The world according to Vlad
Will he or won’t he? All the world wondered. The second reference is to Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” written during the 1854 Crimean War in which Lord Lucan’s light cavalry was eviscerated by Russian artillery. The first reference is to President Vladimir Putin and whether or not Russia will attack Ukraine, where the immortal 600 galloped to their destruction in Crimea.
After Putin’s nearly four-hour annual Christmas spectacular news conference, his belligerent tone towards alleged Western and NATO “aggression” regarding Russia contrasted with his milder and even conciliatory comments at last year’s performance. In his lengthy answer to a reporter from Britain’s Sky News, Putin asked how the U.S. would react to Russia stationing missiles in Canada — a back-handed reference to America’s Aegis Ashore missile defense systems in Poland and Romania as insurance against so-far non-existent Iranian ballistic missiles.
Since he often uses history to make his case, why did Putin omit referencing the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the USSR deployed nuclear-tipped missiles less than 100 miles off the U.S. coast? And is that crisis relevant to Ukraine today?
Before answering that question, it is important to understand how Putin’s thinking has evolved towards the West and the U.S., and how a succession of White Houses have failed to assess or simply disregarded that evolution.
Consider: Putin’s new year’s eve 1999 speech before becoming acting president that set his agenda; President George W. Bush’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; Putin’s offer to assist the U.S. after Sept. 11, which was rejected; Putin’s warning about the consequences of invading Iraq in 2003; his 2007 warning delivered at the Munich Security Conference about the dangers of a unipolar world; his reaction to the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest and Bush’s offer to extend alliance membership to Georgia and Ukraine and then Russian seizure of South Ossetia several months later, effectively making Georgia ineligible for membership; Putin’s warning to the Obama administration about “leading from behind” in intervening in Libya in 2011 and causing a civil war there; and the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, among other of his irritants.
In sum, from Putin’s perspective, the U.S. was not only untrustworthy; America was a threat to global stability and thus to Russia. The continued expansion of NATO now to 30 states was a major cause of this hostility. But with Joe Biden’s election as president, Putin thought a more constructive relationship could be reestablished with the U.S. and the White House. The two presidents knew each other. Putin was well aware of Biden’s foreign affairs experience and his seemingly moderate views towards Russia.
What happened? Putin very likely believed U.S. relations would improve. But driven perhaps by near unanimous agreement in Congress over Russian aggression in Ukraine, Biden did not immediately pursue restoring relations with Moscow as the Obama administration had.
In fairness, COVID-19 was raging. Jan. 6 had torn the nation apart over Donald Trump’s denial of losing the election, dividing a seemingly intractably divided nation even further. And Biden’s top political priority was passing legislation to support his sweeping domestic social agenda.
What next? This column has argued that Putin does not want a war despite the military buildup in Ukraine. War would provoke NATO and be too costly over the long term. Herein is where the Cuban Missile Crisis may be relevant.
When the Kennedy White House thought it had a deal with the Soviet Union about withdrawing missiles from Cuba, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev reversed that position in a hostile hotline message. Uncertain how to respond, the president’s younger brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, urged disregarding that message. JFK did and the missiles finally were removed.
The Biden team would be wise to follow Kennedy’s example. The U.S. and NATO realistically have no ability to deter a Russian attack if Putin ordered one. Both have warned of the severe consequences. Instead, Biden should remind all parties how such aggression could easily lead to a repeat of the disastrous Soviet Afghan invasion in late 1979 with horrible consequences for both Russia and Ukraine. So, the Biden administration should publicly downplay that threat and assume that Putin is looking for a solution. Privately, it ought to plan for other contingencies should that assessment prove wrong.
My bet remains that this standoff will be resolved peacefully. But Biden should not overplay an already weak hand.
Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”