. The time for decision is imminent. Putin cannot keep his best military units deployed in the field, in tents in the middle of winter, indefinitely, while the frozen ground of Ukraine in February is better for military operations than the mud of April. If major war is coming to Ukraine again, as seems increasingly likely, it will come soon.
Joe Biden and NATO have placed themselves in a corner over Ukraine too, one of their own making. The happy assumptions of the 1990s are now a distant memory. History indeed did not end, and Putin is revealing many sunny WEIRD beliefs to be ill-fitted to current geopolitical realities. Putin’s broader aim with the Ukraine crisis isn’t about Kyiv, it’s about showing NATO’s impotence while revealing America’s paralysis and decadence. The strongman in the Kremlin wants to end the post-Cold War era on terms more favorable to Russia than the last three decades have been. No matter what happens next, Vladimir Putin is in the driver’s seat with the Ukraine crisis. Kyiv, Washington, and Brussels are responding to Moscow’s moves. Putin’s next one may well determine the fate of Europe and beyond for decades to come.