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Putin Can't Lose

Putin Can't Lose

Monday, 21 March, 2022 - 08:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The world stands in shock at a dangerous juncture it hasn't seen in decades. This not an exaggeration. The war has returned to Europe by a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

The images of the Russian war on Ukraine has raised numerous difficult questions. Will we be confronted with the redrawing of some maps? Will we witness a coup against the world of the single major power? Are we on the way towards a new world order? An order with multiple poles, with each pole allowed to make unilateral moves against the fate of a neighboring country.

Where does China stand in this new world that is born with the sound of artillery fire and the severing of economic, diplomatic and cultural lines? Are we confronted with a new heated arms race that preoccupies the world from the concerns of diseases, climate change and masses of impoverished people, dreaming of migrating from their miserable broken countries? What will the world reap from the Ukraine war that has endangered gas pipelines, wheat and supply chains?

A man called Vladimir Putin has dealt a deafening blow to the world that carried the hallmarks of his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev and the world that the victorious United States failed to manage.

We can say that the Ukraine war is more dangerous than all other conflicts witnessed in the world of the two camps. It is more dangerous than the Korean War, Vietnam War and the wars that exhausted the Middle East. It is more dangerous because the world of the two camps had at its disposal the ability to activate the safety valve that was an agreement between Washington and Moscow to contain or put out any fire. The world today can't speak of any such safety valve. The Security Council looks like an aging organization, which is weak and ineffectual, that has only retained its ability to speak and hand out bandages.

A leader usually goes down in history with his war or for taking a major decision at a major juncture. History usually leaves a place for those who deal heavy blows to maps and balances of power and whose victims outnumber their supporters. The history books judge and re-judge these leaders. These books are often written by the victors.

The leaders of the Kremlin have an interesting story. They are destined to be strong leaders. The Soviet Union was born out of the Russian Empire. Moscow could not coexist with weakness because that would eat away at the empire. Amid the inevitable power, fear of the West seeped into the Kremlin in the 20th Century. Peter the Great had traveled to the West in disguise in order to discover the sources of its strength and use its expertise.

Fear of the West was a constant presence for the czars who succeeded Lenin. The names of the majority of his successors were tied to major crises and massive decisions. The "Ukrainian peasant", Nikita Khrushchev was at the helm when the Hungarian uprising threatened to break away from the Soviet Union. Soviet tanks advanced on Budapest and the betrayers of the party were taught a lesson they would never forget. Chance would have it that the Soviet ambassador, Yuri Andropov, would be present at the Budapest banquet. He would soon lead the KGB empire and later the Soviet Union. Khrushchev was again at the helm during the Cuban Missile Crisis that put him in a direct duel with John Kennedy and on brink of a nuclear confrontation. Putin was ten years old at the time.

Leonid Brezhnev's name would be tied with other major events. In 1968, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, led by Alexander Dubček, committed the sin of calling for the establishment of "socialism with a human face". Moscow realized the danger of change and Brezhnev ordered that the Prague Spring be crushed and so it was. Brezhnev's name would also be tied to an unwise decision: The Soviet Union's first intervention outside Eastern Europe. The Red Army marched into Afghanistan and would only leave it defeated during Gorbachev's term.

Putin emerged in 1990s Russia after a former Soviet leader changed the world. It was Gorbachev. He opened the window and in came the storm. His name will be tied to two historic events: The fall of the Berlin Wall and suicide of the Soviet Union.

During the negotiations over the unification of Germany, he did not try to obtain pledges from NATO leaders that the alliance would stay clear of Russia. He made do with oral pledges, which strong players are not in the habit of respecting. He did not try to secure written pledges because, according to him, that would mean acknowledging the death of the Warsaw Pact, which was still alive.

As for his successor, Boris Yeltsin, his name would be tied to Russia's deepening sense of loss and defeat, especially after it became victim of history's greatest theft by mafias.

The project of revenge will be born in the military-intelligence backrooms and carried by Putin to the Kremlin. NATO did not pay attention to the dangers of humiliating Russia. It moved its weapons towards it borders or close to them. It ignored the fragmentation taking place in Ukraine over the past two decades. Kazakhstan is one thing, Ukraine is another. Putin will never forgive Slavic Ukraine for celebrating jumping off the Soviet train. He will never forgive its Orange Revolution or its expulsion of its pro-Moscow president. He punished it for its betrayal. He reclaimed Crimea and supported separatist pockets.

Neither the West, nor Ukraine grasped the messages. Putin dealt his major blow to the world that treated Russia as a second rate force. And so the current war is upon us.

The most difficult thing about this war is that its architect cannot retreat from it. The West believes that his victory would whet his appetite in reclaiming other "stolen territories". As for him, he's like a very intelligent man who suddenly gambled everything he has and cannot turn back and lose. He cannot go back defeated to an isolated Russia even if it means gambling with expanding the war. His defeat would threaten to tear the Russian Federation apart.

The world that is worried about gas, grains, security and stability must come up with a rescue plan. The behavior of the Chinese president implies that the circumstances for resolving the crisis are not available yet. China's calculations are very complicated. On the one hand, abandoning Russia is costly, while fully joining the coup against it would be even more. The master of the Kremlin cannot lose.

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