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Putin's Deadly Zugzwang

  • Brian Whitmore

Unpredictable, desperate, and dangerous.

Unpredictable, desperate, and dangerous.

A statement appeared this week on the website of Lithuania's armed forces claiming that NATO's Sabre Strike exercises in the Baltics and Poland were preparations for an annexation of Kaliningrad. It, of course, was the work of hackers and was quickly removed.

On the same day, pro-Kremlin activists were detained at a military base in Latvia participating in Sabre Strike. They had climbed the fence, torn down a U.S. flag, and replaced it with the orange-and-black colors of the St. George ribbon.

Childish pranks and petty vandalism to be sure, but also signs of our dangerous times. And we're certain to see more of this kind of thing for a while -- as well as more menacing gestures.

Just days after meeting Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Raul Khajimba, the de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region, appointed a Russian general as chief of staff of its armed forces.

And some 1,500 Russian soldiers began drone training exercises this week in Georgia's other pro-Moscow separatist region, South Ossetia.

From the abduction of Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver by Russian agents to Moscow launching criminal cases against Lithuanian citizens who avoided the Soviet draft to provocations in frozen-conflict zones, the signs are everywhere that Putin's showdown with the West is going to be a long and tense standoff.

And this is going to be the case regardless of how the Ukraine conflict is resolved.

As veteran Kremlin-watcher James Sherr wrote in a recent report for Chatham House, if Russia gets its way in Ukraine -- a "federalized" and "neutral" state that Moscow can manipulate at will -- it will only be emboldened to act elsewhere. And the result would be the death of the post-Cold War world order -- as well as the West's credibility.

"Betraying Ukraine -- what else would it be? -- and, soon enough, Moldova and Georgia will add to the stock of Vichyite states in Europe with no love for what remains of the West, and even less respect," Sherr wrote.

"It will then be entirely rational for Latvians or Poles to ask why, if the West is unwilling to uphold the Paris Charter by means short of war, it should be willing to uphold the Washington Treaty by means of war when ‘hybrid’ threats arise."

And if -- as appears increasingly likely -- the Ukraine conflict settles into a stalemated frozen conflict in which Moscow has to settle for less than Ukraine becoming its vassal?

Since Putin has staked his political legitimacy -- and indeed survival -- on a twilight showdown with the West, a stalemate is unacceptable. In this case, he will need to turn up the heat, either in Ukraine or elsewhere.

"In chess terms, Putin is not in a stalemate, he's in a zugzwang: He is forced to make further moves even if they worsen his position, precisely because he must keep selling his 'war of civilizations' concept to Russians," Leonid Bershidsky, the self-exiled Russian political analyst wrote in Bloomberg recently.

"He cannot afford a prolonged lull in events, because he must keep his audience focused."

Putin is determined to blow up the post-Cold War order in Europe and turn the former Soviet republics into Moscow's vassals. The only way to stop him is to defeat him by means short of war with a nuclear-armed rogue state.

The Chatham House report recommends a series of steps to contain Putin, some of which are already in progress: turn Ukraine into a strong sovereign European state; get serious about backing Georgia and Moldova's European aspirations; rearm and refocus NATO and boost the alliance's credibility; systematically counter the Kremlin's disinformation machine; and strip Russia of political leverage in energy markets.

As Bershidsky suggests, this may not be enough given Putin's desperation and unpredictability. But it may be the best that can be done.

There won't be any quick victory. But given the structural weaknesses of the Russian economy -- and barring the Kremlin leader doing something really crazy -- it just might work.

"Whether the West plays its cards well or badly, it faces a protracted struggle with Russia," Sherr wrote.

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to this week's Power Vertical Podcast, when the issues raised in this post will be discussed. The guests will be James Sherr and Mark Galeotti.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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