The confusing cocktail of context and events that inspired Russia’s rash actions, explained
(Russian/Русский перевод) By Brian E. Frydenborg, February 21, 2022 (Twitter @bfry1981; LinkedIn, Facebook); excerpted and slightly adapted from his article The Utter Banality of Putin’s Kabuki Campaign in Ukraine published by Small Wars Journal the morning of February 21 and featured by SOF News on February 26; see related articles excerpted and slightly adapted from that piece:
- February 25: How to Lose Nations and Alienate People, by Vladimir Putin
- March 1: Putin’s NATO Narrative Is Bullshit
- March 16: Putin’s Zombie Russian/Slavic Ethnonationalism Is Utterly Banal
Also see March 8 follow-up Small Wars Journal piece The Beginning of the End of Putin? Why the Russian Army May (and Should) Revolt (featured on March 9 by Real Clear Defense, The National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) Democracy Digest, and SOF News) and related articles excerpted and slightly adapted from that piece:
- March 9: A Look at Putin’s Disgraceful, Heartless, Barbaric Treatment of Russian Soldiers and Their Families
- March 11: On Casualties Counts in Russia’s War on Ukraine
- March 13: How Best to Penetrate Putin’s Media Iron Curtain in Russia? Dead Russian Troops
- March 19: Time for the Russian Army and Russian People to Revolt and Overthrow Putin
- September 16: I Saw This War Could Be Putin’s Undoing All the Way Back in Early March
WASHINGTON and SILVER SPRING—If Russian President Vladimir Putin thought when he began this military buildup that any major concessions would be forthcoming from the by-far-stronger U.S. or NATO as a result of reckless Russian military provocations, U.S. President Joe Biden—unlike his unfit predecessor—has made it crystal clear Putin will get nothing of the sort from a Western alliance now invigorated by Russia’s own acts, acts that have united Europe against Russia in tandem with Biden’s firm leadership in the face of Russian aggression, aggressively countering every move and statement by the Kremlin.
It was only several months ago when many a pundit pundited that NATO and the Western and other U.S.-led alliances were somehow in “tatters,” along with Biden’s credibility, because of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan that, taken out of larger military, humanitarian, and historical contexts, was proclaimed by said punditry as a “disaster” and a “fiasco,” pronunciamentos that may very well been a major factor in Putin’s decision to vastly overplay his hand on Ukraine, a hand far weaker than he seems to realize. I discussed the reality of the larger picture of Afghanistan and the U.S. war there several times during and after the withdrawal, with one key takeaway that, despite the tragic crises in Taliban-run Afghanistan itself, to read any tectonic shifts in the global balance of power or U.S. relationships was to overreach one’s mental and predictive limits (hardly a concern for so many “experts” and the press, more myopic and short-term focused than ever).
This would actually help precipitate the current drama in Ukraine.
Leading into 2021, Putin and his top advisors’ hubris only was only growing in recent years with the spectacular success of Russian cyberwarfare/hybrid warfare against the West—especially the U.S. and the UK (and why I have called for NATO’s Article 5 collective defense provision to explicitly add cyberwarfare in writing, including disinformation). In the wake of the January 6 Trump Capitol insurrection, this hubris only greatly intensified, Trump serving his Kremlin enablers’ purposes even when he managed to lose. And during the summer’s Afghanistan withdrawal, the aforementioned typical Western media coverage that oversold divisions within the Western alliance would only significantly add to Putin’s sense of American and Western fragility and disunity (never mind that the coverage blew entirely out of proportion a few tragic days at the very end of an otherwise nearly bloodless, remarkably successful withdrawal from Afghanistan—including the Kabul Airlift that evacuated some 124,000 people, the vast majority Afghan civilians, in just 17 days under incredibly chaotic and fraught conditions).
All these factors combined as 2021 dragged on with Biden’s flagging poll numbers, a brand-new and untested German chancellor in Olaf Scholz saddled by the pressures of Nord Stream 2 (the massive gas pipeline project that would connect Russian gas directly to Germany and behind which Russia’s massive state-owned Gazprom is the main force), a U.K under a Boris Johnson beset by scandal, an upcoming (and uncertain) French national election, and a general level of protest-inspiring dissatisfaction (justified or otherwise) with COVID-19 policies in the West to give Putin the impression that Biden, the U.S., and the West in general were weak and ripe for division.
For Putin, his inner circle, and Russian intelligence, the caricature of a hapless West—which, admittedly, the West had been playing into for years with its generally weak responses to Russia’s unabated aggression, hostility, gaslighting, and general bad-faith behavior—that was appearing to Russia with this unique combination of recent issues and events effectively fed into their confirmation bias and hubris and, thus, has led Putin to make his big gamble now.
Yet, as already noted, Biden has stood strong and rallied NATO and the West quite well and quite rapidly, proving that the doom-and-gloom assessments of the health of NATO after Afghanistan were way off; even Germany, often regarded as the weakest NATO link when it comes to Russia, just Friday indicated Nord Stream 2 is “on the table” to be involved in German economic retaliation for a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And part of the reason, again, is just how pathetically predictable Putin’s screen of smoke and mirrors here has been, unable to hide over 150,000 Russian troops amassing on Ukraine’s border along with their planes, helicopters, tanks, artillery, naval warships, and other heavy equipment.
See all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here
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