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Don’t give Putin major concessions



How important is humour to Russian President Vladimir Putin? Not very. Throw him a fish or two, because he’s running a bluff and you don’t want to humiliate him, but there’s no need for major concessions. This question has become urgent because Putin is demanding guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO. He also wants the alliance to withdraw all non-local troops and weapons from countries that were not in NATO before 1997. He is hinting he might invade Ukraine if NATO does not comply. “Countries that were not in NATO before 1997” is a lot of territory. It includes Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all under Soviet rule before 1989, plus five other countries that were Communist-ruled but not under Soviet control: Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia. That’s more than 100 million people, most of whom have unhappy memories of Russian rule and a lingering fear of Russian domination. That’s why they all joined NATO. They will never let the Russians make them vulnerable again, and there is no reason for NATO to give in to Putin’s demands. The notion Russia might invade Ukraine is ridiculous. Ukraine is the size of France with 43 million people. Its armed forces are less well equipped than Russia’s, but they have become considerably more professional during seven years of low-level fighting against Russian-backed separatists in the South Eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia has slightly more than three times Ukraine’s population, a much bigger armed forces and a lot more money, but invading Ukraine would not be a stroll in the park. The Russians could certainly take the east, and maybe Kyiv, but conquering the west would be doubtful. And afterwards, Russian occupation troops would face a huge and long-lasting guerrilla resistance. Besides, the immediate consequence of an overt Russian invasion would be a trade embargo by all the NATO countries that would quickly bring the Russian economy to its knees. Moreover, the Russian people are not up for that kind of adventure: Putin’s regime would risk collapse. This is not like the old Cold War, when the Soviet Union and its satellites were outnumbered only 2-1 by NATO. Now it’s a much diminished Russia alone against a greatly expanded NATO: 3-1 in regular military forces, 7-1 in population, 25-1 in GDP. Russia has lots of nuclear weapons, so nobody is going to attack it, but in any other kind of war it is hopelessly overmatched. Putin inherited the reality of an enlarged NATO when he took power in 1999, and raised no objection for a long time. He started obsessing over Ukraine after the 2014 revolution overthrew the pro-Russian president, but he effectively took Ukrainian NATO membership off the board by sponsoring a pro-Russian armed revolt in Donetsk and Luhansk. There was never much support for Ukrainian membership in NATO anyway, precisely because it might oblige the alliance to defend Ukraine against Russia. The status quo is ugly but satisfactory, so why try to change it? One possibility is that having Donald Trump in his pocket gave Putin a sense of security that has now evaporated. Another is that he sees Joe Biden as weak, and he is trying his luck. But his motive doesn’t matter because the whole project is foredoomed. NATO doesn’t have to do anything except to make it clear to Moscow in private that any Russian aggression against Ukraine, even a border incursion, will be met with a full economic blockade of Russia. Don’t say that in public, of course. Don’t back Putin into a corner, don’t make him lose face. Don’t create panic in the Western public with exaggerated reports of a Russian military buildup either. Give Putin no concessions, but show him respect. Keep talking to him, and eventually he’ll come down from the ledge he’s out on. l Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England. Gwynne Dyer

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