Power play: is it important to please Vladimir Putin?
Do not make any concessions to the Russian president, but show him respect; keep talking to him
Posted on 12/27/21, 1:27 AM
The geopolitical question at the moment is: how important is it to please Vladimir Putin? The answer is: not very. Throw him a fish or two because he’s bluffing and you don’t want to humiliate him, but you don’t have to appease him with big concessions.
This issue has become urgent because Putin demands guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO. He also wants the alliance to withdraw all non-local troops and weapons it deployed to countries that were not part of NATO before 1997. And he hints that he could invade Ukraine if the NATO does not comply.
The ‘areas that were not in NATO before 1997’ represent a lot of territory. It includes Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all under Soviet control before 1989, as well as five other Balkan countries that were under Communist control. but not under Soviet control: Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia.
That’s over 100 million people, most of whom have bad memories of Russian rule and a lingering fear of Russian rule. This is why they all joined NATO (and most of them also joined the European Union). They will never let the Russians make them vulnerable again. The idea that Russia could actually invade Ukraine is ludicrous.
Ukraine is a country the size of France with 43 million inhabitants. Its armed forces are less well-equipped than Russia’s, but they have become considerably more professional during seven years of low-level fighting against Russia-backed separatists in the two southeastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia has just over three times the population of Ukraine, much larger armed forces, and a lot more money, but invading Ukraine wouldn’t be a walk in the park. The Russians could certainly take the east, and possibly Kiev, but conquering the west would be questionable. And thereafter, the Russian occupation troops would face enormous and lasting guerrilla resistance.
Furthermore, the immediate consequence of an open Russian invasion would be a trade embargo on all NATO countries which would quickly bring the Russian economy to its knees. The Russian people are decidedly not ready for this kind of adventure: the whole Putin regime is in danger of collapsing.
It’s not like the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and its satellites were two to one outnumbered by NATO. Now it’s just a very diminished Russia versus a vastly enlarged NATO: about three to one in regular military forces, seven to one in population, twenty-five to one in GDP.
Russia has a lot of nuclear weapons so no one is going to attack it, but in any other type of war it is hopelessly overwhelmed. Putin’s demands don’t really make sense in terms of Russian security.
Ukraine’s NATO membership has never garnered much support anyway, precisely because it might force the alliance to defend Ukraine against Russia. By creating a permanent military confrontation in eastern Ukraine, Putin made Ukrainian membership unthinkable. the status quo was ugly but satisfying – so why try to change it?
One possibility is that having Donald Trump in his pocket gave Putin a sense of security that has now evaporated. Another is that he just sees Joe Biden as weak and takes his chances. But its motive doesn’t really matter, because the whole project is doomed to failure.
NATO has nothing more to do than make it clear to Moscow in private that any Russian aggression against Ukraine will be met with a complete economic blockade by Russia.
Don’t say that in public, of course. Don’t put Putin in a corner, don’t make him lose face. Also, don’t panic the Western public with exaggerated reports of Russian military build-up. Don’t make any concessions to Putin, but show him respect. Keep talking to him and he’ll eventually come down off the ledge he’s stepped out of right now.