Is Ukraine Just the Beginning?
No one should be put in a situation where they have no way out—especially Putin’s Russia.
There is a story Putin tells. As a child growing up in Leningrad, Vladimir Putin lived in a run-down five-story building. He and his parents shared an apartment with two other families. The yard was filled with garbage, and the garbage was filled with rats.
Putin and his friends used to chase after them with sticks, until one day a large rat, which he had cornered, turned and attacked him, giving him the fright of his life. The memory stayed with him, and years later he would draw the lesson: “No one should be cornered. No one should be put in a situation where they have no way out.”
Recounting the story in Putin, biographer Philip Short adds that the CIA, analyzing the tale, assumed that the story was less an important lesson Putin learned about how to treat others than it was a warning about how not to treat Putin.
On October 9, in an ABC interview in which he called on the U.S. to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen called Putin “a cornered animal.”
In the last month, the volley of calls for negotiation from Putin has intensified. On September 30, Putin called on Kiev “to return back to the negotiating table.” On October 11, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia "was willing to engage with the United States or with Turkey on ways to end the war." Two days later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow is “open to negotiations to achieve our objectives." On October 26, Putin sent a message to Zelensky through President Umaro Mokhtar Sissoco Embalo of Guinea Bissau, saying that “He wishes and thinks that a direct dialogue should happen between your two countries.” On October 30, Lavrov said that Russia is “ready to listen to our Western colleagues if they make another request to organize a conversation" as long as Russia’s security needs were considered. And on November 1, Putin said that “necessary conditions” could arise that would be a catalyst to talks.
But instead of exploring those calls, the U.S. has continued to corner Putin.
Putin, and a line of Russian leaders preceding him, warned that Russia was being cornered by NATO’s eastern encroachment toward its border. Ukraine, they have insisted, is the red line. NATO in Ukraine, if not Ukraine in NATO, may just be the beginning.
On June 29, the U.S. announced the establishment of a permanent headquarters for U.S. forces in Poland that would be "accompanied by a field support battalion." Biden boasted that it would be “the first permanent U.S. forces on NATO’s eastern flank."
The announcement violated the promise of the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations—that as NATO expanded east toward Russia there would be no "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces"—and further cornered Russia.
In October, the U.S. deployed the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles” to Romania near the border with Ukraine. The 4,700 soldier deployment, now the closest U.S. forces to Ukraine, are “closely watching” Russian forces and practicing and conducting drills that "replicate exactly what's going on" in the war.
On November 3, Russian defense chief Sergey Shoigu said that “the number of NATO forces in Eastern and Central Europe had risen by two and a half times since February.”
And it is not just NATO forces that are moving to Eastern Europe. On November 9, the State Department approved the sale of nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of High Mobility Artillery Rocket System to Lithuania: the same type of long range missile the U.S. is providing Ukraine. The State Department press release said that “This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by helping to improve the military capability of a NATO Ally that is an important force for ensuring political stability and economic progress within Eastern Europe.”
U.S. moves are not only cornering Russia from Eastern Europe. They are also coming from the north east and Russia’s 800 mile long border with Finland. Finland and Sweden who are awaiting the final two NATO member nations’ approval to ascend to NATO have not ruled out hosting NATO bases or nuclear weapons. Asked at a press conference if Finland would allow nuclear weapons on its territory, Prime Minister Sanna Marin responded that Finland won’t “close any doors” or set “any preconditions to its NATO membership.” Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson seconded that position saying that “Finland and Sweden should draw exactly the same conclusions,” and “embrace” all of NATO’s capabilities.
Whether or not Finland and Sweden host NATO bases or nuclear weapons, on November 2, the State Department approved the potential sale of guided multiple launch rocket systems to Finland to bolster “the land and air defense capabilities in Europe's northern flank.” In May, Putin said that Finland and Sweden joining NATO posed no threat to Russia but warned that “the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response.”
Finland and Sweden’s embrace of all NATO’s capabilities is not the only nuclear news that is further cornering Russia. On October 26, the U.S. announced that they are pushing forward delivery of upgraded B61-12 air-dropped gravity nuclear bombs to NATO bases in Europe. The upgraded bombs are not only more accurate but, more provocatively for Russia, are designed so that all U.S. and allied bomber planes and fighter aircraft can carry them. Russia has complained that the accelerated upgrade turns the weapons into tactical battlefield weapons and that it is a lowering of the “nuclear threshold” that they “cannot ignore.”
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Further cornering came from another direction. In her remarks at the October 25 Summit of the International Crimea Platform, Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged that the summit she was attending “was established to bring the end of Russia's occupation of Crimea and to restore control of the – Ukraine over the territory, in full accordance with international law. Crimea is Ukraine.” She then added that “All of us here pledged to stand with Ukraine . . . in Crimea, in other territories that he has attempted to illegally annex and across the country — until victory is won. And that is what we will do, until victory is won.”
Ukraine’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Emine Dzheppar interpreted Pelosi’s presence at the summit as being “a direct confirmation that the issue of de-occupation of Crimea is high on the agenda in Washington.”
U.S. policy is making Russia feel cornered from all directions. At a time when the crisis in Ukraine has reached previously unimagined levels of danger, perhaps the U.S. should be looking for the off-ramp Biden has said he is “trying to figure out” instead of further cornering Russia.