Vladimir Putin’s no chess master

Something terrible is looming in Ukraine. Undoubtedly, subversion, sabotage and murder await, although such misery has been going on for some time without much attention from the West. But a Russian attack, with air and missile strikes followed by an invasion, would be much worse. Thousands of people could die, and the foundations of European security would be shaken like they have not been since the early days of the Cold War.

Yet the degree of public hand-wringing and even desperation in the United States is excessive, and not only when compared to the relative phlegmatism of the Ukrainian population. Commentary on Russia’s build-up and threats has taken many forms: pointless quarter-century-old accusations about NATO expansion, silly psychotherapeutic diagnoses of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s need for “respect”, claims that the government’s weakness Biden has created this situation, and especially the belief that Putin has not just Ukraine, but the whole West, including the United States, right where he wants it. A more balanced consideration is in order.

Ukraine is a problem for Putin’s Russia, not because it might join NATO, but because it is democratizing – slowly, clumsily, imperfectly – and building a new national identity after 30 years of independence. So are the other former Soviet republics, some of which (for example, Azerbaijan) have quietly sided with Kiev. The goal of reconstructing, if not the Russian Empire, then a 21st-century version of it, is to slip out of Putin’s grasp, and he knows it. In many ways, what we now see from Moscow is a wave of atavistic post-imperialist claims, which, like the British and French intervention in Egypt in 1956, may start well, but will likely end badly.

The Russian dictator has made demands that he knows cannot be met. He has issued them publicly while such things are usually done privately meaning he is looking for a fight on whatever terms. He has mobilized a large army on Ukraine’s borders – more than 100,000 troops – but nowhere near one large enough to subjugate a country of 40 million people, many of whom are not only ready to fight, but also willing. to do this. Urban areas absorb armies like tissue paper absorbs a drop of ink, and a Russian invasion will send a stream of coffins heading home to a population that has little appetite for loss.

The stakes are high enough for the West. The Russian post-Soviet state is big, but not a superpower, except in the field of nuclear weapons. A restored Russian Empire would make it the most powerful entity in Europe. Indeed, the precedent of conquest, or of the massive destruction that the Russian army could wreak, would destroy the European peace that has prevailed since 1949 (with the exception of the Balkan conflicts). It would further destroy interstate norms of behavior that serve smaller countries everywhere.

But the stakes are higher for Russia. It may temporarily isolate itself from economic sanctions, but the cost of war with Ukraine will ultimately be even more instability at home. The secret police can poison, imprison, or kill dissident leaders like Alexei Navalny, but it will be much harder to slaughter mobs of angry mothers of wounded or dead soldiers. A Russia isolated from the West and punished by economic sanctions will become, more than it already is, a kind of vassal state for China, and Russian diplomats and soldiers know that the Chinese are unsentimental in their treatment of their family members and satellites.

The Western response so far has been cautious and effective. The United States has led effectively, and President Joe Biden has a remarkably bipartisan consensus behind him. The government has issued appropriate threats, prepared appropriate sanctions and has begun to take the most important step of delivering anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles into the willing hands of Ukrainian soldiers. The more and faster, the better.

NATO has not crumbled, quite the contrary. Sweden and Finland have muttered about joining the alliance, Eastern European allies have been particularly loyal, and even French diplomatic overtures reflect President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to be the leading statesman in Europe rather than a desire to appease Russia. Putin has indeed given NATO a gift. If the alliance had an identity crisis in the 1990s and 1990s, its members can hardly doubt its necessity now. Georgii Arbatov, one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s advisers, had a point in 1987 when he wryly remarked that Russia would be doing the West a great disservice by depriving it of an enemy. By reversing that, Putin has not only revitalized NATO but also empowered it.

Western strategic clichés usually portray the Russians as incomparably agile chess masters, cunning manipulators of using force to support policy, who consistently outsmart their Western adversaries. But that characterization is less true than one might think. Indeed, the US and British intelligence agencies were cunning in warning of Russian false flag operations and provocations and in naming a series of Ukrainian quislings who were being vetted to take power. These revelations are an antidote to the poisonous needles being prepared by the Russian secret services.

In fact, although Putin has played a weak hand very well so far, the fact is that the Russian army is not the Wehrmacht, or even the old Red Army. It has some top-notch bits, some well-trained special powers, and good technology. But it still suffers from all its old mistakes, including maintenance, morale and initiative. Armed forces reflect their societies, and while Russia is much better off than it was in the 1990s, it remains a society with poor public health; a crude, resource-based economy; and a deeply corrupt and selfish elite. Russia is also vulnerable to sanctions and cyber attacks. And at the top, the country is run by an aging dictator who doesn’t hear many inconvenient truths from advisers who know better.

In May 1864, Union troops launched the Battle of the Wilderness, a bloody battle that ushered in the campaigns that eventually destroyed the Confederacy. But in the beginning, many of the leaders of the Army of the Potomac were very nervous. One of Ulysses S. Grant’s staff officers, Horace Porter, recalled an incident after the war when a general, breathing quickly, burst into field headquarters and said, “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be taken seriously. I know [Robert E.] Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan and cut us off completely.”

Porter remembered Grant taking his cigar out of his mouth, stood up, and the excited general replied:

Oh, I’m tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think that he will suddenly do a double somersault and land on both our flanks behind us at the same time.

And then he ordered the despondent general to return to his command and think about what the army of the Potomac was going to do with Lee, instead of the other way around.

Vladimir Putin is not Robert E. Lee. But at a time when statues of Lee are coming down, a little more of the spirit of Ulysses S. Grant is clearly in order.

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