Hard numbers: Brazil under water, the Taliban abandon the electoral commission, Russia withdraws (some) troops, Canada’s migration balance
First of all, the last few days have been mostly rock climbing. The last week of meetings between the United States and Russia, as well as between NATO and Russia, it is good that the parties are talking to each other, but there has been no significant progress. The Russians have said very clearly that if you want to have more talks, we need a very quick written response to the demands they have made publicly. So you wouldn’t say there was anything like a diplomatic breakthrough.
And on the other hand, the messages that have come in from the Russians in the past few days have mostly been an escalation. There have been cyberattacks against a number of websites in Ukraine belonging to government organizations, direct malware attacks against a number of government agencies, almost certainly from Russia. You see the Russians sending a group of troops to Belarus for sudden, unannounced military exercises right on the Ukrainian border and also moving personnel from the Russian Embassy to Kyiv. These are all signs that the Russians want the rest of the world to see that they are planning significant military activity in Ukraine.
On the other hand, it’s really a bad idea for the Russians to enter there and the costs they would incur, both because the Ukrainian population on the ground is hostile to Russia, and because it was considered, during the occupation of Donbass, to take more territory in Ukraine and one of the reasons why they did not do it is because they understood that it was going to lead to important ongoing fights. It would be unpopular in Russia and there would be body bags and nobody wants to see that.
Today, Putin is in a stronger economic position. He might think Biden is a little weaker, might think he’s a little less likely to react strongly. There is a new German chancellor in place who wants to engage directly with the Russians. Merkel is no longer there. So, I understand why there might be more willingness to climb. But still, a decision to make a full invasion of Ukraine is the only thing that is certain to bring Americans and Europeans together.
The one thing that is certain to revitalize NATO, which is an organization that has been floundering for lack of a mission in recent years. They would have a mission. This mission would essentially consist of defending against Russia and against both economic sanctions and against NATO’s military response, the conditions for additional exercises, troops in the Baltic, the positioning of forces closer to the borders of Russia. All of this, I think, is something Putin really wouldn’t want to see. Would be very reluctant.
So, I personally think that there is a lower probability of a full-scale global invasion, taking away Zelensky, tanks roll into Ukrainian territory. But I also recognize that every sign the Russians are sending indicates a very significant escalation.
So there are two very big questions we need to ask. The first is, is there a deal to be made? Is it possible that diplomacy can actually bear fruit and that we can defuse this? And second, if not, how far does Putin go? So on the first question, I think it’s worth remembering that when Biden met Putin face to face in Geneva, the only major meeting in June they spent about two hours together, it was mostly the order of the Biden day and there was one thing that Biden really put as a top priority for the Russian president. He said: “I have a red line. You are allowing these criminal syndicates inside Russia to engage in cyberattacks against US critical infrastructure. And that is not acceptable. And I’m going to give you some months to fix it. But if you don’t deal with it, there will be hell to pay. There will be direct retaliation from the United States. This is a very big problem for me.
Now Putin has heard this and over the past few months the Russians have addressed it. There have been significantly fewer Russian attacks, cyberattacks. And I’m not talking about state-sanctioned organizations, I’m talking about criminal organizations against US critical infrastructure. It is very clear that the Kremlin indeed sent this message. And indeed, last Friday, the same day the Russians decided to launch cyberattacks against Ukraine, they also announced that they had arrested some 14 people involved in the organization called REvil, REVIL, which is the organization that was behind the Colonial Pipeline Attacks. And the Russians said that this organization had been dissolved. So, at the very least, it’s a direct message to Americans that when you said you had a big problem with us, we responded. It’s obviously sort of an opening of, “We’re saying we have a big problem on Ukraine. Are you going to answer?”
Now, that doesn’t mean there’s an adequate answer to be had. It doesn’t mean there’s an easy negotiation to be had, it doesn’t imply that we’re suddenly going to have a breakthrough, but it certainly does imply that the Russian president, who is the sole decision maker on whether or not it becomes war, interested in a possible descent.
And my argument would be yes. And now we see if the two will go in that direction. So that’s the first point. I’m more optimistic than anyone out there, I think, I see in the media that there’s a desire on the part of the Kremlin to fix this problem if it’s fixable and it’s about Ukraine.
With the Ukrainian president, who let’s face it, is not the favorite of the West. He’s a guy who argued strongly for NATO membership and a membership action plan that he would never get support from the US and Europe. He is also someone who is planning a fake house arrest, it seems, of the former president, a national opposition to Zelensky, the Ukrainian president. It’s closer to Russian settlement in terms of how they treated Navalny and not what he should do or support at a time when his country is in danger of being overrun. Neither here nor there. But all this makes me a little more optimistic.
But what if it doesn’t work? So will the Russians do something? And I think the answer is yes and the question is how far they go. In other words, I don’t think Putin is bluffing. I think if he hasn’t received something significant from the West. If there is no agreement on Ukraine, there will be an escalation. I don’t think they’re just going to back down like Iran where, when we killed Soleimani and all of a sudden they said, “Okay, we’re not doing anything. Sorry, that was a bluff.”
I don’t think Putin is bluffing. But I’m not sure what he’s planning to do is this total invasion for the reasons I’ve mentioned. It is very expensive. He will be unpopular in Russia. It will bring NATO together. And in the long term, I think it will be a real challenge for Putin to really be seen as successful in Ukraine. But I think there are a lot of things they can do that would be successful for Russia that are smaller, that would be problematic for the United States and its allies. They have constantly talked about military and technical responses if their concerns are not addressed. The technique is pretty obvious, we’re talking about much larger cyberattacks on Ukraine, which could be economically devastating for the country, remember the NotPetya attacks years ago, which probably took away 1% of Ukraine’s GDP Ukraine and people died in hospitals when the hospital suddenly had lost their ability to have data and connectivity. These cyberattacks were a big deal.
And I think they would do it again easily. If they want to defend Russian citizens in occupied Donbass, they could bring in tanks. They could officially take over this territory. They might even annex it. It is interesting to me that Belarus, in addition to these new exercises, the Belarusian president has organized a referendum to change its constitution for February. How do you like it? And the February constitution, which obviously will pass because Belarus is not a democracy, two of the changes are that they are no longer formally neutral and they are no longer a non-nuclear state.
In other words, a hell of a coincidence. Eh? In other words, the Belarusians could easily invite the Russians to place troops on their territory, which is an advanced position for Russia, vis-à-vis Ukraine but also Europe, Europe of the East, and could also station nuclear weapons on their territory.
And then finally, we saw the Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister talking, “Well, what would you like if there were troops in Cuba or a Russian presence in Venezuela? And I don’t think Americans would like that at all. And I think it’s entirely possible that the Russians would engage in some form of military activity there and that you would see more Russian activity on the US borders.
So I think they can do a lot and part of the problem is that the Americans can react unilaterally, but it’s not at all clear to me that the Europeans would respond with the United States in terms of severe sanctions, in in terms of Nord Stream 2, and in terms of prepositioning NATO forces in return. I think there is an open question as to how far the alliance would go and how much of a divide there would be with the Europeans being much more dependent and their economy being much more dependent especially in the winter on Russia if the Russians escalate, but this escalation is not a total invasion of sovereign Ukraine.
So anyway, plenty to watch. A very important set of activities, mostly carried out by the Russians at this point, and very dangerous indeed. And so many to start our week. I hope everyone is doing well, and we’ll talk very soon. Be wise.