EUROPE: Checkmate: Putin has the West cornered – Opinion

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin

Opinion by Michael Bociurkiw | CNN

As 2022 nears, the West is trying to figure out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move on a complex geopolitical chessboard — and preparing an “aggressive package” of sanctions, should he decide to make another land grab in Ukraine. 

Tensions are now at their highest since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and dispatched “little green men” into Ukraine’s Donbas region. An all-out land invasion of Ukraine is now a real possibility.

But let’s face it. Putin could care less about the West’s threats, sitting as he does in the enviable position of being able to call the shots.       

Europe is in the grip of an energy crisis with low reserves. And with Russia supplying some 40% of the European Union’s gas imports, the Kremlin has already shown its ability to checkmate the West’s harshest sanctions by limiting production and potentially triggering rolling blackouts across the continent.

Putin’s endgame is USSR 2.0, coming almost 30 years to the day the Soviet Union collapsed. His next moves come at a delicate geopolitical moment, with Western fears of a Ukraine invasion, the colonization of Belarus, a Europe-wide energy crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down as EU chief negotiator and concerns over US President Joe Biden’s discombobulated foreign policy.

If you’ve any doubt about Putin’s plans to roll back the clock, just read his 5,000-plus-word essay on why Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are doomed without closer integration with Mother Russia. Or his audacious demands Friday for a veto on who joins the NATO alliance and limits in stationing troops and weaponry in any country which joined the alliance after 1997.

Without firing a shot, Putin has managed to send the West into a collective panic — or at least into a position where they feel the need to appease the aging autocrat.

For the past four months, and particularly between September 7 and December 5 according to western intelligence sources quoted by CNN, Putin has been amassing tens of thousands of troops and heavy weaponry as close as 30 miles to Ukraine’s borders. U.S. intelligence reports suggest a build-up of up to 175,000 troops, enough to stage a swift and immediate incursion. 

Another land grab would add to the territory seized in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and sent Russian-backed combatants into the heavily industrialized eastern Donbas region of Ukraine.

With so much muscle, Putin could be gunning for a land bridge between Russia proper and Crimea — a move which could be designed in part to free-up water resources blocked by Ukraine in the North Crimean Canal, which once accounted for up to 85% of the peninsula’s water needs.

The Kremlin’s actions have not been limited to Ukraine. Russia has been engaged in hybrid warfare with the West, including cyber-hacking one of the US’s largest pipelines, spreading disinformation about coronavirus vaccines, interfering in US elections, and neutralizing opponents on foreign soil.

Most recently, Putin opened up another front with the West by establishing a military alliance with the man often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Emboldened by the Kremlin’s backing, Lukashenko has acted with impunity by jailing opponents, forcing down a Ryanair jet with a political opponent onboard and sending migrants toward its border with EU neighbors.

Yet, as recently as Thursday, European leaders were responding to Putin’s bullying tactics and intimidation by trying to nudge him toward the bargaining table. This could be a sign that the bloc fears that even if they sign off on further harsh sanctions on Russia should an invasion take place, Putin could respond by holding back gas production.

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and security services expert, told me that the country is already heavily sanctioned, and that targeted Russian companies have been effectively inoculated with lucrative contracts from the defense forces and intelligence entities.

Russia has likely seen the impact of the 2018 harsh western sanctions on Iran and calculated it can withstand punitive measures even if it means suspension from the international SWIFT payment system. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, Russia and China pledged this week to work jointly toward a closed trading network that would reduce dependence on the international financial system and limit transactions in US currency.

At home, Putin has been brandishing the state’s power through fear and cohesion — chiefly by banning civil society groups, jailing high profile opponents and threatening Russian nationals who work for foreign embassies.

What are the tools left in the West’s diplomatic toolbox? Depressingly few. But some options remain: banning Russians from travel, blocking those multimillion dollar property deals which have transformed London and Miami into playgrounds for wealthy Russians — even ordering the immediate expulsion of Russian nationals from Western countries. In other words, whatever it takes short of direct military conflict. 

With an invasion of Ukraine imminent, the West needs to clarify the pain that awaits Putin should he decide to make his next move. Clearly, video chats with Biden and threats from European leaders of “serious consequences” will not deter Putin.

The appearance of a lack of resolve, whether in diplomacy, on the battlefield or on the chessboard, is never a winning strategy.

 

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 12/25/2021 at 12:48 am

    What Happens When US Rejects Putin’s Ultimatum?

    By Nikola Mikovic | Asia Times

    Russian President Vladimir Putin does not seem ready to burn his bridges with the West just yet, judging by his highly anticipated end-of-year speech delivered on December 23.

    Despite threats and harsh rhetoric amid a threatened war on Ukraine, the Russian leader at the same time says that the United States’ response to the Kremlin’s demands for legally binding security guarantees to defuse the stand-off has been “positive”, even though Washington still has not formally responded to Moscow’s proposals.

    Does that mean Russia is actually not poised to invade the neighboring country that was part of the former Soviet Union?

    NOT NECESSARILY. If Ukraine launches a full-scale military offensive in the Donbass, Moscow will likely have to intervene to protect the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.

    Otherwise, the West would interpret Russia’s lack of a firm response as another sign of weakness, and eventually Ukraine, strongly supported by the United States, could seek to restore its sovereignty over Crimea.

    “The future of the Donbass has to be decided by the people living in the Donbass,” said Putin during his highly anticipated end-of-year press conference.

    The people of the Donbass, of course, already decided their future in May 2014 when they held a referendum and declared “self-rule”, or de facto independence from Kiev. TO THIS DAY, HOWEVER, THE KREMLIN REFUSES TO RECOGNIZE THE REFERENDUM.

    But in case of a potential Ukrainian offensive, Russia may implement the same strategy it used in 2008 after Georgia attacked its breakaway region of South Ossetia. Moscow intervened, expelled Georgian forces from the region and recognized the independence not only of South Ossetia but also of Abkhazia.

    Given that west Ukraine has a far greater strategic and economic importance than Georgia, such a Russian action would result in severe sanctions that would negatively impact on Russia’s economy. In order to prevent such a scenario, the Kremlin is now demanding “security guarantees” that NATO will not expand eastward into Ukraine.

    “You must give us guarantees, and immediately – now”, Putin said.

    It remains unclear, though, why the Kremlin is in such a hurry. In early October former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev penned an article in which he pointed out that “Russia knows how to wait”, and that Moscow should wait until “sane figures” come to power in Kiev and replace the current Ukrainian leadership.

    Two months later, however, Putin is pressuring the United States to promise that Ukraine will not join NATO. The alliance has already ruled out any compromise over NATO’s “key principles”, which means that the West will almost certainly not provide the “security guarantees” Putin seeks.

    What will Moscow do in that case?

    “The United States needs to understand that we simply have nowhere else to go. Do they think we’re going to stand by and watch,” Putin said a couple of days before his annual year-end media conference, claiming that the US could push Kiev to attack Crimea.

    To be sure, such rhetoric from Putin is nothing new. In August 2016, Putin accused the Ukrainian Defense Ministry of killing a Russian soldier and a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer in Crimea, at the border with Ukraine.

    Apparently, Ukraine sent a sabotage-reconnaissance group to Crimea, which resulted in a brief border clash. Putin said Russia would “not let such things slide by,” but Moscow never responded to the alleged killing of its military and intelligence personnel.

    Thus, if Ukraine eventually really stages massive provocations in Crimea, Russia’s response may not be as fierce as some might expect.

    Although the Kremlin claims that Ukraine and the United States are preparing to “commit provocations” that could include a chemical attack, such a scenario does not seem very realistic. RUSSIA HAS A HISTORY OF RINGING SUCH “FALSE ALARMS” IN SYRIA.

    For instance, in 2017, Moscow accused Washington of concocting a “provocation” in Syria, while a year later the Kremlin claimed that rebels were planning a chemical weapons attack with the intent of blaming it on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

    In November this year, Russia’s Defense Ministry warned that Turkey-backed militants plan to stage a provocation and use chemical weapons against civilians in the Middle Eastern country.

    Given that no chemical provocation ever took place, it seems unlikely that Kiev and Washington will launch such an adventure in Crimea either.

    WHAT IS ALMOST CERTAIN, HOWEVER, IS THAT THE UNITED STATES WILL NOT FULFILL RUSSIA’S DEMANDS AND PROVIDE GUARANTEES THAT NATO WILL NOT EXPAND EASTWARD.

    Russian officials, for their part, claim to have a plan B in case the US and NATO do not respond to Moscow’s proposals, although they refuse to say what actions the Kremlin would take.

    Such a narrative was advanced in 2014, when the myth of Putin’s so-called “cunning plans” was born. IN REALITY, RUSSIA’S ACTIONS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN RATHER LIMITED, CALCULATED AND CAREFULLY COORDINATED WITH ITS WESTERN PARTNERS.

    Even now, amid fears of a large-scale conflict between Russia and Western-backed Ukraine, Russian military officials often hold talks with their Western counterparts. Even so, a potential Ukrainian offensive in the Donbass is not out of the question.

    “One gets the impression that a third military operation is being prepared in Ukraine and they are warning us – do not interfere. We must somehow react to this”, Putin stressed in his speech.

    INDEED, THE KREMLIN WILL REACT. But Moscow is more likely to yet again implement half measures, aiming to preserve its de facto control over the Donbass while at the same time not blowing up its relations with the West.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 12/25/2021 at 1:07 am

    John Haltiwanger | Business Insider wrote:

    Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly hostile rhetoric towards Ukraine is frightening him and strikes a distinctly unsettling tone.

    If Putin is “trying to scare us by acting crazy,” then he’s “succeeding with me,” McFaul said in a tweet.

    “I’ve listened to more Putin speeches than most. I’ve been in meetings with him for five years,” McFaul said of Putin’s remarks on Tuesday. “This speech is something different — Putin’s list of completely fabricated threats here is truly striking … and scary.”

    This came in response to a speech in which Putin blamed NATO and the US for recent tensions over Ukraine, while threatening to take “adequate military-technical response measures” in response to “unfriendly steps.”

    “What the US is doing in Ukraine is at our doorstep … And they should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly?” Putin said, per Reuters.

    As Putin ramped up the threats on Tuesday, Russia’s defense minister baselessly claimed that US mercenaries were in eastern Ukraine and preparing a chemical weapons attack. McFaul dismissed this as “completely nuts”.

    Experts say that Putin has manufactured the crisis with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, and is blaming the West for tensions catalyzed by the Kremlin’s aggression. In short, he’s looking for an excuse to invade.

    Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under the Obama administration, in a tweet said that Putin “just declared war on Ukraine pretending it’s war against the US and its allies, provoked by us.”

    Russia has issued a series of demands that NATO and the US promptly dismissed, including a hard commitment that Ukraine and Georgia will never become part of the alliance.

  • brandli62  On 12/26/2021 at 3:13 pm

    I am afraid that Putin has manoeuvred himself into a corner, where he can only get out without loosing face towards the Russian people by either getting the West to make concession, they cannot make, or by starting a war against the Ukraine. I am afraid the latter will happen as early as February 2022. It’s maddening and reminds me of the situation with Hitler and Nazi Germany back in 1939, when all kinds of crazy demands and accusations made towards Poland. We all know how that ended. We do not need a new war in Europe!

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