GWYNNE DYER: Humorous VladimirPutin | Salt wire
The geopolitical question of the moment is: how important is it to reassure Russian leader Vladimir Putin? The answer is: not very much.
Throw him a fish or two for bluffing and you don’t want to humiliate him, but you don’t need to appease him with big concessions.
This question has become urgent because President Putin is demanding guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO. He also wants the alliance to withdraw all non-local troops and weapons it has stationed in countries that were not part of NATO prior to 1997. And he implies that he could invade Ukraine if NATO doesn’t stick to it.
“Areas that were not in NATO before 1997” is a lot of territory.
It includes Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all of which were under Soviet rule before 1989, as well as five other countries in the Balkans that were communist-ruled but not under Soviet control : Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia.
That’s more than a hundred million people, most of whom have unhappy memories of Russian rule and an ongoing fear of Russian domination. That is why they all joined NATO (and most of them also joined the European Union).
You will never let the Russians make you vulnerable again, and there is no reason for NATO to give in to Putin’s demands. The idea that Russia could actually invade Ukraine is, frankly, ridiculous.
Ukraine is a country the size of France with 43 million people. Its armed forces are less well equipped than Russia’s, but in seven years of low-level fighting against Russian-backed separatists in the two southeastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, they have become significantly more professional.
Russia has a little more than three times the population of Ukraine, much larger armed forces, and a lot more money (thanks to plentiful oil and gas), but invading Ukraine would be no walk in the park. The Russians could certainly conquer the east and maybe Kiev, but conquering the west would be dubious.
And after that, the Russian occupation forces would face huge and long-lasting guerrilla resistance.
In addition, the immediate consequence of an open Russian invasion would be a trade embargo on all NATO countries that would quickly bring the Russian economy to its knees.
Moreover, the Russian people are definitely not ready for such adventures: Putin’s entire regime would be threatened with collapse.
This is not like the old Cold War, when the Soviet Union and its satellites were only two to one inferior to NATO. Now it’s just a greatly shrunk Russia versus a greatly expanded NATO: three to one in the regular armed forces, seven to one in the population, twenty-five to one in the GDP.
Russia has a lot of nuclear weapons so no one will 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.
When Putin came to power at the end of 1999, he inherited the reality of an enlarged NATO and did not raise any objections either then or long afterwards. After all, he was very preoccupied with the war in Chechnya and other post-imperial border conflicts for the next decade.
After the 2014 revolution in Kiev overthrew the pro-Russian president there, he began to become obsessed with Ukraine, but then effectively took Ukraine’s NATO membership off the board by sponsoring a pro-Russian armed revolt in Donetsk and Luhansk.
In any case, there was never much support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO, precisely because it could 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 satisfactory – so why try to change it?
One possibility is that with Donald Trump in his pocket – no one knows why but he did – Putin gave Putin a sense of security that has since evaporated. Another is that he just sees Joe Biden as weak and tries his luck. But his motive doesn’t matter, because the whole project is preprogrammed.
NATO does not have to do anything except privately make it clear to Moscow that any Russian aggression against Ukraine – not a complete out of the question invasion, but even a border crossing somewhere – will result in a full economic blockade on Russia.
Of course, don’t say that in public.
Don’t push Putin into the corner, don’t let him lose face.
Also, don’t panic the Western public with exaggerated reports of Russian military rearmament (as the boys and girls at the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington did just out of habit).
Don’t make concessions to Putin, show him respect.
Keep talking to him and at some point he will come off the ledge he just walked out on.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War.