Some, like me, believed that Putin would be patient and tighten the economic noose around Ukraine and wait for NATO and EU unity to unravel. In the end he decided not to wait, and gambled on a blitzkrieg-style operation to effectively make Ukraine a part of the Russian empire again.
The optimists argue that he has gone mad and has overreached, which will lead to his demise. The pessimists argue that Putin has sensed a moment of weakness of the West as a whole and is seizing this window of opportunity to regain Russia’s lost empire.
The optimistic scenario may paradoxically be the more dangerous one. If Putin has ‘loses the plot,’ he could unleash a world war. On the other hand, he could be forced out internally should the Ukraine operation go wrong.
But, Putin being forced out is classic wishful thinking. The oligarchs, military, secret services, and those in public administration all owe him everything. There is no party mechanism to recall him—nor any succession mechanism. Thus, even if Putin has gone mad, it is unlikely that he will be forced out.
More likely he has made a calculated gamble that the West’s bite will not match its bark and that he will get his way: first in Ukraine and then in his goal to push NATO away from his borders. The reaction to this invasion by the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. is, so far, proving his calculation correct.
The sanctions that have been imposed are a bit like a leaky dam on a rushing river. Some oligarchs are sanctioned, while others, like Roman Abramovich are not. Some Russian banks are hit, but the largest one, Sberbank, is not. The Russians have not been excluded from the Swift system so that Western Europeans could continue to import Russian gas and oil at will. None of this will bring Russia to its knees.
Military assistance to Ukraine is still timid. A no-fly zone is out of the question as NATO frets that would trigger a military response against the alliance from Russia. Lethal weapons to stop the invader in its tracks are not being made available in sufficient quantities.
No doubt we will soon hear that we can’t possibly impose sanctions that would hurt ‘ordinary Russians,’ therefore they should just remain ‘symbolic.’ Ukraine, as in 2014, is being left to fight on its own.
To be sure, there would be sighs of relief in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and even Washington, if Ukraine simply gave up its bids to join NATO and the EU and instead agreed to neutrality, demilitarization, and federalization. That would ‘keep the peace’ and enable Western Europe to blithely continue importing Russian gas and, ultimately, to agree to talks with Russia on reducing the NATO presence in the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania.
Looking at Putin’s objectives—which are to subjugate Ukraine and to push the West back from the Russian frontier—it is clear that Russia must, sooner rather than later, attack NATO’s eastern flank. That will entail a much higher risk than any operation in Ukraine, as it will inevitably involve engaging NATO militarily. However, Putin may believe that since the West is doing so little for Ukraine, it might also come up short in defending the Baltic states and Poland and will instead ‘sue for peace’ by making these states demilitarized zones.
So what should the West have done to avert this crisis? Of course, the answer is that this situation should never have been allowed to occur in the first place. Was there a way to achieve this? Yes. All that needed to be done—some time ago—was to stop the Nord Stream 2 Russia-Germany gas pipeline from going online, and to place meaningful sanctions on Russian oligarchs for what Russia had already done to—and in—Ukraine.
There was also one more thing that could—and should—have been done. Recognising the responsibility to enforce the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which led to Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons in return for guarantees regarding its territorial integrity, the U.S. and Britain could have stationed troops in Ukraine after the 2014 invasion by Russia.
Would Russia be willing to attack NATO forces from countries which possess nuclear weapons? Most unlikely. The threat of mutual assured destruction has worked in the past, and it would have worked again. Russia would have been cornered into serious negotiations, rather than just forcing concessions and later pressing for more.
Unfortunately, the West’s response to the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine was woefully inadequate. The sanctions were symbolic, and the diplomatic initiatives were aimed at appeasing, rather than confronting, the Kremlin. This inevitably emboldened Russia to press ahead with its goals of rebuilding its empire and restoring its global influence.
The problem is that Western foreign policy, despite protestations to the contrary, is purely transactional. It takes something like global terrorism or a threat of war to move the dial in that regard. Otherwise, it is business interests that dominate. Russia has played the West for its dependence on its gas and oil, as well as its oligarchs’ money. It has spared no expense in buying former politicians, like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
There can be little coincidence that Russia has decided to play rough at the moment it has. Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan was inevitably going to have consequences, just as the Soviets’ unsuccessful attempt to cow that country did back in the ’80s. Russia has sensed opportunity, and will not let go easily now. The noose it has placed on Ukraine’s neck, which has been tightened as a result of Western actions, has now made it very difficult for that country to free itself.
Poland, the Baltic states, and Romania may have no alternative but to grin and bear what the Americans and their Western European allies come up with on Ukraine, even though they must realize that either way, Ukraine is likely to be lost, much like Belarus. And they know that they will be next to face Russian aggression.
Krzysztof Mularczyk is a broadcast journalist who works for TVP World where he hosts the “World Today” programme. He has in the past written for Political Economy and Warsaw Business Journal, as well as the Polish language press such as Wprost, Rzeczpospolita, and Życie. He has also worked extensively in senior management of civil society organizations and public relations, as well as for foreign public and private donors during the pre-accession phase in Central Europe and the Balkans.