Springtime for Putin no more
Consider the change in Putin’s position since the start of the year.
20th January 2017, Putin was looking like he had won everything he could have possibly hoped for. His stooge Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president committed to a policy of destroying NATO. His paid agent Flynn was US National Security Advisor. And Brexit look set to unravel the entire European Union, setting off a chain reaction that would bring Faragist parties to power in the Netherlands, France and Germany, sealing the doom of the EU.
One of the many lingering consequences of the US invasion of Iraq is that Putin took the NATO led aggression as permission for some aggression of his own. First against Georgia and now in Ukraine. It is generally believed that the next target will be the Baltic states. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the Kaliningrad oblast cut off from the rest. Establishing a land bridge to the region is an obvious strategic goal for any aggressive tinpot dictator.
In that environment, Putin would face no opposition when his tanks rolled into the Baltics. The West was decadent and weak. Putin was strong. He was the victor and all best of all it had all been made possible by a bunch of English upper class twits who had spent their teen years babbling about the evils of the Soviet Union.
Well, it isn’t springtime for Putin any more and likely never will be again. His invasion of Ukraine is at a stalemate which he cannot resolve without use of air power. Trump has been forced to reaffirm his support for NATO (if not Article 5 yet) and should Brexit succeed, the EU will turn into what Putin fears most, a United States of Europe with a unified military with a vast array of firepower, and every barrel of every gun pointed at Moscow.
The failure of the fascist right to win election in first the Netherlands, then France have put paid to the UKIPer fantasy that Brexit would lead to the collapse of the entire union. It is clear that it has had the very opposite effect. The EU is more united than it has been since those heady days when the Euro was created. And while it is very clear that the 27 would very much prefer that the UK stay in the EU, the European project would become much easier if the UK was gone.
The main project that the UK has consistently obstructed is creating a unified European army which would inevitably diminish the role of NATO. The combined European forces would be the second most powerful military force on the planet. they would be more than a match for Russia, the only country that Europe plausibly needs a military to defend itself against.
Until Trump, the UK argument and the fact that there was no particular threat meant that proposals for a European army fizzled. Before he suggested that NATO was finished and that he for one would not honor the commitment to a common defense, the rationale for a European Army was purely political. Now there is a solid military and strategic case for an EU army. If Trump won’t deter Putin then Europe must.
For now, the Baltics are safe. But Trump’s deteriorating political position means that might change rather quickly. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Trump and Pence are both impeached and disgraced by mid 2019. Putin has spent a vast amount of political capital creating this opportunity. What will he do as the window of opportunity closes?
We are on a knife edge and even evidence of a mobilization could trigger a sudden change of course. Imagine the scene, the European leaders are sat round the table discussing Brexit. Without notice Boris Johnson storms in, announces that the UK is withdrawing its notice to leave, hands out evidence of the perfidious Russian threat and leaves to thunderous applause.
Completion of Brexit would bring us to the same point even without a hostile Russian move. While other members would often question whether the UK’s loyalties lay with the US or the EU, the fact that the UK had one foot on both sides of the pond was always seen as positive with respect to security. The UK could always be relied on to defend its allies in Europe and the US could probably be relied on to defend the UK. Eventually.
The loss of the UK from the EU and the Trump presidency make those assumptions much less safe than before. If the UK goes, a unified European Army is inevitable. And that would mean Putin faced a wall of steel from Estonia to Romania. A million Russians in Kaliningrad would be cut off from mother Russia.
Such a situation would not be stable. But unlike the instability to date, Russia would not benefit from it. Europe would have every incentive to run its borders up as close as possible to Russia, including not just Ukraine but Belarus if an agreement were possible. Putin’s plan for a Russian sphere of influence in Europe would be finished.
Is it possible perhaps that a similar possibility might have occurred to the Kremlin? Because one of the odder features of the past few weeks has been the sudden appearance of anti-Brexit stories in papers owned by formerly very pro-Brexit proprietors. The economic interests of the owners has not changed but maybe the interests of the powers paying them for their campaigns has.