Putin’s one-two punch European strategy to defeat America
On Jan. 9, the Biden administration will begin negotiations in Geneva over the “Putin Ultimatum,” two sets of demands presented to the U.S. and NATO. If accepted, they would destroy 30 years of post-Cold War European security policy while opening the path to Russian Empire 3.0 — the latest imperial iteration after the Romanoffs and the Soviets.
Russia’s irridentist push is the most serious challenge to the U.S. presence in Europe and to the Atlantic Alliance since the Berlin crises of the 1940s and 1960s. The Kremlin wants to reverse 30 years of post-Cold War peace and 75 years of relative stability in Europe following the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany, guaranteed by the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the 1990 Paris Declaration.
Moscow’s anti-status quo verve could lead to a Cuban missile crisis-style escalation, with unpredictable consequences. The Biden administration and NATO allies should pay close attention to the Kremlin’s threats — and be fully prepared to deter potential aggression.
The dual goal of Putin’s ultimatum is to emasculate NATO, creating a geo-strategic space to swallow Belarus and possibly Ukraine, while denying the alliance options to oppose Russian imperial rebuilding. Moscow is doing this simultaneously with Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan, threatening to open two far-flung fronts against the U.S., in Europe and the Pacific.
The balance of power in Europe has shifted due to the alliance members’ chronic neglect of military capabilities and Germany’s unchecked historic guilt — and appetite for Russian gas. At the same time, Russia’s military buildup and domestic shift toward a police state that veteran human rights activist Dr. Lev Ponomarev calls a transition to fascism, made the Kremlin more truculent.
As Washington signals weakness with a disastrous pull-out from Afghanistan, Moscow is reverting to the status quo of the previous 500 years: making Russia the strongest military power in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe. The Kremlin is now confident that it can dictate geopolitical outcomes in the region.
Russian demands outlined in the Dec. 17 treaty draft to NATO are radical. Moscow insists that the U.S. cease to fly heavy bombers or sail surface ships anywhere in the range of potential Russian targets and that it removes intermediate range missiles staged outside U.S. borders. It promises to reciprocate, but cheated in the past by deploying Iskander nuclear capable missiles in Kaliningrad.
Moscow further demands a full NATO pull-out from Eastern Europe to the lines that existed before the first round of expansion in May 1997, cancellation of the 2008 NATO declaration of intent to accept Ukraine and Georgia, and a U.S. commitment not to invite them to the alliance. Moreover, it stipulates that the U.S. guarantee a full ban of NATO forces and military bases in states of the former USSR not currently in the alliance, and pledge not to conduct any military exercises with post-Soviet countries.
This is the core of the Ultimatum: Western recognition of a Great Russian Empire that includes Belarus, Ukraine and in the future possibly the Russian-speaking parts of Kazakhstan — a sphere of influence from the Dnipro to the Oder.
Today, Moscow is re-fighting the Livonian wars of Ivan the Terrible, the expansionist campaigns of Peter I in the Baltics, and conquests of Ukraine and Poland by Catherine the Great. The USSR under Stalin topped off the czarist expansion by grabbing Western Ukraine and the Baltics in a deal with Hitler in 1939 and creating an empire in Central Europe after 1945.
These conquests made Russia a near-hegemon in Europe. Today, wielding the energy weapon and building a Russlandversteher (Russia-hugger) lobby by appointing retired German Chancellors (Gerhard Schröder) and French Prime Ministers (Francois Fillon) on corporate boards, Russia thinks it has the leverage for another triumph.
There is a fundamental difference, however, between the Russia of today and its imperial ancestors. During the 1945 Yalta conference, which recognized the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, Stalin was the ally of the U.S. and U.K. He had sacrificed 26.6 million people, or 15.5 percent of the Soviet population, to fight Hitler — and his armies already occupied most of the territory he later claimed. The West had no resources to start another major war.
Modern Russia, on the other hand, wants to renegotiate the outcome of the Cold War — by blackmail and the use of force if necessary. Putin’s Munich 2007 speech, the wars in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria are all about this: regaining the empire and great power status.
While the Geneva negotiations are necessary and agreements on arms control and limitations of deployment may be needed, the integrity of the NATO alliance is not negotiable. NATO is a defensive alliance which will not preemptively attack a nuclear power like Russia. It has a combined GDP of $40 trillion and population of 943 million versus Russia’s $1.5 trillion and 146 million, respectively.
Europe consumes the lion’s share of Russian oil and gas, and the West supplies the bulk of investment and technology for Russian economic development. The chances are high — 25 percent or more, I’d say — that Putin may invade Ukraine. However, it is much easier to start a war than to end it. Many Russian rulers — from Ivan the Terrible to Nicholas II to Gorbachev — learned this bitter lesson too late. The result was the “Time of Troubles” or imperial collapse.
One hopes that cooler heads will prevail, but we are facing a clear and present danger in Europe. The U.S. and the West need to prepare for choppy waters and a rocky ride ahead.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center. He is the author of “Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis.”
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