I would rather write about some upbeat news this time of year, but the unending stream of horrific events is difficult to ignore. Terrorists and warmongers do not take a holiday season break.
Vladimir Putin is calling the shots in what might be the most dangerous form of terrorism.
Although Islamic terrorists have committed the most extreme savage and inhuman acts of violence, Putin’s actions are capable of triggering total world war, one with nuclear potential. However cruel the likes of ISIL, the Taliban and Boko Haram are, they do not have nuclear arsenals, at least for now.
Russia is paying a price for Putin’s nationalistic nostalgia for the good old days of the Soviet Union. The free fall of the ruble, precipitated by a combination of Western sanctions in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, along with the hit the country’s economy has suffered due to the collapse of oil prices, are clearly his fault….and his alone.
Even the thought of sanctions would never have entered anyone’s mind had he behaved responsibly in the aftermath of Ukraine’s removal of a pro-Putin/anti-EU president. By sending troops and arms into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he violated the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed in 1994 by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The treaty also made Ukraine a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
Putin’s leadership has spanned fifteen years, alternating between the posts of Prime Minister and President. He bet Russia’s economic future on oil and gas, a strategy that made it easy for him to reward the oligarch cronies who support his regime.
Now he’s whining and telling his people that the economic crisis they face is because the West wants to suppress Russia’s influence. He has backed himself into a corner. The only way Putin’s position will remain tenable is if he can continue to sell the public on this farce of an excuse.
By appealing to nationalistic fervor, he will exploit the Russians’ characteristic resolve to endure adversity and protect the Motherland. And what better way than by expanding its influence through a modern equivalent of the old Eastern Bloc – a network of countries dependent on Moscow, but this time the barbed-wire barriers and guard towers will be replaced by economic dominance.
Putin is not limiting his ambitions to Eastern Europe; he is looking in all directions.
And this is where it gets really dangerous.
Rather than engage in aggressive but fair economic competition in the open market, Putin is relying on extortion and preemptive maneuvers.
Years before the crisis in Ukraine, Russia was already looking north to the Arctic as an exclusive commercial corridor and strategic military asset. Russia launched an expedition to the North Pole in 2007 and planted its flag on the seabed. While that act by itself has no international standing, using the pretense of an expanded continental shelf, the Russian government has repeatedly made clear its desire to control and exploit the region beyond historical claims and legal conventions.
Recently, Russia announced the re-positioning of 6,000 military personnel to the Arctic and disclosed plans to construct air and naval outposts there. More will undoubtedly follow. The rapid melting of the polar ice cap will open up huge commercial opportunities. Mineral and energy resources in the region will become more accessible and shipping routes will be shortened. The farther out Russia extends its military assets in the Arctic, the greater leverage it will have in disputes over the rights to the region.
To the west, Putin is already meddling in Moldova’s elections and has been making provocative moves around the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. He has been acting like a drunken Cossack of late, allowing his air force to endanger commercial aviation by turning off transponders, increasing the risk of collisions. He already has the blood of the passengers from Malaysia Flight 17 on his hands.
To the south, there is already talk of Russian plans to base nuclear weapons in the Crimea peninsula. It is bad enough Ukraine’s borders as defined by the Budapest Agreement were violated; now it appears that Putin wants to trash the nuclear-free zone provision as well.
The only reason why he is not elbowing his way into the Pacific is the presence of industrial giants China and Japan, each with its own credible military capabilities, not to mention the strong presence of United States forces. Putin will play fair when he knows he can’t get his way through bullying, hence the legitimate natural gas agreement between Russia and China.
The United States and its allies must be proactive to counter Putin. He is armed and dangerous. His recklessness heightens the risk of an inadvertent, isolated release of a nuclear weapon.
NATO must position forces in all vulnerable eastern European countries. Large formations are not necessary; just enough to make Putin think twice. Let’s not forget that it was a comparatively small, vastly outnumbered and isolated garrison that protected West Berlin throughout the Cold War from the threat posed by massive Soviet and East German armies.
But if we cede the initiative to Russia, our options will shrink and become more expensive.
There is nothing we or anyone can do to force Russia to leave Crimea. Putin got the drop on the rest of the world. We can only hope to curtail further attempts by Putin to expand his control. A recent bill signed by President Obama authorizes the shipment of military aid to Ukraine . It is the only practical strategy at this stage. This assistance might enable Ukraine to eventually purge the eastern part of the country of Russian troops and insurgents, but the extensive damage to the infrastructure and social order caused by months of conflict will require a mini-Marshall Plan to fix.
Turkey is the gatekeeper of the Straits of Bosphorus under the Montreux Convention, of which Russia is a signatory. The treaty strictly limits access by naval units from countries not bordering the Black Sea. While Putin had no misgivings violating the Budapest Memorandum, he would squeal like a stuck pig if Turkey were to obstruct transit of Russia’s Black Sea fleet to and from the Mediterranean. Of course, Turkey’s reliability as a NATO partner is questionable these days. Too bad – even a symbolic gesture by Turkey would weaken Putin’s hand.
How this crisis plays out is anyone’s guess. The best resolution would be if the Russian people finally saw through their president’s lies and voted him out of office.
But what if Putin declared an emergency and suspended the Russian Constitution, voiding the election results?
What if the military lost faith in him and launched a coup? Think back to the military coup that unseated Gorbachev. It could happen again.
Putin is the proverbial loose cannon. He is the greatest threat to world peace in the lifetimes of most persons alive today. The West must be relentless with sanctions and military assistance.
Appealing directly to the Russian people is a viable strategy, too. Perhaps Radio Free Europe needs to mount an intense social media and broadcast campaign.
In the end, the Russians must step up and rid themselves and the world of this sociopath.
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