The new US claims were the latest ploy in a highly unusual public relations campaign using declassified intelligence intended to remove Putin’s element of surprise and rob Moscow of the usual advantage it secures through its mastery. disinformation tactics.
Few inside Washington doubt the government’s assertion that Putin is ready to invade at any moment. But the intensity of US warnings over a period of weeks could soon raise questions about how long Biden can maintain a state of high alert, and whether the continued absence of an invasion despite increasingly dire warnings could open rifts between NATO allies – and between the US and Ukrainian governments. Such constraints would play directly into Putin’s long-term strategic goals.
The United States and Russia, the two largest nuclear powers in the world, say they are ready to negotiate. But they remain far removed from Putin’s demands to tear up existing security agreements in Eastern Europe with the departure of NATO troops from former Warsaw Pact countries.
The US game is not without risk, as it could push Putin over the edge – especially if, as some US officials suspect, he is increasingly prone to a bunker mentality and receives little advice and guidance. outside views from officials willing to challenge his point of view.
Waiting for Putin’s next move
By definition, in a duel of propaganda and information warfare, it is difficult to know what is really going on.
The confrontation over Ukraine has become the most serious geopolitical confrontation in Europe since the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The United States will not send troops to Ukraine to directly fight the Russians. But Biden has rushed forces to bolster US NATO allies in Eastern Europe. Putin is holding Ukraine, a sovereign and democratic nation, hostage to demand that the Western alliance withdraw from ex-Soviet satellite states like Poland, Romania and Hungary. And if Russia enters Ukraine, there could be painful consequences for Americans back home, with rising gasoline and energy prices adding to the existing inflationary misery.
The new US warning about covert Russian maneuvers came amid accelerated efforts to keep Western pressure on Moscow. The White House has announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference this weekend. The forum, which will also be attended by senior European officials and US lawmakers, is turning into a rallying point for the United States and its allies as the NATO alliance faces its most serious test since the fall. of the Soviet Union.
“We are at a very decisive moment,” the senior US official said, foreshadowing the vice president’s most high-profile foreign policy mission to date.
This week, there was hope that the crisis might ease after Russia announced that some of its troops were moving away from the border. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken instead told ABC News on Wednesday that there had been no “significant withdrawal” and that Putin could “pull the trigger” at any time.
“He might take it out today. He might take it out tomorrow. He might take it out next week,” Blinken said.
Putin is playing the long game
The different assessments have played into the uncertainty and confusion that characterizes Putin’s Machiavellian methods. The Russian leader has observers divided between those who believe he simply seeks to destabilize the Ukrainian government, assert Russian power and attack the Western alliance and those who are convinced that an invasion that could mean a dangerous new era in Europe is imminent.
Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that the Russian leader’s intentions were almost certainly nefarious.
“I think they’re running a disinformation campaign,” McCaul said.
The disheartening truth is that while there will be questions about troop readiness, Putin can maintain the pressure campaign almost indefinitely. By doing so, he could show Ukraine that he will never allow it to join the European Union or NATO, deepen divisions among Western allies and argue that Russia must never again be ignored in this regarding security arrangements on the European continent.
The crisis served another purpose, too – as a flood of leaders and diplomats visited Moscow and Putin spoke frequently to Biden, restoring Russia’s image as a great power, after years in the dark. during which the United States minimized its threat and constructed its foreign policy. around confronting China.
Even if he doesn’t invade, the Russian president has the ability to turn up the heat whenever he feels Russia is being disrespected. And days and weeks of prolonged confrontation could discredit US claims that an invasion is imminent, weaken Western resolve and restore Russia’s element of surprise. In a long-term confrontation, Russia would have the advantage because it cares much more about the fate of Ukraine, a former Soviet federated state, than the West.
Although this confrontation did not have the scale and intensity of the Cold War, when Europe was divided by an iron curtain into free nations protected by the United States and communist states dominated by Moscow, a change geopolitics seems to be taking shape with the possibility of another sclerotic clash.
Putin has been in power for more than 20 years, outlived several US presidents and does not respect the four-year clock between elections that dominates US politics. He is also prepared to subject the Russian people – who have endured a grueling history – to more pain than a US president worried about re-election would accept for theirs. It’s one of the reasons why some experts think he might be willing to risk the catastrophic penalties that would be triggered by an invasion.
“The New Normal”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who will also meet Harris in Munich, fueled perceptions of a more contentious era dawning in Eastern Europe, reflecting old Cold War divisions.
“I regret to say that this is the new normal in Europe,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
“We don’t know what will happen in Ukraine. But the situation has already demonstrated that we are facing a European security crisis. Moscow has made it clear that it is ready to challenge the fundamental principles that underlie our security for decades and to do so by the use of force,” he added.
That the West is gathering in Munich to prepare for new confrontations is ironic since it was at the conference 15 years ago that Putin launched a savage attack on the United States and the order. of the post-Cold War which, in retrospect, was a playbook for his tactics that culminated in the Ukrainian crisis.
The Russian leader lamented an era of “unipolar” American power at a time when the United States was fighting wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also criticized the enlargement of NATO to include former Soviet satellite countries – the underlying cause of his belief that the West threatens Russia and that it must prevent Ukraine from falling further under its influence.
“We are entitled to ask: against whom is this extension intended? he said, while alluding to a campaign of “several years and decades, as well as several generations of politicians” that would redress the balance.
For those who remember his Munich tirade, none of Putin’s harsh and hostile turns against the United States, his foray into Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, interventions in the American elections and the current violence towards Ukraine are a surprise.
Washington might think it won the Cold War 30 years ago. But recent weeks show that the Russian leader is still carrying out something similar, as a way of demanding respect for his country’s power, status and goals.
This story has been updated.