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Inside the Mind of Putin

Because at the present time I am bobbing between Athens and London after visiting and speaking at all the contiguous Capitals of the warring parties involved in the present conflict and accomplishing little to nothing, maybe because my conflict resolution skills on behalf of the United Nations are just too gentlemanly, whereas the barbarian hordes are just that — barbarians — I am eager for some resolution of the intellectual conflict between the usefulness of war and the odd deserts that it brings.

We all know that the ancient philosopher said: “War is the father of us all, the King of men — thus he has made some gods and some men; some slaves and some free” but methinks he forgot to mention the carnage and the seriously nasty business of butchery and bloodshed…

Because, the old man Heraclitus, hadn’t taken the human condition, the bloody toil and the “sacrificial lambs” into consideration, nor the awfulness of despair that people experience in War, and certainly none of the magnificence of the Soul that the innocents exhibit at the point of their passage. 

So, maybe it’s time for a new adage of my own coinage: “War is the alcoholic, absentee and abusive Father of us children of God, bereft of Love.”

In that vein — we must now admit that Ukraine is no longer a sovereign country.  

It is a vassal state.

A rump state made of what is remaining from its former shape.

Indeed the “lebenstraum” of EU as envisioned by Germany has once more been denied to the German Eurocrats who dreamed crack-pipe induced dreams of taking Ukraine without firing a shot as they have done with the rest of EU “occupied” Europe today.

As it turns out — they have just met their Stalingrad in the face of Russian resolve and rolling armor. 

Notions of a New Europe, dreamed up by a coterie of German generals, strategy analysts and their awful Führer, more than eighty years ago might seem remote from today’s increasingly tense standoff with Russia … yet this is what the Berlin-Brussels penguins, the BB class of these ungainly birds seem to have aspired to.

Even myself as a nuclear non proliferation expert, well versed in the IMF agreements and the START treaties, as well as all the other limitations on the use of weapons of mass destruction of this Nuclear Age — I vehemently disagree with any invasion or expansion of NATO forces into the region. 

Yet the nuclear mindset of Superpowers will likely provide an important key to deciphering Putin’s seemingly bizarre behavior, that in reality makes perfect sense when seen from a Macro-Historical lens.  

The reality is that Putin is practicing what early Cold War generations called brinkmanship, best described as “I am willing to go closer to the edge of the cliff than you are.” 

Indeed this case the Russian bear says that ” I am willing to hang my feet over the abyss and will fly off if need be.” 

Authorship of the term brinkmanship is generally credited to President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a vastly influential figure through the 1950s as the tectonic plates of the world’s political map grated and shifted to the new order born in fire in World War Two. 

“The ability to go to the verge without getting into the war is a necessary art,” Dulles said, with evident self-satisfaction, in his memoir, stating that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is generally thought to have been its last outing. 

That is not the case as it now appears because Putin’s overheated rhetoric addressing Western governments, it would be recognized for what it is as brinkmanship, where his threats would have limited impact, whereas in our media-saturated world — Putin has gained far wider audiences and vast following across the globe.  

Washington DC and the European capitals have shared in the Munich Security Conference and in many other discussions over recent weeks, their concern that Putin has achieved two ancillary military goals. 

He has alarmed western Europe to the point that popular fears of war – especially in Germany – may now preclude, and will certainly limit, further European sanctions on Russia in response to Putin’s incursions into Ukraine. 

The reluctance of EU nations last week to offer Ukraine and other eastern European Baltic and central region nations more than tepid support is viewed by some as disquieting collateral. More forebodingly, Putin has whipped up inside Russia such frenzies of nationalism, so widespread a belief that NATO is about to attack the beloved homeland, that it’s hard to see how he calms this storm.  

Like it or not, prudent statecraft dictates that the Ukraine crisis needs speedy resolution. The corollary is that Putin must be allowed something that his Kremlin propaganda machine can present to his aroused masses as a victory. Hence U.S. President Mr Biden’s offer to meet with President Putin earlier this month, if he were to not invade Ukraine — is evidence of that. 

The State Department, had been urging for months that America had to play a more active role in resolving the Ukraine crisis. 

The mantra at White House press briefings was that the crisis could only have a military, but not a political or a diplomatic solution. 

Yet, we all know that Washington has the most diplomatic clout of any western power. 

Then why does it wait beating around the bushes when it ought to have begun to exert this many months before this debacle has occurred? 

The answer came back from the White House time and again before this crisis unfolded, because even before the tanks started rolling into Ukraine the answer from the Biden administration was:  

Not yet.  

Of course in all Administrations, the inner counsels at the White House tend to the opaque. 

Cabinet members can interact with staffers of the National Security Council; talk with the National Security Adviser. 

What happens when the President consults with his innermost aides remains hidden. 

Back in the days of hope, Les Aspin, Clinton’s first Secretary of Defense, observed once that, visiting the White House, he always felt like a child pressing his nose against the window, seeing a party inside to which he had not been invited. 

Obama’s White House was, seemingly by design, more opaque than most. Disillusioned appointees recount how issue after issue works its way up through the National Security Council’s hierarchy of analytical judgments,  surfacing at last to the committee of deputies and sometimes even to principals, a conclave of Cabinet officers, chaired by the Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice that shut down all the portholes and hunkered down into passive inactivity.  

And then came Trump whose erratic approach to Foreign policy was a conglomeration of likes and dislikes like a Facebook wall made of Statecraft. 

Fancy that.

Was there any adult in the room besides Rex Tillerman during the chaotic and erratic strongman era of “The Donald” ? 

Maybe nobody except the senior staff of he State Department.

Yet even those are not surefooted enough to do justice now… 

Because, too often for the comfort of many in Washington’s national security community, nothing happens. 

No presidential decision comes back.

So far as anyone outside that innermost circle in the West Wing can figure out, Biden has held back from inserting America more deeply into the Ukraine crisis for two reasons.   

One is that the Biden administration is adamant that regional powers must man up to tackle regional problems, because America cannot be the first responder to every crisis.  This belief is encouraged through several presidencies, and it always held true that non-intevenionist America will not always dash to the front to get the chestnuts out of the fire. 

Yet the seeming complacency of sole SuperPower has drifted the Pentagon’s mission creep into state where the chiefs are strutting and shitting all over the place and unleashing their muscle at will, and this cowboy attitude has encouraged NATO and ASEAN allies in the wake of the Naughties (2000s), especially in Europe — to eviscerate their own defenses and slash their diplomatic resources hoping that the cowboys will do take care of the shooting wars for them.  

Even Clinton, Obama and certainly Trump and Biden often referred to this US-Europe dynamic as a “co-dependent relationship”  an Alcoholics Anonymous term meaning loving helpers who actually worsen the addict’s state of being…

Today, the nearest president Biden has to a “doctrine” is that if regional powers will take the lead in a crisis, as France did in Mali or Libya in earlier times — America will provide support which will then go way beyond the capabilities of the region’s own militaries.  

Biden tried to do just this in Afghanistan, and we all know how well it worked out for him. 

The White House spokesman’s explanation that the U.S. was “leading from behind” as it negotiated their withdrawal after twenty years of quagmire, drew ridicule. The disaster of the Kabul evacuations were artfully phrased, because this was a thumbnail sketch of Biden’s vision.   

Thus, Ukraine is a European problem. 

Europe, no longer led by Chancellor Merkel atop a German industrial giant whose exports are vital to whole sectors of the Russian economy, should have taken the lead in handling the issue and stop irritating the “Bear” by sticking its finger into its eyes and poking it with sticks while throwing stones at its cubs.  

Or maybe they thought that Washington could provide vital support and they found otherwise.  

Of course, the U.S. financial sanctions on Russian individuals and financial institutions go way further than the EU has imposed, and are enforced more diligently, but that has not impacted the Russian economy or the calculus of its leader in any significant way seeing as the rising price of energy provides far more stimulus to the Bear’s economy than to that of the Eagle and its accompanying starlings and crows…  

Crucially, Washington has been a quiet voice encouraging the Saudis to continue pumping enough oil to keep global oil prices in the tank — thereby wrecking the oil-dependent Russian economy, even though at some cost to America’s own shale-oil industry.

A flinty strategic decision by Biden that, understandably, the White House does not trumpet.  

The other reason Biden has shied from deploying America in the vanguard on Ukraine is obviously the aura of Vladimir Putin, because in Biden’s view has been that Putin transparently lusts to escalate Ukraine into a superpower confrontation in the most testosterone-soaked terms.

A Russian Bear made up of a lone-wolf, an ex-KGB, buffed judo Black Belt, hockey player going up nose to nose, mano a mano, against a geriatric sleepy Joe Biden who depends on teleprompters to voice his own opinions.   

No wonder that Biden unsurprisingly, thinks that’s is an ultimate stupidity to go up against this Russian Bear that has just.  Deliberately, the White House shuns come out of hibernation and is ravishingly hungry and clearly irritated for having been woken up before its time.

Thus the State Department’s and Biden’s (as Vice President in the Obama administration) macho public responses to Putin’s incendiary rhetoric remain unmet, yet the stinging description of that administration, back in August 2013, of Putin having “that kind of a slouch, looking like a bored kid at the back of the classroom” was apparently not wholly impromptu. Biden went on, to say:  “The truth is that when we’re in conversation together, it’s oftentimes productive.”

But his jab at the self-image of a leader whom respected U.S. Government analysts have concluded is fundamentally vain and at times self effacing –has not been adequately thought-out.  

So what persuaded President Biden today to say that his administration will levy sanctions on Russian banks and individuals in response to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s movement of troops into the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, calling Moscow’s moves the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine?

And what are his follow up plans in detail? 

Essentially, Washington has come to think that a deal is needed before events take charge. Secretary Anthony Blinken journeyed to the Munich conference in Europe to explore whether Putin realizes this too, but has failed to either see or influence the events unfolding at the present moment. 

The timing of the overture to Putin is propitious – or so everyone hopes.  Despite Putin’s reassurances to his citizenry, the Russian economy is being strangled. And this is the ultimate ration why Putin invaded because with the barrel of oil reaching well above $100 it fills up his coffers of the Treasury fully.

The lifting of western sanctions has to be one of Putin’s priorities.

But how?  

Answer:  A possible date is coming up.

Formally, the toughest sanctions imposed by the EU and the US, the sweeping restrictions on the Oligarchs, on the banking and the energy sectors will expire this Summer at the latest. Because at their last summit in Munich this February, the heads of governments agreed that sanctions would remain in place until the terms of the future accords have been met. This, the future accord itself will spell out, will not stop before the end of 2025 — and even that looks increasingly optimistic.  

But that Munich security conference decision has to be confirmed at the next summit which comes at the end of this month and it will require the unanimous consent of all 28  EU member nations.    

Putin likely hopes that the new Greek government will withhold consent from widespread EU sanctions, although he knows the current government is ill fated to side with its oppressors…

That, presumably, is why he’s been making nice with Greek premier but the Mitsotakis periphery has driven the PM into the arms of the Russia haters — but Greece might be easily replaced by other EU states such as Cyprus, Hungary and Slovakia who are mentioned as potential hold-outs.

If Putin were to demonstrate significant progress in Ukraine before that crucial June summit, the superpower issue is not that Russia has annexed the two Eastern Ukrainian Oblasts rather than the whole of the country — but that it has stopped the EU expansion into the German “lebenstraum” and the US-NATO influence and expansion into the East and the Caucasus zone.

As for the future — in any conceivable deal, Mr Vladimir Putin will get to keep all that he has gained in this manageable war.

The superpower issue is that, to defend his incursions into Ukraine against predictable Western responses, Putin is dismantling the edifice of nuclear deterrence laboriously constructed through the Cold War. As his predicament worsens –  Russian economy tanking;  costs spiraling in the areas of Ukraine Russia occupies;  close to zero progress in resolving the crisis — Putin’s threats have become wilder.  

As for the West, the current donkey-kong State Department thinking runs that unless Putin is halted in his present course, the White House will use nuclear deterrence and thus make the Russian Bear face one of its severest tests of brinkmanship.

Ironically this comes more than a few decades since everyone had hoped that the Cold War had ended and now the restart has started…

Why the danger in Putin’s rhetoric?

Back history.

By the late 1950s, it was clear that the Soviet Union had mastered the H-Bomb and the technologies enabling intercontinental missiles to deliver it.  

America’s Hiroshima nuclear monopoly was over. The apocalyptic  question arose:  What actions could two powers locked into the Cold War declare or exhibit to avert nuclear conflict? Washington handed the problem to RAND, then a California-based Air Force analysis center.

Through three caffeine-soaked, nicotine-infused, personally tempestuous years of hectic brilliance, RAND’s analysts formulated the lexicon that defines nuclear strategy to this day:  deterrence, extended deterrence, escalation dominance, second-strike capability, mutual assured destruction.    

Their goal was stability. RAND’s work was to present each side in the Cold War with rational choices and actions that, rationally, would avoid nuclear war.   

Thomas Schelling, a brilliant young economist at Harvard, then took RAND’s work further. If one side in a nuclear standoff sought advantage by influencing the other, how might this be done? Applying the infant discipline of games-theory — itself dreamed up by two earlier giants at RAND — Schelling figured out bargaining and strategic choices in what he termed “conflict behavior”.  His disturbing conclusion:  In some circumstances “the rationality of irrationality” could have value.  Acting irrationally might persuade the adversary that you might, just might, do something cataclysmic.   Schelling even coined the term “compellence”:  the threated use of force to cow an adversary to your will.

‘The Strategy of Conflict’, in which Schelling laid out these thoughts in 1960, is a classic text. His work so influenced areas of competition far removed the nuclear that Schelling shared the 2005 Nobel Prize for economics.

Along came Daniel Ellsberg, the notorious leaker in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War – the most substantive disclosure of U.S. secret documents before Edward Snowden’s.  He was a late arrival at RAND in 1959; and he is not reckoned one of the giants of deterrence theory.   Ellsberg’s contribution was a small but gaudy one:  he put Schelling’s work on steroids, developing the “madman” theory of nuclear deterrence.     A nation’s leader could usefully “build a reputation for erratic, senseless, schizoid behavior,” Ellsberg argued.  “A leader could project deterrence by convincing others that he/she might be oblivious or incapable of choosing the rational choice…”

Thus, a leader with an image of a “hot temper” or “cold blooded murder” and lapses in rational thought is one who could actually enjoy a higher degree of political stability.  

As David Scott summarized in his succinct paper to a 2005 North-Eastern University conference:  “Ellsberg noted that the resulting deterrent effect on others would be: ‘I don’t know what he might do…He could have done anything’.” Ellsberg wasn’t alone in these musings.  A rising young star at Harvard named Henry Kissinger had already gone part-way down this path, broaching the merits of a “strategy of ambiguity” in possible responses to a nuclear challenge. Kissinger had Ellsberg lay out his radical thoughts in two lectures in 1959 to Kissinger’s Harvard seminars.   

This has led to much speculation that Kissinger subsequently had Ellsberg’s thinking inform President Nixon’s handling of Vietnam. The irony is inviting Ellsberg who passionately opposed the Vietnam war — but the evidence is slight.  Kissinger’s less operatic notion of “ambiguity” did have influence, though. 

What’s alarming now is that Ellsberg’s theory serves to predict, with creepy fidelity, what Putin is doing.    Step by purposeful step, Putin has walked the world to the brink of nuclear crisis. He cleared the way for his exercise of Schelling/ Ellsberg/Dulles theories of brinkmanship/madman deterrence by renouncing two treaties: the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe accord, and the Intermediate — Range Nuclear Forces agreement of 1987.  

The pair were milestones in the winding-down of Europe’s Cold War confrontation.    Both were a long time dying.  Putin first talked of abandoning them in  2007.  Putin announced Russia’s intention to withdraw from the CFE treaty in Feb 2007 in the course of a blistering diatribe against the U.S. at the Munich Security Conference.   That speech was really the launch of Putin’s hard-line approach — marking his decisive break with the policies of Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

The 1990 CFE treaty laid out an elaborate geographic template for dramatic reductions in heavy military hardware from the Atlantic to the Urals.    Efforts were made in 1999 to rework the deal to take account of the Soviet Union’s fragmenting and the consequent need to bring within CFE limits the militaries of liberated Warsaw Pact nations.   The effort failed.  Putin refused to observe the CFE requirement that Russian troops pull out of Georgia and Moldova.    It was a strategic blunder characteristic of him:  short-term gain, long-term price.   With lawyerly cunning, the 1999 revisions could have been finessed now into controls on the current NATO deployments in eastern Europe that Putin so thunderously denounces.    

A formal declaration of Russia’s exit from the treaty came in Dec 2007.   In the same 2007 Munich speech, Putin expressed concerns about the INF Treaty.   In October 2007 he warned that Russia was considering withdrawal from the treaty.    The INF treaty requires both sides to forswear the development of any missile — ballistic or cruise, conventional or nuclear — with ranges of 500 to 5500 kilometers (300 to 3400 miles).  The ban went into effect in mid-1991.  

Arguably, history has overtaken it.  

For America and Russia, the ban is global.   But non-signatories do not, of course, have to observe it.  By 2005, it was clear that nations around Russia’s eastern borders — China, Pakistan, Iran — were developing and deploying missiles within those ranges.  

For America and Russia, the ban is global.   But non-signatories do not, of course, have to observe it.  By 2005, it was clear that nations around Russia’s eastern borders — China, Pakistan, Iran — were developing and deploying missiles within those ranges.  With some cause for concern — Russia viewed these as a security threat.   

Indeed, iron-clad military logic argued that Russia ought to develop better cruise missiles to counter that threat, because on the other hand, Russia did not want to abandon the INF Treaty, since that would permit the United States (if it wished) to deploy in Europe its extraordinarily accurate cruise missiles.  U.S. missiles that are reputedly so precise that they can target not just a building but a particular window in that building.   

Of course, president Putin has, with some reason, denounced these as conventional weapons with a nuclear impact, because Russia’s military has regarded the preservation of the INF Treaty as a priority, and as recently as May 2012, Gen Nikolai Makharov, then chief of the Russian General Staff, publicly ruled out withdrawal from it.   

President Putin dismissed him shortly thereafter…     

Instead, Putin — confronting this INF dilemma – chose, characteristically once again,  the short-term option.  He cheated.  In early 2008, U.S. intelligence picked up first indications of a new Russian cruise missile in the works.  By 2011, flight tests were observed. By 2013, the missile was ready for production. That May , the State Department’s top arms control official, Rose Gottemoeller, finally raised the issue with the Russians. She subsequently raised it “about a dozen times”, she told Congress much later.  Russia’s brusque response: its officials had looked into the matter and considered the issue closed.   

The Obama Administration decided, after much internal debate, to go public with its concerns in July last year – as the Ukraine crisis was heating up. President Obama wrote to Putin, detailing how the U.S. had clear evidence that Russia was in breach of the INF Treaty.  He called for a high-level dialogue with Moscow to see how the Treaty might be preserved.   Putin returned no substantive response. The new cruise missile appears not to have been deployed, though. 

Having demolished the pillars of the military stand-down from Cold War garrisons, Putin then went a fateful step further.   The guiding axiom of the 50-year-plus “Balance of Terror” has been that nuclear weapons are essentially defensive, held to deter an adversary from aggression.

Putin declares he has abandoned this.   He still talks of “nuclear deterrence”, but that is to dissuade attack on Russia. In contingencies outside Russia — Ukraine, for example — Putin told an audience in Crimea after her annexation, that Russia would be “surprising the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet”.    

Pravda newspaper, ever a reliable Kremlin mouthpiece, followed up Putin’s comments with an article headlined “Russia prepares a nuclear surprise for NATO”.    

Dmitry Kiselyov, head of Russia’s main news agency and host of one of Russia’s most widely-watched TV current affairs programs, boasted to his TV audience back in February:  “During the era of political romanticism, the Soviet Union pledged never to use nuclear weapons first. But Russia’s current military doctrine does not.  No more illusions.”

Chest-thumping aside, that’s not what Russia’s military doctrine actually says.  Its latest iteration, published at the end of last year on Putin’s presidential website, repeats the restrained and cautious formulation of its 2010 predecessor.  In the event of a conventional war “imperiling the very existence of the state, the possession of nuclear weapons may lead to…a nuclear military conflict.”  

Worryingly, that sober mainstream Cold War definition of nuclear policy is not what Putin is trumpeting.   Putin has steadily expanded his catalog of triggers of nuclear war.  Any attempt to invade Russia or undermine Putin’s regime would provoke war.   His declared list then includes:  any attempt to recapture Crimea; any attempt to overthrow the separatists in eastern Ukraine; any attempt by NATO to repel a Russian invasion of the Baltic states; even (grotesquely) any participation by Danish warships in NATO anti-missile radar exercises in the Baltic.   

At a discreet gathering of retired U.S. and Russian intelligence officials held in Germany back in March, the Russian attendees — who indicated they had been briefed beforehand by the Kremlin – added to the list. Any supply of lethal weaponry to Ukraine, and even the fact of the ongoing NATO build-up in the Baltic states were now said to be triggers of nuclear war.   

One Russian strategic analyst reputedly esteemed by Putin has even advocated that a limited use of tactical nuclear weapons could be viewed as “de-escalation”  — on the grounds that the adversary would immediately surrender. There is no more alarming indicator of the topsy-turvy world that an embattled Putin has created.     In this fevered climate, the vital question is: where are the real do-not-cross “red lines”?  

As a longtime senior defense official in Washington observed:  “We do not know Putin’s red lines.  Putin does not know our red lines.  I’m not even sure we know our red lines.” Agreeing with this assessment, a European ambassador in Washington added:  “That’s why it’s so urgent to talk President Putin down from the ledge.”     

All of which explains why President Biden allowed Secretary Blinken’s journey to Munich and why the UN is trying to work through the details of any peace deal that might inevitably drop from the sky like a Peace bomb.  

Yours,

Dr Churchill

PS:

I believe that in this moment, it would be wise to restrain optimism.  

“We’ve cut off Russia’s government from Western finance. It can no longer raise money from the West and cannot trade in its new debt on our markets or European markets either… We’ll continue to escalate sanctions if Russia escalates.” 

— President Joe Biden

Sadly our peacekeeping overtures to the warring parties, my frequent visits to the contiguous capitals of the Eastern European region, and my personal conversations with the Leaders of this confrontation right up to the moment that bombs, mortar and bullets started flying — have all resulted to very little progress toward Peace. Yet the fact that I carried forth in my personal diplomacy, utilizing my expertise in Conflict Resolution, and applying my not so subtle diplomatic skills speaking to the leaders of the conflicted armies, are at best, only the first steps in what will likely be a fraught process — but we at the Lincoln Party — are pioneers for Peace because that is still the greatest Public Good our humanity has devised.  

Yet, I am here to state publicly that it is equally instructive to say that nobody yet knows what Putin’s mind holds and what he can be cajoled/coerced into settling for, because he chooses to be as opaque about his motives as the old Bonaparte was, and he doesn’t let his generals or his innermost circle know his mind too.

Yet…

Methinks that it is unclear whether Putin knows his own mind himself, or that he would ever let anyone else hear it from him, and that is what distinguishes him from his erstwhile friends and foes alike…

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