The geopolitical question of the moment is: how important is it to humour Russian leader Vladimir Putin? The answer is: not very.
This question has become urgent because President Putin is demanding a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO. He also wants the alliance to withdraw all the non-local troops and weapons it has deployed in countries that were not in NATO before 1997. And he is hinting that he might invade Ukraine if NATO does not comply.
‘Areas that were not in NATO before 1997’ is a lot of territory. It includes Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all of which under Soviet rule before 1989.
That’s around 100 million people, most of whom have unhappy memories of Russian rule and a lingering fear of Russian domination. That’s why they all joined NATO (and most of them joined the European Union too).
They will never let the Russians make them vulnerable again, and there is no reason for NATO to give in to Putin’s demands. The notion that Russia might actually invade Ukraine is frankly ridiculous.
Ukraine is a country the size of France with 43 million people. Its armed forces are less well equipped than Russia’s, but they have learned how to fight during seven years of low-level warfare against Russian-backed separatists in the south-eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia has three times Ukraine’s population and much bigger armed forces, but invading Ukraine would not be easy. The Russians could certainly take the east, and maybe Kyiv, but conquering the west would be doubtful. And afterwards, Russian occupation troops would face a major guerilla resistance.
Besides, an overt Russian invasion would trigger an immediate trade embargo by the NATO countries that would quickly bring the Russian economy to its knees. Putin’s entire regime would be at risk of collapse.
This is not like the old Cold War, when the Soviet Union and its satellites were only outnumbered two-to-one by NATO. Now it’s a much diminished Russia against a greatly expanded NATO: three-to-one in regular military forces, seven-to-one in population, twenty-five-to-one in GDP.
Russia has lots of nuclear weapons, so nobody is going to attack it, but in any other kind of war it is hopelessly outmatched. Putin’s demands don’t really make sense in terms of Russian security.
There was never been much support for Ukrainian membership in NATO anyway, precisely because it might oblige the alliance to defend Ukraine against Russia. The status quo is ugly but satisfactory for Russia – so why try to change it?
One possibility is that having Donald Trump in his pocket gave Putin a sense of security that has now evaporated. Another is that he just sees Joe Biden as weak, and he is trying his luck. But his motive doesn’t matter, really, because the whole project is foredoomed.
NATO only has to make it clear to Moscow (in private) that any border incursion in Ukraine beyond the present war-zone in the southeast will be met with a full economic blockade of Russia.
Don’t say that in public, of course. And don’t create panic in the Western public with exaggerated reports of a Russian military build-up either (as the boys and girls at the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington have been doing simply out of habit).
Give Putin no concessions, but show him respect. Keep talking to him, and eventually he’ll come down from the ledge he’s gone out on at the moment.