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What If Putin Doesn’t Back Down?

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 [1] in the Washington PostIvo Dalder [2] in the Financial Times, the Washington Post editorial board [3], 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.

74 Comments (Open | Close)

74 Comments To "What If Putin Doesn’t Back Down?"

#1 Comment By Dave On February 5, 2015 @ 11:30 am

If there is even one think-tank person who thinks there was ever a shot at Putin backing down, that person is in the wrong job and will bring disaster upon everyone. Maybe that is their actual goal, and the false notion that Putin will submit to the USA and NATO is just a cover PR line. Nobody who works in a think-tank and who is actually justified as working in one will highlight a moon-shot daydream over the very real and very large risk of alternative outcomes. To do so is to not do the one think a think-tank is supposed to be doing: thinking. Such “thinking” has already willingly within themselves sacrificed the lives of those who are at risk of all likely alternate outcomes.

I’m surprised to see that an article with this headline even exists, because it means there is a segment of observers who are out to lunch and lost at sea, disconnected from the reality they are having a hand in making.

#2 Comment By sean On February 5, 2015 @ 11:31 am

“They did so because they sought dignity and believed an association agreement with the European Union would encourage the rule of law that underpins a more just system.”

That’s all well and good and maybe by the time of the next election they would have voted Yanukovich out of power. But Noooo! They couldn’t wait that long could they? At least in 2004 the protestors had the pretext of a stolen election to force change. This time around they staged a coup based on a policy decision made by an elected government, one which had not finished its term in office. The government made this decision honestly believing “EU dignity” meant shuttered factories and mines in eastern Ukraine with thousands out of work based on the little details which come with EU membership.

The Maiden Revolution basically invaidated the votes of the supporters of the old government. It also said to them that power can be won with the gun or the barricade or by creating disorder. That’s not exactly how a democracy is supposed to work. And having done this they gave the green light to the separatists to claim power for themselves where they live in the same manner. At least in Crimea they held a vote, illigitimate or not, to separate themselves with Ukraine. There has been not been vote amongst all the citizens of Ukraine to join the EU, only violence, intimidation and bloodshed and the inclusion in government of the worst sorts of elements of Ukraininan society who are still trying hide what their grandfathers did at Babi-Yar. Instead of brotherhood and bread you have given the people hunger, cold and bitterness. This is the Ukraine you have chosen for yourseles. Enjoy what’s left of it.

#3 Comment By thepanzer On February 5, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

Russia already won. Ukraine is on its 4th or 5th military mobilization at this point. It’s a spent force. Giving US weapons and training to them will accomplish nothing on the ground aside from allowing the novorussians to eventually capture the US gear. As far as bleeding Russia, the US is only bleeding the Ukrainians themselves, as Russian troops aren’t on the ground fighting. There’s a joke going around that the west is willing to liberate Ukraine even if it has to kill every Ukrainian to do it. If Russia did send in the troops the war would end with Russian tanks in Keiv within a week or two.

Even if the west went full gonzo and sent NATO in, Russia could simply turn the spigot off on natural gas to Europe. A 30% reduction in fossil fuel inputs for natural gas would crater their already anemic economies. The contagion would then kill the US economy as well.

The real US strategy at this point is to escalate in the short term, ala the surge in Afghanistan, as cover for backing off down the road. The fact that no one in the west is willing to pony up the 50 billion plus Ukraine needs is the real marker for where they view the future. Even when George Soros went hat in hand to beg for billions he got nothing but lip service.

Game, set, match to Russia.

#4 Comment By Myron Hudson On February 5, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

Looks like two major NATO allies are bypassing the US and taking a peace initiative to Russia. Neither of them appreciated the US backing the coup (being part of the EU that Nuland was so contemptuous of) and both of them believe that non-military resolution is preferable and attainable. The question now is can they beat us to the punch or do we manage to escalate first? In the meantime we’ll near nothing good about our allies from the hawks. “Allies” in their world are client states and excuses to go to war. Real allies are a hindrance.

This does answer an earlier question of mine, though, which was will our EU/NATO allies back our folly. Not this time, apparently.

#5 Comment By Damoj On February 5, 2015 @ 1:11 pm

“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.”

This is a tremendously ignorant perspective that marred an otherwise cogent argument and I expect much better from TAC.

Yanukovitch spent the last several years destabilizing his own regime by confiscating businesses from local elites/oligarchs across Ukraine and giving them to his friends and associates. When you steal too much too quickly, it not only hurts the economy, it makes everyone who’s not in on the corruption begin to conspire against you. First it’s replacing the harbormaster of Odessa , then it’s a forced factory buyout in Kharkov, next, a grocery chain is told half of last year’s profits are owed in “back taxes, then the closure of a hotel in Crimea for “safety reasons” until the owners agree to sell at fire-sale prices, and so on.

A big part of the EU association agreement was the implicit promise that transparency measures would bring an end to this state-sanctioned corruption and theft, but why let facts get in the way of a good narrative?

Far be it from me to tell my political betters how to do their jobs, but maybe before you form a strong opinion on the origins of faraway situation you’re not well-informed about, you should flip through Transparency International’s reports for Ukraine from 2008-2013 instead of half listening to an Oliver Stone interview.

#6 Comment By Myron Hudson On February 5, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

@ schmenz
Dismayed is right. In fact, demographically, Israel is increasingly Russian, a trend which began in the 70s. At this point they understand each other quite well. Vey well, considering the strong neo-Nazi faction in the west of Ukraine.

#7 Comment By Sean T On February 5, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

What if the whole idea is to get Russia to react?

#8 Comment By passerby On February 5, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

What if Putin doesn’t back down?

I guess we’re going to find out real soon.

#9 Comment By EricaBrigid On February 5, 2015 @ 3:59 pm

The Russian blog Rusfact.ru published a translation of this article, headed by a “demotivator” showing Putin with the caption: “If you don’t like me, shoot yourself.” I’m gonna have that printed on my next T-shirt!

#10 Comment By mel biageu On February 5, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

Putin hasn’t backed down on anything else, why would he now? His approval ratings are over 80% in Russia, the country is behind him.
Russia sees US meddling in Ukraine as an existential threat and will act accordingly.
Obama needs to stop drawing red lines he can’t enforce, unless he wants to look like a fool again.

#11 Comment By Ed Harris On February 5, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

What is Putin delivers shoulder fired missiles to Taliban? What if he gives advanced anti air missiles to Iran and encourages them to continue enrichment? These scenarios are not implausible. If ukraines receives arms to kill Russians, then Putin has every right to do the same.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 5, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

There is not reason why he should.

And I seriously doubt that he will.

#13 Comment By Carroll Price On February 5, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

The biggest mistake Putin made was not occupying all of eastern Ukraine and declaring it part of the Russian Federation. If he had done so, the West would be forced into dropping the matter or making a decision to attack Russia itself. Which is something that the neocons are not stupid enough to attempt

#14 Comment By Ed Harris On February 5, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

I think arms for Ukraine is a neocon smokescreen for a sinister plan. They want Russia to defeat Ukraine and tie Obama and Hillary to that defeat. GOP will use the photos of Ukraine signing the surrender document in campaigning.

#15 Comment By Helen Marshall On February 5, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

The repellent Victoria Nuland, who helped orchestrate the coup in Ukraine, was brought into power by Strobe Talbot 20 years ago. He and Albright and Clinton have a lot to answer for.

#16 Comment By Thepanzer On February 5, 2015 @ 8:23 pm

There’s talk, but no proof yet, that the latest cauldron has closed with Kiev’s most recent conscript army trapped and about to be decimated.

The sudden rush of leaders to Moscow is unusual, given how imperious they’ve been the last year. It makes me wonder if the cauldron IS closed and the west is afraid their latest Ukrainian army is going to get turned into hamburger. If so, it will likely be the death knell for effective non-NATO military action in Ukraine.

The Ukrainians will be left with only the old and very young for the next conscription. US “advisors” are going to have their work cut out for them.

#17 Comment By Emilio On February 6, 2015 @ 11:16 am

Damoj, you’re talking too much sense. Most of these patriots reflexively despise Americans who look aghast at the hopes of liberalizing revolutionaries being crushed by people like Putin, who they think is a measured and wise leader. Indulging such farce, here is a full display by the inevitable intellectual dance partners of their neocon secret soul mates.

Why not try selling the suppression of human nature through some kind of capsule? It might be time better spent than idiotically denying the legitimacy of the interventionist impulse, imputing dark motives, inverting reality, descending into dishonesty ever further. In my view, the impulse is legitimate, inarguable, necessary, and useful. It has to be channeled properly, without a doubt, without feeding the war machine without a doubt. But how can you make effective arguments for that channeling when your view of the situation is as blinkered as your putative opponent’s? This is where i get the two sides of the same coin image, kind of like an alcoholic and their enabler. Two opposites on paper, codependent partners in real life.

If you want to gain genuine allies in the political argument against interventionism instead of preach to the choir while indulging a weird dance, it may help to give an accurate portrayal of the roots of intervention and revolution.

#18 Comment By mightypeon On February 6, 2015 @ 4:35 pm

From a half Russian half German perespective:

First, the West appears, from the Russian side, as totally nuts.
Russia has been “life supporting” Ukraine by the tune of 5-10 billion per year in preferential access to orders, gas subsidies, leasing costs etc.
Add to this other Russian investments, by non state actors. Most of these investment depend on Russia and Ukraine trading strongly, and on cheap energy prices. The EU association, especially in its totally bonkers dictate form (if Yanukovich was Bismark, Washington or Lincoln he still wouldnt have signed it. It was simply an utterly horrible deal.), would destroy, not seize but destroy these investment.
Investment that Russia, somewhat uncharacteristically, made in good faith.
The distinction between destroying, rather then seizing the Russian investment is a major one. Great powers try to steal each others stuff all the time, but simply destroying it is seen as spitefull, and a sign of hostility, rather then rivalry.

If you see this as a poker game, for Russia, the pot size is 500 or so billion (if you add prestige, strategic and second order concerns, it is even higher). Western attempts to bluff them out with a “3 billion raise” are simply retarded.
Secondly, the “sanction” dont even make the top 3 of Russias current economic problem.
Problem number 1 is corruption, problem number 2 are artificially low oil prices, problem number 3 are speculative attacks on the ruble. If the west doesnt put “no more artificial oil price limitations” and “no more speculative attacks” on the table as a grand bargain, Russia again would be dumb to trade in their chips for just sanctions relief.
Especially since Russia is in a position to jack oil prices back up by interfering/destabilizing in Saudi Arabia (in tandem with Iran), or by unleashing the SVR and FSB on individual speculative attackers.

If Putin is smart, and I think he is, he will not attack in the Baltics or in Poland where resistance will be strongest, but rather look for weak points, both in todays financial system, in the US reliance on Saudi Arabia, or in the disgust with German leadership in the EUs Southern states.

#19 Comment By mightypeon On February 6, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

@ Damoj

While the Orange revolution of 2004 had noble goals, its leaders quickly decided that becoming Oligarchs is way more fun than fighting them.
As the “new guard” moved in, they cashed in even worse then the old guard, and their electoral defeat in 2010 lead to another “new old guard” that cashed in again.

The difficulties of Maidan were 2 found:
1: The EU of 2014 is a lot less attractive then the EU of 2004.
2: The Russia of 2014 is a lot more attractive the the Russia of 2004.

This combination meant that no “peacefull takeover” was possible. They needed the far right Freikorps.

The other problem of Maidan is that it simply put new pigs at the old throughs. Poroshenko used to be a minister for Yanukovich, Kolomoisky is a ridiculously hardcore Oligarch etc.
This was so pronounced that, according to General Ruban (Ukrainian officer in charge of prisoner swap issues) people that stood on Maidan now fight for the seperatists, motived by sheer disgust about their former Oligarch allies.

#20 Comment By Flavius On February 6, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

George H.W. Bush famously boasted that he was dispossesed of the “vision thing.” He surely was, as were his successors Clinton, Bush II, and Obama. Rather than exploit the miraculous conclusion of the Cold War with civilization intact by 1) ceremoniously concluding NATO and 2) closing our military installations in Europe, they seeded the fields for Cold War II which is now underway: they invaded Russia as if it were a missionary country with obnoxious NGO’s and worse: they set a calimitous precedent with the Balkan War excellent adventure; they expanded NATO into the Baltic Countries; they set out to equip Poland with an ABM system to counter the Iranian missile threat (go figure that one out); they stirred Georgia up into doing something fatally stupid with shadow promises of support; and they loosed the State Departments Victoria Nuland on the Ukraine and the EU in a comedo-tragic episode that Peter Sellers would have refused to participate in because it is too absurd to be believed.
Now the West, we, wonder what will happen if Putin doesn’t back down. If? Do they think the man hasn’t been paying attention for the last 20 years; that he isn’t a serious man?
Putin has to be wondering what is Russia’s best policy to protect itself from the irrational.

#21 Comment By Sanych On February 6, 2015 @ 8:51 pm

“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.”

Putin-Shmutin. The reality is that Russian people think that they are under attack by the West, and there are plenty of facts to support this conviction. Expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, NATO bombing of Serbia (Russia’s traditional ally) and creation of Kosovo, Nuland’s and McCain’s visits to Maidan and their support of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists – to list just a few.

While Maidan started as a protest against the existing president and corruption, it soon switched into anti-Russian rhetoric and actions by extreme right forces.

Additionally, considering that Ukraine was part of Russia’s empire for the last 350 years, no country ruler would allow Ukraine to suddenly fall out of Russia’s influence.

So, taking all of this into an account – for Russia this means war and war till the end.

Overall, I think this administration bit a little more that they can chew….

#22 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 7, 2015 @ 7:34 am

“The problem is that I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily,” she said. “I have to put it that bluntly.”

(Chancellor Merkel, Associated Press, Feb. 7, 2015)

#23 Comment By Richard Mann On February 8, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

This sounds like the opening of a military Red Flag exercise. I was involved in one while in the Air Force. They usually start with some world power or country, making a move on another world power or country, and then it is like a poker game. Raise, raise, raise, until one or the other can no longer afford to cover the raise. So, feeling that it is a no win situation, one or the other will then play the nuke card. Game over. Like the old west shoot outs over a card game gone wrong, except the players in this game use nukes instead of 6 guns. And, how does it all end? Well, guess it all depends on how many nukes each party is willing to use on the other parties involved. Putin, I believe, is just crazy enough to go the nuke route if he feels he is loosing control of the situation and has nothing to loose. This could get interesting really fast if the US and NATO decide to send in the troupes and arms. In the Red Flag Exercise, once the nukes were launched, the game was over, and we went home. Yeah.

#24 Comment By Wiliam Hunt On February 11, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

It needs to be kept in mind that Putin had some sort of health crisis.

Consider: when a person changes personality and actions after 13 years in office, there is a reason.

That has all but been ignored by the media.

Bundeskanzler Merkel stated that “Putin was totally out of it” when this crisis began.

Consider that Putin is largely responsible for breaking up the former Soviet system.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Putin is also a believer. This means he’s going to have a conscience that many of his predecessors did not have. The Holy Spirit is going to have been working on Mr. Putin.

When a reformer changes personality and actions for a time, acting like a cheap knockoff of Nikita Khruschev when he and his staff did their shoe speech, there must be a reason for it.

Concussion? Stroke? Other illness?

What happened to Mr. Putin? I think that question has to be be asked and answered.

If nothing else, wouldn’t the admission of a brief period of inability give a pretty good excuse for Mr. Putin backing down?