Putin’s Options Part II

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke publicly about elements of the growing crisis in Europe for the first time in weeks. Using a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a soap box, Putin accused the United States and NATO of using Ukraine as a tool to contain Russia, as well as deliberately ignoring its security concerns. “NATO refers to the right of countries to choose freely, but you cannot strengthen someone’s security at the expense of others,” Putin remarked, and in the process explained in simple terms the core of Russia’s security dilemma. He then repeated his nation’s primary demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.

On this first day of February, the procession of diplomats and European leaders looking to contribute their power and influence towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis continues through Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Ukraine today. At a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Johnson advised Putin to ‘step back’ from what could be a military disaster for Russia and the world. He also warned that Britain will apply significant sanctions to Russia “the moment the first Russian toecap crosses further into Ukrainian territory.”

With the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics set for this coming Friday, the probability of Putin beginning a major military effort this week is low. As the games go on, Russia will use the next two weeks to build its case for military action and make the final preparations for the military operations set to come. Russia would be smart not to initiate hostilities against Ukraine during the Olympics and considering that Putin is obviously playing the long game here, such a move is not expected. Putin was in a similar position back in February of 2014. A Euromaidan raged in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics that year were going on in Sochi, on the Black Sea. As host of the games, Russia and Putin had to sit there and watch powerless as a friendly government fell. Yet the moment the games ended, Putin took action.

Circumstances today are considerably different, but the Russian leader won’t risk the diplomatic and public relations wrath that would almost definitely come from an attack on Ukraine during the Olympic games.

2022 Will Start Off Quiet, But It Won’t Last

Happy New Year, everyone! Well, almost. 😊 There are only about 27 hours left in 2021 so please excuse me for jumping ahead a bit. I think the first weeks of 2022 will turn out to be a quiet period of time, but don’t expect that to remain the case for the long term.

 China and Russia are going to be on their best behavior, eager to successfully project a façade of normalcy. For China, it’s imperative to maintain an even keel with the Olympics rapidly approaching. The pressure on Taiwan will continue to shift from overt to behind-the-scenes and this should continue until the end of the Olympic games. The wildcard here is the wave of Omicron cases sweeping across the world right now. The Chinese government is doing all it can to minimize the effect of COVID-19 on the winter games in Beijing. How much of an effect this will have remains to be seen. However, if the Olympics move forward without major disruption, China’s good behavior should remain firm until late February before it returns to a more aggressive foreign policy.

Russia’s good behavior will not last half as long. Moscow is making it a point to remain quiet and out of the limelight as talks with the United States and NATO are scheduled to begin around 10 January. It’s quite difficult to envision a scenario where Moscow seriously expects the West to consider its security proposals for the future, but Russia has other reasons for pushing these talks through. Whether or not Moscow’s goals are met, expect Vladimir Putin to keep his country on its best behavior between now and 10 January at the earliest.  On the international scene at least. Russia’s domestic moves over the past week have raised questions about the future of human rights organizations and other pro-West NGOs inside Russia.

So, for the first two weeks of 2022 we should have relatively smooth, quiet sailing. That’s the hope at least. But don’t get used to it. As I mentioned earlier, it probably will not last.