Putin plans to upend U.S. leadership

Bill Sims Contributing columnist

Bill Sims Contributing columnist

Simply put, Vladimir Putin’s plan is to reconstitute the former republics of the USSR that formed the buffer zone between the western democracies of Europe and the geo-political state of the Soviet Union, which largely looked like the imperial landscape of the Romanov empire.

From the Russian perspective, regaining control and influence over these states — Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Moldovia, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan — lowers the potential threat level of invasion by NATO countries. Poland uniquely wasn’t a part of the USSR, but was considered to be a part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Russian evidence of their concerns center around the German invasion of Russia at the beginning of the Second World War, which eventually cost Russia over 25 million civilian deaths.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the western NATO countries concluded an optimistic agreement with these former states of the USSR. That agreement was known as the NATO-Russia Foundation Act of 1997. In its statement of purpose it said: “The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its member States, on the one hand, and the Russian Federation on the other hand, hereinafter referred to as NATO and Russia, based on an enduring political commitment undertaken at the highest political level, will build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security.”

The idea of the Foundation Act was that after the fall of the USSR and its trend toward democratic reforms, initially under the presidencies of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Europe and Russia would no longer compete as strategic enemies but work together. It held that: “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries. They share the goal of overcoming the vestiges of earlier confrontation and competition and of strengthening mutual trust and cooperation. The present act reaffirms the determination of NATO and Russia to give concrete substance to their shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe, whole and free, to the benefit of all its peoples.”

But Yeltsin was a weak president, quickly overrun by his ambitious prime minister, the rising former KGB and FSB lieutenant colonel, Vladimir Putin, who was determined to resurrect the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). And the adversarial relationship resumed. With that, NATO strengthened its member states along the border with Russia.

Diving deeper into the question of what is “Vladimir Putin’s Plan?” requires an understanding of Putin’s method of operation, e.g., find weaknesses, intimidate, pressure, feign good-faith negotiations, make impossible demands, intimidate more, and if in striking distance of a checkmate, provoke a phony incident as an excuse for military action.

“False flags” to start wars historically aren’t uncommon. Germany used false-flag operations in 1939 to start campaigns against Poland. Arguably, the U.S. did the same in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to start the war against North Vietnam. In March of 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine under the false-flag assertion of the desperate need to save Russian lives in Crimea. Now he threatens further encroachments into the Donetsk region of Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken is keenly aware: “No one should be surprised if Russia instigates a provocation or incident, then tries to use it to justify military intervention hoping that by the time the world realizes the ruse, it’ll be too late.”

To be clear, Ukraine is no military threat to Russia. It is not a NATO member, nor is it likely to become a NATO member. NATO troops stationed in the former buffer states are there to protect them from Putin’s lifelong goal to rebuild the Soviet Union through intimidation and acquisitions by a thousand cuts. These NATO troops are tactically positioned for defense, not offense. If parts or all of the Ukraine were to fall, other states in these buffer zones, especially Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, would immediately become the next likely targets.

So what should the U.S and NATO do to counter the Russian bullying, the coercion, and the verifiable military threats? Part of the answer lies in the question of who’s bluffing whom?

The Russian economy is basically “a one-trick pony,” oil and natural gas. It’s economy is perpetually hanging by a gossamer thread. President Obama once alleged that, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.” Maybe. Would Putin risk having NATO increase its troop strength and missile deployments in NATO nations bordering Russia as retaliation for annexing the Donetsk? Maybe. But the U.S. and NATO have explicitly said that if Russia moves on the Donetsk region of Ukraine that they will cut off all large Russian financial institutions from global financial transfers and will cut off all acquisitions of industrial technology, advanced chips, and commercial products such as washing machines and refrigerators from the West, of which Russia doesn’t produce very much. For a one-trick fragile economy, such a Putin move could be the existential chess move that backfires like a badly built blunderbuss.

General Colin Powell once said that if you decide a military attack is necessary, then do it with overwhelming force (the Powell Doctrine). A corollary to that might be, that if you decide tough sanctions are necessary for deterrence, then do it with overwhelming economic impact.

To be sure, Putin is seeking to upend the U.S.’s leadership in the world. Too bad the economic and cooperative security ideals expressed in the Foundation Act of 1997 have failed with purpose under Putin. But now, with both sides at the brink, clarity of thought, action and survival will hopefully be manifest as negotiations loom this week in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna. As I suggested in my column last week, this is no trivial “chess match.” One false move, one false flag and things could become grave very quickly as one hot spot ignites others, for example in Taiwan or North Korea. Let’s pray for cool heads and peace, but peace through incontrovertible strength.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

Bill Sims Contributing columnist
https://www.timesgazette.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/33/2022/01/web1_Sims-Bill-mug-1.jpgBill Sims Contributing columnist