For the first twenty years of the new millennium, it was obvious that Vladimir Putin and his team in the Kremlin were reactive, rather than proactive in nearly all dealings with the Collective West. Of course, I mean to say that was obvious to the substantial minority of professionals who trade in facts and follow causality, action and reaction, from start to finish, rather than just trade in ideologically driven propaganda. As for U.S. government press releases and the mainstream media, what was fed to the general public in the USA, in Europe all these years, always systematically reversed cause and effect. Off camera, the US poked the Russians in the eye; on camera, we were shown only the Russians’ aggressive reaction.
We, professional Russia watchers knew Vladimir Putin to be very cautious. His most commonly used word relating to conduct of any policy has been “аккуратно”, meaning “careful.”
In 2021, a new Putin came before us, one who looks assertive if not aggressive and who seems to be ready to take enormous risks without much hesitation while moving two or more steps ahead of his Western talking partners, not two steps behind as had been the case till now.
I intend in this essay to explain in what way Russia is proactive today. However, before proceeding, let us take a backward glance at the two instances in what may be called the ‘age of Putin’ when Russia indeed took the initiative and moved boldly on its own foreign relations and military course. The dates in question are 1999 and 2015.
There were in the last 22 years two outstanding instances of Russia taking the initiative in international affairs and not just reacting to some step by the West, and by the USA in particular. The first was in June 1999 when a detachment of 250 Russian troops based in Bosnia on a peacekeeping mission marched into Kosovo to prepare the way for reinforcements of paratroopers expected to arrive by plane to Pristina airport, where together they might establish a Russian “zone” in what could become a partitioned Kosovo. At the time, Yeltsin was seriously ill and not in control of daily business, and his minister of foreign affairs seemed to be unaware of the movements on the ground in Former Yugoslavia, while contradictory messages came from the military. A certain Vladimir Putin, then serving as director of the intelligence services, but two months later named Prime Minister and six months later named successor to Yeltsin as President of the RF, was involved in meetings with the visiting Assistant Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. While Talbott was still in Moscow, news of the Russian move on Pristina airport became known. Putin is said to have given assurances that this was all a misunderstanding, not to worry. And so Talbott flew off, only to return to Moscow in mid flight when it became clear that a potentially dangerous standoff was taking place in Kosovo between the NATO detachment and the Russians.
As it turned out, the Russian bid to capture Pristina airport and enforce Russian interests inside or together with KFOR was stymied by failure to get overflight rights from Hungary for the planned transportation of reinforcements. The United States had ensured Hungarian compliance with its wishes to spite the Russians.
The second instance of Russian initiative that comes to mind was in September 2015 when Russia unexpectedly announced its entry into the Syrian civil war with air strikes intended to support the failing Assad regime. This time, the Russian military action was enabled precisely by their having obtained prior agreement of Iraq and other regional powers to overfly their territory. And Baghdad complicity, already established within a joint Russian-Iraqi intelligence unit, proceeded without the slightest knowledge of the massive US embassy in Baghdad. Russia’s subsequent mission to save the Syrian regime over the following two years was a complete success and there is no question who moved the chess pieces on the board: Vladimir Putin. The ability of the Russians to operate in total secrecy under the noses of the United States command puts in question all claims from Washington today that it has inside sources of intelligence on Russia’s plans for Ukraine.
Russian actions at the Ukraine border beginning in November 2021 and continuing to present are proof positive of a new stance as initiator of change in global affairs.
At first, we could speculate that the massing of the 100,000 Russian troops was just a reaction to the Ukrainians’ massing 120,000 troops, more than half of their army, at the line of demarcation with Donbas, poised to strike and retake the rebel provinces by force of arms and also potentially threatening Russian Crimea. However, when on 15 December the Russians responded to President Biden’s invitation during a virtual summit with Putin nine days earlier to submit on paper their concerns and motivation for their troop movements, they delivered two draft treaties on revising the architecture of European architecture which have been called an ultimatum, but might equally be called brazen demands having much broader scope than the Ukraine alone.
Immediately afterwards, Russia pursued a two-track strategy of negotiations over the demand to roll back NATO and simultaneous escalation of its military threat to Ukraine. Additional functional units essential to an invasion such as transport of fuels and blood banks arrived. A new potential front was created at the Ukraine-Belarus border, just 100 km from Kiev, as 30,000 additional Russian troops arrived together with some of their latest hardware for joint military exercises with Belarusian forces. And naval exercises were announced in the Black Sea involving landing craft coming from the Pacific fleet. Shipping was banned in the area for the duration, so that a kind of blockade was put into effect, reminiscent of the American blockade imposed on Cuba during the Missile Crisis of 1962, to those of us with memory of history to match the “never forget, never forgive” mindset of the Kremlin.
The effect of these measures, which we may call Putin’s Plan A, was dramatic, though the goal of capitulation to Russia’s demand for the rollback of NATO and denial of NATO membership to Ukraine was not achieved. What Russia got by holding a gun to the head of Ukraine for the sake of raising its security concerns to top of mind among Western interlocutors was recognition from the United States as a major military force to be reckoned with in conventional as well as nuclear arms. And there were indications in the written U.S. response to the Russian draft treaties that significant agreements could be reached on limiting war games in Europe, on controlling or banning intermediate range nuclear capable missiles in Europe, on maintaining normal channels of communication open between the military and civilian leaders on both sides. The policy of isolation, denigration of Russia and dismissal of its security interests that dated from the Bush and Obama administrations, and in which Biden himself had participated as formulator and implementer, was now abandoned so long as Russia did not in fact invade Ukraine.
A secondary effect of the Russian actions had been the shattering of Ukraine’s standing among its Western backers. In the midst of the mounting crisis, Biden stated with crystal clarity that not a single US soldier would be sent to Ukraine to defend it in case of Russian attack. America’s insistent repetition of the message that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent rose to a hysterical pitch when Washington called for all American citizens to leave the country now, on commercial flights, because military logistics would not be deployed to avoid any risk of conflict with the incoming Russians.
Subsequently more than 40 countries followed the US lead in closing their embassies in Kiev and pulling out staff. Ukraine’s dreams of Western backing were no longer tenable, and the first sounds of surrender began to appear when the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.K. said that perhaps they would withdraw their application to join NATO as the price for maintaining the peace. Though that little white flag was later retracted, the will of the Ukrainian nationalists was clearly undergoing shock therapy.
If we can step back a moment from the day to day stream of events, there is no doubt that the greatest damage to the Ukrainian economy and to the stability of its present government was delivered not by the Russians, with their troop movements, but by Washington, with its daily warnings of a Russian attack on Ukraine.
My peers have tried to make sense of the dull, repetitious cries from the White House and Pentagon about an imminent Russian mass invasion of Ukraine. The best explanation I have heard is that this was a clever Information War strategy amounting to "heads I win, tails you lose." If Putin really proceeded with an invasion, it would be all the more costly to Russia in lives and treasure because there would be no surprise element. Moreover, the sanctions would bite Russia while providing the United States with enhanced control over its nominal allies in Europe to compensate for the loss of its investments in the Kiev regime. As Nancy Pelosi explained to a journalist, this policy would likely play well to the American public. Conclusion: the cries of "wolf" were a cynical political ploy by the Biden administration.
However, the same facts can be read an entirely different way: as a great success of Russian Intelligence. It could be that the vague references of State Department officials in Q&A with reporters to intelligence reports of Russian intentions to invade had meat on the bones. It could be that the unnamed reliable sources of information about the schedule of Putin’s invasion were double agents carrying out their disinformation mission. It could be that not only the less than brilliant American President was taken in by this charade but also his eminently brilliant National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan as well as other high administration and Congressional officials. The net conclusion from this interpretation is that Vladimir Putin has played Biden like a fiddle and that the Russians have finally learned how to use PR to their benefit, without relying on consultants from Madison Avenue.
Yesterday we saw several very interesting developments in Moscow that have been reported separately by our media when they are in fact all interconnected and relate to Russia’s moving on from its Plan A, the invasion scare, to Plan B, the possible recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics as sovereign states independent of Kiev. This plan also can be allowed to play out over several weeks or months while applying further psychological pressure on the Zelensky government.
Several weeks ago, we read that a bill was being introduced into the State Duma calling upon President Putin to recognize the independence of the two Donbas republics. The bill, authored by parliamentarians in the Opposition party, the Communist Party of Russia headed by Gennady Zyuganov. We were told at the time by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov that this proposal was not welcomed by the President and it disappeared from the daily news.
Two days ago Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin announced that a vote would be held on two bills relating to recognition of the Donbas republics, the first bill by the Communists and a second bill authored by the ruling United Russia Party. A free vote would be held and the version of the bill receiving the highest number of votes would be presented to the President. The difference between the two is that the Communist bill would send the Duma request directly to the President for action while the United Russia version would send the appeal first to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and other top functionaries before it might be passed to the President. The vote yesterday endorsed the Opposition bill, meaning that President Putin was given a free hand at any convenient moment to recognize the rebel provinces.
The logic of this entire exercise is that, if necessary, Russia can at any time put an end to the nightmare that Donbas residents have endured for the past seven years during which 800,000 of them chose to take Russian passports for the security blanket it promised. If Russia recognizes the republics, and if the republics then formally request Russian military protection against the Ukrainian forces which are three times greater than their own at the other side of the border, then the Russian army could legally enter their territory and move up to the line of demarcation, putting an end to the bombardments and threats from Ukraine. This would be the case whatever Russia or the republics themselves otherwise might have in mind with respect to eventually holding a referendum on "reunification."
The downside of the formal recognition of independence of these republics is that it would put an abrupt end to the Minsk Accords, which all involved parties in the West consider to be the only palatable solution to the Ukraine problem.
It is surely no accident that the Duma vote was held during the visit of German Chancellor Scholz to Moscow. As a guarantor of the Minsk Accords and participant in the Normandy Format to resolve the Ukraine problem, Germany would be the first to experience shock that the Kremlin is even thinking of sabotaging them in this manner. And so from joy over de-escalation that the Russian Minister of Defense Shoigu announced on Sunday, as units from the military exercises in the Crimea, along the Belarus border with Ukraine begin to return to their home bases was now mixed with distress over the possible Russian recognition of the independence of the rebel provinces.
Whereas in the preceding several weeks, Kiev had publicly denounced the Minsk Accords as posing a threat to their state if implemented, whereas President Zelensky himself had said before cameras that not a single line of the Accords was acceptable to him, no sooner than the Duma vote became known did the Kiev authorities start sending out appeals to all international organizations to help save those Accords from the Russian pullout via recognition of the independence of the Donbas republics.
It is an open question how the Washington power elite will react to the Russian shift to Plan B. How can they avoid looking foolish over their months of crying "wolf" about an invasion that did not happen. Yet, let’s not underestimate their resourcefulness.
Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book is Does Russia Have a Future? Reprinted with permission from his blog.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2022