The Wrong Answer on Ukraine

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — Russian President Vladimir Putin has been the center of world attention since last November, when he began a buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border, then continued placing troops at the southern and northern borders, creating increased fear in Europe and the United States of a potential invasion of that country.

What has triggered Putin’s moves toward Ukraine?

As Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy wrote in the weekend edition of the Financial Times, Putin’s “aggression towards Ukraine can be seen as part of an attempt to turn the clock back to Soviet times and reinstate Russian control over the former Soviet space — or at least limit western influence over what used to be Moscow’s East European empire.”

The goal, according to Plokhy, is to create dependent countries in place of the former Soviet republics, maintaining the Kremlin’s control over the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) space more efficiently by creating dependencies, preferably ruled by autocrats, “with him as the ruler of rulers at the top.”

To some degree, Putin has almost already done that with the establishment of the Moscow-headquartered Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a six-nation military alliance of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. They are the old Soviet republics missing only Ukraine, which by the way, was the second largest republic after Russia.

Putin’s long-standing rejection of Ukrainian independent statehood and his denials of a separate Ukrainian nation are firmly rooted in the Czarist past and the days of the Russian Empire.

To fully appreciate Putin’s Czarist mindset, it is important to understand that his infamous April 2005 statement calling the Soviet collapse, “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” has been widely misinterpreted. Crucially, Putin qualified his claim by adding, “for the Russian people, it became a real drama. Tens of millions of our citizens and countrymen found themselves outside Russian territory.” In other words, the Soviet collapse was a catastrophe specifically for Russians because it left their Czarist, pre-Bolshevik empire divided and incomplete.

Putin expanded on this idea in December 2021, when he described the collapse of the USSR as the end of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union. “We turned into a completely different country,” he claimed. “And what had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost.”

As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman described it, “For Putin, the post-Cold War order was something imposed on Russia and Boris Yeltsin when Russia was weak.” Friedman added, “Putin claims that it is his ‘duty’ to reunite Russia and Ukraine,” because “Ukraine, and its capital, Kyiv, played a central role long ago in Russian history, and because Ukraine was a bulwark and breadbasket of the Soviet Union in its heyday, and because perhaps eight million ethnic Russians still live in Ukraine (out of 43 million).”

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However, although he has a gigantic arsenal of nuclear weapons and 100,000 or more troops surrounding Ukraine, it needs to be remembered there is truth in the statement made by the late-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that Russia is “A gas station run by a mafia that is masquerading as a country.”

Putin’s Russia has an annual GDP of $1.5 trillion (2020 figures) that puts him 11th in the world, just behind South Korea, but far behind the U.S. with $20.9 trillion and China at $14.7 trillion. Right now, inflation in Russia is running over 8 percent and as a result, Putin on Friday had to raise monthly pensions for over 30 million government retirees from the equivalent of $212 (in U.S dollars) to $235.

At the same time, Putin has been clamping down on any public opposition. His main political opponent, Alexei A. Navalny is in jail on trumped-up charges. Navalny’s party has been labeled a terrorist organization and many of its leading figures have been jailed. Last Wednesday, Russia’s Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for Navalny’s brother, Oleg.

Putin also has to pay attention to those he described last August as “Islamic extremists” at a time when the Taliban were taking over Afghanistan. His suggestion then of a spillover into his allied Central Asian republics of the CSTO apparently came true as illustrated by last month’s fighting in Kazakhstan that required the help of troops from Russia.

Meanwhile, the world these days is totally focused on Moscow awaiting Vladimir Putin’s next move.

Putin’s actions related to Ukraine have driven from public attention in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere most of past concern with President Xi Jinping’s apparent buildup to 1,000 nuclear warheads and Beijing threats to invade Taiwan. North Korean President Kim Jong-un has not drawn the headlines despite his country last month, conducting seven ballistic and cruise missile tests, some of which are banned by United Nation resolutions.

On the other hand, President Biden, tagged previously by both the U.S. media and his Republican opponents as weak and hesitant since his withdrawal from Afghanistan, has stepped up defensive arms delivery to Ukraine, put 8,500 American troops on alert for potential deployment to Eastern Europe and threatened severe economic sanctions to a Russian invasion he claimed was imminent.

As a result, the voices from Moscow have begun to emphasize diplomacy and belittle talk of war.

Asked last Saturday by a Sputnik reporter, “Will there be a war?” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov replied, “If it depends on the Russian Federation, there will be no war. We don’t want wars, but we won’t allow anyone to trample on our interests or ignore them, either.”

Then he quickly added, “I cannot say that the talks are over.”

It should be noted that Lavrov in a press conference last Saturday, referred to several military areas, which he described as “providing kernels of rationality on secondary issues.”

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Interestingly, he mentioned the conducting of “military exercises further away from the borders on both sides, [as well as] to agree on a critical safe distance between approaching combat aircraft and ships, as well as a number of other confidence-building, deconflicting and de-escalation measures.”

As if in response, later on that same day, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, in an interview with Greta Van Susteren, suggested that “if the Russians would reciprocate” the U.S. would consider “for instance, scaling back, maybe the size and scope of some of our exercises on the continent, but it would require reciprocity from the Russians…we’re not closing the door on talks. The State Department has been clear, there’s still room for that, but we’ll have to see where it goes.”

One specific weapons issue that Putin has mentioned in the past clearly bothers him still.

During a December 21 meeting with his Defense Military Board, he called “alarming” what he described as “elements of the U.S. global defense system…deployed near Russia.” In particular, he mentioned the “Mk 41 {Mark 41] launchers, which are located in Romania and are to be deployed in Poland.” He said those Mk 41s, “are adopted for launching the Tomahawk strike missiles” and if they were deployed to Ukraine, “their flight time to Moscow will be only 7-10 minutes, or even five minutes for hypersonic systems.”

What Putin was talking about was U.S. Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System Romania which is located at Deveselu, Romania. This is a land-based missile defense facility designed to detect, track, engage, and destroy ballistic missiles in flight outside the atmosphere. It consists of an AN/SPY-1 radar, the Mark 41 Vertical Launching System, and Standard Missile-3 interceptors. The collective elements are intended to serve as a midcourse defense against any future attack by Iranian medium and intermediate-range missiles.

The first site is operational in Romania and a second site, at Redzikowo, Poland, is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

The Mark 41 launching system, that has drawn Putin’s attention, is built by Lockheed Martin and, as he said, can be used to launch a variety of missiles including the Tomahawk, as Putin claimed.

Back in 2007, when then-President George W. Bush first announced plans for installing the Aegis Ashore system in Eastern Europe to protect against the threat of Iranian missiles, then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates attempted to overcome earlier Russian objections by offering Moscow a chance to share data from the early warning radar and even conduct joint exercises.

Russia turned that offer down then and Putin remains concerned about the launchers now.

At his famous four-hour press conference back on December 23, he said, “We remember, as I have mentioned many times before and as you know very well, how you promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly: there have been five waves of NATO expansion, and now the weapons systems I mentioned have been deployed in Romania and deployment has recently begun in Poland. This is what we are talking about, can you not see?”

Last Thursday, Lavrov at a press conference, picked up Putin’s words when he described “the main issue” as, “the continued NATO enlargement towards the east and the deployment of strike weapons that can pose a threat to the territory of the Russian Federation, which we consider unacceptable.”

How those issues can be settled remains to be seen, but invading Ukraine seems hardly an answer.

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