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Putin Lets the Other Shoe Drop


There are times I would prefer not to be proven right. Back in March I wrote:

“There is a second danger zone in August, when European leaders are too busy with their holiday plans to worry much about foreign affairs. When this window closes at the beginning of September, Ukraine begins to see light at the end of the tunnel.”[1]

The light at the end of this tunnel was the oncoming Siberian Express.

The invasion of Southern Ukraine continues, with up to 1,000 “volunteers” comprising the equivalent of a Russian Motor Rifle Battalion supporting the separatist forces. Mr. Putin continues to insist that there are no Russian soldiers fighting in the neighboring country despite satellite imagery and live Russian prisoners giving him the lie; whle Europe and the world are seemingly content to be complicit in this monstruous deceit, with NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen calling the attack an “incursion”: which makes it sound like the Russian troops are on sabbatical and just happened to take along their tanks, APC’s, self-propelled artillery and mobile SAM launchers on their way to the beach. They took a mistaken left turn and – ooops! – suddenly found themselves in a shooting war in Donetsk with their fraternal Ukrainian neighbors. Since we’re already here, let’s go pick up some souvenirs in Mariupol.


None of this is news; everyone except the army of Putin apologists both voluntary and employed by the State to troll the internet knows that Russia and Ukraine are in a shooting war. Nor is it particularly difficult to predict the outcome of a fight between a nation that has spent the last decade preparing for war and one that has spent that time stripping the country bare of everthing that wasn’t nailed down.  Ukraine is going to lose and lose ugly in any shooting war with Russia. The atrocious service levels of their military aircraft and vehicles cannot be made good without the money to purchase the needed parts, and Kiev has no money.

Whatever faint hope Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko may have had of the NATO alliance showing some backbone after last Friday’s emergency meeting were soon dashed. Mr. Rasmussen urged member states to increase their defense spending, upon which representatives all nodded gravely together in unision knowing that nothing would come of it. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron took the opportunity to deride the weakness of European “free riders” even as both nations institute major cuts in defense spending. President Hollande of France also took the photo opportunity, calling on the Alliance to “get really tough” with Russia, even has his nation prepared to handover two modern helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy. I don’t know if Mr. Putin has a sense of humor, but if he does, he was falling out of his chair in laughter on Saturday morning.

That is when Mr. Putin put his other foot down. The Russian President called on Kiev to end its military operations against the separatists and to enter into “substantive, meaningful negotiations, not about technical questions, but about the political organization of society and the statehood of Ukraine’s southeast”[2]. Mr. Putin went on to say that the situation might continue to escalate in unpredictable ways. As for the meddlesome West: please to remember that Russia is a nuclear armed state. Mr. Poroshenko would have to be an exceptionally stupid man not to have gotten the message: capitulate now or we will continue to expand our invasion to new regions like Kharkiv, Odessa or perhaps Kiev.

That was on Sunday. Exactly 75 years ago, at 0400 on 01 September, German troops crossed the border into Poland and the Second World War began.

It is frightening how closely all of this mirrors the events leading up to the Second World War. The parallels would seem like a work of bad fiction except that they are real. There are Ukrainian civilians digging trenches and anti-tank ditches outside of Mariupol. There are Russian soldiers going home in bodybags to secret burials. Transpose a few names of individuals and actors and today’s events could be out of yesterday’s headlines. Which also leads to some hair-raising speculation of things to come:


Our Stark Choice

But this is not 1939, though that day may still come in our near future. The current situation is more similar to the Sudeten crisis of 1938. There is the same sabre-rattling, the same threat of war if “legitimate” aspirations of an “oppressed” ethnic group are not met. The Putin Doctrine is no different and no less odious than Hitler’s obsession with the Volksdeutsche, the German-speaking diaspora in Central Europe that would be his excuse for the extortion of territory and political control from his neighbors. Today, we face the same stark choice as confronted Chamberlain and Daladier: capitulation and complicity in the dismemberment of an innocent state or – possibly – war. To force Ukraine to accept her own partition while a Russian gun is pointed to her head would be so morally reprehensible, so cowardly, and so embolden all those who hate democracy, liberty and freedom, as to invite a train of further calamities whose end we cannot begin to see. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: “We have been offered a choice between war and shame. We have chosen shame, and will get war.”[3]

Mr. Putin will not stop with the creation of new puppet states in Eastern Ukraine. As clearly as Mr. Hitler told us his intentions in Mein Kampf so too has Mr. Putin told us his intentions over a decade ago: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical calamity of the XXth Century.” Is there any doubt that Mr. Putin seeks to reverse that calamity and recreate, if not the Soviet Union, than a new, modern Russian Empire? Call it a Federation, dress it up with elections and plebiscites, with a Duma and elective Executive: it will still be authoritarian, centralized and ethnically Russian.

Most likely it was not always so. At one point, Mr. Putin might indeed have sought out accommodations with the West; but that time is long past. Russia has definitively turned away from an acceptance of the status quo. Mr. Putin’s ambition has grown in parallel with the growing power of the Russian military; it has fed upon his successes: his success in the Second Chechen War; his success in the 2008 Georgian War; his success in shaping the Syrian Civil War; his success in illegally seizing Crimea; and now his success in preserving the separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine. “Ambition is not static: it grows as a nation’s power grows and new opportunities are viewed to be in reach.”[4]

After all, why should Mr. Putin stop if he continues to meet so little resistence? Why not dream bigger? After all, why shouldn’t the “Little Russians” of neighboring Belarus hold a popular referendum and vote for Anschluss with the powerful new Russia? Then the puppet People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk will be filled with national sentiment and also vote for annexation, which the Duma will happily agree to. Does anyone think the West will intervene against the “democratic will of the people” if we won’t intervene in the case of a blatant invasion of a neighbor? At that point, Western Ukraine and the Baltic States become utterly indefensible. NATO’s pledges to the Latvia, Lithuannia and Estonia become, not to defend them, but to potentially liberate them – a very doubtful pledge by this point. The Baltic States could purchase their continued “freedom” from the faceless green men and vacationing Russian soldiers very easily: voluntarily withdraw from NATO. Perhaps even from the EU, in order to join the Eurasian Union. Western Ukraine would not be given that choice, in my opinion, but would simply be given the choice of war or voluntary annexation. The final cherry would be Moldova, another Russian client state that already has a battalion of Russian troops stationed there to look after the “lives and properties” of the ethnic Russian inhabitants.

At every step, Mr. Putin would offer the West the same choice: war or humiliation. Let’s be clear: the Russian President is not after world domination or mastery of Europe, he is after Russia’s old boundaries. But capitulation to these plans is a guarantee that war will come, sooner or later. At some point, the West will draw a line in the sand  that it really will defend: but by that point no one will believe it. Mr. Putin will have become so accustomed to Western spinelessness that he will push once too often and the war will come. It is curous to note the interesting fact demonstrated by British master historian A.J.P. Taylor that Hitler fully expected France and Britain to cave in to his demands on Danzig and that French and especially British leaders were desperately trying to do just that[5]. In the end, it was Polish intransigence and their refusal to be the victims of a “Second Munich” that brought about the actual start of the shooting war in Europe. Something similar might happen in this time, with Eastern European members forcing NATO to fight even as French, German, British and American leaders scramble to find diplomatic cover for the latest humiliation imposed by Russia. And the war would come.

This is not a purely European problem either. We are witnessing the destruction of the United Nations system and the return to Great Power spheres of influence. Under such a new regime, how long before the Chinese impose their sphere of influence over all of East and South East Asia? If we aren’t willing to stand up to a far weaker Russia today, why would we be willing to stand up to a much stronger China in 3 or 5 years? How long before South Korea, Japan and the Philippines see the writing on the wall and become Chinese clients? Or Australia for that matter?

The carving out of a sphere of influence by Russia and China would not only greatly heighten the risk of war in the near future, it would directly threaten the future of liberal democracy in the world. Their success will breed admirers and imitators. We begin to see this already: Turkey’s Erdogan has perpetuated himself and his AKP party in power and is turning Turkey back into a single party regime; democracy has been rolled back in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina; there is nothing like democracy in South East Asia; while Prime Minister Orban of Hungary openly declares himself an admirer of Putin and of “illiberal democracy” and this is a member of the European Union and NATO!


The more or less democratic world we live in today was not the result of some “natural evolution of mankind”; it was the fruit of victory in battle over fascism and the political victory over the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. We forget the fact now that, until the last decade of the XXth Century, the liberal democratic states were a distinct minority in the world and there was no guarantee that we would triumph. There is STILL no guarantee that our system and our values will be perpetuated: it is only through our willingness to defend them and our ability to do so.

The False Choice

Is our only choice then war or capitulation? Perhaps: but let us plainly understand that a war has already started. The Russian Army has invaded Eastern Ukraine; there are already over 2,000 casualties of the fighting. These are not covert operations, drone strikes, or cross-border fire fights: this is a conventional war with tanks, artillery and infantry. Many more people are going to die until Mr. Putin achieves his objective, which is the capitulation of Kiev to his diktat.

Thus, the choice our so-called leaders are agonizing over is a false one. It is not one of war or peace, it is one of who will do the fighting and where. There is no shortage of patriots in Ukraine, and we can either arm them and help them defend their country east of the Dniepr River or we can find ourselves doing the fighting along the Vistula and Prut Rivers. Will Russia be weaker or stronger by then? Will NATO be more or less united?

Sustaining Ukraine does not preclude other, negotiated, solutions. But at this point only the grotesquely naïve can believe that Mr. Putin is going to stop because we ask him to nicely. On the other hand, he may desist if the cost becomes too high: not the cost in economic sanctions, because he doesn’t care about that too much. He knows that in the short run, the West is not ready to inflict serious pain on the Russian economy since it would also hurt the already stalling European economies; while in the long run, he is hopeful that Chinese investment will replace European and American capital. What Mr. Putin fears, with memories of the reaction against Afghanistan, is a loss of popular support. He enjoys extremely high levels now, but the Russians have indicated in recent polls[6] that they are not keen on fighting foreign wars in Ukraine or anywhere else. If too many Russian boys start coming home in Antonovs at midnight, in bodybags, Mr. Putin might begin to lose that goodwill he enjoys and which even autocrats need. At weak and unpopular autocrat is in danger of being replaced by someone else in the inner circle, and such distractions at home means less time for adventurism abroad. That is when Mr. Putin might be open to a truly negotiated solution.

There is some hope. Donald Tusk, the former Prime Minister of Poland, has just been voted the job of EU Foreign Minister. Mr. Tusk and his countrymen know the Russians all too well; I hold out the hope that a vigorous advocate in this key office might inject some backbone and shame the rest of the NATO alliance into doing what is necessary while there is still time. It is a very large task for one man, however.

Ultimately, America must lead. Only the United States has the resources and the unity of purpose to stop Russia. We must lead NATO, as we have done in the past. But I hold out even less hope of this occurring than of Mr. Tusk’s overcoming his nearly insurmountable difficulties. America remains blindly focused on the threat of ISIS; which is a real threat, but not in my mind as much of an existential threat as the recreation of the Russian Empire. Our President has no strategy for dealing with ISIS and none for dealing with Russia either, while the opposition party is perfectly willing to criticize the President for his foreign policy lethargy even while actively undermining our national security by voting to shut down the Federal Government and imposing a ruinous sequester. The modern Republican Party prefers to rule alone over a derelict ruin than to share power in a prosperous nation.

Dark clouds are gathering over Europe and the storm has already burst over Ukraine. God help them. And may God give us the wisdom to see what is right and the courage to do it, whatever the cost.

Sources and Notes:

[1] Fernando Betancor, “Ukraine: The Russian Danger Zone,” Common Sense, 26 March 2014

[2]Andrew Roth and Andrew E. Kramer, “Putin urges talks on Ukraine future,” The New York Times, 01 September 2014

[3]Winston Churchill, Speech before the House of Commons, 03 October 1938

[4]Robert D. Kaplan, “The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate,” Random House, 11 September 2012

[5]A.J.P. Taylor, “The Origins of the Second World War,” Hamish Hamilton Publishing, 1961

[6]James Bell, “Russian poll: Putin faces limited opposition from his public on Ukraine,” Pew Research Center, 29 August 2014

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