Once again Vladimir Putin has outmaneuvered the West regarding Ukraine. I’m no fan of his but Putin’s emphasis on strategy rather than tactics seems to be paying off. The USA/Europe seem to only use tactical thinking rather than have a clear strategy in mind. Maybe they should start learning how to play chess.
What has struck me recently is the similarity between ex Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Putin. Khrushchev could be a bit of a blunt instrument at times but he was also a strategic thinker. He understood how to restrict the movement of his enemy, in this case the USA. Neither he or President Kennedy wanted war, even at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 but he understood how to keep tension at its maximum without spilling over into full blown war which would have been a disaster for everybody. If you pour water into a glass until it reaches the top, this is tension, if the water spills over the side then it becomes war. Keep the glass full so your enemy can not add his own water to the glass without it spilling over the sides and you make him powerless.
Looking at the situation in Ukraine and it would seem that Putin is using the same strategy. Determined to weaken Ukraine, Russia has been sending large amounts of weapons and soldiers to help the separatists of eastern Ukraine. What can the West do? To be honest not much, if the USA were to send weapons to support the government of Ukraine the glass would be overfilled with water and open direct conflict would surely be a result, something neither side wants, so Russia has been increasing the tension from its side, giving very little room for movement to the USA or Europe. Now with the agreed ceasefire starting on Saturday 14th of February, Putin has been able to make an agreement very much on his own terms, the separatists will keep the land they control and if the ceasefire holds it will become a frozen conflict that the West can do nothing about. But there is more to this I think than meets the eye.
Although Russia is trying to hide its involvment in Ukraine, supporting the separatists with heavy weapons and support is expensive. Sanctions and low oil and gas prices have hit the Russian economy hard and war costs a lot of money. A frozen conflict in Ukraine that gives favourable conditions to the separatists will allow Russia to use its resources elsewhere. Where could that be? Considering Russia’s very close relationship with Iran and Bashar al Assad of Syria the answer has to be the Middle East as it joins “the war on terror” against Islamic State. Why do I say this? Iran has until the summer to agree to stop its nuclear development program, if it does not then the USA will pull back in certain area of Iraq and permit Islamic State to enter Baghdad and slaughter the Shia Muslim population which Iran, being Shia, is sworn to protect. It would be a very costly exercise for Iran to defend them as the low price of oil has also hit its cash reserves hard too. It is conceivable that Russia will give support to Iran through weapons and support. It is a very strong indication that Iran is not prepared to give up its nuclear development program come the deadline and is preparing for all possible outcomes, with Russia its ally, supporting it. The other reason would be to more directly support Bashar al Assad against Islamic State in Syria and maybe more importantly against the Sunni rebels in southern Syria, who are not only receiving strong support from the USA/UK but also Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. With a real possibility that southern Syria will become autonomous, like eastern Ukraine, Assad needs all the help he can get and Russia needs to maintain as much influence in the Middle East as possible.
By freezing the conflict in Ukraine on his own terms, Putin now has the resources to help his buddies in the Middle East, This time last year he could afford to support many different battle fronts, now with the low price of oil and gas, he can not.
Putin is thinking strategically, whereas it would seem the USA puts more emphasis on tactics, it reacts to situations rather than having a long term plan of what it wants to do and how to get there. 2015 is going to be a very interesting year. As always, international politics and those with a thirst for power, Islamic State included, could not care less about the lives of ordinary people. They never have enough power, one day the glass will truly be overfilled.
This article is cross-posted to DigitalJournal.com