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Thoughts on Putin – 15 July 2014

Thoughts on Putin – 15 July 2014

I’ve spent the past week in Canada visiting my elderly parents. Other than having to deal with jet lag, I’ve also experienced a degree of culture shock: for the average Canadian, the situation in Ukraine is very distant indeed. For Ukrainian-Canadians who I would classify as intellectuals, the ongoing war in the Donbas is more of an intellectual curiosity (granted – a priority for discussion) than an emotionally charged war that affects family, friends, compatriots… Meanwhile, my wife and I sit glued to computer screens with tears running down our cheeks each time we read reports of very real battles (involving automatic weapons, rockets, tanks, and shelling) and very real deaths.

Let me try to bring things home for you my dear Diaspora friends. The war in the Donbas is not about some economically depressed region in eastern Ukraine – it’s about you! Putin is crazy. He is a megalomaniac who gains personal pleasure from destabilizing the world. Even worse: he’s a locust. Remember the movie Independence Day? The aliens attacked earth with one purpose: to strip this planet of all resources, and once that was done they planned to move on. The only way to fight the alien scourge (in the movie) was to destroy it. Putin is no different. Unless he is stopped, he will continue to destabilize border regions in an attempt to spread his control over the resources there (including human). And when I refer to “border regions” I’m not just talking about the fringe of the former USSR!

How’s this for a scenario: a breakaway faction of the Inuit council of Inuvik territory publicly proclaims its dissatisfaction with “Canadian rule”. Apparently, you see, Ottawa has denied the Inuit their language rights over generations, and the northern people’s tongue is now on the verge of extinction. Under the auspices of national self-determination, the said breakaway faction of the Inuit declares Inuvik to be an independent state, and asks their Siberian brethren, the Chukcha for support and protection (FYI Chukotka is part of the Russian Federation). Within days, hundreds of Chukcha-speaking fighters (and mercenaries who are definitely not Chukcha, but who’s to notice such details?), armed with Russian-made automatic weapons, RPG’s, ice-combat equipped tanks, combat helicopters, and fighter aircraft (!), mysteriously appear on Canadian territory, establishing bases on Baffin Island, and occupying Yellowknife. The Canadian government invokes Article 5 of the NATO treaty – after-all, its territory is under attack! But no one believes the “propagandists from Ottawa”. The world sees this conflict as an insurgency. Sanctions against Russia are threatened, but never invoked – so long as the supply of oil from the Alberta tar sands is not disrupted…

The above scenario seemed far-fetched to me just 5 months ago. In February, who would have believed that Russia would violate the territorial integrity of a sovereign state through military aggression? This is exactly what is happening today, and it will not stop until the Russian leadership is stopped.

The most likely next target after Ukraine will not be Canada, but rather one of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia). These countries are members of NATO, and they offer an ideal opportunity to test the robustness of the alliance. If a Ukrainian-styled “insurgency” were to be staged in one of these countries (each has a large ethnic Russian minority), and then “little green men” inserted to support it, the governments of these states would inevitably invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. However, without overt invasion, one of the NATO members (e.g. Italy or Greece) would certainly protest that the “insurgency” does not constitute an immediate external threat, but is instead an internal matter of the nation concerned. A split within the alliance would result, and given the unanimity requirement for decision-making in NATO, the split would negate the viability of the world’s most powerful trans-national defensive pact. Russia would then be free to proceed as it pleases. The right of the mighty would have finally prevailed. Canada would then be an easy target, as would Poland, Scandinavia, Israel (via Syrian or Lebanese proxies), etc.

Let’s assume that my apocalyptic scenarios have peaked your interest. Again, you may see them as far-fetched. I thought the same when just last year (!) I read a fringe author warning about an imminent Russian invasion of Crimea…

What is to be done about Putin? In fact, this question poses a very real problem. In a previous post, I suggested that a policy of regime change might be a viable alternative to the reactive stance currently adopted by the West. Certainly something more needs to be done than simply waiting for the Russian President to make his next aggressive move, while threatening him with sanctions in the meantime. The West (NATO, the EU, the US, and other institutions that formalize the alliance of western nation-states) needs a proactive strategy towards Russia. But here we run into serious problems. Clearly the goal of the West must be to develop Russia into a “civilized” neighbor with which business can be done; with a predictable foreign policy; with a political leadership that does not regularly threaten military action against less powerful neighbors, and respects some semblance of a rule-based world order. If this is the objective, then in the medium-term, the current Russian leadership needs to be changed.

However, regime change is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the West seems to have no stomach for intervention (overt or covert) in Russia. Secondly, no obvious alternative to Putin exists inside or outside the Russian political establishment. This second point is most troubling: if Putin were to exit the Kremlin (in whatever fashion), what happens to Russia? Certainly, the West is not interested in seeing the Federation disintegrate into small political entities ruled by warlords (this is a very likely scenario!). After-all, many of these warlords would suddenly gain access to the nuclear tipped missiles on their territory – opportunities for global blackmail and/or sale of warheads, delivery vehicles, and technology to terrorist groups and rogue states would be boundless.

So, fearing a nightmare scenario of mass proliferation of Russian nuclear weapons, the West chooses to wait for Putin’s next move. In the meantime, policy-makers struggle to figure out how to contain him. Perhaps he’ll be satisfied with both Crimea and the Donbas? Maybe he’ll stop there? These seem to be the hopeful questions subliminally being asked by the German Chancellor, whom Ukrainian social media activists have now christened Frau Ribbentropp (a reference to the pre-WW2 German foreign minister who signed a peace pact with Stalin that led to the division of Poland, and occupation of western Ukraine and the Baltic states by the USSR).

But there is a problem with the containment policy also. Sooner or later, if the Russian leader’s appetites are contained, his popularity will begin to fall within Russia. Before the Crimean invasion, Putin enjoyed a popularity rating of over 40%. After the annexation, that jumped to over 80%. But what happens when his expansionism begins to falter? The 80% who once loved him, will begin to question their love, and that is more dangerous to his regime than the previous state of apolitical indifference. Russia has now become highly politicized, and its awakening is nationalistic, expansionist, aggressive. Putin cannot afford to stop. If he stops, within months, he will find himself dealing with internal protest, and his only response option will be mass repressions. But with modern technology, turning Russia into a Stalinist police state is not a viable option. So, Putin becomes an animal who has been backed into a corner with no way out.

And what does an aggressive animal backed into a corner do? Now we’re into nightmare scenario #2. Proclaiming the US and the EU to be his mortal enemies (the cause of all of Russia’s ills, according to the Kremlin propaganda machine), he vows to destroy the “evil” at its core. In other words, with his regime collapsing at home, and amid mass street protests against Russia’s wars in Ukraine and elsewhere, Putin orders a full scale nuclear assault on NATO…

On February 18, I witnessed what happens when a much more limited (but nonetheless bloodthirsty) order was given by another tyrant who had been backed into a corner. On this day Yanukovych ordered the clearing of Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square), but several generals and colonels simply refused to obey. The result was a tense stand-off on Kyiv’s central square on February 19 when the protestors and the police faced each other over a no-man’s land. The next day, when the protestors advanced, snipers picked them off, and to this day we mourn the heroes of the “Heaven’s Hundred”. They died because some commanders followed orders while others did not.

A similar scenario is likely after Putin gives the order to launch: some commanders will obey while others will not. In other words, instead of an all-out nuclear assault on Europe and North America, we are likely to see a small number of missiles actually launched, and a much smaller number actually getting through NATO’s missile defense shield. But some will get through…

With New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, London, Berlin, and several other major cities destroyed, and then Moscow and St. Petersburg levelled as a result of the limited retaliation by NATO, the last bastion of European civilization left on the planet will be the former territory of Kyivan Rus (a territory that stretched from today’s Poltava approximately to Warsaw, and from Minsk to Odesa. Moscow did not exist at the time). That may sound laughable, but as they say in Ukraine: “every joke is only partly a joke…”

Since arriving in Canada a week ago (I’m here for 1 month to visit my elderly parents), I’ve been asked several times when I’m planning to leave Ukraine. My answer: as far as I’m concerned, Kyiv is the safest place on earth. Maybe it’s time the West realized it?

The war in the Donbas is not some limited regional skirmish. The scenarios outlined above are not intended to be predictions. I have presented them as possible outcomes of events if nothing continues to be done to counteract Putin’s expansionism. Russia is now a global problem. If nothing is done about it, what has come to be known as “the Ukraine crisis” could degenerate – and fast!

God help us!

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD

Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

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