Putin on the Glitz: Russia’s Grotesque Display of Military Might in Ukraine

From superpower to “supine power.”

In its March 18, 2022, commentary, “Ukraine’s Defiance Could Force Putin into Talks,” the U.S. Institute of Peace concluded:

“All available evidence suggests that Putin will not consider real negotiations until he realizes that his military operation is failing. After 22 days of this war, the Ukrainian armed forces are holding him off. We need to accelerate our support to drive Putin to the negotiation table.”

The next day, in her New York Times column, “While Putin Shrinks, Zelensky Soars,” Maureen Dowd taunted Putin as follows:

“You don’t show your power by starting a war that reveals how weak and mediocre your army is and strengthens European bonds when your goal is to divide and weaken Europe.”

In response to Ms. Dowd, I had posted this comment on her NYT column:

An ancient Sanskrit saying loosely translates as, “When one’s doom is near, one’s mind acts perversely.” A comparable English proverb says, “Pride comes before a fall.”

And so it is with Putin, whose bruised ego, false pride, and irrational mind is making him commit horrendous crimes in Ukraine. When a dictator is losing a war, he will resort to scorched earth tactics. Saddam Hussein did this during the Persian Gulf War, as his troops fled occupied Kuwait, they torched its oil wells. Putin foresees defeat and has already started his scorched earth campaign, by razing cities, by bombing a maternity hospital, a boarding school for the visually impaired, a bread line, a community center and a shelter painted with a message in Russian pleading that children are inside.

Sooner or later, the Russian people — supported by many oligarchs — are going to rise and revolt against Putin’s madness. Let’s pray it’s sooner — before Putin’s humiliating loss in Ukraine — because they can help save what’s left of Ukraine and salvage what’s left of Russia’s battered image in the world.

Putin’s big lie exposed.

My hopes for the Russian people rising in defiance of Putin were, in part, driven by what had transpired on Russian state television a few days earlier. A surprising occurrence that New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman, mentioned in his March 16, 2022, commentary, “In the War Over Ukraine, Expect the Unexpected.” However, Mr. Friedman had a cautionary conclusion:

“All that said, what makes the pleasant surprises in this war so surprising is that they were surprises to the people who were responsible for them. Just one caution, though. There will be more surprises — and they won’t all be pleasant.”

Nonetheless, I felt compelled to offer a more hopeful outcome to Putin’s war of hubristic choice. So — positing that the only way Putin’s Ukraine gamble could work is, if China intervened to support Russia — I posted the following comment on his NYT column:

The outcome of this war will determine whether Putin retires to his dacha in Sochi (the likely scenario, if he quickly declares victory and withdraws Russian troops from most of Ukraine except the Donbass region) or is forcibly retired by the Politburo to a gulag in Siberia (almost certain, if he doubles down and Russian troops in Ukraine are besieged in a lengthy quagmire). In either case, the Putin era is most likely over in Russia.

Why? Because Marina Ovsyannikova’s bold intervention on Russia’s state-run television channel pretty much exposed Putin’s big lie to a wide Russian audience. Also, thanks to unprecedented economic, financial, and travel-related sanctions by a united western alliance, the Russian people will be paying a heavy price for a long time to come. Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian people have grown used to a more affluent and westernized standard of living. It will soon become increasingly apparent that they would much rather live in a post-Cold War Russia then in a Cold War-type Soviet Union.

And, given Putin’s ill-fated Ukraine fiasco, it is highly likely he will be quietly ousted in a putsch — to ensure that western sanctions are gradually lifted, which action can only start after a post-Putin Russia pays appropriate reparations to rebuild Ukraine. The only surprise that can sully this outcome is the role China plays going forward — spoiler or savior?

The Great Call of China.

It so happened that the previous day, on March 15, 2022, the Chinese ambassador had posted an op-ed, “Where we stand on Ukraine,” in the Washington Post, stating:

“There have been claims that China had prior knowledge of Russia’s military action and demanded Russia delay it until the Winter Olympics concluded. Recent rumors further claimed that Russia was seeking military assistance from China. Let me say this responsibly: Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to or tacitly supported this war are purely disinformation. All these claims serve only the purpose of shifting blame to and slinging mud at China.”

The ambassador went on to caution Post readers as follows:

“Some people are linking Taiwan and Ukraine to play up the risks of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. This is a mistake. These are totally different things. Ukraine is a sovereign state, while Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’s territory. The Taiwan question is a Chinese internal affair. It does not make sense for people to emphasize the principle of sovereignty on Ukraine while hurting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity on Taiwan.”

So — as what appears to be a stalemate in the Ukraine War — the world is left wondering what role will China play going forward? At least the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board made its concerns clear going by the headline of its March 17, 2022, op-ed, “China’s Great-Power Play.” It expressed its fears as follows:

“Above all, this conflict gives Beijing a new opportunity to put itself forward as the leader of a global faction hostile to democracy, economic freedom and U.S. leadership. China’s economic heft now gives it the means to try this gambit, and Mr. Xi’s desire to block any breeze of freedom within his own country is motive enough.

Beijing may also calculate it can “win” in Ukraine no matter what happens. If Mr. Putin conquers the country, Mr. Xi will have picked the winning horse. If the invasion fails, the West and America’s Asian allies may still be demoralized by a partition of Ukraine — and Russia will be a reliable supplier of natural resources to China for as long as Western sanctions persist.”

Again, yours truly, had his own take on the China angle and wrote the following letter to the Journal:

The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, author of “The Art of War,” is credited with the phrase “Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer.” This is what President Xi is trying to achieve with his very risky power play on the world stage. However, his timeline — to keep close to his new Russian friend — is getting rushed by Putin’s misadventure in Ukraine, which Putin delayed as a favor to Xi until the Winter Olympics had concluded in Beijing.

Now, Xi is probably pondering how to keep his new enemy, the U.S., closer without thwarting a massive opportunity at hand — military and economic assistance — that a western-sanctioned, walled-off Russia offers to China. Xi also recognizes that western economies are vastly more intertwined with and dependent on China — making it harder for the U.S. to take, as punitive measures against it, as it has done with Russia.

In any case, the realpolitik is dictating that we are regressing into an authoritarian communist (Russia & China) vs. liberal democratic (western world & its Asian allies) period — akin to Cold War II but not quite. In the long term, winning over non-aligned India is going to be critical in tipping the geopolitical balance in our favor. It should be based on a revamped 1970’s Nixon strategy — the enemy (India) of my new enemy (China) is my friend. India will surely need to reevaluate how to wean itself off Russian military equipment that has not performed to expectations in Ukraine. Meanwhile, in the shorter term, the liberal democratic west needs to continue “to defend Taiwan and the free world’s interests from the Communist Party.

India — per its national motto — should let the truth prevail!

It seems apt to wrap my commentary with how it started using a quote from the U.S. Institute of Peace. In its March 7, 2022, analysis, “A Closer Look at Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy,” USIP stated:

“India is in a no-win situation with respect to Ukraine. On the one hand, its military depends on Russian-made equipment, both low-tech gear and new, highly sophisticated weapons like the S-400 missile defense system that is just arriving this year. If India takes a tough stance against Russia it could jeopardize that vital supply relationship at precisely the time New Delhi is facing an increasingly aggressive China on its border. On the other hand, India cannot be confident that Russia will remain a reliable defense supplier if international sanctions really begin to bite and deprive Russian arms manufacturers of critical components and capital. Worse, Russia and China appear to be drawing into an ever-closer strategic partnership.

In short, the Ukraine invasion may have ruined India’s already tricky act of managing close ties with the United States and Russia simultaneously. New Delhi’s only hope is for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine that eases sanctions on Moscow. At the moment, that outcome seems extraordinarily unlikely.”

For Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy to work in a post-Ukraine (and hopefully post-Putin) world, India needs to get in sync with it. As I had concluded in my lengthy treatise, “Neo-China-Russia Axis — Déjà vu or Cold War II?” which was published three days before Russia invaded Ukraine:

“But time is of the essence, once the Winter Olympics are over, China’s belligerence in the Indo-Pacific is going to steadily increase. Russia appears to be on the verge of attacking Ukraine. The last Cold War started after a long hot war, WWII, ended. Cold War II is likely to start as soon as the hot war in Ukraine begins. If it can be prevented, then déjà vu all over again with the neo-CR-Axis could still happen, but a stronger western alliance in the Indo-Pacific is an imperative need, nonetheless. If a new liberal democratic global order is to define the 21st century, much like the post-WWII liberal international order shaped the 20th century, President Biden needs to lead decisively on this issue.”

And, he has, despite how negatively conservative pundits have characterized some of his actions. They appear to have forgotten that in foreign policy, especially in times of war, politics stops at the water’s edge. If a new liberal democratic global order is to define the 21st century, it’s main actors necessarily need to be freedom-loving democracies. As long as China and Russia remain autocracies, they will be an impediment to this objective. Let’s not forget that truth, even as the western world and its allies pursue a timely and constructive resolution in Ukraine. Godspeed!

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Jack Nargundkar is an author, freelance writer, and marketing consultant, who writes about high-tech, economics, foreign policy and politics.

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Jack Nargundkar

Jack Nargundkar

Jack Nargundkar is an author, freelance writer, and marketing consultant, who writes about high-tech, economics, foreign policy and politics.

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