Putin the Not-So-Great - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Putin the Not-So-Great
Putin in Volgograd last week (Bloomberg Quicktake/YouTube)
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words are usually aimed at Western leaders as well as to the Russian people. Those words, threatening to the West and attempting to raise a nationalistic fervor among Russians, sometimes threaten both audiences. He has, for example, several times in the past year, threatened to use nuclear weapons in prosecuting his war in Ukraine.

Putin’s statements last week are different in a way that requires a bit of historical analysis. He has been evoking World War II and his idol, Russian tsar Peter the Great. Putin, according to a New York Times report in 2002, has a portrait of Peter hanging in his Kremlin office.

Russia renamed “Stalingrad” as “Volgograd” after Stalin’s bloody reign during which about four million Ukrainians were starved to death during the Holodomor. The city was renamed “Stalingrad” for a day last week to mark the 80th anniversary of the end of the epic World War II battle there, in which the Russian winter and Stalin’s army defeated the Nazis.

At the ceremony marking this anniversary, Putin again repeated his charge that Ukraine is ruled by neo-Nazis and — despite Germany’s reluctant agreement to supply some of its Leopard tanks to Ukraine — said that while it was “unbelievable but true” that Russia “… was again being threatened by German tanks, Moscow had an answer for any country that threatened it.”

The threat to “it” means not just Russia but Ukraine which, in Putin’s view, is and has been properly part of Russia since Peter the Great. On Thursday, Putin spoke about Peter the Great who called himself “Czar of all the Russias.” After visiting a memorial to the 17th century czar, he said:

“Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russias].”

Putin continued, saying:

“Apparently, it is also our lot to return [what is Russias] and strengthen [the country]. And if we proceed from the fact that these basic values form the basis of our existence, we will certainly succeed in solving the tasks that we face.”

Under Peter, a large part of Ukraine — especially the eastern provinces in the Donbas area — was incorporated into Peter’s Russian empire. It remained under Russian and then Soviet rule until it declared its independence in 1991.

We have to conclude, based on Putin’s statement, that his view of Ukraine was — and is — probably the greatest motivation behind Putin’s war to reconquer Ukraine that began last February 24. We should remember that in 2005, Putin declared the fall of the Soviet Union to be the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. He has always meant to restore Russian rule over the entirety of the former Soviet Union. Like Peter the Great, Putin wants to be a “czar of all the Russias.”

That means that Putin views his war to reconquer Ukraine to be a modern version of Peter’s conquest to return to Russia what is rightfully its own. To Putin, his war represents a solution to an existential threat to Russia. That existential threat does not exist except in Putin’s mind. But he has created a situation in which his failure to reconquer Ukraine, he apparently believes, could be fatal to his clique of “siloviki” — former intelligence officers who rule Russia with him — and the oligarchs who (with Putin and the siloviki) control Russia today.

Putin’s self-generated crisis is analogous to that created by German Kaiser Wilhelm when he launched World War I. Wilhelm believed his nation was being surrounded by Britain and its allies and thus relegated to second-class status, which he would not tolerate. Similarly, by expanding to Russia’s borders NATO seemingly surrounds it. The possible admission of Ukraine to NATO was not something Putin could tolerate.

Now, Putin is planning another major offensive against Ukraine. Though the timing is indefinite, it will happen before winter is over. Last week Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, said:

Our diplomacy will do everything to ensure that the anti-Russian sabbaths planned for the end of February — as if timed to coincide with the anniversary of the special military operation, both in New York and at other sites that the West is now actively working on together with the Kyiv regime — so that this will not turn out to be the only events that will gain the worlds attention.”

Russian forces are reportedly massing for a new attack on Ukraine that will deploy an unknown number of troops, ranging from 100,000 to 500,000. These troops are not likely to be more effective than the over 200,000 that attacked Ukraine last February. They are conscripts, little more than cannon fodder. But, in words often attributed to Stalin, quantity has its own quality.

Those troops may attack Ukraine on at least two axes, from the north to try again to take Kyiv, and from the east in the Donbas area.

There is no prospect for peace in Ukraine despite the efforts of several prominent people, including Henry Kissinger, who advocate negotiations. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that he will insist on complete Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean Peninsula which Putin annexed — after occupying it and holding a phony election — in 2014.

Zelensky’s position is analogous to Winston Churchill’s in May 1940 when British troops were being driven into the sea and the appeasers in his war cabinet advocated negotiations with Hitler. At that point, Churchill rejected negotiations saying, “You cannot negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”

Even if Putin were rational — which he may not be — a negotiated peace in Ukraine would do little more than recognize Russian occupation of Crimea and the Donbas area, which Russian forces hold. Such a “peace” would do nothing more than pause the fighting, allowing Russia to rearm again and reinforce its army. After that, Putin’s war would resume.

But is Putin rational about this war? We have had many varying reports about his health, which may be failing. He evidently wants to make his mark on history, emulating Peter the Great, by making Ukraine a part of Russia again. And he may believe that his time is running out.

As long as Putin believes he can retake Ukraine, the war will continue. If and when he realizes he cannot, Putin will be at his most dangerous. Will he attack a NATO country or use nuclear weapons? Desperate men do foolish things.

If Putin is foolish enough to attack a NATO nation, that nation will certainly invoke the Article 5 mutual defense article in the NATO treaty. At that point, Putin’s war will encompass Europe with devastating consequences to all. That is less likely than Putin ordering the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

What will President Biden do if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine? We don’t know. Biden’s totally incompetent response to the Chinese spy balloon — ordering its destruction only after it had traversed the whole country and undoubtedly transmitted everything it had learned back to China — is our only clue.

This column has always advocated support for Ukraine but has opposed using American troops in its defense. The condition for using U.S. military forces — that we have a vital national security interest in the conflict — is not satisfied in respect to Putin’s war in Ukraine.

That begs the question of what our NATO allies will want to do if Putin nukes Ukraine. But what can they do?

Most NATO nations are incapable of warring against Russia. Former president Trump, who was ridiculed for demanding more defense investment by our allies, was entirely right.

An unidentified American general reportedly told UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace that the UK’s military can no longer be considered a top-rated military force. On February 24, 2022 — the day Putin launched his war on Ukraine — Germany’s Lt. Gen. Alfons Mais, commander of the German army, said, “And the Bundeswehr, the army which I have the honor to command, is standing there more or less empty-handed. The options we can offer the government in support of the [NATO] alliance are extremely limited.”

There is no certainty about what NATO — or Biden — will do if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The only certainty is that history will not remember Putin as “Putin the Great.”

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