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Will Putin invade Ukraine? More than one option exists.
My commentary on the I24 news channel about the crisis in the former Soviet Union as Putin lays claim to bits and pieces of the "near abroad"
At this writing, it still isn’t clear whether a face-saving solution to the crisis manufactured by Russia over Ukraine might be found — whether it might end with a whimper and not a bang. Predicting Vladimir Putin is impossible since his strategy (and probably his personality) demands he keep people guessing; that puts the decision-maker at the center and increases the chances of appeasement.
It’s pretty clear that the US will not now (or probably ever) fight for Ukraine, and this exposes the oddness of inviting Ukraine into NATO, a decision I suspect many members of the alliance quietly regret.
But President Biden has gone pretty far in delivering the message that everything short of that will be done to make Putinesque adventurism painful. The world has leverage, whether by kicking Russian banks out of SWIFT, freezing every conceivable Putin-puppet’s assets, blocking the import or electronics and equipment, and making the entire nomenklatura persona non grata.
So it’s important that in recent days Germany finally suggested a shelving the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline; this might give Putin reason to fear that Europe’s hyper-dependence on Russian energy is not as irreversibly debilitating as previously believed.
What now? The Russians have several options, presented here in descending order of disastrousness:
They can order a total invasion targeting Kyiv and the other main cities. This would be a challenge, because Russia is not very well set up for full occupation: the 150,000 troops placed near Ukraine are fewer in number that the Ukrainian military itself. Moreover, this would constitute so radical an upending of the modern world order that it guarantees the harshest conceivable reaction — as opposed to smaller options which Putin may conceivably get away with.
They can essay a more modest invasion, perhaps in Ukraine’s east, as with Crimea in 2014. This could occur in the restive provinces whose “independence” Putin this week has recognized. Putin has ramped up his false statements that that there’s a “genocide” against Russians there, and this fiction, parroted by Russia’s captive media, could be useful in justifying to Russians whatever costs his imperialist ambitions may cause them to incur.
They can suffice with just fomenting more mayhem via their pliant proxies in eastern Ukraine. We can assume that the Russia-speaking rebels there are tools of Moscow and whatever they do is part of the grand design.
They can do nothing and invent some victory narrative for the aforementioned captive media.
What could be such a victory narrative? Consider the NATO conundrum. The current regime is Russia is so enamored of fabulism (to use the politest word) that it need not generally be taken at its word, yet one thing is believable: they really don’t want Ukraine (which is a few hours’ rive from Moscow, to be a member of NATO. Although NATO will not give them this formally, a elegant (but not that elegant) way out may involve hints that the issue is not really on the table. Such hints are already audible, if one listens. That may be enough for Putin to spin a win.
A potential Putin victory lies in meta-politics as well: it’s clear that he enjoys driving the West bananas (perhaps the sole manifestation of a Putin sense of humor). Without a single shot being fired, he will have been able to savor seeing stock markets tumble, making NATO look impotent, and casting himself as The Decider.
It aligns well with one of Putin’s main transparent goals: spreading doubt about and dysfunction within the world’s Western democracies. Getting Brexit done, getting Trump elected, gumming up the works with fake news and bot accounts, and helping conspiracists and xenophobes wherever they may roam.
The worse democracies work, the less likely Russians are to pine for it at home. What’s not to love, if one is a dictator in implausible denial?