In his Barbaric Recolonialization of Ukraine, Putin Is Playing the ‘Long Game’
Putin regards liberal democracy as on its last legs. Will the US prove him right or wrong?
Donald Trump, presumed leader of the opposition party in the US, had this reaction when the news broke that Russia invaded Ukraine:
This is genius…Oh, that’s wonderful. So now Putin is now saying it’s independent, a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s going to go in to be a peacekeeper.Donald Trump, Feb. 24
Of course, reading the tea leaves, Trump walked back some of the gush but never quite disavowed it. And it’s not just Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin. What’s completely absent here is any sense of empathy for a suffering people who did nothing to deserve the daily horrorshow that’s playing out on television news. It breaks your heart.
Ominously, the man who uttered that statement still plays kingmaker among Republicans and could very well be the party’s nominee for president in 2024. More about that soon.
Observing the ineptitude displayed by Russian troops ever since this invasion began seven weeks ago makes me think Vladimir Putin was taking lessons from the famously incompetent Trump administration. The Washington Post last week listed nine ways the mighty Russian Army botched military protocol that has astounded military experts.
The list includes things like misjudging the will and fearlessness of the Ukrainian troops and volunteers; not preparing their own soldiers (captured Russian troops testified that some were not even told they were invading Ukraine but rather participating in a military exercise, rendering them unprepared for the fog of war); invading with not enough supplies…or the wrong supplies; poor logistics; lack of a clear chain of command; not having a Plan B (one is emerging, however).
The invaders encountered major problems by using unsecured communications, like cell phones and old-fashioned walky-talkies. The Ukraine military was able to easily intercept Russian troop movements. According to the Post, at least seven Russian generals killed on the battlefield had their locations revealed by junk devices. Amateur radio hobbyists have been able to listen to and stream Russian military communications.
Uniting Europe…and the World
A united Europe and NATO: Was this Putin’s biggest miscalculation…or is it still in play? The collective members of the western military alliance are ground zero for liberal democracy. It endures even as members such as Duda in Poland and Erdogan in Turkey are both flexing autocratic muscles.
Hungary’s strongman leader-for-life, Viktor Orban, describes his government as an “illiberal democracy” while others deem it “soft fascism.” Well, at least he’s got Fox News’ Tucker Carlson cheering him on. (My article on how Hungary became an autocratic state is here.)
Vive La France
And let’s not forget there’s an important election in France on Apr. 24 that pits old foes President Emmanuel Macron against far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Le Pen has expressed doubts about the worthiness of NATO and carries an admiration for Vladimir Putin. Her campaign recently had to throw out 1.2 million campaign posters portraying a smiling Le Pen shaking hands with the pariah Putin. She could win this time around.
On the other hand, Sweden and Finland both recently decided to cast away old grievances to announce their intentions to join NATO. (Finland’s 810-mile border with Russia suggests that Article 5 in the NATO charter, the mutual defense provision that affirms an attack on one NATO country obliges all others, might have something to do with it.) So there’s life in the 73-year-old alliance. And who’s going to keep them together? America, of course. Haven’t we always?
Last Friday, Russia sent the United States a diplomatic pouch containing a demand to stop arming the Ukraine military or face “unpredictable consequences.” President Biden has so far been successful in securing an $800 million package of weapons for the embattled country, including long-range artillery, coastal defense drones and armored vehicles.
This largess has been matched by other NATO countries. The Czech Republic was the first to “open the floodgates” by shipping tanks to Ukraine. Other NATO countries have followed suit, delivering high-end military hardware that was key to Russia’s retreat from Kiyv.
Putin has to realize that while Russian military missteps can be fixed, the geopolitical reality of being surrounded by countries hostile to Russian aggression cannot. Putin has to be thinking about the long game: lasting militarily until the geopolitical reality has changed.
Whither Goes America?
“Putin was banking on NATO being split” once the invasion began, said President Joe Biden recently. “NATO has never ever been more united than it is today.”
That’s true today. But what if Putin had anticipated this while gaming out the American political landscape? A recent vote in the US House of Representatives gave the democratic world a sense of foreboding.
30% of Republicans Said No?
On Apr. 5, amid the grim discoveries of civilian bodies being dug up in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, some bound and shot execution-style, the US House of Representatives voted on a symbolic resolution reaffirming support for NATO and its principles. A total of 63 Republicans voted against the resolution, comprising more than 30% of the Republican conference.
This was not supposed to be a tough vote. Remarkable in this day and age is the bipartisan consensus that has emerged in Washington over the outrage of the invasion and support for a sovereign Ukraine. Has this turned out to be a mirage?
The reasons given for Republican ambivalence were various tropes endorsing isolationism and a preference for tending to our Southern border rather than strengthening our most important military alliance. But there’s a shift going on: in succeeding votes on sanctions and funding military support for Ukraine, Republican “nay” votes just keep growing.
Trump Is Still Calling the Shots
Is there any doubt that the House vote, along with other surreptitious back-pedaling on our commitment to NATO and the defense of Ukraine, has Donald Trump’s fingerprints all over it? Trump has maintained that the Russian invasion wouldn’t have happened if he were still in the Oval Office.
That contention has brought a strong rebuke from none other than John Bolton, the bomb-bomb-Iran conservative hawk who served as Trump’s National Security Adviser for a short while. Bolton maintains that Putin was on his best behavior during the Trump presidency because Trump was already doing the work for him: that is, by undermining NATO and shattering democratic norms in America, NATO’s most prominent member.
“Every other national security adviser [on Trump’s team] felt that we needed to bolster Ukraine’s security and we were appalled at what Trump was doing,” Bolton told Washington Post Live. “In a second Trump term, I think that he may well have withdrawn from NATO. And I think Putin was waiting for that.”
Another Democratic Pillar Demolished?
The presidential debate has become as American as apple pie. They provide the average voter a golden opportunity to examine the candidates and make a more informed decision. They encourage civic virtue. They have become an integral part of participatory democracy. They are admired and emulated by emerging democracies around the world.
Late last week, the Republican National Committee voted unanimously to withdraw from the non-partisan commission that sponsors the debates and tries its best to make them fair to all candidates. If the decision stands, it will no doubt mark the end of presidential debates.
RNC chair Ronna McDaniel accused the commission of being biased. Really? Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post has this take on it:
The RNC isn’t operating on principle here. It is, once again, channeling the grievances of Trump. His demands of fealty have required that Republicans knock over institutions that protect the integrity of our elections, one after another. Walking away from the debates commission is only the latest example of the GOP’s efforts to erode confidence in [our] nation’s democracy.Karen Tumulty
The Big Lie and Other Schemes
The Big Lie–the evidence-free claim that widespread voter fraud purposely threw the 2020 election to Joe Biden–has cast a long shadow on American democracy. First, obviously, there’s the corrosive effect of having a healthy minority of voters in the country believing that the leader of their country was not legitimately elected…or worse, elected by nefarious means.
How does this look to other countries? How does this look to Vladimir Putin?
The Big Lie has led to hundreds of bills passed by Republican state legislatures that basically make it harder to vote, especially for Democratic-aligned constituencies. Significantly, some of these new laws politicize the role of the typically non-partisan election official, who for example might have been more receptive to Trump’s plea to Georgia to “find” 11,780 votes. Imagine if that guardrail had not been in place.
With Republicans believing that every Democratic victory is tainted with fraud, partisan election officials could stand ready and willing to do Trump’s bidding. Imagine that Constitutional crisis…unchartered territory.
Putin is playing the long game in Ukraine because he is betting against American democracy. Let’s say that Republicans, as polls suggest, win back the House in 2022. This is coupled with the grim news that Trump-endorsed candidates made the difference in Republicans winning back the Senate, thus solidifying Trump’s grip on the party. An emboldened Congress makes it all but impossible for President Biden to find the funding for Ukraine’s military.
Far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen pulls out a victory to be the French president. She somehow gets France to withdraw from NATO. Other countries follow suit. With the alliance teetering on the brink, candidate Trump campaigns on leaving NATO, saying it’s too expensive. Vladimir Putin begins drawing up plans to restore the Soviet empire…
As expected, Republicans win the House of Representatives. But the extreme views of Trump-endorsed candidates don’t play well to general election voters. His candidates get trounced. Democrats keep the Senate. Without that winning electoral aura, Trump steadily loses his grip on the Republican Party. Democratic guardrails hold. A divided US government recognizes the overwhelming consensus to support Ukraine. Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron rally support for NATO.
Ukraine scores a military victory over Russia. Vladimir Putin is transported to The Hague to face criminal charges for war crimes.
The choice is yours, people.