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.
16 thoughts on “Russia and the Collective West: what comes next?”
As soon as you said it, it hit me in a flash: Russia is playing the Western media like a violin. Their over-the-top dramatizing is doing Russia’s work for it. It is making several countries take a certain distance from the US.
Russia could also do a Gary Powers. Fly a pre-announced hypersonic across America, from sea to shining sea. Perhaps hitting a target in the Pacific after being launched from the Atlantic.
Going against a Caribbean military base is Putin’s stated conviction that excess military spending and global overextension bankrupted the Soviet Union, and is in the process of doing the same to the USA. There is also the understanding, that what’s in it for Cuba to be used as a disposable pawn by Russia? Russia can’t provide much economic benefit, which is what Cuba or Venezuela really need. Now a joint Chinese-Russian base, that would be something else. But I doubt that is in the works.
My guess is that whatever Russia does will be outside Europe, to divide Europe’s reaction from the USA’s. Americans always say they don’t have any Russian products, it is a country that makes nothing. From the Russian perspective, there is also not much that America offers except admittedly very popular Made in China iPhones. But Russia desperately needs the European market as a strategic balance against over-dependence on China. I have no idea what Russia will do, but I would guess Syria, Iran and the Middle East would be likelier places for counter escalation. Iran is a profit center for the Russian arms industry, there is already a base in Syria. Asia is China’s backyard, I doubt Russia would do anything substantive there. Russia is already making moves in Africa that annoy France, but Africa is peripheral to global and American interests.
My guess is that Russia will make a move in Ukraine after the closing ceremonies of Beijing Olympics. Move anywhere else at any other time does not make much sense, given the country’s limited resources, Mr. Xi’s extravaganza, and the obvious psychological advantage Russia has momentarily in being rebuffed by NATO in its eastward creep on traditionally Russian territory. To change the strategic situation, Putin needs absolutely to regain the influence he has lost in Kiev, and that is not possible without either engineering a counter-coup or without boots on the ground. He needs to establish, or re-establish, a new normal, one that would make NATO irrelevant, and prepare some kind of new European security framework, perhaps a revival of Metternich’s “Concert of Europe” with Russia as a major player. A failure in reclaiming Ukraine as Russia’s “sphere of interest” (a term perverted by Yalta 1945, but one which still stands), would be a colossal personal defeat for Vladimir Putin, an indelible stain on his legacy, and put Russia in greater danger long-term.
So, for the next few weeks, I would discount any “news” of imminent Russian invasion, as Moscow’s psy-ops aimed to create confusion and further deepen the discord in the Alliance. But then again, Mr. Putin can surprise everyone, myself included.
I think the most most likely outcome will be a series of relatively small, seemingly minor and/or slow-burn Russian escalations across the board. We have already seen a few: Power of Siberia 2, coming online a very long time from now in 2030, Russian air patrols along the Israeli border, a joint Chinese-Russian alternative to swift by the end of this year. I expect some relatively minor, slow-to-develop economic and military agreements with Cuba, Nicaragua and/or Venezuela (but nothing so provocative as stationing hypersonic missiles), large arms sales to Iran (but not of the most advanced Russian systems) as well as a later invitation to join the Chinese-Russian alternative to swift. I also expect some seemingly underwhelming agreements when Putin goes to Beijing, definitely no mutual defense treaty, but a strengthening of military cooperation, trade, and of course an alternative to swift. Continued Wagner moves in Africa. All these things, taken together, will have a big impact within a timeframe of a couple of years, but seem minor and even a kind of capitulation (given Russia capabilities) when first announced.
Putin only makes unexpected, big, fast moves when his back is against the wall – losing the Sevastopol naval base in 2014, on the verge of losing his only middle eastern client in Syria. Otherwise its always slow, cautious, and definitely not what hotheads on Russian cable news talk about.
As always, thanks to our host for insightful analysis.
Right now, I think the main thing we can know is that we all can only guess at what VVP and company will do next, and when!
Don’t need bases as such: just basing rights and make frequent visits
Russia promised a “technical and military response if her “ultimatum” (red lines) were not met.
Sinking an aircraft carrier strike group will demonstrate that all US navy ships and army bases are vulnerable.
The carrier will take to the bottom the dollar, MIC, stock market and banks, Americans will panic, awaiting nuclear Armageddon. Russia has superior missile offence and defense, Americas armies need the navy to move them close enough to attack Russia. Any attempt would be sunk. If the USA/NATO does not retaliate within hours, then they never will and they can not hurt Russia except with nukes. Will America commit suicide for the sake of a carrier strike group and a few thousand sailors? Of course not.
Americas first problem will be to stop the panic, the run on the banks, the traffic jams as the populace tries to flee the cities. The reception desk, (Biden and all Western leaders) will look for guidance from their employers who will not risk their wealth, power and lives, America will capitulate and go through a USSR level collapse.
And just like that the Empire will be no more.
Obviously, you understand that attacking a carrier group is an act of war, but somehow you think that the United States might not respond. To call that delusional is a gross understatement. The US would definitely respond, and the ensuing war would have the potential to go nuclear. Putin is way too smart to make such a high stakes bet.
Rob, when Iran attacked the Ayn al-Asad American military base in Iraq as revenge for the murder of General Soleimani, what did America do?
Was that missile attack by Iran not an act of war?
In essence Russia’s red lines involve America winding back NATO to 1997 and removal of all nukes to American soil, obviously Russia knew America would not comply. So why issue the threat of “technical and military” response when they do not?
Putin has said recently “no more wars on Russian soil” also that “The Ukraine is part of Greater Russia”
This Ukraine crisis was just an excuse for Russia to put a gun to Americas head by issuing a list of demands that could not be met, and a threat of “technical and military” response thereafter.
If America can not defend an aircraft carrier, her most advanced and protected weapon, then what could America do, send in more carriers?
Any US navy ship still floating or military base still standing within range of Russia’s missiles do so because Russia has not attacked them. At least not yet.
An attack by conventional missiles on Russia will see those ships sunk and military bases destroyed.
So America has little option, either nukes or nothing.
So I ask again, will America commit nuclear suicide over an aircraft carrier strike group?
Can economic sanctioning be an act of war? Is that not economic warfare? Any country on the receiving end could perceive it as a national security challenge or threat.
@archeon No, I do not believe that the US’s initial response to an attack on a carrier group would be nuclear, but there would be a response, and it would not be trivial. What happens from that point on is anyone’s guess. In other words, it would be tantamount to playing a game of chicken while enveloped in the fog of war, if I may mix metaphors. It’s too risky, and Putin is not a risk taker. He does not act unless he feels confident regarding the ultimate outcome.
IMHO Russia would not do what you’ve suggested unless directly attacked by the US or if said carrier group ignored warnings and entered Russian territory. We’ll see soon enough how 2022 plays out though….
Tomgreg, Russia will say the carrier did or was going to attack, America will deny it, people around the world will believe what they want to believe.
“Technical and military” has been repeated often by the Russian side. Blinding or disabling a satellite
(as they did 3 months ago with their own old weather satellite) and evading the AGEIS anti missile system to take down an aircraft carrier sounds like the “technical” side of things.
North Korea is blasting off missiles, Iran will give not an inch over the JCPOA negotiations, China is becoming more belligerent over Taiwan and backs Russia over their ultimatum/red lines.NATO allies other than the UK want nothing to do with America’s war talk.
When Russia’s “not ultimatum” was rejected out of hand they said those objectives were now red lines.
Either this is a monumental error of judgement by Russia, or they have to follow through.
“Military and technical” is the key phrase. How does Russia persuade America that Russia’s weapons are far in advance of America’s defense capability? Destroying The Ukraine would be to fall into a neocon trap and prove nothing.
An entire Aircraft Carrier Strike Group, support ships and submarine escorts, everything. That would be the greatest demonstration of “technical and military” superiority since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atrocity.
I think literally everyone is coming at this from the perspective of what they would do, or what can be done, given Russian military and other capabilities.
But the question is what Putin and the Russian leadership will do. Will Putin use this crisis to act very differently than he has over the past 20 years?
Up to now, Putin has been slow, cautious, measured, and reactive rather than escalatory. The west sanctions Russia, Russia sanctions them back. Sometimes in an intelligent way that helps develop Russia (like the agricultural counter-sanctions). But always reactive. Known, very large threats are not addressed or only half addressed. For example, Russia was threatened with ejection from SWIFT in 2014, and 8 years later there is still only a half-baked alternative that cannot process even domestic transactions after 5pm local time, and has no capacity for international transactions. Russia was threatened for years with heavy sanctions and disruption of their main European markets, yet a gas pipeline to China that could take up the slack is not slated for completion until 2030.
The famous cases of Putin acting quickly and unexpectedly are quite few in number, and always when his back was against the wall – Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015. And even those were reactive. Sevastopol about to be lost, the only Russian client in the Middle East about to be lost.
Will this time be different? A meticulously gamed and planned major Russian move, that is escalatory, aggressive, high risk, and by choice (ie not driven by necessity)? This has not been Putin’s MO ever.
There are a thousand things Russia *could* do, that would be fit for a geopolitical thriller. Cut the data cables linking North America to Europe and Asia, shoot down GPS satellites, station hypersonic missiles in Cuba, successfully devastate the Ukrainian state with standoff weapons and special forces in a week, and occupy the friendlier half of the country, enter into a mutual defense treaty with China, lease China a naval base in Kaliningrad. Will it do any of them? I doubt it.
Sean, the Russian “non ultimatum” and now red lines is perhaps the most incendiary document I have ever read.
I agree, President Putin and team are very cautious, they have done an extremely good job in the last 20 years or so.
Had any other government issued the non ultimatum and threat of “technical and military” should their demands not be met, I would dismiss it as bluster.
Putin and Lavrov are not lightweight bullshitters who issue threats willy nilly.
As you point out, retaking the Crimean Peninsula and Donbass was a bold move.
It was not accompanied with ultimatums or requests for everything in writing, they just did it.
They must have known their demands would be dismissed out of hand by the Americans, the threat ignored.
So why did they issue them in such a public manner?
Will they now say, “sorry America for being so presumptuous, you are right to dismiss us like naughty schoolchildren, we shall crawl away chastised”. Does that sound like Putin and Lavrov.
They have a plan discussed in advance with China and it involves a “technical and military” response.
It does not involve making the situation in Ukraine, their front yard, worse.
They have said they will go after the organ grinder, not the monkey.
Americas Maginot line is their Aircraft Carriers, we shall see soon enough.
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