A War of Miscalculation: Part III

[I apologize for the length of this note to those with the fortitude to undertake it; since my time to post remains limited, when I get the opportunity, it seems best to just … put it all out there at once.  🙂 ]

Some say that the mind never sleeps.  Although my opportunities to delve deeply into detailed accounts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have remained limited, the electronic media reports of indisputable Russian atrocities have been sickening, while those of Ukrainian bravery and martial effectiveness on the one hand and Russian battlefield futility and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consequent embarrassment on the other – recently culminating in the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Flagship Moskva — have been exhilarating.  I must think about the struggle at night; despite the Ukrainian military success to date – which would not have been possible without American and NATO unity and assistance fostered in significant measure by President Joe Biden – over the last couple of weeks, I’ve awakened several mornings with the same notion, the piece of advice that I would impart to Mr. Biden if I could: 

Don’t underestimate this man.  He is literally fighting for his life. 

“… Vladimir Putin … will make good on every promise or threat.  If Putin says he will do something, then he is prepared to do it, and he will find a way of doing it, using every method at his disposal. … In short, Vladimir Putin is a fighter and he is a survivalist.  He won’t give up, and he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win.  … He won’t give up in Ukraine or elsewhere in Russia’s neighborhood. …If [his opponents] are prepared to fight, and he is outweighed or outgunned by his adversaries, then he will look for unconventional moves to get around their defenses so that he can outmaneuver them. … Putin knows unexpected events can and will blow things off course in domestic and foreign policy.  The key to dealing with the unexpected is to anticipate that there always will be setbacks.  This means he focuses on contingency and adaptive planning to deal with them.  Putin has consistently shown that he can learn from his own policy or tactical mistakes at home and abroad.  [Emphasis in Original].”

  • Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, 2013:  Mr. Putin.  

“I have watched over the years as Putin has stewed in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity.”

  • U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns, April 14, 2022.

There has been so much comment about the conflict; what follows is what has surprised me:

As effective as the reactive American and NATO approach has been to this point, it won’t win.  Western diplomats should forget trying to give Mr. Putin an “off ramp”; not only isn’t he looking for one, there are none at this point that will provide lasting European stability.  While I understand why the Biden Administration has heretofore been “curating” – Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby’s word — its increases in aid to Ukraine to match escalating Russian aggression – such restraint has maintained the support of some NATO allies who might otherwise have been skeptical of too pronounced a response against Russia too soon – I would submit that we now need to get ahead and stay ahead of Mr. Putin.  It’s time to discard the diplomatic fiction that because NATO and the U.S. have not deployed troops to Ukraine, Mr. Putin somehow doesn’t consider himself to be at war with NATO and the U.S.  He does.  Holding back any materiel including aircraft (save nuclear weaponry) because we don’t want to “provoke” Mr. Putin is simply silly.  (Russia’s recent threat of “unpredictable consequences” if the U.S. and NATO continued to supply Ukraine simply underscored what was already glaringly obvious regarding Mr. Putin’s view of the West’s participation in the war.)  Any continuing attempt at this point to label any type of aid – be it materiel, intelligence, or whatever – as “offensive” or “defensive” is pure sophism.  Our (albeit unspoken) definition of success should be to drive Mr. Putin from power via implosion.  Our approach should involve an effort to strangle Russia – quickly — using all means to create enough pressure on and within Russia to precipitate regime change.

As Russia and Ukraine each mass forces in the eastern Donbas region for what will reportedly be a “traditional” open-field battle of large troop contingents and heavy equipment, it feels like we’re about two weeks behind in providing the type and weight of assistance that Ukraine needs to compete.  Hopefully, continued Russian military ineptness will enable us to catch up.

I don’t know if there are any more meaningful economic sanctions that we can impose.  If there are, we should impose them.  Now.

The West’s response to Russia’s potential use of chemical and/or tactical nuclear weapons has hopefully already been decided.  This is a binary analysis.  If the Ukrainians (with the West’s assistance) fail to defeat Russian incursions, Mr. Putin won’t use such weapons; if Ukraine continues to largely successfully repel Russian advances — which is the West’s goal — at some point he will.  Any thought to the contrary is dangerous fantasy.  Since they undoubtedly know Russia’s capabilities, NATO and the U.S. need to know before Mr. Putin authorizes the use of such weapons what they will do when, not if, he does.  If counseling the Administration, I would recommend planting a question in Mr. Biden’s next press conference to enable him to say that the West is taking no options off the table if Russia deploys chemical or nuclear weapons.

I have more sympathy for Germany’s concerns about a European embargo of Russian natural gas than one might suspect, given the pugnacious nature of these posts.  The overriding explicit or implied maxim in every piece by every foreign policy analyst that one will ever read:  a nation will conduct its foreign affairs based upon what it perceives to be in its own best interest.  The first responsibility of any democratic government is to safeguard the wellbeing of its people.  It’s easy for us the U.S. to harrumph about the need to cut off Russian revenues; it will be the Germans that freeze next winter unless they have sufficient access to energy.

I have seen commentary that the true “winner” of this conflict is China; that the Russian invasion has “diverted the West’s attention” and enabled Beijing “to assess America’s likely response” if it seeks to invade Taiwan.  I don’t see it.  Notwithstanding any outward expressions of support for Russia, I suspect that whether or not they were initially, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his advisors are now both angry and frustrated about the ramifications of the invasion.  I think that during his trip to China during the Olympics and prior to the invasion, Mr. Putin gulled Mr. Xi into figuratively getting into the boat with him, and that Mr. Xi is now painfully aware of it.  [I noted in these pages a while back former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s report that an eminent Chinese official once told him that the only strategic mistake Chinese Communist General Secretary Mao Zedong ever made was acceding to Soviet Communist General Secretary Joseph Stalin’s request that China actively support North Korea in the Korean War, because the Chairman’s decision ultimately brought about America’s firm commitment to Taiwan’s defense, thereby postponing (in the Chinese official’s view) the Mainland’s takeover of Taiwan for a century.  By getting Mr. Xi to indicate that China’s relationship with Russia had “no limits” before the invasion, another Chinese leader has arguably fallen for a similar Russian ploy.]  Mr. Putin’s barbaric tactics have left China appearing to be at least an acquiescing co-aggressor and made a world already uneasy about Chinese advances – in Hong Kong, in the South China Sea, through its Belt and Road initiative, and obviously most importantly, through its bellicose attitude toward Taiwan – doubly suspicious.  In a call with Mr. Biden a few weeks ago, Mr. Xi reportedly “expressed the wish that the war was not happening [for once, an undoubtedly completely true statement from Mr. Xi 😉 ].”  In response to the Russian invasion, the western powers have unified ideologically and militarily in a way that Mr. Xi probably did not anticipate.  How China proceeds will depend upon Mr. Xi’s view of China’s strategic interest.  If he sees China’s interests most furthered by buttressing another autocracy [after all, a Russian failure might be a falling domino (to use the old phrase) facilitating a challenge to the Chinese regime], he will aid Russia, endure the ramifications to his own economy, and – most important for the long term — accept that China’s opportunity to wield influence throughout the globe will be sharply curtailed for years if not decades; it will be politically inexpedient for leaders of European economic powers to deepen ties with China.  Most importantly, in Asia, China’s area of greatest strategic concern, his adversaries (Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand) and those seeking to maintain friendly yet arm’s length relations with China (Vietnam, the Philippines) will be on guard, and even less likely to entertain Chinese overtures than they are now.  (A seemingly little-noted but I would submit significant event happened in South Korea since the Russian invasion:  Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative urging a stronger stance against North Korea and closer ties to the U.S., won the nation’s presidency by .8% of the vote, upsetting the incumbent South Korean Democratic Party committed to warmer relations with North Korea and balancing the U.S. and China.  It is tenable that in such a close contest, the Russians’ invasion of Ukraine influenced a decisive number of South Koreans to seek a firmer stance against their own rogue enemy.)  On the other hand, if Mr. Xi believes that the geopolitical trajectory he considered to exist before the invasion – Chinese ascendency and American decline – can be preserved if the world determines that China is providing Russia more lip service than actual assistance, he will tactfully avoid any collaboration with Russia that will impede the “China Dream” to any greater extent than that which has already inevitably occurred. 

Autocracies, like democracies, are stronger united and weaker divided.  Mr. Putin may have given the democracies a wedge to at least weaken the bonds of the autocracies.  While there is relatively little the Biden Administration can do to influence China’s behavior, its primary strategic objective in this context should be to tacitly encourage any emerging gap between China and Russia.

For a while, I have been puzzled by the approach that Saudi Arabia has taken to the conflict.  In rejecting America’s request that the Saudis pump more oil to alleviate the global energy crisis and attendant cost increases brought on by the Russian invasion, Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (“Prince MBS”), the Saudi de facto leader, seemed to me to be as short-sighted as he is arrogant, willful, and malign.  While the Prince has no love for the Biden Administration – due to major actions by the Administration with which I entirely agree, and some personal snubs of the Prince that were deserved but perhaps diplomatically unwise – and by pumping more oil Saudi Arabia would violate its OPEC+ arrangement that supports and benefits Russia, it nonetheless appears that when the Ukrainian conflict ends, Russia will, from a practical standpoint, have less capability to project its power in the Middle East or serve as an intermediary between Saudi Arabia (its OPEC+ partner) and Iran (its Syrian ally).  I thought that the Prince would recognize that he needed America as counterweight against the Iranians, who are, one-on-one, simply tougher than the Saudis and who are probably just as pleased to see the Russians fall on their faces in Ukraine as they would have been to see Russia succeed (with America out of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran doesn’t need Russia to control Assad and Syria, meddle with Iraq and Afghanistan, or bedevil Saudi Arabia from Yemen).  On April 20, the Wall Street Journal ran a detailed account of the breakdown in U.S.-Saudi relations, which I did have the opportunity to read.  What I hadn’t been considering was that in addition to his personal pique against the Biden Administration, it is likely that the Prince considers America an unreliable partner given both its continuing attempt to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (the Iran nuclear deal) and its withdrawal from Afghanistan.  In what could ultimately have serious consequences for us in the Middle East, I surmise – the Journal didn’t state so specifically – that given Russia’s presumed degradation, the Prince may well see China – to whom he now sells a lot more oil than he does to America – taking Russia’s place as a more reliable partner and intermediary between Iran and itself than the U.S.  If true, a dangerous turn.

It is, perhaps … what it is.  Despite what seems to have been a bit of recent unbecoming groveling by the U.S, as this is typed it appears unlikely we’ll get any help with energy pressures from Saudi Arabia any time soon.  My Roman Catholic viscera is pleased that we have taken the moral stands we have with regard to Prince MBS and Saudi Arabia; at the same time, I’m enough of a realpolitik student of former President Richard Nixon and Mr. Kissinger to believe that we have to live and operate in the real world, and accordingly rue our loss of influence with a strategic and longtime – albeit terribly flawed — ally in a very volatile region.

When possible, I intend to enter a note on the other primary challenge I consider to be facing President Biden related to the Ukrainian crisis:  time.

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