Is Putin Risking Another Afghan Catastrophe For Russia In Ukraine?

Is Putin Risking Another Afghan Catastrophe For Russia In Ukraine?

Vladimir Putin

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially sent Russian forces into two eastern regions of Ukraine. The move came after Russia staged a series of events meant to provide a pretext for first recognizing, then occupying, two regions within Ukraine. As of Tuesday morning, Russia has sent forces into what it is calling the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics while additional Russian forces continue to surround and threaten larger invasions of Ukraine.

On Tuesday afternoon, the United States issued harsh new sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the European Union is also levying sanctions intended to strike directly at Russian politicians, as well as financial institutions. And in what may be the most significant move, CNN reports that Germany is halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline—a measure that could cost Russia hundreds of billions. The Ukrainian government is welcoming this news as a sign of the unified support against Russia.

The United States provided an official diplomatic response in remarks by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “He calls them peacekeepers,” Thomas-Greenfield said of the forces Putin has sent into Ukraine. “This is nonsense. We know what they really are.”

An internal debate continues over whether to term the current state of affairs an invasion. That is in part because of a desire to distinguish troop movements so far from a broad military strike aimed to take parts of the country that were not already largely controlled by Russian puppet forces. It is also partly because Russian forces have unofficially been in and out of these regions for years, training, supplying, and working with the separatist militias, providing them with equipment like the ground-to-air missile used to shoot down a civilian passenger plane in 2014.

Putin could try to take the territories he has already occupied and solidify his control over them, as he did with Crimea in 2014. Or, as now seems more likely, he could use those territories to create further justification for invading all of Ukraine. Neither situation is acceptable, and Putin’s war of conquest is going to prove extremely costly. For everyone.

Germany’s halting of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline fulfills a promise that President Joe Biden made at a Feb. 7 news conference. “If Russia invades, that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again,” said Biden, “then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it … I promise you we will be able to do it.” At the time, there seemed to be considerable doubt that Germany and other nations heavily dependent on Russian gas would go along with this idea, but Biden has worked tirelessly to restore alliances, pull NATO together, and present a unified front against Putin’s actions.

Putin’s pre-invasion theater includes transparently false charges of “aggression” by the Ukrainian government along with scenes of supposed civilian occupation, some of which appear to have been filmed days in advance. None of this even comes close to passing the smell test with an international audience. However, these scenes appear to have been staged mostly for the benefit of Putin’s domestic audience. Considering that Putin likely staged the bombing of apartment buildings in order to justify the Second Chechen War, this disinformation campaign at least comes with a relatively small body count—so far.

As Russian forces moved in, it seemed to be hoped that the Ukrainian government might respond with some military action that could be used to justify an all-out invasion. However, it’s unlikely that Putin will allow the lack of an actual confrontation to get in the way of taking further aggressive action.

Some of the efforts at creating a pretext for the invasion of Ukraine may come from what The Washington Post calls “surprising cracks” in Putin’s domestic support. Those cracks were visible even in Putin’s televised meeting with his security council. Even though the meeting was mostly slickly produced and clearly as scripted as those scenes of Ukrainian families being trucked into Russia for “protection,” there were moments when some of Putin’s advisers appeared to wander off script, generating anger from the Russian dictator as he pushed each to support the preordained outcome.

In a lengthy Twitter thread, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called the meeting a “gathering of dotards and thieves” and pointed out its similarities to the meeting that must have preceded the Soviet Union’s decision to invade Afghanistan using the similar pretext of supporting local elements. “The result was hundreds of thousands of victims,” wrote Navalny. He reminded readers that the cost of this invasion—politically, militarily, and economically—was “one of the key reasons for the collapse of the USSR.”

Navalny expressed the belief held by many both inside and outside Russia that Putin is focusing on Ukraine as a means of diverting attention from his complete failure to deliver the kind of economic opportunities he has promised to Russia for decades. Despite trillions of dollars in income from oil and gas exports, little of those funds have been used to diversify or expand Russia’s economic base. Instead, the nation continues to be an oligarchic kleptocracy, pinned solidly at the bottom of the list when it comes to personal incomes or economic growth in Europe.

“We have everything for powerful development in the 21st century, from oil to educated citizens, but we will lose money again and squander the historical chance for a normal rich life for the sake of war, dirt, lies, and the palace with golden eagles in Gelendzhik,” writes Navalny. “To fight for Russia, to save it, means to fight for the removal of Putin and his kleptocrats from power.”

But if there are schisms in Russia and a unified front against Putin’s aggression in Europe, that’s harder to find in the pages of American newspapers. Instead, The Wall Street Journal is running a morning editorial declaring that Putin has “outfoxed” western leaders and The New York Times is studiously repeating Putin’s claims that Ukraine is just another part of Russia with the same kind of disingenuous guile that is regularly applied to Donald Trump.

However, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv had a deft response to claims about the appropriate relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

And Thomas-Greenfield made clear that this is not a case where Putin can now just sit back in a position of strength and contemplate if he wants to eat Ukraine whole today, or simply continue to eat it in bite-sized portions. No one has been “outfoxed,” and this is all a long way from over.

“History tells us that looking the other way in the face of such hostility will be a far more costly path. Russia’s clear attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unprovoked. It is an attack on Ukraine’s status as a UN Member State, it violates a basic principle of international law, and it defies our Charter. What is more, this move by President Putin is clearly the basis for Russia’s attempt to create a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine. The consequences of this action will be felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders.”

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos

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