What to Make of Ukraine...?
The simplest explanation of what is happening is that Putin has put a gun to the head of Europe and the United States to demand a renegotiation of the post-Cold War security arrangement between Russia and NATO/Europe/US. He’s wants a contraction of NATO, and for all intents and purposes, a removal of U.S. troops and missiles from Europe.
This is typical Putin behavior and has been going on for decades. He, and many Russians, believe that the world kicked Russia when it was down after the Wall fell, and he wants to return to a dynamic where Russia has its old sphere of influence and is an equal player on the world stage.
Instead of using carrots and positive approaches to influencing and negotiating with the international community, he resorts to extortion. He acts like the controlling partner in an abusive relationship—give me what I want or I will start by breaking all the dishes in the kitchen.
The only hope right now is that Putin sees that if he invades Ukraine, he will end up worse off. He will unite Europe against him. He will strengthen NATO’s resolve, and in fact validate NATO more than anything has in the last 20 years. He will turn Ukraine against Russia, and he will be further isolated.
The question is, does he see that, and does he care? Does he think he’s in a position of enough power with his economy pumped full of petrodollars, and with leverage because of his hackers and mercenaries deployed around the globe that he can endure any backlash from an invasion?
The big diplomatic question is what can the United States and Europe hand him to back down from his threat to invade? What concessions can the west make that do not amount to a capitulation to blackmail that validates and encourages Putin’s behavior and that he can take back to his people and declare victory.
It’s the classic blackmail dilemma. How do you deescalate and allow both sides to walk away feeling some degree of victory?
Well, that is for the diplomats and policy makers to figure out, because it’s not my job!
Everything that is playing out today was on display in 2007 when I traveled to Serbia, Kosovo, and Russia to report on the chilling relationship between the United States and Russia. Kosovo was preparing to declare independence with support from the United States. Putin was backing Serbia in opposing independence. Putin was threatening that if Kosovo declared independence, it would serve as a demonstration effect. In response, Russia might back independence movements of pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia or Ukraine.
It was my first international reporting trip, and I was ambitious and inexperienced. I stumbled around Serbia without a translator or fixer. I couldn’t figure out a bus schedule and ended up taking a six-hour taxi ride from Mitrovica, Kosovo back to Belgrade. The driver started dozing off and nearly killed us.
The following paid subscriber content is from an early draft of my book chapter about that trip. It focuses on the Russia segment of the reporting trip where you can see that the dynamics at play today were well in development in October 2007.