Monday, April 15, 2024

Putin’s Risky Gambling is Outsmarting the West

HomeWARPutin's Risky Gambling is Outsmarting the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin is once again playing a high-stakes game of geopolitical poker, and so far, he seems to be winning despite holding weak cards. His latest moves in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria appear aimed at distracting, dividing, and intimidating the West.

On the eve of Putin’s scheduled State of the Nation address today, Transnistria’s Congress of Deputies formally requested Russia’s “protection” and annexation, echoing a similar appeal made by separatists in eastern Ukraine back in 2014. The timing strongly suggests this is part of a coordinated plan by Putin to strengthen Russia’s negotiating position and throw NATO off balance.

Experts see the Transnistria gambit as both a short-term distraction and a long-term bid to surround Ukraine. In the near-term, it diverts attention and stretches Ukraine’s military resources. In the long run, it puts pressure on the strategic port city of Odesa. This two-pronged approach is classic Putin, steadily gaining ground while keeping opponents confused and divided.

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Asymmetric distractions like this have become a hallmark of Putin’s hybrid warfare tactics. Iran’s attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria, Houthi strikes on maritime targets, and even Hamas rocket barrages on Israel, often employing Russian weapons, all fit the pattern. The ultimate goal seems to be keeping Western leaders uncertain, reactive, and hesitant.

So far, the strategy is working, even as Russia suffers blows on the battlefield. Despite losing territory in Ukraine, Putin shows no signs of backing down. Temporary setbacks did not stop him in Chechnya or during Russia’s initial failures in the early days of the invasion. He has proven willing to sacrifice waves of underprivileged ethnic minority troops from rural Russia in order to grind down Ukraine’s defenses.

Nuclear blackmail is the centerpiece of Putin’s brinksmanship. Talk of using atomic weapons has been dialed up dramatically in recent weeks, with leading Kremlin propagandists openly advocating nuclear strikes on NATO territory. This nuclear card gives Putin leverage, feeding divisions among Western leaders fearful of catastrophic escalation.

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The bluffing extends beyond nukes. This week, Putin deftly exploited an ambiguous comment by French President Emmanuel Macron about possibly sending NATO troops into Ukraine. Russia quickly threatened all-out war against the West in response to any direct NATO intervention.

The alarmist rhetoric prompted U.S., British, German, and other leaders to distance themselves from Macron’s remark. Even neutral Sweden explicitly ruled out sending ground forces. The firm rejections allowed Putin to reinforce doubts about NATO’s resolve. Instead of letting the possibility linger, NATO fell into the trap of assuring Russia it had nothing to fear.

Now with the Transnistria situation flaring up, Putin likely aims to keep NATO off balance and bickering over the proper response. All evidence suggests he will continue to stir up new fronts to distract and wear down Ukraine’s defenses. His end goal remains rebuilding the old Soviet sphere of influence by force.

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These tactics have proven effective so far, but the West holds a winning hand if it stays united. NATO’s combined military and economic might dwarfs Russia’s. Putin wins mainly by intimidating Western leaders into poor decisions that undermine their strategic interests. But his crude nuclear threats ring hollow, since using them would invite annihilation.

If NATO stands firm and calls his bluff, Putin has no good options. Russia cannot win a prolonged conventional war against NATO, let alone fight the entire Western world. Despite recent PR victories, time and demographics are on the West’s side.

But only if NATO avoids self-inflicted wounds like this week’s hasty rejections of any possible intervention. Keeping Putin guessing about potential Western escalation would strengthen NATO’s hand. The West should recognize it has the upper hand, avoid falling for Putin’s distractions, and focus on winning the long game through unity and determination.

Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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