If Putin wins, it’s not only Ukraine that loses

U.S. and European policymakers are setting precedents and teaching lessons. The rulers of China, Iran and North Korea are taking notes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019. Credit: Sasa Dzambic photography/Shutterstock.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019. Credit: Sasa Dzambic photography/Shutterstock.
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

Unless your name is Vladimir Putin, you don’t know whether Russian troops are going to invade Ukraine. And even if your name is Vladimir Putin, you may be uncertain. It’s an autocrat’s prerogative to change his mind.

The Old Russia Hands in think tanks and universities are providing contradictory analyses. That must confuse policymakers.

I first visited Russia more than a half-century ago. A few years later I went to college with the current Russian president. Seriously: I was an exchange student at Leningrad State University (Rah! Rah!) while he was studying there. But no, we didn’t hang out and drink brewskis.

What strikes me as the most common misunderstanding right now: claims that Putin is only acting defensively, that he fears NATO.

NATO has never been aggressive. By far the most powerful military in NATO is America’s, but it’s obvious that Washington wants to avoid armed conflict at all costs, as most recently demonstrated by the capitulation in Afghanistan.

Putin does oppose Ukraine joining NATO, but that was already an impossibility for the foreseeable future. Decisions on NATO enlargement must be by “unanimous agreement.” Can you imagine Germany agreeing to admit Ukraine?

So, why not issue an official statement declaring that Ukraine will be permanently banned from the club as Putin has demanded? First, because that would whet his appetite for additional concessions. Second, because we believe (don’t we?) that citizens of democracies should be free to make their own decisions, including whether to join mutual defense pacts if they fear a neighbor. Who might that neighbor be?

Here’s what I think is really going on: Putin views himself as Russia’s modern emperor. His mission: To restore Russia’s ancient empire—to put it back together again after its great fall in the Cold War. In 2005, he called the breakup of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

The proper title for a Russian emperor: “czar of all the Russias.” That implies not just today’s Russia, which stretches across 11 times zones, but also Belarus (or White Russia) and Ukraine (sometimes known as Little Russia).

Putin insists that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people—a single whole,” and that the Ukrainian nation is an artificial creation.

Russians and Ukrainians do share common roots. But the “international community” is supposed to have principles. Among them are the right to self-determination and a prohibition on using military force to erase established borders.

Also: In 1994, Ukraine, America, Britain and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum. In exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons, Ukraine received a commitment that there would be no “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

If Putin, with American and British acquiescence, demonstrates that such agreements are worthless—as Beijing did by violating its 1984 accord with Britain on Hong Kong—the rule of law erodes and the law of the jungle advances.

A significant irony: Putin’s actions over recent years have served to strengthen Ukrainian patriotism. Many Ukrainians were outraged by his seizure of Crimea in 2014 and have been antagonized since by his perpetuation of an armed separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Donbas, and by his persistent cyberattacks.

Of course, the roots of Ukrainian identity go deeper. Stalin, furious at Ukrainians for resisting Communist collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s, created a famine in which millions perished. The Holodomor (from the Ukrainian words for hunger and extermination) has been recognized by many countries as a genocide. Small wonder that many Ukrainians are dead set against Kremlin rule.

The United States and Europe should have done more to deter Putin since 2014. But there is still time to send Ukrainians additional lethal military aid, such as Javelin and Stinger missiles, so they can better defend themselves. They are not asking us to do the job for them.

A prediction: Putin will not start a war during the Olympics, which take place in the People’s Republic of China, Feb. 4-20. He has too much respect for—and fear of—Chinese President Xi Jinping.

If Putin does unleash the dogs of war, the sanctions should be massive—including cutting Russian banks off from the global economic system.

Some analysts posit that Putin has gone too far to back down. Not necessarily. He can boast that he proved yet again that Russia is a power to reckon with; that he revealed the disunity within NATO and the European Union (with Germany the weakest link); that he has miles to go—and worlds to conquer—before he sleeps. His most important political rivals can contradict him—but only from their prison cells.

There’s another scenario I want to outline today. Putin could decide to do what President Biden inadvertently advised: Stage a “minor incursion.” In 2008, he didn’t seize all of Georgia. He chipped off two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As noted, six years later, he sliced Crimea from Ukraine.

He could send in enough muscle to sever embattled Donbas from Ukraine. Maybe add a little more strategic territory (a land bridge to Crimea?) before agreeing to a ceasefire. Maybe  he’d escalate hybrid warfare to coerce a pledge from Kyiv not to attempt to join or even cooperate with NATO. Perhaps he could utilize his KGB skills to arrange for the installation of a more pliable Ukrainian government—like that in Belarus.

American and European policymakers are setting precedents and teaching lessons. The rulers of China, Iran and North Korea are taking notes. The foundational rules of the international order will either be reinforced or undermined. The consequences will extend far beyond the borders of Ukraine and deep into the future.

Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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