Last week Vladimir Putin’s Russia issued a series of demands to NATO that go far beyond what it has already demanded of President Biden in talks about Russia’s intention to conquer the rest of Ukraine.
Russians didn’t invent paranoia but in the past they have made it a cornerstone of their foreign and military policies. Putin’s “paranoia” is a pose, a sham, designed to tilt a balance of power in Russia’s favor.
In this case, Russian demands include a guarantee that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO and a new demand that all NATO troops and weapons be removed from the nations that have joined it since 1997 includingPoland, the former Soviet satellites of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Balkan countries.
History teaches that a kind of paranoia — that suffered by dictators and despots who convince themselves and their people to be paranoid about other nations’ objectives — can lead to war.
In the years building up to World War One, German Kaiser Wilhelm II had that sort of paranoia. Wilhelm believed that Britain, France, and other countries were plotting against Germany which, until fifty years earlier, wasn’t even united as one state. Wilhelm was not only paranoid but reckless and, as history judged him, relatively incompetent.
Wilhelm’s fear of older European states, principally Britain and France, was entirely unfounded. Britain was led by men such as King Edward VII (who Wilhelm thought of as “The Encircler”) and, when Edward died, by George V, neither of whom wanted to get involved in another European war. Wilhelm hadn’t learned the lesson of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war in which Britain was neutral. In that war, the French collapsed and German-Prussian troops paraded into Paris.
As Barbara Tuchman recounts in The Guns of August, Germany began planning for World War 1 in 1899. Putin’s planning certainly began long before his 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Putin’s “paranoia” is a pose which, he apparently believes, justifies his aggression. Sevastopol, on the Crimean Peninsula — which was part of Ukraine — has been the home base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet since about 1783. Retaking it was a natural first step for Putin.
Putin clearly fears NATO nations on Russia’s doorstep not because they are a threat, but because they will serve as a bar to Russian aggression. After Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1997, the “Vilnius Group” — Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia — joined in 2004. Their NATO membership poses a barrier to Putin’s goal of restoring Russian domination over those nations.
What Wilhelm didn’t understand in the years before World War One and what Putin doesn’t really believe, was and is that free nations, such as pre-World War I Britain and NATO nations today, pose no threat to their neighbors. The newly joined NATO countries joined because of the threat Russia poses to them.
Putin’s latest demands of NATO won’t be appeased, at least openly. Ukraine won’t become a member of NATO in the foreseeable future because it’s already at war with Russia.
President Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, as well as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have all said that the U.S. is committed to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. But Putin knows — as do the Ukrainians and the NATO nations — that NATO, including the U.S., won’t intervene when Russia attempts to conquer Ukraine.
When — not if — Russia does attack Ukraine, the ensuing war will probably be over quickly. It would likely begin with Russian mass attacks with drones and aircraft to knock out Ukrainian command and control systems. Though Ukraine has enough soldiers to make Russia’s attack very costly, their effect will be negated almost immediately when Russian air forces establish air supremacy.
The Ukrainian air force is small and outdated. Its pilots may relish the chance to go against Russia’s air forces, but they will likely have as little effect as Polish cavalry had against Nazi tanks in 1939.
The Biden administration is reportedly considering sending Ukraine weapons and supplies that would have gone to the now-defunct Afghanistan government. The Boris Johnson government of the UK is also reportedly considering sending Ukraine other military supplies. But what Ukraine needs most — better aircraft and massive supplies of anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems — no one is likely to provide.
Putin is not only massing troops and combat aircraft on the Russian-Ukraine border. He is preparing Russia’s population for the coming war.
Putin has, for example, established the Yunarmia. It’s a youth army who train with live weapons and get preference in schooling. Its members not only concentrate on studying Russian nationalism, they are given preference in enrolling in STEM — science, technology, and mathematics — courses. It reportedly had over 250,000 members, aged 8 to 18, in 2019.
Putin is also playing on Russian nationalism among the other Russian population. His conquest of Crimea in 2014 was enormously popular and a war to take Ukraine won’t be less so.
Biden and other NATO leaders have threatened Putin with massive sanctions if he invades Ukraine. Judging from his record, those threats will have no effect on Putin’s actions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pled with those leaders to allow Ukraine to join NATO and to impose sanctions now, when they might have some effect, rather than after a Russian invasion has begun. His pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
We, and the rest of NATO, aren’t serious about deterring a Russian attack on Ukraine. If we were, we and other NATO members, would not only send the weapons formerly destined for Afghanistan, we would also send combat aircraft, Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries, and a host of other weapon systems to Ukraine.
But we won’t. Ukraine is on its own to face a Russian attack when Putin believes the time is ripe. We should not go to war to defend Ukraine, but we can and should do a lot more to help it defend itself. Because it is a free nation, it deserves better than to be left to face Russian aggression without our help.