Unable, as I am, to buy into Tucker Carlson’s ever-so-nuanced argument that Russia has every right to view Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence, within which we in the West have no business meddling – especially since anyway, Vlad the Impaler over there is our kind of guy, right? – I’ve been chewing my fingernails down to the quick, worrying about the imminence of what seems certain to be the largest mechanized assault on a sovereign nation since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the biggest in Europe since the end of WW II. Everybody seems to think it’s coming. Even Biden said so publicly, and somewhat shockingly, presumably on the basis of better intel than I can access here from my desk in Toronto. I suppose there’s still a chance, maybe a good chance, that Putin is just playing his usual bully boy games, and it won’t happen – my crystal ball is no better than the next guy’s when it comes to such stuff – but boy, it doesn’t look good.
The Russian forces arrayed against Ukraine now number, so I’ve been reading, something over 120,000, and include not just elite armoured units, but the full panoply of mechanized infantry and artillery forces needed to support an assault, as well as the masses of machinery and personnel that compose the huge logistical tail all such modern armies require. I haven’t heard much talk about air support, but presumably those assets are in-theatre too, and overall that’s a hell of an expensive commitment for a nation which, after all, has an annual GDP that generally falls somewhere between Australia’s and Canada’s, depending on global oil and gas prices; it’s an awful lot to shell out for mere sabre-rattling. Meanwhile, nothing coming out of the Russian President’s mouth is doing much to quell anybody’s anxiety, Putin’s rhetoric oscillating between delusional grievance, outrageous demands, and outright lies, all of it designed, apparently, to make the case to his own people that the Ukrainians and their perfidious Western allies have left him with no non-military options.
At this point, it’s hard to see how Vlad can walk it all back. The key to defusing these sorts of situations is to leave your adversary a reasonable pathway to back down without losing face, and from what I’m reading, I gather that our side is engaged in frantic diplomacy with this in mind, but Putin himself has slammed shut all the obvious exits. He can’t have any of the things he’s demanding, such as a promise to grant him a veto over new entrants to the NATO alliance, and he knows damned well he can’t, which seems to be why he’s demanding them. All indications at present are that he won’t be happy until his tanks are thrusting straight towards Kyiv.
Thankfully, no doubt, I’ve got nothing to say about it, because just about now I’m so thoroughly fed up with Putin’s autocratic bullshit that my full-caps message to him, rendered in big, fat, 72 point Cyrillic font, would read THEN BRING IT. If Vlad’s so f’ing determined to roll the dice, fine, let them come. Then let him pay the price.
I say this despite acknowledging a funny thing about pricks like Putin: they always seem to skate. All too often, the gambles they take, even the borderline insane ones, seem to pay off. I know it, I do, and perhaps Vlad’s counting on that, or possibly he thinks he’s not actually about to do anything prohibitively risky, but either way, I’m thinking, even hung-with-horseshoes bastards like him can only push their luck so far. I suspect he’s making a grievous miscalculation.
Maybe he thinks the Ukrainians are weak, and will scatter before his superior forces. Perhaps he supposes that NATO is feeble and divided, and won’t really do much about it if he takes the plunge. Maybe he figures that Biden’s room to maneuver is curtailed by the political chaos and right wing intransigence at home, which have rendered the United States a geopolitical shadow of its former self (he might also reckon that Tucker Carlson and the rest of the stooges over at Murdoch’s “news” outlet have helped him out mightily on that score). Maybe he further assumes that the Europeans, who rely hugely upon Russia for their energy supplies, including something to the tune of 40 per cent of the natural gas they all consume, won’t dare risk offending him to the point that he shuts off the taps. Possibly he also believes that his own population, duped by his propaganda, and itching just as he does for a return to Mother Russia’s former international greatness, is with him all the way, costs be damned. Listen, there’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned war to get ’em all to rally ’round the flag, yes?
Perhaps, though, Vlad should bone up a little on his history before he pulls the trigger. Hubristic exercises of national power along the lines he’s now contemplating often work out poorly, proving more difficult than hoped while spinning out cascades of unhappy knock-on effects that nobody could have anticipated. Sure, the Ukrainians, overmatched, might fold quickly – that’s plausible. Yet people defending their own homes have an odd way of standing their ground against overwhelming odds (surely, a Russian should understand that), and all week I’ve been watching planeload after NATO planeload of anti-tank guided missiles, fearsome weapons like the American Javelin, off-loading at Boryspil International Airport. The British are sending tons of munitions, and some sources report that quantities of vaunted Stinger anti-aircraft missiles are being sent as well, possibly via Poland. In any case, a lot has been done to beef up Ukrainian forces since the annexation of Crimea. They’re tougher and better equipped than they were just a few years ago. This could get ugly. This could take longer, and cost more blood and treasure, than Putin supposes.
Meanwhile, a massive assault on Ukraine could galvanize NATO, strengthening and broadening the alliance, exactly the opposite of what he wants. An onslaught of sanctions could do more than he thinks to cripple his faltering economy, and might even result in measures designed, at last, to deprive him and his oligarch cronies of their vast ill-gotten personal wealth, most of it stashed off shore in places where he thinks, wrongly, we can’t find it, or rub it out. If he supposes at the moment that he can easily punish Europe by cutting off the gas, his hand may later be stayed by the prospect of thereby cutting himself off from all the money he gets by selling them the stuff, vital foreign exchange which accounts for a huge share of his middling GDP. At the same time, it might not be so simple to keep everybody cheering and waving flags on the home front. His own people might have less of an appetite than he thinks for attacking a European neighbour, especially when the bills come due, the economic pain begins to set in, and the body bags start coming home. The whole thing could turn quickly into a ruinous fiasco, even if it looks easy to begin with. He could ask George W. about that, if he has no painful memories of his own about what it took to pacify Chechnya, and knows nothing of what happened with his own predecessors’ attempts to conquer backward Afghanistan.
Putin may feel that his own autocratic rule is too brittle to sustain the presence of a thriving democracy on his doorstep, especially one that wants to work its way into the warm embrace of NATO and the EU, thus providing a terrible example to the potentially restive people he now rules. What he may not fully grasp is that an invasion of Ukraine could devolve into just the sort of mess to bring down a generally unsuccessful, underachieving thug like him. He’s been in charge with ever-increasing authority for a couple of decades, now, yet he hasn’t done a whole hell of a lot, really, to make Russia great again, much less to improve the lives of his subjects. If he’s worried about his grip on power, he’d do well to consider how quickly the worm can turn for preening tyrants like him, once all the nationalist chest-thumping that’s been standing in for meaningful domestic progress begins to ring hollow. Foreign military adventures may start out as morale-boosting diversions from the troubles on the home front, but can wind up before long as cancers on the dictatorships that start them. Putin may be on the verge of the biggest mistake he’s ever made.
God help us, but he might even get a much bigger war than he’s expecting. Like Kissinger once said, crises have their own momentum. Once you set the ball rolling, nobody really controls where it goes. Mistakes get made. Others may miscalculate, even if you don’t. Supposed bystanders can get drawn in. Shit happens. Putin knows all this, yet he’s letting on like he’s a big enough fool to run the risk, entirely by choice. I swear, I’m so sick of Vlad’s incessant crapola, I’m almost bloody-minded enough to hope he does.
Easy for me to say, of course. It won’t be my city that gets shelled. I should hold my temper, and remember the real lives in the balance. If only Vlad would too.