Putin Is Winning, and He Has More in Store

President Putin is far from done, but Russia’s strongman can already list a string of victories related to the crisis he launched by amassing troops on Ukraine’s border. So why shouldn’t he extend the crisis a bit longer?

Russia’s economy is mostly based on oil and gas exports. It would have been difficult for Mr. Putin to maintain a standoff with the West if oil was now selling at $65 a barrel, as it did last November, or $40, as was the average in 2020. These days, though, a barrel steadily fetches north of $85, giving Moscow an economic lifeline even as the ruble and Moscow’s stock exchange drop.

In addition, Mr. Putin has exposed growing fissures among the world’s democracies. With much of Europe pushing policies related to long-term climate predictions and other potential environmental risks even while neglecting immediate traditional national security threats, many of these countries are now overly dependent on Russian gas.

Germany, for one, has shut down much of its domestic energy production, closing half its six nuclear plants for fear of repeating the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Natural gas production across Europe ebbed to near zero as each country one-ups its neighbor on meeting fossil fuel reduction targets.

The wily Mr. Putin paid lip service to those targets while working diligently to assure European dependence on Russia’s fossil fuel. Not heeding President Trump’s warning, Chancellor Merkel encouraged Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas line, which would bypass Western-friendly Ukraine and, when completed, assure near-full European dependence on Russian energy.

President Biden helped by cutting down American gas production, snubbing a Canadian pipeline, and, most recently, removing support from an Israeli-Greek-Cypriot pipeline project that would deliver gas to Europe from the Mediterranean. Washington also helped by canceling, out of deference to Berlin, the Trump-era sanctions on Nord Stream 2-related companies.

Europe’s growing dependence on Russia has created the worst Western disunion since the start of the 20th century’s Cold War — and it comes just as Cold War II looks to be rearing its head in Europe and beyond.

As Mr. Putin’s threat to invade Ukraine intensified, Germany blocked arms deliveries to the besieged country from Estonia. Berlin’s previous vow to up defense budgets to 2 percent of GDP was dropped by the wayside. President Macron of France used the crisis to mumble something about America-independent European Union policy on the Russia question.

Exploiting such fissures, Mr. Putin invited top Italian executives for a Wednesday video chat on economic cooperation with Russia.

As the three former Warsaw bloc NATO members and Britain raise alarms about Moscow’s attempt to reinstate the Soviet Union borders, “Old Europe” increasingly seeks Kremlin rapprochement.

America, too, is undergoing one of its periodic eras of uncivil state of disunity. The White House veers between listening to a left-right alliance of non-interventionists and to Russia hawks. Mr. Biden one day says he’d overlook a “minor incursion” into Ukraine and the next threatens unprecedented consequences for even the smallest Russian maneuver.
Even as Mr. Putin pockets his success in exposing divisions in the once-solid alliance of democracies, he plots his next moves. By now, as the West ever so hesitantly begins to beef up Ukraine’s defense capabilities, the Rus strongman can win even without firing a Russian gunshot.

In his dream of reviving the Soviet empire, Kyiv is top prize. Tsarists, Bolsheviks, and post-Communists all considered Ukraine part of Mother Russia. The question now is how to bring an independent, Western-favoring country back into the Kremlin’s fold.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Jillian Kay Melchior reports, Ukrainians fear a series of cyber attacks and assaults on the country’s infrastructure, coupled with shooting provocations by Russian-affiliated militias that could trigger major unrest. Following on those, it is believed Mr. Putin could get a friendly Ukrainian leader to invite Russia in.

As in Kazakhstan in early January, Russian forces could then arrive to assure calm in the streets — and, to further stabilize the country, install a Moscow-friendly authoritarian as leader in Kyiv.

London has recently pointed to at least four top Kyiv politicians who are tied to Russian intelligence and work in tandem with Mr. Putin. Britain also identified a former Kyiv parliament member, Yevhen Murayev, as a potential Moscow-favored candidate to lead Ukraine.

Raking in energy profits while Western Europe becomes Russian energy-dependent; exposing the world democracies’ weaknesses; watching the fading of America’s glory as an all-powerful world leader; laying the ground for a Kyiv as a Moscow satrap: This is not a bad body of work for a leader of a country with a Texas-size economy and whose citizenry is much poorer than the Lone Star state’s.

Don’t, however, bet on Mr. Putin stopping there. As impressive as these victories are, he’s hungry for more. Mr. Putin may extend the length of the siege, hoping the West’s short attention span results in eyes turning away from Ukraine. He also may provoke Ukrainian unrest, or launch a “minor incursion” in any part of Ukraine. Then again, he could go all in, tanks roaring, to seize the entire poker table’s pot.

A politician once said, “The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing — once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” By now, America and its allies have exhausted most of the possibilities. Time to cut Mr. Putin down to size.


Image: President Putin delivers a speech in Moscow, January 12, 2022. Sputnik/Alexey Vitvitsky/Pool via Reuters

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