April 15, 2021
President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was a smart move. His reaction to Vladimir Putin’s impending invasion of Ukraine wasn’t. Putin holds Alexei Navalny and Ukraine hostage, but Biden called him to reiterate America’s support for Ukraine, then invited him to a summit in a few months. A date wasn’t announced nor was a pledge by Russia that it would not invade Ukraine or kill Navalny.
Biden blinked. Putin won.
Biden is simply the latest American President to be out-maneuvered because he, like the others, doesn’t comprehend that Russia plays a different game, anticipates several moves ahead, and bases play on completely different rules. For instance, Putin’s amassing of troops along Ukraine’s border is equivalent to a chess move known as “zugzwang” (German for “compulsion to move”): The mobilization forced Biden to make a move, even though any move would worsen his position and put America into a significantly weaker position than before. In addition, by calling Putin, Biden cast himself in the role of a supplicant.
Putin smells weakness again in the White House. For two months, Biden has delayed expected sanctions against Putin’s $11-billion gas pipeline to Germany, as well as sanctions for cyberattacks, bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan, and election meddling. So far Biden has unveiled soft sanctions, along with Europe, against Russia for using the Novichok nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon, to try and assassinate Navalny.
But why is America pussyfooting around this megalomaniac who openly wants to destroy Ukraine, the European Union, and democracy everywhere? The West’s reticence is bizarre given that NATO’s 29 countries have five times the population and ten times the economy of Russia. Putin’s GDP is a puny 1.5 percent of the global total compared to NATO’s nations that account for 50 percent of the world’s economy. Western economic sanctions could crush Russia altogether. That is Putin’s vulnerability.
The explanation is that Western societies, economies, and international institutions are based on concepts such as the rule of law, international treaties, agreements, negotiations in good faith, transparency, honesty, and goodwill. Putin pays lip service to these, but privately ascribes to what his hero, mass murderer, Josef Stalin, said: “agreements are like pie crusts, made to be broken.”
He signs agreements and treaties and attends summits but never changes course. Biden must understand that diplomacy cannot defeat a pernicious enemy like Putin anymore than aspirin can cure cancer. The West’s fatal flaw is believing otherwise.
Victor Rud is a friend and one of the smartest people I know. He has practiced international law for 40 years and along the way advised the American government, Ukrainian Parliament, and represented Soviet dissidents persecuted by the KGB. He’s Chair of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and heads its Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“We have a business mindset and assume agreements solve a problem,” he wrote. “Russia sees agreements as a vehicle and the path to the U.S. losing its superiority [over Putin] has been littered for decades by many agreements, all of them we applauded at the time.”
To Putin, agreements are maskirovka — or an intention to divert attention, placate, confuse, or buy time. This, combined with other tools such as kompromat (compromise), dezinformatsia (disinformation), or provokatsia (provocation), underpin Putin’s ultimate competitive advantage: his sociopathy.
For centuries, Americans and Europeans have built their societies, economies, and institutions based on negotiating and reaching agreements. But this works only because third-party enforcement is in place, in the form of police or courts, or governments. Such controls do not exist in PutinWorld so he moves around geopolitically with impunity and is unchallenged because Russia has a nuclear arsenal and a veto on the United Nations Security Council. The veto is key because it allows Putin to leverage to ignore or break laws, exempt friends from laws, threaten others, extract bribes, acquire privileges, or punish enemies.
“We have been outplayed, outsmarted, and out-maneuvred in Europe, the Middle East, Venezuela, Africa, and the Arctic. And at home,” wrote Rud last August. “Simply repeating the pattern of reacting, deterring, responding, defending will not work. Our failure in self-assessment, our ingenuousness, our lack of strategic instinct, our ignorance of history that then immunizes against the lessons of our own experience, have coalesced. They license Russia to play a massively weak hand with stunningly opposite results.”
Putin laughs at our directives, our treaties, our summits, and our scruples. In his world, there is no such thing as resolution, an iron-clad guarantee, or a meeting of minds. He flouts the world order that guarantees national sovereignty and international security: the UN Charter, the Helsinki Accords, the UN Genocide Convention, the Budapest Memorandum (that Russia signed in 1994 guaranteeing the sanctity of Ukraine’s borders), and nuclear and WMD non-proliferation agreements that include the chemical weapon that was used to poison Navalny.
The Kremlin disdains accountability or responsibility for its words, or deeds. A case in point, the day after Biden’s call this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a speech before the 57 members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe that Russia “wants a peaceful solution to Ukraine”. This lie, as troops threaten invasion, was faithfully reported in the world press as though it was true, and not an inside joke. The ruble increased slightly in value.
Containment cannot conquer cancer or rogue nations either. Hopefully, Biden understands this and is mounting what’s known in chess as a “forced move” — when all the pawns and pieces work together to control specific areas on the chessboard in order to ultimately destroy the King. Unfortunately, the Europeans can only be counted on to provide press releases, good canapes, and little else, but at least NATO member Turkey significantly stepped up. It permitted a U.S. warship into the Black Sea this week, and also publicly condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and invasion of Donbas, for the first time. Russia warned against this but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went ahead. Moscow immediately banned travel to Turkey, where the country’s biggest tourist influx is Russians, some seven million in 2019, who spent $5 billion in tourist dollars. This was a win for Ukraine and NATO. But Turkey realizes that it is potentially as vulnerable to a predatory Putin as is Ukraine.
Actions, not words, are the only response. Words fall on deaf ears, as do threats to remove privilege or to impose sanctions. Worse, sanctions are misapplied — occasionally removed or lowered or time-limited — when they must be permanent and continuously increased until Putin reverses course.
So, what can be done? That’s not difficult if you undertake this thought experiment: Imagine you were Putin in the White House. President “Putin” would give NATO membership to Ukraine immediately; place American and NATO troops there to protect it against a threatened Russian invasion; shut down the gas pipeline to Germany at once with punitive sanctions that have already been approved by Congress or, better yet, blow it up in the Baltic Sea and call it an accident; launch cyberattacks against Russian corporations, governments, Putin, and his cronies equivalent in size to the ones unleashed by Russia; slap punitive tariffs on all Russian exports, notably oil and gas; remove its banks from the international banking system, then kick Russia out of the UN Security Council. That’s just for starters.
Unfortunately, what’s likely to happen is endless summitry, with a photo-op group shot, some stern words exchanged privately, and then an “agreement” of some kind. The Biden administration will pat itself on the back, so will the feckless Euros, and the American media will celebrate the fact that tensions have been lowered and everything is fixed because we have it in writing. And Putin will sneer and carry on.
The only cure for this geopolitical cancer is if Biden thinks and acts like Putin. America must organize a chess-style “forced move”, or gang up against Putin by mobilizing militarily, inflicting ruinous sanctions, and removing his geopolitical privileges, access, and status. It must call his bluff and force him to back down.
Only these measures will force check-mate and only these tactics can make the world a lot safer.