Today the “international community” is waiting impatiently for the start of the Biden-Putin video conference which is scheduled to begin at 18.00 Moscow time, 10.00 AM Washington time. While the proceedings will be closed to the public, the opening salutations will be aired and much will be made by our pundits of the body language of the two leaders. Every minute that the two men spend together will be weighed by our television and press analysts for what that says about the substance of the talks. Then there will be the press conferences of the two presidents immediately after the video conference, providing still more of a feast for the journalists and commentators.
In the event we are awaiting, all attention will be directed to one man, Vladimir Putin, to see if he flinches before the threats of dire economic sanctions that Biden has prepared with the clear backing of Congressional hawks and with alleged backing of the European allies should the Russians do what Washington says they are planning, namely invade Ukraine.. The sanctions list that has been released to the public includes cut-off from the international settlements body SWIFT and halting the convertibility of the ruble into dollars, euros or pounds. Such measures would be unprecedented in the post-Cold War period and, if the Russians had not long rehearsed their own devastating response for the West, would normally constitute a casus belli.
In short, Biden and his associates are surely congratulating themselves on the way they have set the mousetrap for Putin, who will be damned if he does invade Ukraine and damned if he doesn’t when the Kiev forces retake the Donbass. Should Putin choose not to invade, for whatever reason, with or without a Ukrainian march on Donbass, then Biden can claim that his standing up to the Autocrat worked, and he will potentially raise his domestic standing with the American electorate as defender of the U.S.-led world order. This, by the way, is one scenario which I failed to identify in my earlier writings on the U.S.–Russian confrontation over Ukraine. How well a zero sum scenario will actually play with the Republicans and Democratic hawks remains to be seen.
Vladimir Putin will come to the conference in a self-confident mood. His blitz trip down to India yesterday and talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi fully validated Russian foreign policy at the global level. Their meeting ended in re-confirmation of the special strategic relationship that India and Russia have enjoyed now for decades, which has survived the pressures arising from the fast development of an informal but deep Russian alliance with China, India’s greatest adversary of the moment. Indeed, Modi is proceeding with implementation of the S-400 contract with Russia in the face of threatened sanctions from ….the USA, which has been actively courting India from the time of the Trump administration.
Moreover, notwithstanding Putin’s general caution in exercising the country’s military might, no one should doubt for a moment his choice when faced with what the Russian leadership and political classes perceive as an existential threat from US and NATO forces in Ukraine. Kiev’s retaking Donbass with US help would amount to such a threat.
And we should keep in mind that the kind of sanctions now being mentioned by the Americans have been discussed for several years. Together with China, Russia has prepared workaround solutions to manage its affairs whatever sanctions are thrown up by Washington.
Of course, there is the real question of whether the cutoff from SWIFT and scuttling of ruble convertibility in their currencies is truly enforceable on the European allies, whatever Biden may have wanted to hear from them in the run-up to today’s video conference.
If, as a direct consequence, the Russians cannot be paid for their gas deliveries to Europe, which amount to 40% of total European imports, 30% of actual consumption today ,then they will have contractual basis for stopping those deliveries. It is inconceivable that even the American vassals who run Europe can withstand the rebellion of business and general public domestically when the lights go out just to please Mr. Biden and play America’s political games. Now, of all times, as winter is setting in and gas reserves on European territory are low!
Reporting in the Financial Times and other major media on the response of NATO allies to the salesman’s work of Mr. Blinken and the Pentagon generals over the past couple of weeks has avoided these fundamental questions. We hear only that the Europeans, including Germany, were finally persuaded by American intelligence that the Russians are preparing for an invasion of Ukraine. We have not heard how these countries will likely respond to such an invasion if it takes place. Will they not investigate under what conditions it takes place, that is to say, who actually starts the war, Ukraine by overrunning Donbass or Russia by unprovoked aggression. Under a similar scenario in Georgia in 2008, Europe did its own investigation on the ground to assess responsibility, led by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He came back with the conviction that the Georgians were to blame and no sanctions on Russia followed.
Finally, no survey of the dynamics of a European follow-through on the sanctions threat can avoid dealing with the question of how the new German government will respond. The three party coalition formed by SPD leader Olaf Scholz was assembled over the heads of the German electorate, like the other undemocratic coalitions that rule much of Continental Europe today. Formulation of policies, programs and distribution of ministerial portfolios among the three parties was the result of horse-trading between them. The result is quite fragile if put to the test, and imposition of draconian sanctions on Russia would be just such a test. It is inconceivable that the business friendly Free Democrats will support Scholz if one of his first acts in power would be to destroy the German economy by depriving industry of gas supplies and leaving the general population to spend their pending lockdown freezing in unheated homes.
So, who is left for Mr. Biden to catch in his mousetrap? One person only: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Will he be sufficiently stupid to spring the trap on himself, possibly fatally, by risking a war with Russia that everyone knows he cannot win if Mr. Putin does not hold back. Even this B Grade actor cannot be that dumb.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2021