What if Putin’s real target is not Ukraine?

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE “We have a long history of misreading Russian intentions. The classic example is the judgment British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) that Russia would not invade Czechoslovakia in 1968; on the basis of the pro-Western opinion that this is not in the interests of Moscow. Similar misjudgments were made in the run-up to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Vladimir Putin has seen this winter as the perfect time to confront the West over parts of the former Soviet Union that he believes should still remain in Moscow’s sphere of influence. Winter inevitably puts Europe’s energy market under stress. Meanwhile, NATO has just made a humiliating and chaotic exit from Afghanistan, led by the President of the United States, who is vying for victory in the polls.

Spotting the best moment, Putin mobilized an army of about 130,000 in mid-winter, spread out in enclaves along Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus. Putin has never had high hopes for diplomacy, but he is willing to go the extra mile because he places great value on hindsight for any future action. In the unlikely event of a major concession from the West, he would be prepared to put the army out of action, but it is likely that he will use it to achieve tangible political and military results.

Everyone in the West believes that Ukraine is the target of either invasion or invasion. However, none of the options look particularly good. Yes, Russian troops could probably run 240 miles from Belorussia to Kyiv and capture the capital. But they could not subjugate all of Ukraine, especially west of Kyiv, and an invasion could lead to a protracted and costly rebellion. Alternatively, Putin could try to seize the Ukrainian coast and the port of Odessa, but that would leave a long strip of land to defend against future Ukrainian counterattacks.

Another problem with the attack on Ukraine is that it allows NATO and the West to get off too easily. President Biden made it very clear early on in this crisis that NATO would not fight to defend Ukraine. Instead, all the talk was about economic and financial sanctions. This approach has allowed Western countries to put up a reasonably united front against Putin, although there is disagreement over arms sales to Ukraine and the exact nature of the sanctions.

So the focus on Ukraine didn’t work for Putin. While some responses were divisive, the general trend was to unite Western leaders. It also allowed them to go public, with Macron directing diplomatic talks with Putin and others making high-profile trips to Kyiv.

But Ukraine may not be Putin’s main target. Putin has a claim on NATO, which he believes has invaded Central and Eastern Europe more than has ever been achieved since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, two draft treaties that Russia published on 17th December last year demanded that NATO withdraw its forces and weapons from any country who joined NATO 1997. This will include Hungary, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. It also covers the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) whose exit from the former Soviet Union is particularly annoying to Putin.

There are two operations that Russia could launch against the Baltic states that would send NATO into a tailspin. Article V The NATO Treaty provides that “an armed attack against one [member] will be considered an attack on them all.” In other words, NATO will be forced to use armed force. If any Russian invasion were skillful, limited in scope, and did not result in the death of too many NATO soldiers or local residents, it would undoubtedly lead to serious divisions in the Western alliance. Any subsequent failure by NATO to deploy military forces would undermine the credibility of the alliance and send a powerful message to contenders for membership such as Ukraine and Georgia.

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Of the two options, it is easier for Putin to annex Narva on Russia’s border with Estonia. This is a predominantly Russian-speaking city, and in the past there were several cultural tension with the government in Tallinn. Putin would ask his intelligence agencies to fabricate a call for Russian intervention. The annexation could be carried out by Russian special forces. After the fact, the Russian line would be that Narva would be an exceptional case that should never have been located in Estonia and certainly not worth an armed conflict with NATO. Several European capitals would no doubt agree. But the UK would be in a particularly difficult position as the “lead country” of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), with some 1,100 soldiers based in Tapa, 100 miles to the west.

The second option would be riskier, but potentially more valuable for Moscow. An attempt to link Belarus with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad through the so-called. Suwalki Corridor will sever any land border between the NATO and EU countries and the three Baltic countries. The EFP in Lithuania is led by the Germans, who will not want to challenge the Russian invasion for reasons that Chancellor Scholz already stated. Troops from Kaliningrad could fulfill the task supported from Belarus. Again, after the fact, the justification will be the injustice of the separation of Kaliningrad from the Motherland. It may also be enough for some European countries to favor negotiations rather than war, especially if the Russian invasion is only in the Lithuanian part of the corridor and not in Poland.

Many Western commentators will argue that Putin would not be stupid enough to attack a NATO member. In fact, it makes much more sense than an invasion of Ukraine. This will divide NATO and serve as another Putin unresolved conflict that will be a valuable bargaining chip in the future. His key calculation seems correct; that Europe (and the US) has no appetite for war with Russia.

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