Tyrants prefer to move when their enemies are weak, divided or both. So no surprise to see Russia’s Vladimir Putin fresh from his triumph in coercing Moldova, to stirring up trouble in the Balkans, supporting Belarus’s migrant-based diplomacy, blackmailing the EU over energy supplies this winter, and ratcheting up the threat of military action against Ukraine.
Well, that’s the view from the London-based Daily Telegraph, which points out that Putin has been sending clear and consistent messages, (punctuated by use of force in Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine):
“Putin’s Kremlin has been preparing for conflict ever since he declared the new age of hostility in a 2007 speech in Munich …”
“In his final decade in power, Putin wants to do three things: first, destroy an independent Ukrainian state; second, shatter Nato and third, cement Russia’s role as an illiberal rival to the West. He will risk war, calculating that Germany’s strategically disastrous energy policy – shutting nuclear power whilst becoming more dependent on Russian coal and gas – will mean that the EU blinks first.”
While you can see why British PM Boris Johnson says the choice is between gas and Ukraine, it doesn’t make the choice any easier.
Which is no doubt why the Eurointelligence blog paints a bleak picture of the EU’s crisis diplomacy options:
“Angela Merkel called Alexander Lukashenko, Emmanuel Macron called Vladimir Putin, the EU imposed new sanctions on migrant smugglers to Belarus, and Nato issued a warning over Russian military build up at the Ukraine border. All in one day.
Russia plays it well with its military build up at its two borders to Ukraine and Belarus. Putin lets everyone guess what is yet to come. Military aggression towards Ukraine, or a military presence in Belarus? Nato and the US are warning, the EU is flustering. A well rehearsed game.”
Who knows what Putin will do? That’s why it’s so effective.
But wrong footing your opponents with gamesmanship is one thing. For Putin, military action carries enormous risks. A lingering threat can be manipulated: a hard conflict puts an unavoidable test on the state and the people. Putin can’t be sure of the support of his people, the loyalty of his military, or the effectiveness of his materiel. Ukraine has built a powerful head of anti-Russian nationalism. And however much Germany vacillates, it would be unwise to rule out some Polish intervention, which could spark even-wider conflict.
All of a sudden the hard doctrines of the cold war are clear once again: understanding of threats; the importance of containment; the need for military preparedness; and respect for those who might have to do the dying for us.
The next wake up call will probably be even less convenient.