Vladimir Putin shocked the world when he audaciously risked everything to take Ukraine. But the West, in turn, has stunned its own critics with its remarkable ability to take risks.
The latter has defied Putin’s threats of nuclear war in recent weeks to supply arms to Ukraine. This delicate policy has proved crucial not only to stop the Russian army but to force it to withdraw from Kyiv. And now, as Putin desperately regroups in eastern Ukraine, NATO is upping the ante to achieve a goal once unthinkable: an ultimate military victory for Ukraine.
Some NATO member countries have agreed to supply advanced and heavy weapons to thwart Putin.
And while Germany remains Europe’s weakest link, in a significant change, the country has lifted its blanket ban on the export of German-made weapons to war zones.
Of course, victory for Kyiv is far from guaranteed. Although even some well-placed observers are speculating that Russia could be routed in just a few weeks, the truth is that months of savage and protracted fighting are likely ahead.
Still, the West’s high-stakes tactics are a geopolitical game changer – one that is forcing its opponents to drastically reconsider their immediate strategic goals as well as their assumptions about a “descending” West.
Russia invaded Ukraine based on a set of firm beliefs about the “outdated liberal order” and the consequent opening of a “strategic window” that could force geopolitical change. His main assessment was that the West was hopelessly divided and America, the fading superpower, was unwilling to risk nuclear conflict for the benefit of countries far away. And yet such assumptions have so far proved premature.
True, the West has been disjointed at key junctures in this conflict. True, Joe Biden has sometimes been more willing to say what his country would not do than what it would do. True, sanctions remain indirect and carefully crafted to limit the economic backlash. But it’s also true that the West managed to do much more damage than the Kremlin expected.
Most importantly, Russia has overlooked the West’s fundamental reluctance to tolerate an outright victory for Putin.
Paradoxically, this probably reflects the West’s current weakness rather than an indication of its relative strength.
America has chosen, partly out of desperation, to engage Putin in borderline ruthless bluffing after realizing that the liberal order faces an existential threat.
A successful Russian attempt to neutralize Ukraine, followed by China’s conquest of Taiwan, would be a major blow to the West, imposing strict geographic limits on its reach. In fact, US commanders have strongly implied that American engagement in Ukraine is also a deterrent operation against Beijing. But above all, such a scenario would completely destroy the romantic ideas that underlie it – namely, the universality of Western values.
So Ukraine is a life and death struggle for the West in ways that Putin could not have foreseen.
Even the humiliations of the Middle East have not eliminated the West’s weakness for Hollywood heroism. Moral resolve still infects his geopolitics. Bold adventurism still fuels his military demeanor. As we have seen over the years, not least in Iraq and Afghanistan, such qualities can lead the West to make reckless and blinded decisions.
Nor should we be reckless about how this increases the nuclear threat. But these qualities also make the West an unpredictable and muscular opponent – something its rivals overlook.
Of course, Putin could still gain momentum in the Donbass. But given Ukrainian determination and Western unwillingness to back down, he now has no choice but to recalibrate his strategy. His first choice is to try to expose the West’s bluff through radical escalation. He could resort to using weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine. Or he threatens the West with a nuclear strike.
Nonetheless, Putin may now have trouble asserting himself against the West. Even if the latter resisted a military response to the Kremlin’s use of chemical or biological weapons, it could hit the mark with tougher sanctions. Nor can Putin be confident enough to threaten nuclear war. A growing willingness to test the Kremlin’s red lines suggests that attitudes in Washington have become more cavalier since the Cold War years. Back then, the military establishment accepted that nuclear war was a lose-lose. But in recent years, in the face of a renewed arms race with Russia and China, it has shifted to the view that nuclear confrontations can be fought and won. The Pentagon even changed its nuclear doctrine in 2019, reaffirming such a view.
Putin’s second choice, then, is to bow down and withdraw from a war that won’t go his way. Just a few weeks ago, the idea that Putin would settle for a few eastern territories, let alone consider a full withdrawal, seemed absurd. But Moscow may soon be tempted to shift its focus from an unwinnable military war to a global PR battle, which is still very much alive. Whether a negotiated withdrawal is presented to ordinary Russians amid disciplined propaganda about Ukraine’s “denazification” or the embarrassing collapse of their national army could profoundly affect Putin’s fate.
Not only Russia has to drastically recalibrate its game plan in the face of a daring West.
After witnessing the Allied success in sabotaging Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party will be tempted to shelve any plans for a confrontation with Taiwan for the foreseeable future. Maybe it decides to embark on a longer game, hone its military skills and meticulously study the mistakes of the Russian army. Putin’s struggles are also a wake-up call that Beijing must wean itself off Western technology, strengthen its domestic consumer market, and build a parallel global financial system if it is to minimize its vulnerability to Western sanctions. It will take years to achieve such goals.
Victory for Ukraine is far from certain. But if the West pulls through, it will not only have saved a country from neo-imperialism, it will have forestalled a potentially disastrous confrontation with China.
That would be no small matter and a sign that the West, for all its flaws, remains a force to be reckoned with. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd. 2022)
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/the-west-has-called-putins-bluff-but-can-it-go-further-with-its-high-stakes-power-play-41548562.html The West has exposed Putin’s bluff, but can he take his high-stakes power play further?