July 23, 2024

Krushchev moment

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
Putin’s Krushchev moment
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
          WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing his Krushchev moment. In 1962, when Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba and was compelled to remove them by President John F. Kennedy, the humiliation eventually contributed to Krushchev’s downfall. He had miscalculated and overplayed his hand, which is what Putin is doing today.
         Putin is in a lose-lose situation as he threatens Ukraine with invasion. His country is a paper tiger trying to bully its way on the international scene as if it is the defunct Soviet Union. No longer a superpower, it has a GDP (Gross Domestic product) of only $1.7 trillion vs. the United States’ $20.9 trillion or NATO’s (including the U.S.) $40.3 trillion. Yet, Russia devotes an unsustainable 4.3 percent of GDP to its defense budget.
          Russia has natural resources China and Europe rely on, but beyond that and wheat, what does Russia export? “Made in Russia” appears on nesting dolls, vodka, and little else.
          Modern conventional war belligerents must rely upon a strong economy, strong friends, or spineless foes, none of which presently exist in Russia’s case. Russia is in no position to confront the United States and its NATO allies, so in an emulation of Adolf Hitler’s gamble to bluff the UK and France out of the Rhineland in 1936, he is bullying on the periphery. Ukraine, a non-NATO friend of the West, is that periphery. Putin took Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 without firing a shot due to the substantial number of Russian-speakers there.
          However, his move against Ukraine’s Donbass region was resisted and has now stalemated, serving as a training ground for Ukraine’s armed forces and weapons. Although both regions are significant industrial areas, these two invasions were carried out without serious repercussions, a fact that undoubtedly is incentivizing Putin. Deluding himself Hitler-like, he now appears to believe he can bluff his way into devouring all of Ukraine, a region once known as the Soviet Union’s agricultural mainstay, a breadbasket that could now add to Russia’s lucrative grain export trade.
          Ukraine may lack the economic engine to thwart Russia, but Ukraine has powerful friends, the United States foremost among them, providing SAMs (surface to air missiles) to counter the Russian Air Force and shoulder-fired Javelin missiles to deter Russian armor comprised mostly of old T-72 tanks. Russian industry had promised to produce 2,300 state-of-the-art T-14 Armata tanks between 2015 and 2000, but produced less than one hundred, and these have yet to be tested and placed in service. They were simply too expensive for a second-rate economy to manufacture in quantity, and the production run was canceled.
          Putin is also motivated by Russia’s fear of NATO, the post-World War II alliance specifically established to counter the Soviet threat to Western Europe. In the years following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact Eastern Europe nations under its control, those nations eventually joined NATO, bringing NATO forces adjacent to Russia.
         Soviet “republics” also abandoned the Soviet Union. Among them, Ukraine and Georgia were recognized as “aspiring” NATO members. In response, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. When hostilities ended eight days later, Russian forces withdrew, and Georgia gave up its NATO aspirations.
          Putin then made the same demand on Ukraine, going so far this December as to insist that NATO return to its pre-1997 membership. To force the point, he massed more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border.
          Not only have Ukraine and NATO rejected Putin’s demands, Sweden and Finland, longtime friends of NATO, are now considering the NATO option more seriously than ever, with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö stating in his New Year’s address: “Finland’s room to maneuver and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and applying for NATO membership.”
          This is where lose-lose intersects. If Putin backs down, his standing in Russia and the world will deteriorate and Ukraine will probably join NATO. If he attacks, there is no guarantee the Russian military will succeed, and a military failure or high-cost victory would prove to be a national disaster for Russia and its authoritarian leader. If it succeeds, Russia will face an ongoing Ukrainian insurgency, and Finland and Sweden will likely join NATO, turning the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake, an event certain to undermine Putin’s hold on office.
          Like Krushchev, Putin has overplayed his hand, and Russia will become exposed for the paper tiger it is. With no apparent exit strategy, it is all lose-lose for Putin.
          Douglas Cohn’s latest books are The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officer).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2021 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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