Analysis |

Putin Isn't Just Attacking Ukraine. He's Fighting the Direction of History

The Russian president is fighting a rearguard battle, but it’s still bloody and depraved. Any incursion or destabilization attempts against the Baltic NATO members will inevitably lead to a major escalation in Europe

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Ukrainian troops in Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine, a week ago.
Ukrainian troops in Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine. Credit: Aris Messinis / AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

We can analyze Vladimir Putin ad nauseam. In fact, that’s all we’ve been doing for weeks.

His czarist delusions, his view of the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a major tragedy, his interpretation of Russian history and his place in it, his debased geopolitical calculus, his real or manufactured anxieties about NATO’s expansion eastward, his intentions, his modus operandi – all this warrants rigorous analysis.

But in the end, when all has been dissected, irrespective if Russia’s claims are legitimate or a crude pretext, there is one ugly reality: Putin invaded Ukraine for absolutely no reason, without any justification, unprovoked. He has ordered his armed forces to take over Ukraine, and he’s killing innocent people. This is 2022 Europe, and there’s a war in Ukraine that under some circumstances or miscalculations may spill over into a wider war in Europe.

Putin isn’t just fighting Ukraine. He also isn’t just fighting NATO and its expansion, or the United States, which he views in stark zero-sum terms. Putin is fighting against democracy, against the direction of history, trying to reverse it.

He’s fighting a rearguard battle, but it’s still bloody and depraved. Taking Kyiv and overthrowing the Ukrainian government are necessary steps, not a goal in and of itself. Putin is set to challenge and change the European order post-1991 (when the Soviet Union dissolved) and the post-1945 American-dominated world order.

Anyone who thought that Putin was engaged in brinkmanship crisis management and intended to threaten Ukraine only to force the United States and NATO into a diplomatic process was wrong. That’s what he wanted the West to think, and some gullible souls bought into the “Russian grievances should be entertained” fallacy.

Demonstrators in front of the White House on Thursday after Russia invaded Ukraine. Credit: Olivier Douliery / AFP

Anyone who thought Putin would be content with the de facto annexation of the “independent republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk was wrong. Anyone who thought that after being outmaneuvered by the United States into having to choose among bad options Putin would be deterred from invading was wrong.

Anyone who thinks that this reckless adventure will end in Ukraine may be tragically proved wrong. It may take a while, but unless Putin is confronted forcefully, Ukraine may spill over into Moldova, and if his recklessness is unchecked and he feels he’s on the verge of achieving his goals, it may also reach the Baltic states.

Rolling crisis?

Ukraine – and possibly Moldova – may be cynically seen in the West as expendable in the grand scheme of things. But any incursion or destabilization attempts against the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – all three NATO members – will inevitably represent a major escalation and possibly precipitate an all-out war in Europe.

On Thursday, Poland and the Baltic states asked to convene the NATO Council by invoking Article 4 of the NATO treaty that states: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”

However, an attack on a NATO member country is what really matters in terms of escalation. Article 5 is the one that can transform a nasty but limited war in Ukraine into a catastrophic European war. Article 5 is the “collective defense” article:

People waving Ukrainian, Lithuanian and other flags near the Russian Embassy in Vilnius after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.Credit: Mindaugas Kulbis / AP

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

Moldova and the Baltics raise the most critical question at this point: What are Putin’s next moves? Does he have an endgame or is this a rolling crisis and war that can more plausibly spiral out of control than be contained and managed? As was the case with the “will he or won’t he invade Ukraine?” issue, only one man has the answer, Putin, and even he may not have a structured design and phased plan, as many observers attribute to him.

On Thursday, Joe Biden delivered his second State of Ukraine address in as many days. He reiterated the U.S. assessment that Russia will expand the invasion, that Putin isn’t done menacing and attacking, and he unveiled a second set of harsh sanctions on Russia. This set targeted more Russian financial institutions, limiting access to Western banks and the ability to conduct transactions in dollars. Together with the first batch, announced Tuesday, these are very severe sanctions that will have devastating effects on the feeble and precarious Russian economy.

The limits of deterrence

Biden refrained from the so-called nuclear option of sanctions: disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT interbank information and fund transfer platform. This doesn’t mean that this option isn’t being seriously weighed in Washington. It is, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already expressed his support for the drastic measure.

Will this be enough? Sanctions weren’t meant to deter Putin. Many times after he threatened major sanctions, Biden said the United States was convinced Russia would invade.

Protesters outside the Russian Embassy in Riga, Latvia, Thursday after the invasion.Credit: Roman Koksarov/AP

Short of committing military power to assist Ukraine, which the United States and NATO have already ruled out, and on top of sanctions, other tools and policies are available, including a diplomatic boycott, a media shutdown, financial retribution and energy alternatives. As good a list as any of viable steps has been presented on Twitter by Garry Kasparov, an astute critic of Putin:

“Support Ukraine militarily, immediately, everything but boots on the ground. ... Recall all ambassadors from Russia. ... Expose and act against Putin’s lackeys in the free world. ... Replace Russian oil & gas.”

Putin sees himself as a protagonist on the continuum of Russian history, destined to restore the Motherland to its glory and dominance. The abysmal Russian economy, a decaying society, inferior technology (outside the very highly advanced military systems) and little Russian diplomatic clout around the world tell a different story.

Still, even a declining power has power. According to Putin, Russia was made miserable, downsized, excluded and humiliated by the United States. He’s out to change that.

But a shock and awe campaign in Ukraine doesn’t represent victory but the beginning of a bloody conflict. Disregard for the West and defiance of the sanctions isn’t a recipe for success. This isn’t the Great Patriotic War – what the Russians call the Soviet effort in World War II – and it’s doubtful if many Russians think it’s worth the costs, once they realize those exorbitant costs.

Putin may be humming Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” all day, and his groupies and apologists in the West may be impressed with his cunning antics and pseudo-sophistication. But what began in Ukraine may also prove to be his undoing. Before that, the question remains: Will he escalate a war in Ukraine into a wider war in Europe?

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