Putin is a smart politician. For much of the lead-up to the Ukraine war, it looked like Putin would use Western divisions to disrupt the West and outplay President Joe Biden.
But has the tide turned such that it is now Putin, rather than Biden, who should be worried?
In order to understand what has happened, we need to start by unpacking Putin’s concerns that led to war.
At the heart of Putin’s thinking is worry over how geographically, Ukraine points like a dagger into the heart of Russia. This means that if Ukraine joins NATO, it becomes very hard to defend Russia.
As Putin keeps pointing out, missiles launched from Ukraine would take less than 10 minutes to hit Moscow. For Russia, this is a terrifying scenario with no military solution. Indeed, for Putin, the only solution is to have Ukraine (and NATO) declare Ukraine a neutral state.
A second concern is that (because of the collapse of the Soviet empire) Russia no longer has a large enough resource base or economy to enable Russians to keep up with either the United States or China in an arms race.
Russia still possesses a huge arsenal (including nuclear missiles) built during the Soviet era. But this is a declining asset as the USA-China arms race sees Russia steadily falling behind.
So Russia may be strong today, but in a decade, it will have slipped further down the ranks. Consequently, Russia is incentivized to act now rather than later.
Thirdly, Russia needs to prepare for the end of the Putin era. Shifting from Putin to a new form of governance will necessarily weaken Russia during the transition.
Hence, the Russian elite recognizes the value of fixing any perceived weaknesses (such as the Ukraine dagger) sooner rather than later. It is simply better to fix weaknesses now while Moscow can still rely on its Soviet-built arsenal and before any Putin transition weakens Russia.
Adding to these concerns is Putin’s paranoia born of American and NATO behaviours in the past. For example, Putin asked to join NATO when Clinton was president. One can only assume the “Russia experts” inside the state department, and intelligence services said no.
This failure to allow Russia to join Western Europe was a huge missed opportunity and would have generated much Russian suspicion and fear about NATO’s intentions. Indeed, in many ways, some of the roots of today’s Ukrainian war lie in that decision not to allow Russia into NATO.
Putin’s paranoia would have been deepened when he witnessed how the Washington bureaucracy could stop Trump from trying to normalize American-Russian relations.
Other events that would have exacerbated Putin’s paranoia are NATO’s handling of Serbia and the USA’s role in stirring up the Arab spring and Yellow revolutions.
These fears and paranoia pushed Putin to set the stage for a Ukrainian conflict as he became driven to create a neutral Ukraine that NATO could not use to attack Russia. Having decided on conflict, Putin would then seek to maximize his chances of success.
Unsurprisingly, he saw Biden’s presidency as a window of opportunity, given that Biden looked weaker than his predecessor. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Putin would have taken the chance to provoke a president like Trump.
In addition, Germany’s left-green government presented Putin with yet another opportunity because this government’s opposition to war effectively rendered NATO impotent.
The combination of a weak Biden plus a weak Germany seemed to make conditions ideal for Putin. And because he also thought he had China on his team, Putin clearly reckoned fate had given him the perfect set of circumstances for maximizing his chances of success.
But that still did not mean the war was inevitable. Putin could be forgiven for believing he could win through threats, brinkmanship, and good negotiating skills, given the weakness of Biden and Germany.
The problem is, within situations of brinkmanship, it is all too easy for one or both sides to make a miscalculation. That is what happened. And so we have war.
Putin seemed to read the initial situation correctly. He also played the game very well in the early stages, constantly outplaying Biden’s team. Finally, it looked like Putin could get his way without war.
But then, one of the variables changed when Western mainstream media and social media became saturated with commentary about how weak and ineffectual Biden was. As one might expect, Biden was embarrassed. And seemingly embarrassed enough to toughen up his team.
Also, perhaps someone reminded Biden that if Putin got his way in Ukraine, this would encourage Beijing’s aggression on Taiwan. And if Taiwan were ever lost, the Pax Americana would be in real trouble. At any rate, we suddenly saw Biden’s team improve their game.
Putin now realized he was not going to get his way through brinkmanship alone, but he had gone too far to back down by this stage. As Putin’s options narrowed, war became inevitable.
Putin is a skilled political player, but it seems this time he may have made a serious miscalculation. The problem is war is a curious beast that can produce outcomes one did not anticipate.
Yes, Putin may have the power to occupy Ukraine. But he has now created five huge problems for himself.
Firstly, he has clearly awakened some kind of Ukrainian nationalist patriotism.
Secondly, Putin’s actions did something that seemed impossible a few weeks ago—he has actually united Europeans and even managed to persuade Europe’s lefties and greens that cosmopolitan pacificism is not always the solution.
Third, Beijing is now trying to distance itself from Putin given the (somewhat surprising?) extent and depth of global hostility to Putin’s war.
Fourth, it seems very likely that Putin now faces a protracted guerrilla war in Ukraine built on the back of Ukrainian patriotism and Western armaments.
Fifth, the West finally got serious enough to impose sanctions that can wreck Russia’s economy. The combination of sanctions and a guerrilla war would have the capacity to bleed Russia to death. This was not the outcome Putin envisaged.
But Putin has changed more than the situation Russia now finds itself in. He has also impacted on the state of global politics—and the changes he has made are the precise opposite of what he wanted.
The Ukraine war has strengthened Biden’s hand. Consequently, at Biden’s state of the nation address, one saw that both he and the Democrats in Congress exuded far more confidence than they had for many months.
The war has also strengthened the hand of those globalist-multilateralists who support the existing world order (which Putin had wanted to disrupt). And lastly, it has strengthened the EU and multilateralism in Europe. Effectively Putin has handed all these players a gift.
But of course, the game is not over. Let’s see what Putin’s next move will be.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.