Just a fortnight ago, on January 28, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Western leaders, including US President Joseph Biden, not to sow “panic” with warnings of war with Russia, despite more 100,000 soldiers on its border with Ukraine and in Belarus for the north.
Today, the West not only fears war within days, but has ordered its citizens to leave Ukraine. Last Friday, February 11, President Biden told Americans “to leave now…things could get crazy fast.” His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said a Russian invasion could happen “any day”.
Washington believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has already decided to invade and may soon issue the order. Speaking at a meeting of the Quadrilateral Alliance hosted by Australia and including India and Japan, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the dispute could arise even while the Olympics in winter, ending February 20, continued.
With Russian forces now estimated at 137,000 capable of quickly sweeping across Ukraine and encircling the capital Kiev, Biden asked to speak to Putin on Saturday, February 12. So the fate of tens or hundreds of thousands of lives, plus the global recovery, which is sure to stall as war drives up energy prices on the moon, is in the hands of a only man.
Will Putin invade?
Three things may cross President Putin’s mind when deciding whether or not to be an invader: the long-term impact of war or peace on Russia and its position in the world, the rivalry great powers with the West and its own place in Russian and world history.
Not Western economic sanctions and such? Surely he, his cabinet and his generals have long calculated the excruciating economic, technological and other sanctions the West would impose on Russia and its leaders in the event of an invasion. They probably have even nastier things on their list to endure that the West hasn’t even brandished.
But precisely for long-term concerns and goals, Putin, his government and his army decided to harden themselves and the nation for the worst that the West could do, because letting things go in the direction that America and its allies wish would be worse for Russia.
What would be that worst fate? Put simply, having the US-dominated NATO alliance with the world’s strongest array of forward forces bristling just across the Russian border where Ukraine now sits.
Putin has demanded that his neighbor not join the alliance, but the West argues that Russia should not dictate what other countries and groups do. Moscow itself was largely responsible for NATO and Ukraine’s willingness to unite when its forces invaded the eastern region of the country in 2014 and also seized the Crimean peninsula.
Yet having NATO nuclear forces within missile minutes of Moscow is simply too close for any comfort and closer than any potentially hostile force has been at any time in Russian history. Putin does not want this to happen under his leadership.
In terms of great power rivalry, this global confrontation has now spread to Russia and China against two defense groupings led by the United States, NATO and the Quadrilateral Alliance also including Australia. , Japan and India.
As with all great powers, the first thing to do is to secure the home front. For China, this means preventing Taiwan from breaking away, reducing Western influence in Hong Kong and stopping Myanmar’s drift towards the West.
NATO’s exit from Afghanistan was also a gain, although the resurgence of Islamic extremism in the country poses security challenges for China’s Xinjiang province, itself a bone of contention with the West. for allegedly repressive, even genocidal policies.
Russia also wanted the West to leave Afghanistan. Closer to home, he sent troops to quell a recent uprising in Kazakhstan. And, of course, Ukraine. As his fellow columnist Ben Kritz aptly quoted, President Putin sees his neighbor as part of a single Russian nation: “Russians and Ukrainians are one people – one whole… the true sovereignty of the ‘Ukraine is only possible in partnership with Russia’.
Conclusion: In the battle with the West, Russia and China must above all be safe in their home regions.
What if Putin invaded?
We will discuss Putin’s purpose in world and national history at another time, due to space constraints. The most pressing problem, especially for us in Asia, is the fallout from the invasion.
An expert expects oil to hit $120 a barrel of benchmark Brent, from around $90 today. This 33% increase would already push global and national inflation to excruciating levels. Add to that escalating liquefied natural gas prices, as Western Europe scrambles for LNG supplies to cover a third of its consumption now supplied by Russia.
Almost surely, central banks would be forced to raise interest rates to contain inflation, which would squeeze borrowers around the world. This would push countries, businesses and communities to default on massive debt, already high even before the pandemic, but now reaching or exceeding unsustainable levels.
In 2019, the stock of global debt already exceeded 70% of annual economic output or GDP – the prudent level allowed by the International Monetary Fund for nations – across many sovereign, corporate and household sectors. This precarious credit bubble is even bigger now with massive pandemic spending and the loss of income and tax revenue caused by the global recession.
The United States also fears that China will take advantage of the war in Europe to seize Taiwan. Asia certainly hopes not, and Beijing will hopefully keep the peace and prove Washington wrong in its constant demonization of its rival.
All of Europe, of course, will be rocked by the conflict, but may well be content with Russian-controlled Ukraine to avoid all-out war.
As for Putin, he would likely win a quick war, avoiding a tougher conflict when Ukraine doubles its forces in three years as planned or joins NATO. Then he persists for years of sanctions.
And Biden? America will be more in demand as a global protector. And his low home ratings should pick up.