Updated: Mar 1, 2022
The Russian people have a proud legacy of cultivating chess masters. Russian leaders excel in maneuvering their chess pieces on the global board of Realpolitik, without qualms or apologies. Recall the use of chemical agents in the Chechen movie theater.
President Putin’s latest moves, to include invading Ukraine after an unprecedented mobilization of military forces along the border, demonstrate political will and the principle of mass, which has forced everyone else to watch and react. Our chess clock is ticking, but it’s probably too late.
In less than one year, the Biden Administration has two major foreign policy failures.
We often fail to see the world through the eyes of others. What does Putin see?
First, Putin sees a divided Europe. The EU’s use of unelected technocrats and financial coercion to achieve consensus is prompting countries like Poland and Hungary to reassert national sovereignty. France and Germany are struggling to maintain this fragile balance and don’t want to give Russia opportunities to stymie their efforts.
EU leaders don’t like the fact that Russia has them over a barrel for natural gas, and they continue to shoot themselves in the foot with misguided green energy policies that don’t add up, but they’re not prepared to face the wrath of voters after a frigid winter without heat. Russian gas will flow.
Second, Putin sees a divided NATO. The Western European members refuse to pay their fair share and selectively listen to America’s efforts to paint Russia as an existential threat. Meanwhile, the Eastern European members pay their fair share, take the Russian threat seriously, and want others step up.
Poland and the Baltics might wonder why so much energy and resources are being directed toward helping a non-member state like Ukraine.
Third, Putin sees a divided America. A vocal minority of the national security apparatus dominates the Russia narrative, often exaggerates the Russian threat, and labels anyone who doesn’t tow the party line a Russian agent. Russia remains a major threat, for sure, but most Americans are less interested in Russia and are looking for solutions to local problems, like putting COVID in the rear-view mirror and getting back to the old normal.
Many Americans will see the failure in Ukraine as Afghanistan Part II – another demoralizing loss for the good guys that could have been prevented.
The war in Ukraine seems to be reaching a climax, and Putin is positioned to sustain this chess game without risk of losing his king.
So, what is Putin up to?
The collapse of the Soviet Union was a pivotal event of the 20th century, what should have been a nail in the coffin for the opium of the Marxists. A review of European maps over the past few decades reveals an aggressive and successful eastward expansion of the NATO alliance, an ongoing source of contention for Russia.
We should have celebrated our successes and consolidated our gains by leaving Ukraine off the table. Anyone who looks at a current map and argues that Putin has no cause for concern is willfully blind.
Putin is probably motivated by ego and pride but losing Ukraine to NATO was a red line – because he told us. We should have never floated the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine unless we were willing to deliver – and we were not.
From Putin’s position of relative weakness (NATO encirclement), combined with Russia’s historical equities in Ukraine, Putin opted for overwhelming force. As Mike Tyson would say, Putin punched us in the face.
Putin understands that Ukraine couldn’t join NATO while Russia controls the Donbas and Crimea, so stopping the eastward expansion of NATO per se wasn’t the primary goal of the invasion. Besides, the level of corruption, oligarchic control, and Russian influence would make Ukraine an unreliable NATO member.
Putin invaded Ukraine to install a Russia-friendly government, to end the debate about Ukraine’s political future once and for all – no more talk of joining NATO or basing lethal weapons near Russia’s border. Putin is willing to have a street fight for Ukraine. We are not. He went “all in” and calculates he won’t be challenged militarily.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is also designed to drive a wedge between America and Europe by showing Europe that they have two options: first, they can side with the anti-Russia crew from America and face gas restrictions; or second, they can negotiate with him and keep the gas flowing. Europe is prepared to coexist with Putin, warts and all, but only to an extent.
Russia will rightly face harsh sanctions and global condemnation, none of which will matter in the long run, but no matter how much this invasion horrifies our Western sensibilities, Putin will have achieved his objectives.