The Russia-US-NATO-OSCE meetings this week have come and gone. The Russian verdict was succinctly delivered by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov, who explained even before the OSCE session was over that the talks have come to “a dead end” and it was unlikely the Russians will participate in any follow-on talks.
This opens the question to what comes next.
Official Washington feels certain that what comes next is a Russian invasion of Ukraine, which could come in the next few weeks and thereby fall within the timetable for such an operation suggested by State Department officials when they met with NATO allies ahead of Biden’s December 7 virtual summit with Putin. The logic put out then was that January-February would be very suitable for a land invasion given that the frozen ground would well support tank movements. One might add to that argument on timing, one further argument that was not adduced: in midwinter it is questionable how long the Russians would want to keep 100,000 soldiers camped in field conditions near the border; such stasis in these severe conditions is not conducive to maintaining morale.
In what I would call a rare show of failing confidence in the predictive powers of the Biden Administration, U.S. media admit to uncertainty over Russia’s next moves. However, they cleverly present this by pointing to the uncertainty of the analysts and commentators on the Russian side.
A featured article in The New York Times a couple of days ago by their Moscow correspondent Anton Troianovsky says it all in the title: Putin’s Next Move on Ukraine Is a Mystery. Just the Way He Likes It”
Indeed, all the best known Russian experts appear to be stymied, none more so than the ubiquitous Fyodor Lukyanov, host of the weekly television show “International Overview” and long time research director of the Valdai Discussion Club, where his peers in the front ranks of American international affairs specialists have gotten to know him. Lukyanov has in recent days humbly admitted he hasn’t a clue to what comes next. Another leading figure in the Russian foreign affairs think tank community, Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, has shown in recent interviews that he is no better informed about what is going on in the Kremlin and what comes next.
Western experts are also shown by our media to be clueless. Today’s Financial Times article “Russia writes off security talks…” ends with a quote from Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace: “Nobody knows Putin’s next move. And we’ll all find out at the same time.”
By definition, ‘experts’ cannot declare they know nothing and be taken seriously. This reminds me of the saying of my boss for five years at ITT Europe in the 1980s, Georges Tsygalnitzky. Each time we sat down to prepare the annual Business Plan he told us that if we calculated the sales forecasts badly, we could be up to 100% off, but if we failed to deliver a Plan we would be “infinitely wrong.” The same rules apply to government defense planning.
No right-thinking person likes the idea of a major war coming to the middle of Europe, as the Ukrainians consider themselves to be. The United States has still more reason to worry about a looming war between Russia and Ukraine, because the outcome of total rout for the Kiev military forces equates to a bloody nose for Washington: its acknowledged 2.5 billion dollar investment in arming and training the Ukrainian military will have been in vain, and the loss would rival the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan in terms of American global prestige. The Biden administration would enter the midterm electoral period reeling from its losses in international relations.
Without wishing the Biden administration ill, I believe their scenario of a Russian invasion is wrong-headed and unimaginative. It fails to come to terms with the Russians’ imperatives on altering the security architecture in Europe as drivers of their current policies, not settling scores with Ukraine, or bringing them back to a common homeland, as Blinken & Company repeat ad nauseam.
So what comes next? In successive articles on this website, I have set out several scenarios, or algorithms. My most recent prognosis in yesterday’s piece was that Putin’s Plan B would likely be purely “military-technical” in the sense of roll-out of medium range nuclear capable missiles in Kaliningrad and Belarus, to place all of Europe under threat of attack with ultra-short warning times, such as Moscow finds unacceptable coming from U.S.-NATO encirclement of its territory.
At the same time, Moscow might announce the stationing off of the American East and West Coasts of its submarines and frigates carrying hypersonic missiles and the Poseidon deep sea nuclear capable drone, all to the same purpose, namely putting a pistol to the head of the US leadership. And now there is even talk of Russia building military installations in Venezuela, likely to host Russian strategic bombers capable of swift attack on the Continental United States without having to fly half the world. And a Cuban delegation is reportedly in Moscow, no doubt talking about possible installation of missiles there. This is all very reminiscent of the goings-on in 1962.
One reader of this essay has written in, saying that news of Russian submarines posted off the coast of New York and Los Angeles could sink the S&P. Yes, indeed, and this financial damage is an aspect of policy that the Russians have taken into account. The sensitivity of Wall Street to bad news was mentioned specifically by Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov earlier in the week in Q&A. The American middle classes may be indifferent to foreign affairs generally but they are very attentive and politically active when the value of their 401k pension fund is hit. It is not for nothing that wealth fund managers in the City of London, board members of leading US banks and insurance companies are readers of my essays as reposted on my LinkedIn account.
I imagine that Russia’s Plan B could begin implementation in the next couple of weeks and would be given three or four weeks to take effect on Western public consciousness. If the United States and NATO still resisted coming to terms over changes to the Alliance that satisfy Russian demands, then I envision a Plan C which would indeed be kinetic warfare, but quite different from the invasion that figures in US public statements and approaches to its allies.
Without putting a single soldier on the ground in Ukraine or contemplating direct overthrow of its regime and occupation, Russia could by “military-technical means,” such as missile and air attacks destroy the Ukraine’s command and control structure as well as “neutralize” the most radical nationalist militias and other hostile units now threatening Donbas. The destruction of Ukraine’s military infrastructure would by itself put an end to Washington’s plans for extensive war games there later in the year. We may assume that Russian forces will remain massed at the border till such operations are completed.
The cleanup of Ukraine, ending its potential to threaten Russian national security, would be a very strong signal to all of Europe to back off in practice even if no formal treaties are signed with Russia at present.
In an exchange with a close colleague in Washington this morning, we agreed a bet on whether my prediction holds. And in this casino of international politics, I invite readers to place their own bets on what comes next.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2021