EXPERT TESTING – We have a long history of misinterpreting Russia’s intentions. The classic example is the verdict of British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) that Russia would not invade Czechoslovakia in 1968; based on a Westernized view that it would not benefit Moscow. Similar misjudgments were made in the prelude to Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Vladimir Putin has calculated this winter as the ideal time to confront the West over areas of the former Soviet Union that he believes should still be within Moscow’s sphere of influence. Winter is sure to put Europe’s energy markets under strain. Meanwhile NATO has just made a humiliating and chaotic retreat from Afghanistan led by a US president who is struggling in the polls.
After determining the best time, Putin continued to mobilize an army of about 130,000 troops in the middle of winter, distributed in pockets along Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus. Putin never put great faith in diplomacy but he is willing to go through the motions because he has prepared himself by gathering retrospective reasoning for any future action. In the unlikely event of a major Western concession, he would be willing to give up the military but most likely he would use it to facilitate a tangible political and military outcome.
Everyone in the West thinks Ukraine is the target of an invasion or an invasion. However, neither option seems particularly good. That’s right, the Russian army could overwhelm 240 miles from Belarus to Kiev and capture the capital. But they will not be able to subdue all of Ukraine, especially western Kiev, and the invasion could lead to a protracted and costly insurgency. Alternatively, Putin could try to capture Ukraine’s coast and the port of Odessa but it would leave a long stretch of land to defend against future Ukrainian counterattacks.
Another problem with attacking Ukraine is that it is too much of a disdain for NATO and the West. President Biden made it very clear early in this crisis that NATO would not fight to protect Ukraine. Instead, all the discussion was about economic and financial sanctions. This approach has made it easier for Western countries to present a reasonable united front against Putin, despite differences over the supply of weapons to Ukraine and the exact nature of the sanctions. .
So the focus on Ukraine didn’t work for Putin. Although some of the responses were divisive, the general trend was to unite Western leaders. It also allows them to make some fanfare with Macron engaging directly with Putin in diplomatic negotiations and others making high-profile trips to Kiev.
But Ukraine may not be Putin’s primary target. He believes Putin’s beef is with NATO, which, he says, has penetrated more into Central and Eastern Europe than was agreed upon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the two draft treaty that Russia published on 17order Last December asked NATO to withdraw its forces and weapons from any country joined NATO since 1997. That will include Hungary, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. It also includes the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) whose secession from the former Soviet Union has been particularly difficult for Putin.
There are two operations Russia could launch against the Baltic states that would put NATO in a jam. Article DRAW of the NATO treaty stipulates that “an armed attack against a [member] would be considered an attack against all.” In other words, NATO would be obliged to use arms. If any Russian invasion is not skillful, limited in scope and does not kill too many NATO soldiers or local residents, this will inevitably lead to a serious split in the Western alliance. Any subsequent failure by NATO to deploy its armed forces would erode confidence in the alliance and would send a powerful message to aspiring members like Ukraine and Georgia.
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Two easier options for Putin are to annex Narva on Russia’s border with Estonia. This is a majority Russian-speaking town and in the past there were a few cultural tension with the government in Tallinn. Putin will ask his intelligence agencies to issue a plea for Russian intervention. The merger could be done by Russian Special Forces. The consequent Russian position would be that Narva was an exception that should have never happened in Estonia and certainly did not deserve an armed conflict with NATO. Some European capitals would certainly agree. But Britain would be in a particularly difficult position as NATO’s “leader” of an Enhanced Presence (EFP) with some 1,100 troops stationed at Tapa 100 miles to the west.
The latter option is riskier but potentially more valuable to Moscow. An attempt to link Belarus with Russia’s Kaliningrad region through the so-called Suwalki . Corridor would sever all land borders between NATO and EU countries and the three Baltic states. The EFP in Lithuania is led by the Germans, who will be reluctant to resist the Russian invasion for reasons Prime Minister Scholz outlined. Troops from Kaliningrad could complete the mission with support from Belarus. Again, the post-factual justification would be about the unfairness of Kaliningrad being separated from the motherland. This may well be enough for some European nations to argue rather than fight, especially if Russia’s incursion is only in the Lithuanian part of the Corridor and not in Poland.
Many Western commentators would argue that Putin would not foolishly attack a NATO member. In fact, it makes much more sense than invading Ukraine. It will split NATO and will serve as one of Putin’s other unresolved conflicts, which will become a valuable bargaining chip for the future. His main calculation seems correct; that Europe (and America) do not want war with Russia.
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