The war of nerves in Ukraine

President Biden shot himself in the foot and Vladimir Putin can take some satisfaction from that, but not enough to claim victory in the war of nerves with the United States and NATO over Ukraine. If Putin does not invade Ukraine, or at least forgoes any kind of “incursion,” it will look like Biden held his ground in the showdown, but not without paying a price. This will be recorded as continuing warfare in Eastern Ukraine, the pro-Russian region that will never regain a reintegration within the national borders of Ukraine. The counterpart is that Western Ukraine will continue its march toward assimilation — if not de facto inclusion — in the European Union.This view of such a development rests upon the assumption that there will not be a war in the region. While there are strong, and credible, fears of a military confrontation, panic at this stage is not justified. Inaction may prevail, for the possible reason that Vladimir Putin has won the tactical version of the war of nerves, even though it will cost him, specifically in terms of the huge logistical display of force along his borders with Ukraine.On the positive side of the U.S. ledger is the discovery that Biden for once has a good secretary of state at his side. Antony Blinken has spoken with authority and most importantly in concert with the European allies, when he warned that any movement of Russian troops across the border will be met with a “swift, severe and united response from the United States and our partners and allies.” His reference to a “united response” was an efficacious gesture to the allies who were flabbergasted by Biden’s imprecision.Blinken seems to understand that providing arms to the Ukrainians will not deter Putin from moving into Ukraine’s territory. There is some symbolism there but the weapons recently approved to help the Ukrainian armed forces — among them Stinger anti-aircraft missiles — can hardly be decisive. One theory, however, is that should these weapons make Russian intervention more costly, the political problems for Putin at home could change the overall picture. The reality is that Putin has worked hard to create militancy inside Russia and has made the country less susceptible to the economic and financial damage that Biden has been threatening to unleash.In practical terms, military assistance to Ukraine is not a factor that will stop Putin in his tracks. The best hope is indeed Mr. Blinken’s diplomacy and his skill in carrying the allies along in a general effort to neuter the dogs of war. The most important priority for Blinken is defeating Putin’s strategy to exacerbate divisions inside NATO and the European Union. Resolving the crisis depends as well on Putin’s acceptance of an unstable equilibrium that will entrench Russian possession of a large chunk of Ukrainian territory. Realistically, Kiev might as well give it up. All things considered, the stalemate along deep ethnic divisions was heightened by the referendum held in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Eastern Ukraine that declared independence from Kiev.Quite obviously, Putin is far from achieving the utopian objective of restoring Russian dominion over its historic empire. Retrieving a small part will not be enough for him but it will be a success in some measure, without a war that would impact severely his ambition to go down in history as a new Czar.

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