Vladimir Putin Has Severely Underestimated President Biden's Resolve
Russia's threat to invade Ukraine is not going the way Vladimir Putin wants it to thanks to Joe Biden and NATO's determination to stop him.
by Ben Cohen
History is replete with despots invading other nations to inject life back into their fading regimes. Even elected leaders of stable democracies use war to boost flagging poll number and distract from economic misery. Margaret Thatcher famously turned “from a Chamberlain to a Churchill” after declaring war on Argentina over the Falkland Islands. A stunning military victory turned her political fortunes around and her reputation as the Iron Lady was cemented.
This concept is known as “Diversionary War Theory” and is simple to put into practice: fail at home, fight abroad.
Vladimir Putin: a failing despot
Vladimir Putin is acutely aware that his grip on power in Russia is dependent on his image as a strong man abroad. The Russian dictator is helming a deeply corrupt and fragile economy, faces increasingly organized opposition movements unafraid to call out his corruption, and knows that his future as a despot surrounded by democracies is grim. Russians, particularly young Russians, are connected to the outside world and they understand that they are woefully lacking in democratic freedoms. As Ann Applebaum writes in The Atlantic:
Putin must know, at some level, that he is an illegitimate leader. He has never won a fair election, and he has never campaigned in a contest that he could lose. He knows that the political system he helped create is profoundly unfair, that his regime not only runs the country but owns it, making economic and foreign-policy decisions that are designed to benefit the companies from which he and his inner circle personally profit. He knows that the institutions of the state exist not to serve the Russian people, but to steal from them. He knows that this system works very well for a few rich people, but very badly for everyone else. He knows, in other words, that one day, prodemocracy activists of the kind he saw in Dresden might come for him too.
Putin has responded to his domestic challenges by clamping down hard on dissent, crushing independent media, locking up protestors, and poisoning potential opposition. As Diversionary War Theory dictates, Putin uses an aggressive foreign policy to distract the public from his authoritarian abuses. He may not be able to feed his people, but he can give them military (and cyber) victories abroad.
A history of increased aggression
Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and then openly engaged in electoral subversion in several Western democracies. Putin ensure Russia played a pivotal role in the Syrian conflict, and has been steadily building up Russian presence in the developing world. As Tatiana Stanovaya write in Foreign Policy, Putin’s behavior reflects his growing ambition to recreate Russia as a global power:
Intoxicated by Russia’s military success in Syria, its unique role in Central Asia, increased presence in Africa, and, above all, its newly developed “wonder weapons,” Putin switched from feeling like an oppressed player to someone who could go on the offensive far beyond Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. The current demand for, in Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s words, “ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees” no longer stems from geopolitical vulnerability but, on the contrary, from the belief in Russia’s historically justified full-fledged right to rewrite the rules—with or without the West.
Putin’s latest threats towards Ukraine is not just a sign of his growing ambitions, but his increased confidence that he won’t be held to account for any of it. Donald Trump refused to hold Putin accountable for his interference in the 2016 (and 2020) elections, constantly undermined NATO, and openly embraced Putin as an equal. Without the US as a strategic partner, NATO has been significantly weakened over the past few years. Putin believes Joe Biden is not a strong leader and understands that half of the American political establishment (and now media) will oppose efforts to rein him in. In Europe, Putin also sees a fracturing political landscape as beneficial to Russian interests. The rise of ethno nationalism in European democracies has created sympathy towards the Russian style of government, with more dissent directed towards moderate, pro international leaders. Putin believes NATO presents a security risk to the Russian state and will take every opportunity available to regain control of what he believes is rightfully Russia’s — and that includes Ukraine.
Ukraine is a fledgling democracy that is steadily moving away from Russia’s influence towards Europe and NATO. Putin wants to ensure this does not happen, and he is putting all his chips on the table to see whether the rest of the world will stop him.
Biden takes a stand
Unfortunately for Putin, President Biden has taken a far harder stance against the Russian leader than the Kremlin had perhaps anticipated. In coordination with NATO allies, Biden has condemned Putin’s troop build up on Ukraine’s border in the most withering terms and warned the Russians that an invasion would result in an unprecedented response. While Biden has stated he will not commit US troops to any conflict, he has many, many tools available to make life miserable for the oligarchs and security state henchmen running Russia. He can cut the Russian elites off from the international financial system and apply economic sanctions that would hit every part of the Russian economy. As the New York Times reported:
The most punishing sanctions that U.S. officials have threatened to impose on Russia could cause severe inflation, a stock market crash and other forms of financial panic that would inflict pain on its people — from billionaires to government officials to middle-class families.
U.S. officials vow to unleash searing economic measures if Russia invades Ukraine, including sanctions on its largest banks and financial institutions, in ways that would inevitably affect daily life in Russia.
This strategy has risks given the implications for the already shaky global economy, but Russians are not going to be happy when they cannot access funds from their bank, send money abroad, or run their businesses. A run on deposits and a huge sell off of the rouble would be absolutely devastating for the country, and while Putin may be able to divert anger towards the West, he can only do so for so long. At some point, economic misery means domestic turmoil.
The extraordinary scale of the sanctions being proposed means Putin’s gambit looks like a terrible, terrible miscalculation. Russia’s economy is about 1/10th the size of America’s and few economists believe it can withstand such international isolation for long. The Biden Administration has been very clear that it means business, and given Biden’s recent history of doing exactly what he says he will, Vladimir Putin would do well to listen.
No good options for Putin
Talks to de-escalate the conflict are ongoing, and it is becoming clearer that Putin is not going to get many concessions from the West. As a consequence, Putin is upping his aggression and looking to manufacture a Ukrainian provocation. His options going forward then are not great: invade Ukraine and destroy his economy, or back down and look weak in front of the whole world.
Many see Putin as a master strategist with a knack for smelling weakness in his enemies. This time, he appears to have badly misjudged the global appetite for his war games. If the Biden White House and NATO continue holding strong, Putin may have gambled himself into a hole he cannot get out of.
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