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Vladimir Putin’s Double Bind

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

Setting the Stage

The Russian military build-up of an estimated 175,000 troops, a call-up of thousands of reservists, various mechanized vehicles and even field hospitals near the Ukrainian border has alarmed the EU and US/NATO. The only question remains is the ultimate intent for this build-up, whether it’s a bluff or prelude to an invasion of Ukrainian territory.

The southeast Ukrainian region of Donsha consists of the republics Donetsk and Luhansk have been under the control of pro-Russian separatists since 2014. There have been numerous reports that these pro-separatist battalions are under the command of Russian military officers along with an estimated 3,000-4,000 volunteer Russian troops. Because of the nature of this collaboration and implied direct military support, Russia has already invaded and occupied a part of Ukraine and has established a beachhead to launch further into Ukrainian territory.

Invasions & Occupations | Economic Sinkholes

Historically invasions and subsequent occupations, regardless how brief, follow the timeless economic adage “If you break it, you own it.” The most recent bitter lesson learned is the waste of billions of American dollars poured into post-war Gulf War II Iraq and Afghanistan with a negative return on economic and political investment.

Russia’s non-violent invasion of Crimea, an overwhelmingly friendly pro-Russian territory, has been an economic sinkhole with respect to heavily subsidizing the Crimean economy.

The trophy mega-expense was the 12-mile Crimea Bridge completed in April 2018 at a cost of $3.7 billion USD. It was a challenging engineering feat and the longest bridge ever constructed by the Russians. The bridge accommodates rail and vehicular traffic that has greatly increased passenger and freight compared to the ferry system. However with no toll requirements, the bridge’s construction and subsequent maintenance expenses will not be offset by increased economic activities.

Russia’s Military Options

Two issues not readily discussed are as follows:

1. Firstly, if Russia goes beyond the Donsha, how far west will they proceed?

2. Secondly, whatever region Russia occupies, how long will they occupy it?

A military build-up of 175,000 troops with an estimated 100,000 reservists are insufficient to penetrate deep into Ukraine which eliminates the possibility of a march on Kiev. Remember that during WW II the first wave during D-Day consisted of 156,000 Allied troops whose objective was to establish a beachhead before reinforcements arrived in subsequent landings to secure their position.

For this reason I believe that Russia’s objective, should they proceed into Ukrainian territory, is to secure the pro-Russian Donsha region. It’s a region it can readily defend and whose occupation will be almost seamless and even welcomed by the mostly pro-Russian Donsha citizenry compared to an occupation with an anti-Russian population.

Russia’s success is contingent on the level of resistance, if any, of the 250,000 troop Ukrainian armed forces, non-military interference by NATO/western countries and Russian supply lines. Furthermore Russian firepower, technological superiority and logistics greatly offset the Ukrainian manpower advantage. The occupation of the Donsha region provides a forward-post and leverage in any negotiations.

Geopolitical Tit for Tat

For decades the West has prodded the Russian bear and visa-versa even though the former is never mentioned by the western media. The Ukrainian dilemma is one of a long series of provocations – political and economic in many other regions globally - that has forced Putin’s hand in pre-positioning an invasion-sized military force for a potential pre-emptive strike to underscore his resolve in maintaining Russia’s sphere of influence in the Near Abroad.

Falling Dominos

Putin’s perception of western encirclement and encroachment into Russia’s buffer zones has merit. Ukraine is Russia’s unofficial “jewel in the crown”, a country Putin is loath to slip formally or informally into the US/NATO orbit.

Since Putin’s ascendency as Russian president in 1999, no less than 7 former Soviet bloc countries have become NATO members. In 1999 three countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO. In 2004 seven countries, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia joined NATO which expanded its influence eastward with a total of 26 members all occurring under Putin’s watch.

During his initial years Putin had little leverage to prevent the conversion of these countries to become NATO members. He was not only consolidating political power, he inherited a shell of the former Soviet Union military firepower. Since that time he has aggressively modernized and upgraded the Russian military to enable him to, from his perspective, defend a Near Abroad country to prevent the last domino from falling.

Since 2014 Ukraine has been a NATO partner, enjoying the benefits of participating regularly in NATO exercises, obtaining intelligence, receiving modern military equipment & training not to mention acquiring greater pro-western political leanings. However as a partner it does not have the military protection according to NATO’s charter. Nonetheless in the eyes of Putin Ukraine has become a de facto NATO member at the cusp of possibly being offered a fast-track membership.

Putin’s Double Bind

The present-day scenario places Putin in a double bind. If Putin does nothing backed by a modern and upgraded military he loses face. But far worse, his image of the strong man leader seeking to restore Russia to its Soviet glory puts him and his inner circle at risk of a coup within the Kremlin similar to what happened to Gorbachev when he went “too far” with his glasnost policies. Even the ghosts of former empires remain for decades, sometimes centuries, afterwards in the citizens’ and leaderships’ hearts & minds.

Putin, who admitted to being traumatized as a young KGB officer with the collapse of the Soviet Union, will never tolerate the loss of a buffer state such as the Ukraine with his vastly improved military.

For this reason, Putin is willing to endure the inevitable economic sanctions and political costs to maintain Russia’s dignity and insure his political survival. The Russian economy has done surprisingly well under long-term sanctions and with almost all autocratic states will continue to do so under harsher conditions. With Europe highly dependent on Russian natural gas supplies, any sanctions by the EU will be mild, merely a political beau geste to appease their respective constituencies.

Furthermore this gamble may jump-start Putin’s rapidly declining domestic popularity just as it did when he aggressively engaged his military in the Middle East conflict from bases in Syria. Besides, for public relations purposes, the threat of war is a wonderful distraction from the increasing scrutiny and public complaints of corruption of the Russian mafia state.

Putin’s objective is to blunt western expansion and influence in their Near Abroad confident that the US/NATO will not interfere militarily in non-NATO member territories while securing, even bolstering, his political position. For Putin this is personal.

© Copyright 2021 Cerulean Council LLC

The Cerulean Council is a NYC-based think-tank that provides prescient, beyond-the-horizon, contrarian perspectives and risk assessments on geopolitical dynamics and global urban security.

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