Putin’s Gambit

As of writing this (Tuesday, February 15), Russia has not invaded Ukraine.  I doubt that it will.  Why?  Because Russia has more to gain by not invading than by taking all the risks war entails.

On the surface, that may not seem to be the case.  Russia has spent a great deal of money positioning her armed forces for an invasion.  By not going ahead with it, she might look weak, at least in the eyes of fools.  The neocons and the Blob – the Washington foreign policy establishment – will claim threats of U.S. sanctions forced President Putin to back down, even though he has repeatedly said he has no intention of going to war.

That points to the first benefit to Russia by not attacking: Putin will appear to be a man of his word, while the Blob will have been exposed as an hysterical fraud.  That will not hurt the Blob domestically – it and its neo-con lampreys have been wrong on everything since the end of the Cold War yet remain in power – but the rest of the world will take note.  It will be less likely to react the next time the Blob barks at the bear.

For Russia, the biggest payoff from not invading is to have proven that it can.  The Russian military will have carried out (quite well) a completely convincing mobilization for a conflict in Ukraine.  No one doubts that, should she be forced to do so, Russia can take Kiev in two weeks.  There is no near-term possibility for Ukraine to join NATO, so Russia has no need to act presently.  But everyone now knows what the Russian Army can do.

Meanwhile, the financial cost to Russia of her extensive mobilization is easily repaid by intelligence she has gathered.  Intelligence on what?  On what NATO and especially the U.S. can and cannot see.  The Blob’s panic has led Washington to reveal a great deal of intelligence, which in turn points to sources.  The Russians now have a clear picture of what U.S. intelligence can perceive and, of even greater importance, what it cannot.  Maskirovka – masking or camouflaging planned actions, especially the massing of forces before an offensive – has long been a central Russian principle of war.  Russia – but not the U.S. – knows from what we revealed where her maskirovka worked.  She can do more of what worked while trying to do better elsewhere.

Finally, Russia will have reminded the world of the limits on American military power.  On the Eurasian continent, continental powers are dominant and maritime powers, including the United States, are less important players.  Fortunately, President Biden realized we could do nothing effective and ruled out sending American troops to Ukraine.  But what he did instead, dispatching handfuls of paratroopers to Poland and Germany and a few light armor units to Romania, showed how weak we are on the continent, not how strong.  Due to our shortages of both air and sea lift and the enormous logistics train American units require, all we could contribute to a major continental war is a few speed bumps.

As I have said in previous columns, this whole situation was easy to avoid.  All the U.S. had to do was to assure President Putin, in writing, that the U.S. was and would remain opposed to any changes in NATO’s by-laws.  Those by-laws prohibit any country that has a border dispute with a neighbor from joining NATO.  That would toss the hot potato back in Ukraine’s lap, since ending its border disputes with Russia would mean accepting Russian ownership of Crimea, something no government in Kiev can do.  Problem solved.

On the other side of the ledger, President Putin must know that the course and outcome of wars are never predictable.  Russia could probably get away with slicing off a corner of Ukraine, enough to get a land bridge to Crimea.  But more than that would mean sailing into uncharted waters, waters where the Russian state could run hard aground.

In the end, Russia has more to gain by not invading Ukraine than by going to war.  This is one of the rare situations where the low risk course offers more gain than a high-risk venture.  I suspect President Putin saw it this way from the outset.  He is now positioned well to gain from his gambit, and not just in central Europe.