Now that Angela Merkel has departed the geopolitical arena, Vladimir Putin is by far its most experienced political operator, and it’s showing.
Where Ukraine is concerned, Patrick Cockburn made the astute observation that Putin holds all the cards as long as he keeps his menaces on the level of a shadow-theatre— most of these cards will disappear the moment he invades Ukraine.
Better to have his western adversaries flinch at Putin’s every move on an imaginary chessboard than have to counter with real tanks and missiles after a NATO military response once Russia makes an incursion into Ukraine.
Putin’s western adversaries know this, he knows that they know this; he also knows that they are catering to their domestic audiences in the main, and they (presumably) know that he also knows this.
Ukraine’s leaders also know this, which adds a further complication to the above, since, contrary to the west’s leaders and its mainstream media with their drum beats of war, they refuse to say in public that they view a Russian invasion to be “imminent”.
So what transpires when this sabre-rattling– perfervid in some quarters, tepid in others– is unpacked?
Putin is taking advantage of perceived weaknesses in his western adversaries, and is picking them off, virtually one by one. In this way he ensures NATO can’t make a concerted response to his initiatives regarding Ukraine in particular, and that it is further hamstrung for the foreseeable future.
+ the Biden administration has to deflect attention from its stalled domestic agenda, and in particular the damage inflicted on this agenda by Democratic senators Manchin and Sinema. Biden also has to reassure NATO that he is not Trump, that is, that he views NATO as the pivot for any US role in Europe and the former Eastern bloc.
+ Germany, under its new chancellor Olaf Scholtz (whose expertise is in finance), does not as yet carry the weight in international affairs it did under Angela Merkel. Moreover, he heads a newly established coalition with the Greens as the junior partner, and for now the foreign minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens plays an equal part in handling Ukrainian affairs with Scholtz. Scholtz’s diplomatic naïveté is epitomized by the remark: “all options are on the table”. Putin presumably is maximizing Scholtz’s inexperience to Russia’s advantage.
+ France holds the first round of the 2022 French presidential election on 10 April 2022. Should no candidate win a majority of the vote in the first round, a runoff will be held between the top 2 candidates on 24 April 2022. The incumbent, Emmanuel Macron is expected to win since the opposition to the left and the right of him is in disarray. Rather than adopt a pugnacious stance towards Putin that could render the domestic stakes unpredictable as the election approaches, Macron favours direct talks with Russia.
+ the UK under Boris “BoJo” Johnson, who is under criminal investigation for lockdown-breaking parties at his official residence in 2020, is simply not taken seriously during this crisis— every protagonist knows he is out to save his job in everything he says and does. When BoJo went to the Ukraine for talks with president Volodymyr Zelensky none of the questions at their post-meeting presser were directed at the obviously superfluous BoJo who was simply there to mug the cameras.
+ “The dog that didn’t bark”. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery “Silver Blaze”, about the disappearance of a famous racehorse the night before its race, Sherlock Homes solves the mystery in part by recognizing that no one he spoke to in his investigation said they had heard barking from the stable watchdog during the night. Gregory, the Scotland Yard detective also investigating the case, said to Holmes “The dog did nothing in the night-time”, to which Holmes replied “That was the curious incident”. Holmes used the absence of this expected fact to solve the mystery, by inferring that that the perpetrator of the crime must have been someone known to the dog, and thus an insider. In the case of the Ukrainian crisis, it is significant that there are several NATO member-dogs (so to speak), located on Europe’s southern periphery mainly, which aren’t barking in the manner expected— namely, Greece, Italy, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Portugal, and Spain.
It’s obvious why these NATO dogs on the Mediterranean periphery aren’t barking. Ukraine simply does not feature in their political and economic interests. Which merely confirms that NATO is a unwieldy and discordant structure serving the interests of the core nations on its western front, members belonging to the former eastern bloc at a pinch, and of course the United States, with Canada being a satrap of the US.
It will not take the political-analyst equivalent of a Sherlock Holmes to deduce from this that any military action taken by NATO against Russia will not secure anything resembling unanimity among its members.
But how much will this matter, or will it really matter at all, in this phony war?