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Vladimir Putin’s Double Bind
Albert Goldson Albert Goldson
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: New York, NY
Thursday, December 9, 2021


Setting the Stage

The Russian militarybuild-up of an estimated 175,000 troops, a call-up of thousands of reservists,various mechanized vehicles and even field hospitals near the Ukrainian borderhas alarmed the EU and US/NATO. The only question remains is the ultimate intentfor this build-up, whether it’s a bluff or prelude to an invasion of Ukrainianterritory.

The southeast Ukrainianregion of Donbas consists of the republics Donetsk and Luhansk have been underthe control of pro-Russian separatists since 2014. There have been numerousreports that these pro-separatist battalions are under the command of Russianmilitary officers along with an estimated 3,000-4,000 volunteer Russian troops.Because of the nature of this collaboration and implied direct militarysupport, Russia has already invaded and occupied a part of Ukraine and has establisheda beachhead to launch further into Ukrainian territory.

Invasions &Occupations | Economic Sinkholes

Historically invasionsand subsequent occupations, regardless how brief, follow the timeless economic adage“If you break it, you own it.” The most recent bitter lesson learned is thewaste of billions of American dollars poured into post-war Gulf War II Iraq andAfghanistan with a negative return on economic and political investment.

Russia’s non-violent invasionof Crimea, an overwhelmingly friendly pro-Russian territory, has been aneconomic sinkhole with respect to heavily subsidizing the Crimean economy.

The trophy mega-expensewas the 12-mile Crimea Bridge completed in April 2018 at a cost of $3.7 billionUSD. It was a challenging engineering feat and the longest bridge everconstructed by the Russians. The bridge accommodates rail and vehicular trafficthat has greatly increased passenger and freight compared to the ferry system. Howeverwith no toll requirements, the bridge’s construction and subsequent maintenanceexpenses will not be offset by increased economic activities.

Russia’s MilitaryOptions

Two issues not readilydiscussed are as follows:

1.   Firstly,if Russia goes beyond the Donbas, how far west will they proceed?

2.   Secondly,whatever region Russia occupies, how long will they occupy it?

A military build-up of175,000 troops with an estimated 100,000 reservists are insufficient topenetrate deep into Ukraine which eliminates the possibility of a march on Kiev.Remember that during WW II the first wave during D-Day consisted of 156,000 Alliedtroops whose objective was to establish a beachhead before reinforcements arrivedin subsequent landings to secure their position.

For this reason Ibelieve that Russia’s objective, should they proceed into Ukrainian territory, isto secure the pro-Russian Donbas region. It’s a region it can readily defendand whose occupation will be almost seamless and even welcomed by the mostly pro-RussianDonbas citizenry compared to an occupation with an anti-Russian population.

Russia’s success iscontingent on the level of resistance, if any, of the 250,000 troop Ukrainianarmed forces, non-military interference by NATO/western countries and Russian supplylines. Furthermore Russian firepower, technological superiority and logistics greatlyoffset the Ukrainian manpower advantage. The occupation of the Donbas regionprovides a forward-post and leverage in any negotiations.

Geopolitical Tit forTat

For decades the Westhas prodded the Russian bear and visa-versa even though the former is nevermentioned by the western media. The Ukrainian dilemma is one of a long seriesof provocations – political and economic in many other regions globally - thathas forced Putin’s hand in pre-positioning an invasion-sized military force fora potential pre-emptive strike to underscore his resolve in maintainingRussia’s sphere of influence in the Near Abroad.

Falling Dominos

Putin’s perception ofwestern encirclement and encroachment into Russia’s buffer zones has merit. Ukraineis Russia’s unofficial “jewel in the crown”, a country Putin is loath to slip formallyor informally into the US/NATO orbit.

Since Putin’sascendency as Russian president in 1999, no less than 7 former Soviet bloccountries have become NATO members. In 1999 three countries, the CzechRepublic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO. In 2004 seven countries, the Balticcountries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia andSlovakia joined NATO which expanded its influence eastward with a total of 26members all occurring under Putin’s watch.

During his initialyears Putin had little leverage to prevent the conversion of these countries tobecome NATO members. He was not only consolidating political power, heinherited a shell of the former Soviet Union military firepower. Since thattime he has aggressively modernized and upgraded the Russian military to enablehim to, from his perspective, defend a Near Abroad country to prevent the lastdomino from falling.

Since 2014 Ukraine hasbeen a NATO partner, enjoying the benefits of participating regularly in NATOexercises, obtaining intelligence, receiving modern military equipment &training not to mention acquiring greater pro-western political leanings. Howeveras a partner it does not have the military protection according to NATO’scharter. Nonetheless in the eyes of Putin Ukraine has become a de factoNATO member at the cusp of possibly being offered a fast-track membership.

Putin’s Double Bind

The present-day scenarioplaces Putin in a double bind. If Putin does nothing backed by a modern andupgraded military he loses face. But far worse, his image of the strong manleader seeking to restore Russia to its Soviet glory puts him and his innercircle at risk of a coup within the Kremlin similar to what happened toGorbachev when he went “too far” with his glasnost policies. Even theghosts of former empires remain for decades, sometimes centuries, afterwards inthe citizens’ and leaderships’ hearts & minds.

Putin, who admitted tobeing traumatized as a young KGB officer with the collapse of the Soviet Union,will never tolerate the loss of a buffer state such as the Ukraine with hisvastly improved military.

For this reason, Putinis willing to endure the inevitable economic sanctions and political costs tomaintain Russia’s dignity and insure his political survival. The Russianeconomy has done surprisingly well under long-term sanctions and with almostall autocratic states will continue to do so under harsher conditions. WithEurope highly dependent on Russian natural gas supplies, any sanctions by theEU will be mild, merely a political beau geste to appease their respectiveconstituencies.

Furthermore this gamblemay jump-start Putin’s rapidly declining domestic popularity just as it didwhen he aggressively engaged his military in the Middle East conflict frombases in Syria. Besides, for public relations purposes, the threat of war is awonderful distraction from the increasing scrutiny and public complaints ofcorruption of the Russian mafia state.

Putin’s objective is toblunt western expansion and influence in their Near Abroad confident that theUS/NATO will not interfere militarily in non-NATO member territories whilesecuring, even bolstering, his political position. For Putin this is personal.


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The Cerulean Council is a NYC-based think-tank that providesprescient, beyond-the-horizon, contrarian perspectives and risk assessments ongeopolitical dynamics and global urban security.

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