In mid-December, at the same time Russian troops were massing on Russia’s border with Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sent a draft treaty to NATO proposing severe limitations on what NATO can do in its members who have joined it since 1997. Those nations include Poland and other former Soviet-dominated nations such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro.
Included among those demands was one for a legal guarantee that Ukraine would never become a NATO member.
It’s entirely possible that Putin’s demands were intended to be rejected. He was — and is — seeing how far he can push Biden and NATO. Fortunately, at least so far, the NATO nations have more sense than to accept any of his demands.
In response, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “We support Ukraine,” adding that NATO “… cannot compromise on the sovereignty of nations and permit each nation to choose its own course toward membership.…We are ready to engage in arms control with Russia, conventional and nuclear, but that has to be reciprocal. We can’t end up in a situation where we have second-class NATO members where NATO as an alliance is not allowed to protect them.”
But soon after that, President Biden said that perhaps some limits could be agreed on and promptly entered NATO into negotiations with the Russians.
In his last conversation with Russian President Putin, Biden agreed that the U.S. would not deploy missiles or troops in Ukraine. As always, Biden gave away an advantage and got nothing from Putin in return.
The talks have deadlocked. Neither the Russians nor the NATO representatives have given an inch. NATO representatives have proposed that there could be some limits on military exercises but that the commitments would have to be mutual. Putin won’t accede to any of NATO’s demands for mutuality.
On January 5, in response to a request from Kazakhstan’s president, Russian paratroops arrived in that nation to quell anti-government protests. A number of protesters have reportedly been killed by Kazakh army and security forces which were ordered to kill the protesters, resulting in an unknown number of deaths. The deployment of Russian troops was a demonstration of Putin’s determination to keep nations, such as Kazakhstan and others such as Belarus, under Russian control.
Putin has threatened the U.S. by saying he might deploy Russian forces to Venezuela and Cuba. Other Russian statements have raised the specter of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in the context of the Ukraine crisis. For those unfamiliar with it, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war when Russian missiles were deployed there. Only the steadfastness of John Kennedy resulted in Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev withdrawing those missiles and brought us back from the threat of nuclear war.
But Joe Biden is no John Kennedy and his principal advisors are as weak as he is.
The Russian references to the Cuban Missile Crisis reveal two things. First, the seriousness with which Putin considers the encroachment of NATO membership on Russia. If Putin really fears being surrounded, history teaches us that autocrats and dictators who have that feeling are entirely capable of starting large wars.
As Barbara Tuchman recounts in The Guns of August, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany rejoiced at the death of Britain’s King Edward VII in 1910. Wilhelm believed Edward was trying to ally with other nations to surround Germany to keep it weak. Four years later, his feeling was only exacerbated by the lack of respect Wilhelm believed other nations, including America, felt toward Germany. In August 1914, Wilhelm began World War One.
It’s not 1910 or 1914 and Putin is much smarter than Wilhelm was. Nevertheless, Putin is playing a game that could easily lead to war.
As I have written, Russia regards Ukraine in essentially the same way that China regards Taiwan, properly a part of Russia. It is evidently ready to go to war to conquer Ukraine. (The word “Ukraine” means “borderland” in Russian.)
But Putin wants more than Ukraine. Much more. He wants NATO to get out of the nations that joined it since 1997 and promise not to defend them.
On January 13, the Russian ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Alexander Lukashevich, said, “Russia is a peace-loving country, but we do not need peace at any cost.” He also reportedly warned of possible “catastrophic consequences” if the two sides could not agree on what Russia has termed security red lines, adding that Moscow had not given up on diplomacy and would even speed it up.
His statement was an explicit threat of war with NATO. Russia insists it won’t attack Ukraine. Its “peaceful intent” is reminiscent of similar threats and aggression by the Soviet Union.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week that Russia was planning a “false flag” operation as an excuse for war with Ukraine.
False flag operations — in which the troops of a nation (e.g., Russia) are attacked by disguised troops of the same nation operating from the territory of the threatened nation (e.g., Ukraine) — have a long and despicable history. Nazi Germany used a false flag operation as an excuse to invade Poland in 1939. As distant from the truth as Psaki’ statements usually are, it may be that U.S. intelligence has detected indications that Russia is planning such a false flag operation against Ukraine.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Russia was running out of patience, demanding a written response to its written demands of a new treaty with NATO. He said, “We will not wait forever.… Our patience has run out.… Everyone understands that the situation is not improving. The potential for conflict is growing.”
Meanwhile, Russia is taking its next steps against Ukraine. On Thursday, Russian-NATO negotiations were broken off temporarily. A day later Russia launched a massive cyberattack against the Ukrainian government. It reportedly plastered Ukrainian government websites with the warning to “be afraid and expect the worst.”
That attack could be a precursor to an attack like the ones Russia made on Estonia in 2007 which essentially prevented the Estonian government from functioning. Such an attack on Ukraine would be a logical first step to open war.
At this point it’s impossible to know how much of what Russia says and does is just bullying and how much are war warnings for Ukraine.
It’s quite ironic that Jens Stoltenberg and the NATO nations have more backbone than does Biden. They have good reason to worry. Never before has America been governed by as weak and incompetent a president. It’s anyone’s guess how far he will bend under Putin’s bullying.
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