What if Vladimir Putin really was tough? What if he would prefer to fight to the death rather than see his country humiliated by the West or his regime collapse into chaos—outcomes he likely regards as equivalent. Is this not possible? There is no shortage of American politicians ready to attribute the most vile traits to Putin: Hillary Clinton, far from America’s most extreme rhetorician, likened him to Hitler. It’s not, of course, a remotely legitimate comparison. But if Putin were one-tenth as reckless as he is commonly depicted, what conclusions ought we to draw?
Leading papers of the Anglosphere are now promoting American plans to escalate the fight against Russia and its Ukraine intervention. Former government officials, polishing up their tough-minded credentials in preparation for their next administration job, recommend we begin major weapons shipments to Ukraine. Are trainers and advisers on how to use them included as well? Strobe Talbott in the Washington Post, Ivo Dalder in the Financial Times, the Washington Post editorial board, other major figures from Clinton-land and the permanent government are all on board for a major roll-out. Their idea is to make Russia pay a higher price in casualties if it continues to intervene on behalf of anti-Kiev rebels in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Mr. Putin “will settle only when the costs of continuing the war are too high” says Dalder. Supplying arms will “raise the costs” to Russia thereby leading to a settlement. Strobe Talbott says the same thing in the Washington Post—“further aggression” must be rendered “so costly” that Putin is deterred. Nowhere in these admonitions is there a suggestion that a negotiated settlement might include a codification of neutral, non-aligned status for Ukraine. The Russian leader who is regularly likened to Hitler is expected apparently to own up to his mistake and allow the country that has countless times served as an invasion route into Russia to be incorporated into NATO.
Here’s a thought experiment—not original to me. I heard it voiced last week at a Washington think tank; it was expressed by a Russian immigrant to America, a man I know to be well informed about the thought processes of Russian leaders. What, so the idea was presented, would happen if the tightening economic sanctions, in conjunction with the collapsing oil prices, really did bring about a crise de régime in Moscow? Faced with hard currency shortages and galloping inflation, would the Putinites say simply, “OK NATO You Win. The Ukraine is Yours”? Or would they contemplate measures that might totally rejuggle the underlying realities?
Take, for instance, the price of oil. It’s low, it’s collapsing. It’s the major source of Russia’s fiscal difficulties. Would it remain low if Israel launched an attack on Iran? The hawkish Israeli foreign minister Avigidor Lieberman was warmly received in Moscow last week. I don’t think Netanyahu would require much in the way of encouragement to launch an attack, and the promise of the backing of one major outside nuclear power might suffice. Or, playing the other side, would the oil price remain depressed if Saudi Arabia’s monarchy—we all know how stable monarchies are—began facing an armed insurgency, potentially targeting its oil rich eastern provinces? Take your pick, the Islamic State or Shi’ites, it’s not hard to find people who need little encouragement to fight the Saudi monarchy. Could Russia accelerate such insurgencies? Surely a desperate enough Russia could try.
Or consider this scenario, the most shocking thing suggested by my Russian emigré interlocutor. Which Baltic country, in the midst of some manufactured crisis between pro- and anti-Russian elements, would be the best place to try out a tactical battlefield nuclear weapon? I can’t imagine such a thing happening—it would certainly be the most alarming event in international politics since what—the Cuban missile crisis? But, to say the least, one such explosion would pretty rapidly put an end to all speculation that Putin and his government are going to meekly comply if we only “raise the cost” to Moscow of intervening in Ukraine.
I’m not a Russia expert, though I’m not really persuaded that Ivo Daalder and Strobe Talbott and company are either. But they, like much of the Washington political class, are convinced that it is their God-given role as elite Americans to manage the world, to bend it to our neoliberal capitalist sense of what the good society is. They are part of the seamless Washington web—the term military-industrial complex hardly seems adequate anymore—whose role it is to continuously expand the range of human activities that are supposedly Washington’s business, our ” vital interests”—invariably presented as what is best for everyone else.
The Ukraine crisis originated, of course, with the efforts of various American and European elites to exploit longstanding historic resentments in that tragic land in order to count up a win for the West, a defeat for Moscow. Billions of dollars were spent laying the groundwork for a coup d’état and popular revolution—the Maidan campaign was a bit of both—and the efforts were successful. Bravo, said everyone. “It’s one for the history books” said our meddling ambassador after last February’s coup. Then Russia responded, and Washington and all the chanceries of Europe were taken aback by the vigor and violence of the response.
So now they plot how to respond to Russia’s reaction. If the West amplifies the pressures just a bit, “raises the price” to Putin for trying to keep NATO out of his backyard, he surely must then submit and bless the transfer of Ukraine into the Western alliance. It’s logical that he would, just as it was logical that the North Vietnamese would submit to Washington’s carefully calibrated escalations of bombing of their homeland. Doesn’t Putin realize that he is up against a superior, more advanced social system?
But what if Putin doesn’t respond as all the think tank warriors say he will, then what? Has anyone thought about that?
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.