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The Cards in Putin’s Hands

The Cards in Putin’s Hands

Friday, 1 July, 2022 - 10:00
Elias Harfoush
Lebanese writer and journalist

The Russian war on Ukraine dominated the two summits that brought Western countries together in the German province of Bavaria and the Spanish city of Madrid. G7 leaders sought to show their unity as they declared their support for Ukrainian President Zelensky and affirmed that they are standing by his country politically and militarily. Consequential decisions were made. Significant increases in military aid and funding were announced. Long-range missiles were promised to Ukrainian forces, as was the persistence of training on Western weapons.

Growing apprehension of Russia’s threat to European security was voiced. The “historic” decision to open the door to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, a step that these two countries could not have taken before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, given their longstanding commitment to neutrality, was prompted by this apprehension.

Although Putin tried to downplay the implications of this decision, saying that he had no problem with Finland and Sweden taking whatever path they wanted, he warned that building military bases in these countries would lead to a similar reaction on Russia’s part, which would impose “an equivalent threat to the countries coming to us with these threats.”

Finding a way around the challenges posed by the new geopolitical situation he finds himself in will prove a difficult task for Putin. A quick glance at the map shows that Russia is now surrounded from the West and that it has no friendly neighbors besides Belarus. And the Russian President, who had been complaining that the West was “at his doorstep” before the invasion of Ukraine, will share a 1,300 kilometers border with NATO once Finland joins. Not only are they at the door, but Russia’s entire western border would also require constant attention to defend. A state of affairs that the leadership in Moscow had not seen during the worst phases of the Cold War.

Putin is playing many cards to fight back: he is escalating militarily in Ukraine, seizing as much territory as he can in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine and beginning to integrate them, administratively and economically at this stage, into Russia’s administrative and financial system. He also has the economic escalation card, which he is playing by restricting the global supply of food and energy. In this tactic, Putin sees a weapon useful for undermining Western cohesion and pushing other regions and countries, especially India and African countries, to speak out against the continuation of the war.

The political escalation card has manifested itself in attempts to exploit the positions of several Western countries (such as Hungary, France and Germany) that seem more inclined to keep the door open to reaching an agreement with Moscow and seeking a peaceful resolution to the Ukrainian war. Although Western leaders tried to demonstrate their cohesiveness at the G7 and NATO summits, we have seen many signs that countries have divergent views regarding the implications of military escalation against Russia.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been the most explicit among Western leaders in pointing out these disparities; from the get-go, he has been calling on other leaders to show clear and robust support for Ukraine as it seeks to preserve its independence and reclaim the territories lost as a result of the invasion.

The most effective card in Putin’s hands is constantly spooking the West with the dangers of a nuclear confrontation with Russia. Keir Giles, an expert in Russian affairs at The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, has said that Russia’s escalating threats influence the decisions of these countries and push them to think twice about providing the Ukrainians with advanced weaponry they need to retrieve the territories they had lost and that President Zelenskyy keeps asking for.

Putin feels he can mitigate his military inferiority vis-a-vis the West by spooking Western concerns about the consequences of escalation. Putin, Medvedev, and others’ references to Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons and its ability to reach any European targets have been explicit.

In addition, Western countries are struggling with the economic ramifications of the war, which has raised prices and weakened support for the decision-makers of these countries. The Russian President does not face problems of this kind, as expressing discontent leads to imprisonment in Russia.

Moreover, there is the fact that Putin has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve in this war, while Western countries’ views of what they would consider an acceptable way out of the crisis are ambiguous and contradictory.

The Russian President wants full control of Eastern Ukraine and to prevent Ukraine from making sovereign decisions that go against Moscow’s interests, in other words subjugating Kyiv to the will of the Kremlin. As for Western countries’ stances, they range from accepting compromise solutions on Crimea and Donbas to refusing to end the war before Russian troops withdraw from all the territory they have occupied since March 2014.

Nonetheless, the most important element in the Russian-Western standoff is the arsenal. This war is not being fought with words but with weapons. And as long as the West remains reluctant to provide weapons that could alter the balance of power in favor of Ukraine and push Putin to face the possibility of a defeat, the war will continue to be in Moscow’s favor. In time, it will turn into a war of attrition for the Europeans, the Ukrainians, and the world, while the Russian President feels no need to worry or reveal any of his figures or losses.

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