Putin wins again
Russian President Vladimir Putin will win the ongoing discussions with the U.S. and demand that the West affirm Russia’s sphere of influence — so long as the U.S. is unwilling to consider using force to deter him from his grand plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union.
Eventually, Putin will establish a presence in Ukraine and be welcome in Belarus and Kazakhstan. And he will not stop there. In the meantime, regardless of the substantive results of this week’s talks, he will get higher approval ratings from Russian voters, become a mightier ruler, and his international reputation among U.S. competitors, including China, will soar.
There are two basic outcomes from the meetings.
One: The U.S. and NATO allies accept Putin’s demands that the ex-Soviet Union, except the Baltic States, be seen and treated as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Essentially, this means that the U.S. endorses Russia’s right to affect the defensive, political, economic and cultural character of ex-Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in perpetuity. Of course, this also means that the U.S. and its allies would be forbidden from conducting military exercises or sending military aid to any country in the Russian sphere.
The U.S. will never agree to this, but the fact that Putin, the leader of a country whose economy is as small as Italy’s, can summon the U.S. and NATO partners with such a demand on the table is telling: Putin has the upper hand.
Two: The West rejects Putin’s demands and imposes new, far-reaching sanctions the likes of which the U.S. has never tried before on Russia.
This could include economic sanctions more severe than those used in several rounds in the past that were directed at the ruling class and ordinary Russians. Such measures may include freezing bank accounts and restrictions on exporting essential goods to Russia. In the past, actions like these have been ineffective in persuading Putin to change his flagrant geopolitical behavior, and they are unlikely to produce different results this time around.
But the new sanctions could also include a widespread cyberattack on Russia’s systems of air and land transportation; communication, including internet, radio and television; banking and capital markets; energy; and anything that makes the country function. The U.S. has the cyber arsenal to mount such an attack and bring life in Russia to a grinding halt.
Russia has similar technologies that it has already used to intervene with our commerce and with our 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. It will have no problems using them again, and will play the victim of the capitalistic West. So, unless the U.S. is willing to consider using other means of power, it shouldn’t mount a cyberattack, as Russia will counter with a similar strike.
The U.S. has been telling the world that war is off the table, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken seems to behave like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who in 1939 was willing to consider anything but war against Hitler.
In such a situation, bullies call the shots. Now it is Putin, tomorrow it could be China’s Xi Jinping.
According to historian Carl Von Clausewitz, war is politics by other means. Removing war from the equation, as the U.S. is doing now in its stand against Russia, is imprudent, if not self-defeating.
The U.S. could be better served using a page from Israel’s play book: to act as if it is ready for war, and to talk as if it is ready for peace.
It does not seem that the U.S. and its NATO allies are ready to do so. Their goal seems to be to control the damage that Putin can exact.
Avraham Shama is the former dean of the College of Business at the University of Texas, The Pan-American. He is a professor emeritus at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico. His new book, “Cyberwars,” will be published by 3rd Coast Books later this year.