You need a sense of irony, an open mind and sang froid to see what the Russians are doing in stoking the confrontation with the Collective West, which is what they are plainly doing all the while denying it. In what follows, I will try to apply these very approaches to answer the highly topical question of what comes next now that the United States formally rejected the essential Russian demand that NATO expansion to the East be halted in its tracks and that the Alliance backtrack to the status quo ante of the spring 1997.
Over the past couple of weeks, every few days I have given lengthy interviews or participated in half hour televised panel discussions of the East-West confrontation being played out at the Russian-Ukrainian border. My hosts included RT (Russia Today) in a chat at the Russian embassy, Brussels following the Russia-NATO Council talks of 12 December; TRT World, a Turkish public service global television channel broadcasting in English; Belarus television’s interview at my home this past Friday examining the implications for Minsk of its close military collaboration with Russia at the Ukraine border; PressTV of Iran; and anti-war radio of Scott Horton, a hero in the American peace movement.
As a consequence of all these interviews, I developed a 30 minute long talk on why the Russians are unlikely to stage a full invasion of Ukraine or even a brief incursion unless provoked by some military move on Donbas by the Kiev regime. I fleshed out this talk with retrospective analysis of how Vladimir Putin’s denunciation of the US-led unipolar world at the Munich Security Conference meeting of February 2007 led in a straight line to the delivery of the Russian ultimatum to the USA and NATO on 15 December last year in the form of its two draft treaties rearranging the security architecture of Europe in Russia’s favor.
Today I propose to take another tack, to move back a bit from what I and others have said about the stand-off at the Ukrainian border and to examine what the Russians will likely do next in their gambit to put the West back in its box by acting on their current position of strength and strategic advantage in armaments, as well as on their new strong alliance with the world’s number two economy, China.
In one of my recent essays, I invoked the term ‘Russian roulette’ as describing the game the Kremlin is playing but not in the sense of its usual understanding as testing one’s luck with the partly loaded, partly empty bullet chambers of a revolver pointed at one’s temple. That would hardly be in character for the ever-cautious, ever prudent Mr. Putin. I spoke of roulette in the usual casino terms, meaning a game of chance loaded only in favor of the house and indifferent to the interests of separate players. However, the game played by the Kremlin today on the world stage and before the klieg lights is a card game of skill more than one dependent on arbitrary distribution of winnings by Lady Luck. And while Washington lawyers turned statesmen like former Secretary of State Baker were surely skilled at poker as we saw from his handling of Gorbachev in oral agreements ending the Cold War, there was more than a whiff of outright card cheat in their behavior. Putin is playing a mean game with the same degree of deception or imposed confusion being exploited to the hilt even if nearly all of my peers among political analysts are missing this point.
Russia has gotten the rapt attention not only of European capitals but of global media. Day after day, coverage of the latest Russian deliveries to the Ukrainian border dominates the news on television and the print press, jostling for number one position with the fading threat of Covid. This, of course, has a certain collateral effect which the Russians surely do not mind: the economic harm war fever has on the Ukrainian economy and on Western investment there now that the U.S. and others are withdrawing their diplomatic missions. It may well be that the strongest voice for Western concessions on security will ultimately be Kiev, to stem its losses.
Sergei Lavrov and other spokesmen for the Kremlin insist that their country has no intentions to invade while every few days Russia is adding additional forces, equipment and capability to their positions near the Ukrainian border. Now that border covers 3 sides with the addition of the Belarusian front and the growing capability of staging landings on the Black Sea coast with the assistance of newly arriving specialized vessels from the Pacific fleet. It is throwing back at the US and NATO the in-your-face NATO line that it poses no threat to Russia and is just a defensive alliance while NATO stages highly provocative war games to retake Kaliningrad or to energize Ukraine’s hostile ambitions by a series of ten games planned for this year.
Meanwhile, among our most celebrated pundits and strategists, the notion that diplomacy can prevail and prevent war is rolled out in our media. The latest is an opinion article penned by Henry Kissinger’s intellectual heir, director of Kissinger Associates, Tom Graham. With all due respect, Mr. Graham is touting nonsense when he says diplomacy can finesse differences as stark as those separating Moscow and Washington today, thereby extinguishing the flames of war. One side has to capitulate in substance if not in appearances given the divide separating the principals. The capitulation can be masked for consumption by Capitol Hill through deft diplomacy, but its reality will nonetheless be seen in the concrete actions of the sides which follow. Talk is cheap, always was and will be. Only lightweights can say otherwise.
I wager that the next step in Mr. Putin’s game will be in the Americas. This is not because establishing a military presence in the Caribbean basin is militarily more important than Russia’s other options like peek-a-boo surfacing of otherwise undetected Russian nuclear submarines off the East and West coasts of the USA to make the point of sudden death and 5 minute warnings which are insufficient for the American president to board Air Force One and make a getaway that preserves the decision-making hierarchy. No, it is because establishing formally Russian air and port facilities in the Americas calls out the Big Lie embedded in Washington’s refusal to accept buffer states or a Russian sphere of influence at its borders and the neutering of countries like Ukraine and the Baltic States: the US reserves to itself the sole right to a sphere of influence that takes in the entire Western Hemisphere and is known as the Monroe Doctrine.
Moreover, for the Russians to use a present, fully realized threat to America’s existence for purposes of negotiations like those aforementioned hypersonic missile carrying submarines could have the opposite effect from forcing capitulation, just as the notion of imposing ‘preventive’ sanctions on Russia as proposed by Kiev was dismissed as likely to be counterproductive by Washington. Better to roll out for threat a project that is only partially realized so far, a project that involves not creation of Russian bases but use of existing local facilities to host Russian strategic bombers and surface or submarine vessels. Such arrangements would in the not too distant future enable Russia to maintain a permanent presence in the Caribbean Sea that is as threatening to the Continental USA as the stepped up presence of US navy and air force in the Black and Baltic Seas is to Russia. The time prior to realization would give breathing space to the negotiations for capitulation to end in a finessed public explanation.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022
P.S. – One reader of this essay on my LinkedIn account remarked that the Russians might make their first move together with Venezuela, where the air base on the island of Orchila was mentioned in 2018 by a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences speaking to the Nezavisimaya Gazeta as possible host to supersonic Tupolev TU-160 strategic bombers. That was in the context of Trump’s abandoning nuclear disarmament treaties. The same reader went on to say that another possible Russian move could be to stage joint patrols in the Caribbean with the Chinese navy. This would put flesh on the Russian-Chinese de facto alliance by both acting in parallel in response to the provocative sailing of British and US aircraft carriers and other attack vessels off their respective Black Sea and South China Sea coasts. All such measures would be entirely legal under international law but would bring howls of indignation from the American political classes and might provide the quid for an American quo on a pull back of NATO in Europe.