Why should Putin invade, when Ukraine can be destroyed from within — with help from its ‘friends’?

Vladimir Putin does not hide his intent to destroy an independent Ukraine and to return it to the fold of “Mother Russia.” With a weakened NATO, a Germany in political flux, and a seeming push-over Joe Biden as U.S. President, Putin has a wide arsenal at his beck and call. He can invade Ukraine with overwhelming force to partition yet another swath of Ukraine territory (creating a land bridge from Donbas to Crimea). He can use assassination, disinformation, and “little green men” to overthrow the democratically elected government of Ukraine. He can enlist the support of Ukraine’s supposed allies — the U.S., Germany, and France — to impose a “peace” on Ukraine that the people of Ukraine cannot accept.

When Biden zooms with Putin on Tuesday, he will see that Putin holds all the cards — and he only a pair of deuces, in the form of sending enough lethal military equipment to Ukraine to raise the cost to Putin of a military invasion.

No matter how often the Biden administration assures President Volodymyr Zelensky that “we have your back,” such assurances appear as empty as Biden’s empty-handed gestures as vice president during the hot portion of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Promises from the toothless NATO mean even less, as Putin uses gas as a political weapon to drive up prices and peel off European Union (EU) members with promised special treatment.

Although Ukraine leaves much to be desired in terms of corruption and the power of oligarchs, it is a rare electoral democracy. Only one Ukrainian president has been reelected.

Putin has feared from the very beginning that a prosperous democratic Ukraine integrated into Europe constitutes a mortal threat. Putin cannot afford a successful Ukraine, but he cannot be trusted to honor any political solution. Putin will apply maximum pressure on France, Germany, and the U.S. to force Ukraine into a political settlement that will destroy Ukraine as a state independent of Russia.

In his lengthy article that rightly attracted the attention of the West, Putin declared that Ukraine is not a real country. Ukrainians are really Russians, according to him. Ukraine must therefore be reunited back into a Russian-dominated “New Russia” — a type of prodigal son returning to the embrace of Putin’s Kremlin. His policy instruments are many, and the West and Ukraine have little means to thwart them.  

What should we expect from Putin as he makes ready to return Kyiv to the fold?

Putin holds a powerful military option, as he builds up 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s southern border. He can order an invasion aimed to take control of the “land bridge” connecting the Donbass to Crimea. Add to this new territory, Belarus — under de facto Kremlin control — and you have Putin’s recreation of “New Russia.”

The military variant would cost lives of young Russian soldiers, and mothers of the fallen may protest, but Putin’s control of public opinion and suppression of dissent would allow him to shrug this off. The loss of Ukrainian ports and metallurgy resources would weaken the Ukrainian economy and threaten its promising recovery. Countries cannot prosper in the midst of hot or even simmering war.

An invasion with Russian regular forces is unlikely to be Putin’s first choice. Unlike the summer of 2014, public opinion polls show that Putin has not convinced his own people that Ukraine is a mortal enemy. Instead, he has had to sell the unconvincing story that Ukraine is a puppet of NATO.

Putin’s troop buildup likely is aimed more at NATO — to instill a sense of doom and caution in a Europe inclined to appease rather than confront Russian aggression.

An outright invasion of southern Ukraine imposes yet another potential cost on Russia; namely, a possible wake-up call for NATO to get serious about the Russian threat. And it may shut up Europe’s pro-Russian “business as usual” crowd.

On the economic side, Biden and Merkel already gave away the one effective deterrent to Putin’s adventurism: the threat of biting sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Putin has sewn up his domination of the EU’s gas supplies. As Putin drives up Europe’s gas prices for political and economic gain, both Biden and Merkel remain silent on their pledge to retaliate. Putin is now free to exercise his stranglehold over European energy with no real threat of pushback.

A more attractive way to gain territory without military conflict would be a reprise of the takeover of Crimea and Donetsk-Luhansk. Putin could send in “volunteer” political operatives to organize protests in Odessa, Mariupol, Dnepropetrovsk, and other Ukrainian cities and towns. The protesters would demand an end to the “puppet rule” of Kyiv and President Zelensky, who they’ll cast as a “puppet” of NATO and the United States, and to return southern Ukraine to its “true home,” Mother Russia.

If the protesters are unable to light the spark due to the effective resistance by Kyiv authorities, Moscow’s local “little green men” could issue a call to Russian forces to set matters straight. With effective choreography, the Kremlin could claim that Russian soldiers are being greeted as liberators, not aggressors. Thus, Russia could gain significant Ukrainian territory without a shot being fired.

The Kremlin could continue to coordinate a takeover of Ukrainian national politics using sympathetic oligarchs, former members of Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of the Regions, and by Russia’s FSB and GRU working underground. Such actions are currently underway as rumors of coups circulate, members of Zelensky’s team are subjected to assassination attempts, and Zelensky’s own family is threatened.

Putin’s fourth option is to pressure France and Germany to force Ukraine to accept the unacceptable Minsk provisions for the reintegration of the “separatist” Donetsk and Luhansk provinces back into Ukraine following a revision of the Ukrainian constitution.

The new provisions would give the two breakaway territories “special status” of veto power over foreign and domestic policy. Ukraine would cease to be a sovereign state, and its foreign policy would be dictated by Kremlin proxies. It is doubtful whether the Zelensky administration could survive such a catastrophe, even if supported by Ukraine’s “friends.”

Putin’s latest gambit is to propose a pledge by NATO to forego any further eastward NATO expansion (meaning Ukraine and Georgia). Instead of belonging to the “West,” Ukraine would remain “neutral.” Ukrainian “neutrality” may sound good to some, but it would mean a relentless Kremlin campaign to destroy Ukrainian democracy and independence, by violence if necessary.

Putin’s goal with respect to France and Germany is to convince them that Ukraine is not worth the trouble.

The Kremlin asserts that Ukraine is corrupt, run by rabid nationalists and neo-Nazis. Russian voices will argue that, if Germany and France agree to give up Ukraine, we can proceed with lucrative business as usual. Without the Ukraine nuisance, Europe can have nicely heated homes and cheap electricity from a “benevolent” Russia — which is all the while proceeding to break apart NATO and the EU.

These are Putin’s options. Under all of them — even the status quo — he comes out as winner, as the paralyzed West stumbles around in confusion.

Putin weighs options carefully.

At this point, he sees a weak and divided NATO and United States. Germany will soon install a new government headed by “business as usual” Social Democrats who harken back to the good old days of Ostpolitik. Putin sees a weak Joe Biden infamous for his disastrous pullout from Afghanistan and coddling of China. If Putin were to choose blatant military action, he likely could expect some weak sanctions from a Europe held hostage by Russian gas. He knows that France and Germany would not tolerate an energy-induced recession for the sake of Ukraine.

Given the U.S. Senate’s vocal support for Ukraine, Zelensky can expect some lethal weapons. Unlike the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the summer of 2014, Ukraine will be able to inflict casualties, maybe enough to dissuade Putin from selecting the invasion option. But who knows?

Ukraine must also be on high alert for an invasion of “little green men” to foment street violence and calls for Russian assistance. Ukraine won’t stand by in confusion this time, as it did in the spring of 2014 when Russian politicians and generals declared that they were in charge of “separatist” territories.

NATO and the U.S. should understand that Ukraine will never accept a “prodigal son” return to Russia dictated by veto-wielding separatists. If Zelensky were to do so, Ukrainians would go to the streets for a second “Revolution of Dignity.”

The sad message for Ukraine from the West seems to be: You are on your own.

Bottom line for Zelensky: Do not place your hopes on U.S. assurances; they are not worth the paper on which they are written.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.

Tags Armed Attack Biden-Putin call Diplomatic Relations Joe Biden little green men Nord Stream 2 pipeline Russia Russian aggression Russian irredentism Russian troops Russia–Ukraine relations Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky War in Donbas

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