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Will Putin Start A War?

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Nobody knows. End of blogpost.

Or I could go on.

I follow a great many Russia experts on Twitter, and they don’t know. Some tilt one way or the other, but all emphasize that there are great uncertainties. That is how Vladimir Putin likes to play his hand – keep people guessing.

In mid-December, Putin presented two agreements, between Russia and NATO and between Russia and the United States. Basically, the agreements would make it safe for Russia to do what it wants in Europe and, particularly, Ukraine. To develop leverage for those proposals, he has massed something like 100,000 troops around eastern Ukraine with equipment in a way that looks like readying for war.

We don’t know what kind of war – Heating up things in the Donbas? Seizing a corridor to Crimea? Pressing to the Dneiper? More than that seems unlikely; it would stretch and entrench the Russian military, while the alert for Kazakhstan has gone up. Ukraine has a citizens’ reserve that is trained in insurgent tactics, a tradition in Ukraine from World War II and after.

Or perhaps the troop buildup is a very expensive feint, designed to accomplish what Putin wants at the conference table. We don’t know what that is either. The two documents describe what I might have written as a parody of Russian wishes and desires about geopolitics. That’s usually a cue to myself to reiterate Russian history – they have always wanted a neutral space around their borders. They have always wanted to be a very special nation – in Europe but not of it, because they are an Asian power too! But yes, with a veto on whatever those only in Europe want to do.

A country that has never lived up to its promise but punches above its weight because of its sheer land area and now nukes. I’ll leave the rest of it to Stephen Kotkin.

There’s a lot written about what Putin may be thinking, which goes into some of the same issues as Russian history. Given his statements and the two proposals, we know enough. Negotiations have started this week, mainly the laying out of positions. Some of what has come out of them looks more hopeful than a slide to war, some not.

Meanwhile, Bret Stephens recycles some of the oldies but goodies – The US has lost the confidence of its allies because of carefully chosen incidents in which it did nor exhibit the proper manly aggression and therefore must go to war with the other nuclear superpower! No, I’m not linking. More dangerously, Evelyn Farkas, a deputy assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration wants us to get ready for war, using popular words like deter and rollback.

Jeez.

I’ve wanted to write something more substantive, but today I am dealing with a water outage because the main broke and the city is digging up the street. It’s been like that here for a while. If you want to read a strategic overview, you’ll never go wrong with Lawrence Freedman.

Portrait is of Peter the Great by Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche, 1838.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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