Was This the Play All Along?

The Rubinstein Trap

Photo by Piotr Makowski on Unsplash

In chess, Polish player Akiba Rubinstein had the dubious honor to fall twice into a “trap” that eventually was named after him. Likely, it’s what stopped him from ever becoming a World Champion. How is that relevant to the war in Ukraine, you might ask.

Let me elaborate.

I mentioned Professor John J. Mearsheimer in one of my previous pieces. Although I admire him greatly for his clear thinking on the murky field of international relations, and, true to his reputation, he uncannily predicted twenty years ago that there would be tensions between Russia and Ukraine, he was ultimately wrong about Russia invading at this time.

He didn’t think it would happen.

In fact, he has jokingly said that we should encourage Putin to do it, as that would lead him to disaster. Has any of the U.S.’s recent “adventures” in the Middle East turned out any better? If anything Europe, with its highly urbanized landscape and a population that is more tech-savvy on average, and thus dangerous even at cyber warfare, poses an even more daunting challenge for any invader than even the historically “inhospitable” country of Afghanistan, where “empires go to die”. Not to mention that Ukraine is right next door to Poland, which NATO ensured became a full member soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain. This has become both a critical supply and evacuation corridor for Ukraine’s war effort.

Frankly, it’s not Mearsheimer’s fault; it made little sense to attempt such a thing. Except if, as many analysts claim, the initial plan was indeed for a swift “military operation” which would either install a Russian-friendly regime in Kyiv or at least force Zelenskyy to “rethink” his stance on NATO and a close trade partnership with the EU.

Although I don’t think that Vladimir Putin has taken leave of his senses, as some say, it is quite possible that he was misinformed regarding the possible level of resistance and the likely reaction of the government of Ukraine to a “special operation”. He is, after all, an autocrat, and leaders like that rule by fear and intimidation. There aren’t many people who would risk angering such a ruler by bringing them bad news or unpleasant opinions.

Still, one has to wonder: were the experts in the White House really so deluded about their “westernization” project in Eastern Europe and the supposed inability of Russia to respond to it, or was it indeed a “new strategy”, as Mikhail Gorbachev called it in 1997? Even Boris Yeltsin, a leader who was considered by many, possibly Putin himself among them, to be a puppet of the West had openly and clearly voiced his disagreement with the eastward expansion of NATO.

Is it possible that it wasn’t just the spread of liberal democracies that was the plan for Eastern Europe but, more importantly, laying a bear trap for Russia? Is there a chance that the US wasn’t entirely happy with its financial advance in the country which opened its gates to consumerism after decades of communist austerity and wanted even a larger piece of the pie which went to the oligarchs under Yeltsin and then Putin? Or was it a way to ensure that the bear was chained and subdued for good?

Is there a chance that Ukraine is being used as bait for that trap?

We may never know if that was the plan all along, but it certainly looks like it became the plan after 2014. Regardless of whether we agree with Putin’s view that NATO moving on the doorstep of Russia poses an existential threat to it or not, that’s his position and both Yeltsin and Gorbachev, which no one ever claimed were insane dictators, agreed that it was unacceptable.

When the leaders of a nation with the biggest nuclear arsenal on the planet openly say that they’re not happy with your strategy, it’s a wise thing to adjust that strategy, even if you consider that said nation is no longer a “superpower”. Yes, Russia is not the USSR. But does it have the means to cause a global conflagration? It most certainly does.

It doesn’t matter if Russia can’t project its power thousands of miles away like the U.S. does. It’s still a nuclear power and it’s concerned about its borders. That should suffice.

So one has to ask: wasn’t the example of Georgia in 2008 clear enough to convince the US that insisting on a regime change and NATO integration of Ukraine was a very dangerous game, first and foremost for Ukraine itself and then for the entire world?

Until 2008 you could excuse NATO, perhaps, for not taking Russia too seriously. I mean, I would never do that, but what do I know, I’m just a random person, not a policymaker. Still, you have to take seriously a man who was willing to literally level an entire city in reprisal to guerillas eliminating his forces and taking that city for themselves. Then again, that was the inside of his own country, so perhaps NATO thought that Putin wouldn’t dare intervene in a former Soviet republic.

But he did.

And how did NATO respond? It doubled down in Ukraine. What was the projected endgame of that move?

Until 2013, President Yanukovich was apparently dead set on a deal with the EU and the IMF, despite heavy resistance from business circles in his country and also the strict terms which would not fully help Ukraine cover its looming debt payments. His change of heart was seen as “sudden”, but it seems that Putin offered him a much better deal (and also promised to lift the trade restrictions, which he used to put pressure on Yanukovich in the first place).

I don’t think that the Ukrainians fully realized what they were going to get into with the IMF.

We Greeks would know. Protesting for doing a deal with that organization honestly seems insane to us. Then again, people protested for Brexit in the UK. It’s all a matter of how these ideas are sold to the public. In the case of Ukraine, it was about getting out from Russia’s long shadow and becoming a “western nation”.

In truth, it’s not even in any way clear that Ukraine was actually being offered EU membership. It’s quite unlikely given that at the time we were in the midst of a full-blown debt crisis and it’d be suicidal for the EU to consider integrating an indebted, seriously corrupt country such as Ukraine. In 2021 it sat in 122nd place, somewhere between Eswatini and Gabon in the Corruption Perceptions Index. My country, Greece, which the useful idiot who served as a Prime Minister when the debt crisis hit called “riddled with corruption” is sitting now in 58th place.

To put it bluntly, Ukraine had a snowball’s chance in hell to join the EU as a full member in the short term. And Yanukovich and his government knew this.

“Many citizens have got it wrong on European integration. It is not about membership, we are apparently not Poland, apparently we are not on a level with Poland … they are not letting us in really, we will be standing at the doors. We’re nice but we’re not Poles,” Oliynyk [Ukraine’s permanent representative for NATO] said.

The situation with NATO itself was much better, as the bar for membership is quite lower. After all, Turkey is a long-standing member and its record as a functioning democracy is… spotty to say the least.

But what was the actual purpose of Ukraine joining NATO? Ukraine clearly wished to pivot to the West and away from Russia. Even Yakunovich admitted that. And if that was the case, who would NATO protect Ukraine from, if not from Russia?

This leads us to the real questions: was Ukraine actually protected by NATO? Did these aspirations really help Ukraine’s security or did they place it in mortal danger? Even if Ukraine finally pushes Russia away would the price have been worth it?

A 1990 memo from the US State Department was quite clear about the dangers of NATO’s eastward expansion (emphasis mine):

“In the current environment, it is not in the best interest of NATO or the US that [Eastern European] states be granted full NATO membership and its security guarantees,” “[We] do not, in any case, wish to organize an anti-Soviet coalition whose frontier is the Soviet border. Such a coalition would be perceived very negatively by the Soviets.”

Despite these reservations and despite that there was nothing to indicate any actual threat from the Russian Federation, NATO did expand eastwards, until it became obvious that Russia could and would act against this strategy when it clearly seemed that its concerns were being systematically, if not deliberately, dismissed. And after Putin’s intervention in Georgia was somehow ignored, six years later an even stronger reply came in Ukraine.

Even Henry Kissinger, who had advocated for NATO’s expansion in order to “discourage Russia’s historical policy of creating a security belt of important and, if possible, politically dependent states around its borders” reversed his stance in 2007 in regards to Ukraine, and reaffirmed this view again in 2014, once the Crimean crisis had erupted. In contradiction to his original position that Russia should not have a security belt of states, he advocated a state of neutrality for Ukraine. He obviously understood that Ukraine was “a bridge too far” for NATO.

It seems impossible that NATO didn’t understand then that arming and training Ukraine, with the stated ultimate goal of integration, would lead Russia to decide to intervene. Either “preemptively”, as it happened, or after a possible attempt by Ukraine to reclaim Crimea or the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Seen this way, Putin would have felt forced to move before Ukraine had a chance to become a full member of NATO. As he has openly admitted, if that happened and Ukraine moved to reclaim its territories as a member of NATO, it would be game over for him.

It’s a risk he wasn’t willing to take. Or, at least, in February, the risk of a “special operation” seemed a better one. The fact that Russia’s population is aging and its army pool is shrinking only mean that if Putin intended to secure the neutrality of Ukraine, it would have to be sooner rather than later.

Putin knows that his army is too weak to face NATO. His only hope was to secure “his” territory in Ukraine and hold on to it, under the threat of nuclear retaliation. Nukes are useful as a deterrent, when they can be used in case one is attacked, but not so much as a “blackmail” device in order to claim more territory. That is impossible without boots on the ground, and Russia simply doesn’t have a large enough army to hold Ukraine, let alone any other former Soviet republic, which is now a NATO member. Even if he used conscripts, he wouldn’t be able to keep them in the army indefinitely in order to secure his supposed “Greater Russia”.

Assuming that he even somehow managed to defeat NATO, which he obviously can’t. Anyone who claims otherwise simply doesn’t understand simple mathematics and strategy or is just trying to scare people into agreeing to an irrational, potentially apocalyptic global conflict.

I’m no genius. I’m sure that anything I can think of, people who do this for a living have thought of a long time ago. They’ve run simulations, war games, and all hypothetical scenarios. And a likely end result was that Putin would be tempted to act in this situation and get into a war he wouldn’t easily be able to get out from.

It’s more than likely that the big brains in Washington D.C. and the Pentagon have decided that like the Soviet Union before it, Russia could be engaged in a failed war and come out far too weakened to pose any threat. Or even to support China in any meaningful way in the near future.

If this theory is right, then there wasn’t any interest in Ukraine’s sovereignty or prosperity in the first place. The U.S. would care about it as much as anyone cares for the well-being of something they use as bait. Bait is, by definition, expendable. If they did care then they and their allies wouldn’t keep insisting that Putin is a war criminal and not to be negotiated with. If you want to ensure that the war drags on, that would be the best way to do it.

It’s Ukrainians and Russians that are dying, after all, not western troops. That’s a sacrifice we are quite willing to make. This strategy has been used in the past. It’s a known fact that the U.S. promoted jihadism in Afghanistan in the ‘80s and eventually armed the mujahedeen with thousands of Stinger launchers. Arguably, the latter helped cripple the air superiority of the Red Army, the one big advantage it had over the guerillas, and made the war in Afghanistan unsustainable for the Soviets. There are many who insist that this led to the fall of the Soviet Union, although this is probably a gross oversimplification. Regardless, Afghanistan became a proxy war between the U.S. (and many other countries) and the USSR, a war that only cost money for the U.S., and spared it any political cost whatsoever. The political costs were hidden and became apparent many years later. In the end, history books have written that this funding and assistance from the U.S. to the mujahedeen was a good investment.

So why not apply this strategy again?

The situation looks like a long game of chess between the U.S. and Russia. A rematch of the classic one between the U.S. and the USSR. And Ukraine looks like another sacrificial piece meant to drag Russia into the same trap.

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Nikos Papakonstantinou

Nikos Papakonstantinou

It’s time to ponder the reality of our situation and the situation of our reality.