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Putin’s Great Gambit is Biden’s Chamberlain Moment

As Russian President Vladimir Putin risks stability in Europe by threatening an invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden is inadvertently placed at a crossroads of historical parallels in attempting to maintain a fragile peace. Putin’s rationale for this escalation, whether it plays out as an elaborate ruse or major military aggression, is rooted in domestic and foreign narratives of great power politics. The success of Biden and the West’s confrontation of Putin’s geopolitical powerplay is likely in what they are willing to compromise for the Russian leader in order to form some degree of peace.

Russia finds itself at the precipice of inciting a geopolitical storm of staggering consequence to international and financial security. Mr. Putin’s decision to surround Russia’s southern neighbor with over 100,000 troops, just a single sudden action or miscalculated event away from invading Ukraine under the guise of U.S. and Western threats to its security, begs the question as to why he would undertake such an extraordinary political and economic risk.

Putin’s great gambit

Fundamentally, Putin is mobilizing his military and political might to communicate to two distinct audiences – one foreign, one domestic.

To his foreign audience, Mr. Putin is communicating to the West that the continued encirclement of Russia by U.S. and Western allies, militaries, and political ideals simultaneously with the deterioration of Russian influence, identity, and authority in traditionally Eastern Bloc and former Soviet satellite states is no longer acceptable and threatens Russia’s security.

Conversely, to his own people, Mr. Putin is exclaiming that Russia will protect and embolden itself, and will no longer succumb to Western pressure, sanctions, and threats. Russian-speaking peoples will again be united under a Moscow government, and Russia will once more take its rightful seat at the table of world powers.

Two audiences. Two storylines. No good outcomes.

Biden’s perilous parallel

Biden’s options to prevent a Russian attack on Ukraine come down to what he is willing to compromise. He leads the Western world reluctantly facing a mounting crisis which does not inherently involve a direct U.S. military treaty ally or NATO member state in Ukraine. Nonetheless, the current situation carries a real danger of destabilizing much of Europe, threatening other regional allies, risking European energy supplies from Russia, and violating the sovereignty of a democratic state.

Military units training in eastern Ukraine. (Taras Gren)

Either Biden will avert a Russian invasion or land grab without major concessions, or his face-off with Vladimir Putin will be his Neville Chamberlain moment – acquiescing to the Russian dictator’s territorial desires to construct some semblance of peace only to be deceived into Putin’s greater aggressive stratagem, much as British Prime Minister Chamberlain did the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to the Nazis as part of the Munich Agreement in 1938.

Biden is in a no-win situation, as Putin is not likely to come out of his great gambit empty-handed. Likewise, President Putin can expect harsh and debilitating economic sanctions from the West if it moves on its southern neighbor. Still, Putin has reason to believe his gambit will be both a domestic and foreign net gain.

In taking his country to the brink, Putin will need a ‘victory’ of sorts to flaunt to his homeland before willingly pulling back. In order to maintain the domestic narrative that Russia will defend itself against an antagonistic West, and/or defend and protect what it believes to be theirs, at a minimum Mr. Putin will likely have to exit this crisis with the current U.S. sanctions massively reduced – a very unlikely proposition – or similar to the 2014 annexation of the Crimea, yet another occupation of Russian speaking lands in eastern Ukraine.

This is a result the West would wholly unite in condemnation, but alas for President Biden, a likely conclusion regardless of his approach to maintaining peace and Ukrainian security. As in Crimea, Putin knows he is likely to realize such an annexation of the majority Russian-speaking Donbas. No one has the appetite for war, and beyond the monetary and material support of Ukrainian armed forces, it’s a near certainty no one is going to engage with Russia militarily.

To limit the damage any level of Russian invasion would incur on the region, President Biden may well be shackled to his own Chamberlain moment. His hands tied and the Russian military either on the verge of taking the Donbas, or already controlling it, Biden’s only way to secure any type of peace and stability in the region may be to concede to Russia its territorial aim so long as no greater invasion or breach of Ukrainian sovereignty is assured.

Of course, just as Germany’s Adolph Hitler quashed the Munich Agreement under the rolling treads of a panzer division crossing the Polish border not long after signing it, Putin, too, can take aim at his next possible conquest after consenting to no future Russian militarism.

Too much is at stake for all parties directly involved, and for the world economy as a whole to let this crisis spiral into a full-fledged military confrontation. If President Putin really is serious in his threats of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it’s already too late for any resolution between Washington and Moscow that eliminates any threat of a Russian incursion into Ukraine without concession by either side. Some Russian annexation is likely – a no-win situation in which President Biden can respond much the same as the U.S. did in 2014, by expanding harsh sanctions upon Russia, supporting Ukrainian military defenses to fend off Russian attacks, and selectively engaging Moscow diplomatically.

Russia wants security guarantees and the termination of NATO expansion along its borders. The West is right in its stance to refute these Russian demands. However, the cost of doing so means the probable slice by slice expansionism of Russian power and aggression back into its former satellite states. Putin is attempting to seize back what he sees as Russia’s rightful domain, and in doing so, coalesce a Russian-speaking populace to reinvigorate Russia’s imperial past.

President Putin’s gambit comes with great geopolitical costs and risks, but may also bring the type of grand imperialistic rewards coveted by an authoritarian leader determined to return his country to its former great power status. For President Biden, an unimaginable compromise at the cost of a democratic-ally may be the only option to avoid the largest military confrontation in Europe since World War II – an incredible price to pay for a precarious peace at best.