Feb 25, 2022

Seven crucial questions about Putin’s war on Ukraine, CNN.com

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His new book is "The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden." The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN. (CNN)Vladimir Putin's assault on Ukraine is a dramatic break in the history of post-World War II Europe, raising vital questions about the military operation's origin, timing and likely course. Not since President George W. Bush attacked Iraq in 2003, or the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, has an invasion seemed as reckless as the one Putin launched this week. The invasion prompts seven questions: First, why did Putin choose to attack Ukraine during the administration of Joe Biden rather than when Donald Trump was president? After all, Trump seemed an eager ally in Putin's project to Make Russia Great Again, going out of his way to cozy up to Putin and also to undercut the NATO alliance, the undermining of which has long been a goal of Putin's. Perhaps, because for all of Trump's personal coziness with Putin, his administration took a somewhat tough approach with Russia. In 2018, the Trump administration approved the sale of some $40 million of lethal weaponry to the Ukrainian government fighting Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. The same year the Trump administration also expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the United States after the Russians had allegedly tried to assassinate a former Russian spy living in the United Kingdom using a nerve agent. So, this leads us to a second question: To what extent did the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan in August inform Putin's decision-making on Ukraine? Surely, Biden's decision to abandon Afghanistan showed a United States in retreat, leaving its allies in the elected Afghan government to the tender mercies of the Taliban, while irritating America's NATO partners who were also forced to pull out of Afghanistan as a result of the US withdrawal, since American forces provided much of the air power and intelligence that allowed allied forces to function in Afghanistan. Chinese state-run media noted that the US abandonment of Afghanistan held lessons for the fate of Taiwan; that the US was both a fair-weather friend when it came to its allies and also a paper tiger. "The fall of Kabul marks the collapse of the international image and credibility of the US," opined Xinhua, China's state news agency. In early November, a little over two months after the debacle of the total US pullout from Afghanistan, Putin started moving a sizeable Russian army of 90,000 troops towards the Ukrainian border, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. It is no secret that neither Russia nor NATO actually wants Ukraine to be in NATO, precisely because of what we are now seeing unfolding in Ukraine. If Ukraine were part of NATO, the Russian invasion would have triggered NATO's Article 5, which would have in turn prompted a NATO-led war against Russia -- and potentially a nuclear confrontation. NATO countries do not have any appetite to send troops to war in Ukraine and President Biden has said no American troops will be deployed there, although Biden has also made clear that if the war expanded to a Russian attack on a NATO ally in eastern Europe that US forces would intervene. So why a war now? Maybe, Putin simply felt he could get away with it. But Putin's seeming calculus of US and NATO weakness has somewhat backfired as the Biden administration has worked with its NATO partners closely and the alliance has held together, presenting a united front against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, the US intelligence community has done a good job of what it is supposed to do, which is to provide strategic warnings to American policymakers, predicting accurately that Putin could invade Ukraine at any time—likely using the cover of "false flag' operations—with the aim of overthrowing the elected Ukrainian government. The Biden administration also has publicized this intelligence information to good effect. Another question: Would a quick military victory by Putin in Ukraine replicate the 2003 US "victory" in Iraq, which was followed by a long messy insurgency and a civil war? That is certainly possible. As Machiavelli noted five centuries ago: "Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please." Would the CIA then start funding Ukrainian insurgents as they did in 2013 with the Syrian insurgents who were battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad? That CIA effort failed and Assad's regime was effectively saved by Russia's intervention in the Syrian war in 2015. Might a CIA effort in Ukraine fare better? Will stringent US sanctions on Putin's inner circle and the Russian economy work to force Putin to rethink his policy on Ukraine? Doubtful. Authoritarian regimes generally shake off even draconian sanctions at the expense of their own people. Look at Kim Jung Un's North Korea today or Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the 1990s; punishing US sanctions helped to immiserate the North Korean and Iraqi populations with scant consequences for their regimes. Will Trump pay any political price for saying that Putin's move on Monday to recognize two breakaway regions of Ukraine was "genius?" As with so many actions by Trump, it is unprecedented for a former president to be publicly undercutting a sitting president's foreign policy against an adversary. Trump's comments about Putin's "savvy" and "genius" were made on Tuesday before Putin's forces invaded Ukraine. Trump has led a wing of the Republican Party to become Putin's cheerleaders. One of the key leaders of the Putin apologists is Tucker Carlson of Fox News, who last month said, "Why is it disloyal to side with Russia but loyal to side with Ukraine?" On Tuesday, on his show, Carlson upped the ante with his defense of Putin asking rhetorically whether the Russian autocrat had ever promoted "racial discrimination," had tried "to snuff out Christianity," had manufactured fentanyl, or had eaten dogs. Carlson forgot to ask whether Putin and his cronies had ever murdered political opponents, poisoned them with exotic weapons, imprisoned them on spurious charges, invaded neighboring countries, or looted the Russian people. Finally, who will win the war in the long term? No one knows, of course. When the Soviets invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979, it looked like a cakewalk. They immediately seized the capital Kabul, yet a decade later the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan --a move that hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. Conversely, Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and still retains it. War is always the most uncertain of enterprises. Putin has effectively ruled over Russia for the past 22 years and in 2020 a referendum was passed allowing him to remain president until 2036. If natural causes don't intervene -- and judging by his almost complete isolation from the outside world, he cares a lot about his own health -- Putin may linger on his Russian throne longer than Stalin who ruled for 30 years or Catherine the Great who reigned for 34 years. (There is of course always the possibility that Putin might be overthrown by forces unknown, but given his current total lock on power this seems like a very remote possibility.) So Putin likely has many more years left to try to implement his vision of restoring the Soviet empire and Making Russia Great Again.