Putin Has Already Won, Any War Will Be A Bonus

Even if Russia does not go into Ukraine, President Putin has already won at home with his narrative of ‘only Putin can save Russia’. Any further action, such as annexation of Donbas and exclusion of Ukraine from NATO will be a bonus on the international stage. With his gradual drip-drip action and by putting Ukraine’s future NATO membership at the centre of the standoff, he has managed to convince most Russians that the whole of ‘western world’ is united in its ambition to put nuclear weapons next door on Russian borders and destroy Russia.

Modern democracies survive on creating a narrative of an opposition threatening one’s lifestyle or prospects for a better life. There is less of what ‘our side’ can do and more of what damage the opposition can do. The Brexit tale was all about how Europe is a constraint on Britain’s rise to global glory again. Trump played to the perceived threat to ‘white supremacy’ and individual liberty. Putin similarly plays on the threat the west poses to Russian integrity, pride and power. Indian politicians play the threat by Pakistan, ‘Islamic terrorism’ and secessionists to India’s unity.

Putin is an ex-KGB man. His forte is the dynamics and intrigues between international powers. In the Ukraine standoff, he has played that with remarkable sophistication and reinforced the narrative that the whole of the west is intent to breaking up Russia and reduce its power.

The post Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras are still fresh in the minds of many Russians of the Soviet period. Soviet power on the world stage fizzled away in front of their eyes. The promise of better life with reforms and closer engagement with the west not only didn’t materialise, many Russians went into deep poverty. Thuggery and Oligarch warlords emerged ushering a dangerous period of lawlessness, murders and Mafiosi type gangsterism stripping away State assets.

From that post Soviet ruin arose Putin. His narrative has been that the west or rather America has no love for Russia. Rather it wants to drive Russia to the ground and exploit its natural resources.  The narrative has worked well.

In the last few years, the narrative was wearing down a bit. Russia sells and thrives on selling gas, oil and other natural minerals to most of Europe. There are many Russians engaged in constructive business, academic and even social relations with many Europeans. In fact there is a healthy trade between Russia and USA as well. Many western Multinationals, such as BP in Rosneft, have shares in Russian companies. Even some western NGOs operate in Russia. Russians travel to the west and see no hostility.

It was in this atmosphere of improving relationships that Putin’s ‘the West is the threat’ narrative was becoming less convincing to his voters. The Nordstream 2 project appears one of the great triumphs of cordiality and improved relations between the ‘west’ and Russia.

It was not surprising that in this apparent thaw, politicians like Alexei Navalny were becoming popular. He and others like him politically attack Putin of exploiting ‘national threat’ to stifle legitimate opposition, remain in power and enrich himself and his ‘friends’. Putin’s friends allegedly keep their money conveniently in the offshore financial centres that Britain owns, so it remains safe. There are said to be a number of investments in western countries including USA through these off shore companies. Navalny campaigns for a better relationship with the west, a more transparent Russian polity and end to an ‘artificial cold war’.

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Despite Navalny being jailed, it was gradually going well for the opposition as it eroded into the Putin narrative. Until Ukraine.

By stationing his army on the doorsteps of Ukraine in what appears to be an ‘imminent’ invasion, he has united the west to echo his narrative. He has put NATO expansion at the centre of the conflict. He has demanded that western weapons not be deployed next to the borders of Russia.

Western countries had differential relationships with Russia. Some like Germany and France had closer relations than United Kingdom. Suddenly the west has started to unite behind the NATO narrative and played into the security neurosis that Putin feeds his own country on.

Almost every NATO member is singing form the same hymn sheet. ‘It is the sovereign right of Ukraine to join NATO’. From Russian public perspective, if Ukraine were ever to join NATO, it would also have the right to have NATO bases, meaning American, next door to Russia as has happened in some other neighbouring countries.

The narrative is game set and match for Putin. He can turn to his people and say. ‘See the threat hasn’t gone. Why do they want to put weapons next door to us if our relations have improved? They still want to disintegrate Russia and destroy its power’. It doesn’t matter how many Russians travel to the west, in their minds will be the question, why does America want to station missiles next door to mother Russia.

The NATO narrative is a difficult one for the west. It is illogical but one that cannot be denied in public. It needed highly competent, creative statesmanship and diplomacy not to fall in the trap set by Putin. Angela Merkel probably would have handled it better. British statesmanship and diplomacy no longer awes the world. And Joe Biden seems out of his depth against a seasoned master strategist. Putin has proven to his people that when it comes to survival of Russia, the whole of the west is united and plays to Washington’s tune.

The reality is that the west is not united on the NATO issue. Countries like Germany and France do not see any strategic gain if Ukraine joins NATO but leads to breakdown in relations with Russia. However no one can publicly declare that and no NATO country can openly say that ‘Ukraine should give up its sovereign right to join NATO’.

Putin has got what he wants and consolidated his position at home. Even if he withdraws all his forces from Ukraine now without a single concession, he can be assured of popularity at home for nearly a decade. The narrative of the ever remaining threat’ and ‘only Putin can save Russia’ will survive and thrive. The Ukraine-NATO narrative will continue to dominate Russian-West dialogues. Putin will make sure it remains in the public discourse. Politicians like Navalny unfortunately will continue to be exploited as ‘traitors’ by Putin.

Nevertheless Putin is also fully aware of the underlying disunity in the west even if on the surface it appears united and falsely bound in its own rhetoric of principles. He will probably stay put with his army on Ukraine’s borders, playing like a ‘cat plays with a mouse’, wrenching up the threat of invasion bit by bit and then getting a few concessions. But he won’t take over Ukraine completely unless provoked.

It is not in Putin’s benefit to invade Ukraine and take it over completely. He needs the threat of NATO next door to be alive to maintain his popularity at home.

When the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz mocked Putin and said, ‘I don’t know how long the president intends to stay in office?’ One wonders whether Putin thought, ‘As long as you keep me in power.’.

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2 years ago

Too grab 30%, you aim for 60%.

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