About 100,000 Russian troops surround Ukraine to the east, north and south. Gestures speak louder than words. The threat of invasion, obvious but denied by Moscow’s diplomacy, is accompanied by an ultimatum: the US must offer, at the very least, a legal guarantee that Ukraine will never be admitted to NATO. Faced with the impossible demand, the question arises: what is Putin’s hidden plan?
At the dawn of the Cold War, Finland signed the 1948 treaty with the USSR that prevented its geopolitical alignment with the US. “Finlandization”: The term has come to describe the enforced neutrality of a sovereign state. Putin demands the “Finlandization” of Ukraine, not through a bilateral agreement, but through a treaty with the US. The negative answer did not surprise anyone. Otherwise, Washington would be limiting Ukrainian sovereignty.
NATO will not incorporate Ukraine in the foreseeable future, as it refuses to inherit the internal conflict caused by separatist control of the Donbass region. More than joining the Western military alliance, Putin fears the specter of a prosperous and democratic Ukrainian state. The Kremlin boss wants to avoid setting an example for Belarus and, above all, for the Russians themselves. The “enemy within”, not the outside – that’s the point.
The invasion hypothesis does not emanate from the strength, but from the structural weakness of Russia. The Russian economy, which is equivalent to the sum of France and the Netherlands, is based on exports of fossil fuels. Time works against Putin. But what is the correct course of action?
The minimalist military option is the occupation of Donbass by Russian troops and the formal annexation of the small breakaway region to Russia, in the model applied to Crimea. The transformation of the internal military border into an international political border would, however, be a fatal mistake. Without the chronic war against militias backed by Russian special forces, Ukraine would be free to join NATO, which would guarantee the security of its new borders. Putin would lose the frozen conflict that secures his hold on the neighboring nation’s future.
The maximalist option is the occupation of the whole of Ukraine. The military operation would last a few weeks, due to the absolute superiority of Russian forces.
However, the impossibility of maintaining indefinitely the occupation of a hostile nation of 41 million inhabitants, similar to that of Iraq or Afghanistan, is evident. Putin, a leader who knows how to calculate, would not even contemplate such a scenario.
There remains, however, a frightening intermediate option, capable of shaking the foundations of Europe’s security architecture. Russia has the opportunity to occupy the entire east of Ukraine, up to the Dnieper River, in addition to the southern coastline, depriving it of Odessa and outlets to the Black Sea. These are Ukrainian regions that are home to predominantly Russian-speaking populations. There would be prolonged resistance because, for a vast majority, national identity is more valuable than linguistic relevance. Even so, the adventure would have a better chance of success than the wild hypothesis of complete occupation.
In 1949, Germany was split into two states separated by the Iron Curtain. In the end, four decades later, the Wall came down and West Germany merged into failed East Germany. Putin may, however, believe that Ukraine would deviate from the German roadmap.
Today, the US focuses on global rivalry with China. Without a Cold War, Washington lacks the geopolitical incentives that spawned the Marshall Plan and the strategic commitment epitomized in the creation of NATO. Kiev, unlike Berlin, would be left alone: bipartition would destroy the fragile Ukrainian economy and dry up the soil on which European democracy is being planted.
Such a calculation can turn out to be right or wrong. But first it would ignite the spark of a catastrophe.
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