Post #327: Putin’s War

           Shortly after Joe Biden took office, a distinguished political science professor (whom I won’t name) advised the new administration to engage with Russia in order to stop the Chinese threat. He said the US should “prevent China from dominating Asia” by bringing Russia into a “balancing coalition against China.” No advice could have been more wrongheaded. US policy should have been exactly the opposite: engage China in order to weaken Russia. I wonder what that political scientist is thinking now as he watches Russian troops and planes move into Ukraine proper, aiming to destroy Ukraine’s independence and turn it into a Soviet-era satellite. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders walk a tightrope, publicly backing Russian “security concerns,” as they put it, but privately worrying about what a war in Europe will mean for China’s rise. Biden administration officials reportedly approached Chinese officials about helping persuade Vladimir Putin not to invade Ukraine. But they got the brushoff, hardly surprising in light of the administration’s confrontational policy toward China that people like that political scientist has been advocating.

            My guess is that this political scientist will try to wriggle out of the matter by arguing – just as Vladimir Putin has argued – that if only the US and NATO hadn’t pushed close to Russia’s borders, we would face an entirely different, nonthreatening situation. He would have a point, in that after the Soviet collapse, US officials did take advantage of Russian weakness to establish a presence in the former Soviet satellites, including Ukraine and Poland.  But it’s a small point, and one that cannot possibly justify the reckless, illegal, and dangerous course Putin has embarked upon. If he were serious about the threat from NATO, he could have taken several offramps to avoid a full-scale war. After all, neither Ukraine nor any other state that borders Russia presents a threat to Russian security. It’s a smokescreen, another Big Lie, to cloak the real Russian objective of driving a wedge in the NATO alliance and remaking the European security map to reflect a Russian sphere of influence.

            Putin has made clear in recent speeches that Ukraine, far being a security threat, is a colony in Russian eyes—a fictitious country that has always belonged to Mother Russia.  No appeals to reason, such as Pres. Zelensky has made, can move Putin. He is absolutely determined to bring Ukraine to its knees and make it another piece in the project of restoring Russia’s imperial greatness. Let’s not forget that Russian interventionism has already been responsible for territorial aggrandizement in Chechnya, Georgia, Moldova, and of course Ukraine in 2014. Putin has a large appetite that is quite independent of what NATO does.

            To me, Putin’s theatrical moves to full-scale warmaking in Ukraine—declaring that the two separatist enclaves in the east are “people’s republics” and that Russia’s troop deployments are in response to Ukrainian aggression—are reminiscent of Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia’s Sudentenland in 1938 and his war on Poland the following year. The script is eerily familiar—and must not end in appeasement as it did back then. Heavy sanctions on Russia will not deter Putin, but they will punish him for his crimes. He has succeeded in unifying democratic countries, not just NATO members, as never before—just as Hitler did.  Putin may be able to pacify Ukraine and impose a puppet regime, but it and Russia will be increasingly isolated, and the Russian people as well as Ukrainians will unfortunately feel great pain. But I do believe that Putin’s reach will exceed his grasp, and that he will fail.

            In this crisis, US and European leaders must not forget that Russia still has a large nuclear weapon arsenal. As he said the other day, “Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states” with “a certain advantage in several cutting edge weapons.” Putin’s plans must be defeated, but he must not be cornered. That lesson came out of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when use of nuclear weapons was a distinct possibility, avoided because Pres. Kennedy gave Nikita Khrushchev a way out. In the current war, use of nuclear weapons could also arise from the inevitable spillover of the fighting into NATO territory, or from a misperception in the fog of war leads to a deadly confrontation. Russian and NATO armies will soon be facing each other, making a fatal incident quite possible. We are deep into an era of mutual assured destruction, so –to use an old saying—let’s be careful out there. But let’s not be bullied either.

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  1. Why did Biden not sanction Putin and his family and cut them off from Swify? Assuming lack of European agreement…

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. I think the Cuban analogy is fatally flawed.: No cultural/historical ties between Moscow and Havana, no minimally arguable security threats to Mother Russia, and a prohibitive military (re)supply distance of 6 thousand miles made the episode completely impossible for the Soviets from the get go. No wonder Comrade K was only too happy to accept the spurious but face-saving gesture of the Jupiter Missile withdrawal. Current times and conditions are radically different so re-learning the Cuban Missile lesson is not of much value, Comrade.

    1. I think you completely, “fatally,” missed the point. It’s not that the Cuba-Ukraine situation are analogous, it’s that a way out was found to an extremely dangerous situation through face-saving actions.

  3. Bravo! However, re: “while folks in Beijing worry about what a war in Europe will mean for China’s rise” : if Russia is at all

    successful despite the heavy sanctions, doesn’t this encourage Beijing to take over Taiwan? I think that China is much bigger

    and stronger than Russia, and less vulnerable to sanctions. But you know far more about this than I, and this would be a good theme

    for a subsequent post.

    – Mike

    1. Mike, no, I don’t think so at all. As I pointed out in Post #325 on China’s views of Ukraine, Xi has very different policies toward Taiwan than Putin does toward Ukraine, starting with Xi’s emphasis on peaceful unification. Moreover, Xi must reckon with a US response to an attempted takeover of or attack on Taiwan–a response that would be very direct, unlike Ukraine. Third, the China-Taiwan trade and investment relationship is very important to Beijing. Finally, a US-China conflict over Taiwan would throw China’s economy into chaos. So, in short, the two situations are quite different.

  4. Hi Mel,

    The idea is afloat in some corners here that the US and China will be or
    are already moving towards a durable  resolution to settle differences
    and create a united front to Putin. Wishful thinking, almost certainly.
    And it is hard to imagine Beijing changing course in a dramatic way so
    quickly. However, even if that, it is important to understand how some
    of the middle class Chinese are reacting to the Ukraine War. Beyond
    China it reflects, I sense, the general global sentiment that we must
    all pull together if we are to avoid further conflict leading almost
    surely to our doom.

    Speaking of conflict resolution, I wish the networks would interview
    you. How can we make that happen?

    Be careful.


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