Political scientist Andis Kudors: Will there be war? I wouldn't be so sure...
Former President Valdis Zatlers says confidently: there will be war. Such statements make people uneasy.
I would not say it so boldly. Of course, many things are possible with Putin's regime, his foreign policy is hard to predict. As the Russian political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin, whom I respect very much, said recently: it is difficult to make predictions, especially if we are talking about the future.
Made a joke...
Yes. The simple scheme in which Putin's actions towards the US, NATO and Ukraine can be seen is: escalate and then de-escalate. This is typical Putin regime activity: to manufacture problems in neighboring countries to the point of military intervention, and then to present itself as the solver of these problems. Vladimir Putin is currently portraying great desperation. But this desperation, which is supposed to stimulate the possibility of war, has no basis in fact.
Putin is constantly frightening the people of his country in big press conferences - in reality, they are big public relations events. Predetermined journalists ask predetermined questions to which Putin is already prepared to respond. He talks about missiles that can go from Ukrainian positions to Moscow within an hour, but there are also supersonic missiles that can go to Moscow in five to seven minutes. No one has placed such missiles in Ukraine!
And has Ukraine now been offered NATO membership? No, it hasn't. And there is no MAP (Membership Action Plan). Putin likes such tensions because he believes that this is the only way to talk to the West.
Talking is one thing. But to fight?
Putin is currently incapable of waging a large, comprehensive war, he does not have the economic resources or the rational reason to fight NATO. But, of course, there are several scenarios.
And these would be?
One of the biggest disasters would be if Putin were to launch an aggression against Ukraine, taking over the whole territory. Other countries would get involved, turning this into a major European war. But this scenario is not very realistic, because then the Putin regime would collapse. In such a situation, Russia would not be fully occupied by NATO, because nobody needs it. But such a war is being promoted in Russian propaganda shows. If this really happened, the Putin regime would be destroyed, because the NATO forces are incomparably larger than the Russian forces.
Putin's circle of friends are billionaires who are comfortable with the current situation. It is equally good for the so-called siloviki (power structures), who find it convenient in the current situation to steal and benefit from the country's barrel of wealth in semi-legal schemes. Putin thus maintains the loyalty of the leadership of the security services.
The same is allowed for governors: political posts are closely linked to economic benefits. This is Putin's kleptocratic system. And the beneficiaries, who draw all their wealth from this system, do not need any war.
Let us theoretically assume that Putin occupies Ukraine. What does Putin gain from that?
Then he presents himself as a unifier of the "Russian world" (with the addition of Belarus) and as a stopper of NATO by preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. Listen to the propagandists talking about Catherine the Great and Peter the Great as unifiers: it is so valuable to enslave other people!
It is incomprehensible why Putin should need any more territories if he cannot cope with the existing huge national territory.
Why cannot Russian nationalists be allies with the nationalists of neighboring countries? Because Russian nationalists fall asleep and wake up with the idea of empire. They don’t even consider that the state can live within rational, historical boundaries. Although, it would be difficult for them to define where those borders are.
But Putin is counting on Ukraine being overrun by guerrilla warfare. However skillful the Russian propagandists are, they are unlikely to be able to decently explain the fact that, for example, in Kyiv not only military personnel are being killed, but civilians too. It would not be enough to call them all Nazis. Ukraine could not be controlled by occupation alone.
In any case, it would be a huge negative event and those in the West who suffer from the Schroederisation disease would no longer be able to show their sympathy towards Russia, Nord Stream 2 would not work and the sanctions would be completely different, perhaps something like the sanctions against Iran. So, there would be more downsides for Russia and the existing propaganda stories would not be enough for Putin.
I do not think that everyone in the Kremlin is crazy and that everyone in their General Staff is crazy. They certainly have a peculiar way of thinking, but they understand that starting a general, conventional war would be a great risk for the Putin regime.
Are there other options, say, smaller military operations?
Of course. For example, to link Crimea with the Donbas. But that would be a pitiful small bang of a firecracker, and I doubt whether it would be enough for Putin. Missile strikes on targets in Ukraine without Russian forces crossing the line of contact in the Donbas are also possible. But there is another option: negotiations. It has already been reported in the media that talks between Russia, the US and NATO could take place on January 12. It is understandable that the West will help Putin to come out of this situation with his head held high.
He will then be able to show off.
That is what Putin is already doing by telling his audience that he has stopped NATO. He is now trying to present it as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, but it is a crisis of his own making. Then both sides - the USSR and the US - were prepared to go to war; now the US is unwilling to do so.
I used to call Putin an international bully, but now he is a terrorist: Ukrainians are being held hostage, just as Lukashenko is using migrants as hostages. This is a politico-military terror that is only possible because Europeans and the free world as such, where NATO is one of the elements of this world, have moral principles.
The terrorists do not care whether people live or die; we do. Putin has the cynicism to talk about the 14,000 Ukrainians who have been killed in the Donbas, hypocritically calling it a tragedy. But he is the author of this tragedy! And Russian politicians, including Putin, do not care about these lives.
But there is one "but". A war against Ukraine would be much more difficult now: Ukrainians are motivated to fight and defend their country, they are much better armed, the army as a whole is much stronger.
That is why Putin is looking forward to the talks. But the outcome of the talks will not be a document with a paragraph on the non-expansion of NATO.
But why is Ukraine not being invited to join NATO? That would solve many problems.
That is the painful question. This issue is being postponed because of territorial disputes.
Because of the Donbas?
Yes. That is to say, it is believed that Ukraine does not control its territory. This is a matter that can't be solved in the short term.
Belarus, on the other hand, is ready to join Russia? Is everything settled there?
Belarus is being quietly eaten. As recently as 2015, Lukashenko said that Belarus was not part of the "Russian world" and that a Russian military base would not be allowed there. Now, things are different, and Lukashenko is forced to sit with a submissive posture in his talks with Putin. Lukashenko used to say that he was the guarantor of Belarusian sovereignty, but that is no longer true because Lukashenko considers power - his own, of course - to be the highest value.
But Putin is not rushing Belarus to become a part of Russia, because he understands that a large number of Belarusians do not want that at all. On the contrary, many Belarusians have come to believe that Belarus can still become a democracy. Therefore, to leave one dictator in order to be embraced by another dictator is not very wise.
If, God forbid, an all-out war was to break out, Latvia would find itself in a very dangerous situation - basically between a rock and a hard place.
It would be dangerous for Latvia if the first scenario - that of all-out war - was real. But I do not see that as a realistic possibility, because - as we have already said - sooner or later the deconstruction of the Putin regime would follow. But of course, we have to protect our borders. The Kremlin is calling for a return to 1997 in NATO's relations with Russia. So, what will you do? Will you give Crimea to Ukraine?
Incidentally, there is an interesting document that Russia and NATO signed in 1997. It is the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation. At that time, the Baltic States had already declared that they were ready to join NATO and the EU, and the Russian Prime Minister, Chernomyrdin, offered the Baltic States security guarantees, but they refused this offer. There were good things in that agreement - about communication, transparency of decisions, problem-solving, etc.
But it does not talk about NATO promising not to expand. Instead, it says that NATO and Russia will build a relationship based on the principles of democracy, political pluralism, the rule of law, respect for human rights and civil liberties. In addition, Russia and NATO signed a renunciation of the use of mutual threat rhetoric and confirmed that they will not use threats against any other country - against its sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity.
So how does Russia now understand Ukraine's territorial integrity? How has Russia respected the territorial unity of Moldova and Georgia?
But this is not the first time that Russia has not respected international agreements. Is it any wonder that Russia lies all the time?
This is the destructive regime of lies that rules Russia. I will not be surprised if, by January 12, when, hopefully, the talks between the US and Russia, with the participation of NATO, will begin, Russia organizes provocations on Ukrainian territory in order to give these talks a specific atmosphere, creating more tension...
However, I do not see a final document being adopted, that is to say, NATO signing an agreement which demands that the organization does not expand - as Putin is demanding. That would be an acceptance of humiliation and a surrender of any principles of freedom.
In your opinion, is everything possible being done in Latvia to protect our country from Russia's military and political insolence?
We were fortunate in that the issue of two percent (of GDP) for defense was raised at the level of the US President. Latvia's armed forces must continue to modernize, but all this is very expensive. And this two percent is an absolute minimum. Of course, we need teachers, we need healthcare, but if there is no security, there will be nothing else. The 2014 NATO Wales Summit adequately assessed the threat of hybrid warfare, while the 2016 Warsaw Summit decided that NATO's extended battle group should be deployed in the Baltic States and Poland. All these steps were very healthy.
Before that, there was the question: are our allies aware of the very risky situation we find ourselves in next to a country controlled by the Putin regime? I was in Washington in 2007, before the Russian aggression against Georgia. At that time, I was trying to explain to the experts the policies of the Russian people and the destructive influence of the Russian media, and I found it difficult to get anything across. But now the situation has completely changed: people are beginning to understand the true nature of the Russian masters.
What could Latvia fundamentally change?... The mechanization of the armed forces continues, and combat capabilities are being improved regularly. In the context of migration issues, the border needs to be reinforced with a proper fence. Of course, this is not the solution to all the problems, and yet. I have no major criticisms of the national defense ministry, but it must be understood that without international partners we have no chance. Latvia has built up its defense capabilities within the limits of its capabilities, we have spoken up for ourselves and, to a large extent, we have been heard precisely in the context of the events in Ukraine.
So it looks like Ukraine is protecting us.
Yes. The war in Ukraine has also allowed the Baltic States to group together at the level of public diplomacy: before that, many ears were not ready to listen...
Coming back to Russia... As much as we would like to gloss over the threat from that country, it does exist. It is also not clear what the true state of the Russian economy is.
The Russian economy is not self-sufficient, it is closely linked to the West and it is able to provide the Putin elite with a "status quo" precisely because there is an active trade with the West. This strengthens the hope that these elites will not destroy this system, which favors them, for their own greed.
Putin, of course, wants to go down in history as the unifier of the Russian lands, but he is a dangerous poker player - a brilliant bluffer. Well, fine then, let us tell him: do what you are threatening to do, start that big war! But know that your regime will then collapse... But that can only happen if the West were more inclined to a harsher style of communication. Since the West does not want to go to war, I think that solutions will be sought to help both sides to come out of the current situation with their heads held high. The outcome will again be in Putin's favor: his threats will have worked.
Will US President Biden be strong enough for the negotiations in January? Here's to hoping he won't fall asleep in the middle of negotiations...
Biden is currently struggling domestically: his ratings are low. Under Trump, the US economy looked much more optimistic. But there are also pluses in our favor. Biden knows what the Baltic States are like because he has visited them. He is experienced enough to understand what the Russian regime is like. Moreover, Biden is in favor of strengthening transatlantic ties, of the US being united with the EU.
But the downside is the common trend: peace at any cost... I am worried about Ukraine. I don't even feel that worried about us. The right of Ukrainians to choose their political priorities, the right to choose the international organizations that are right for them - I do not think these rights will be fully respected. The Ukrainians may still remain hostages in the great powers' games because Putin's actions will have some effect - at least temporarily.