Still no invasion, but here another of Patrick Cockburn’s outstanding articles covering the Ukraine crisis
Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso)
Cross-posted from Counterpunch
Photograph Source: Lazopoulos George – CC BY 2.0
So far Russian President Vladimir Putin is the biggest winner in the Ukraine crisis by converting some heavy-duty sabre rattling into real political leverage. He has succeeded so well because US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders draw political benefits from opposing or defusing the Russian leader’s unspoken threat to invade.
Putin wants Russia to be taken seriously as an international player, recalling the era when it was the core nation in the USSR. It is still a nuclear superpower, though otherwise the Kremlin today rules a much-shrunken state with a population of 144 million or half that of the Soviet Union. The Russian economy is only a 15th the size of that of the US, while the Soviet economy was a third as big.
The Kremlin will be greatly gratified by the flood of Western leaders who have made their way in the past few weeks to Moscow where they can stand tall and issue stern warnings against a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
There was British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warning Moscow against indulging in “Cold War rhetoric”, a cheeky demand given that a few weeks back Truss was accusing Moscow of grooming political lightweights in Kyiv as quisling rulers-to-be of a Russian occupied Ukraine.
Also defying the Russian bear is Boris Johnson, on his way to Brussels and then Warsaw, who said before leaving that Nato “must draw lines in the snow and be clear there are principles on which we will not compromise”.
Given the tendency of snow to melt, Johnson’s bit of rhetoric sounds less than convincing. With the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also in Moscow, British diplomatic activity over Ukraine is embarrassing in its intensity and is presumably geared to show that Britain is still an international power whose leaders should not be diverted by scandal and criticism back home.
Putin is under some pressure, but much of it is rhetorical and conditional. Threats of sanctions made by Nato powers are predicated on a Russian invasion having actually taken place. Britain is putting 1,000 troops on alert to deal with a potential flood of millions of Ukrainian refugees, supposing there is a Russian military assault. American troops dispatched by Biden will have much the same task.
Words and actions by Biden and Johnson are at least partly addressed to domestic audiences whom their embattled leaders are eager to impress with their statesmanlike resolve. And, if there is no Russian invasion, they can claim that this is only because they deterred it.
Some Western analysts say that Putin would find it difficult to step back from maximalist Russian demands that Ukraine would never join Nato. But the same pundits often declare that Putin is a dictator unaffected by public opinion so not achieving all he wants will not do him political damage. He is also in full control of the Russian media narrative so, as long as he avoids war, whatever he does do will be hailed as a success.
Russia will never get a public declaration by Nato that Ukraine will not join the organisation, but then it does not really need to. It has already succeeded in toxifying the issue, making it unlikely that Nato powers will raise it as a serious option in future.
“It will be pushed to the margins of discussion,” one former diplomat told me, “as nobody will want to reignite a crisis with Russia.”
Keep in mind also that the Nato powers all declare that they will not send troops to Ukraine invasion or no invasion. This must deflate the value of Kyiv joining what is, after all, a military alliance, if the other members are pledged not to defend it.
The Kremlin has obtained other diplomatic dividends. Among punishments threatened if Russia does launch an invasion is an end to the Nord Stream 2 gas project, but if there is no invasion then presumably it will go ahead.
Yet sabre-rattling is a dangerous game that cannot be played successfully for too long. Putin needs to give his invasion scare enough substance to make it credible without turning it into a reality.
Thus Russia is currently conducting military exercises in Belarus and naval manoeuvres in the Black Sea, allowing it to keep up the pressure.
The problem from the Russian point of view that if the sabre does not come out of the scabbard, then eventually rattling it ceases to impress an opponent.
But any escalation in the threat level brings us closer to real military action and the risk of an accident – such as the shooting down of the Dutch airliner MH17 by Russian armed separatists in east Ukraine in 2014 – escalating the crisis uncontrollably.
Nato powers might also decide that Moscow is doing too well out of “coercive diplomacy” and demand that it reduce its forces close to the border with Ukraine.
Other dangers lurk in the Ukrainian political minefield, such as the balance of political power inside Kyiv. One explanation for the movement of Russian troops to the border early last year is that President Volodymyr Zelensky, backed by the incoming Biden administration, moved against pro-Russian parties, detained their leaders, and closed their television channel. Exactly who holds power in Kyiv will determine the extent of the security threat perceived by Moscow.
So far, all the players in the Ukraine crisis have enhanced their international or domestic status, but over time winners and losers will begin to emerge. If the arena in which they fight out their rivalries is to be Ukraine, the most unstable country in Europe, then the danger of a real military crisis becomes acute.
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