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Putin Will Attack

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Photo: for Russians, elections are a ritual that, in their opinion, does not solve anything in particular. Source: Collage The Gaze/Leonid Lukashenko.
Photo: for Russians, elections are a ritual that, in their opinion, does not solve anything in particular. Source: Collage The Gaze/Leonid Lukashenko.

Today, Vladimir Putin's mature Kremlin dictatorship is in full bloom. In March 2024, he is likely to become president of Russia for the fifth time and receive legitimization for his eternal rule. In fact, it's not so much about the legitimacy of Putin himself, who has no competitors today, but about the legitimization of the war he has unleashed. The Russian dictator is waging this war not only against Ukraine but also against the West, with which he is actually in the midst of a deep Cold War. And it may be only a matter of time before Putin's hybrid war against the West becomes a conventional war. 

Today, Putin and the Russians have an unspoken agreement: support for the government in exchange for relative calm, when most Russians will not be in the trenches. But in reality, Russians have no guarantees from Putin. What matters to him now is to strengthen the narrative of the war, which he is trying to present to the general public as a "national liberation" war. That is, as a consequence of the West's "encroachment" rather than the root cause. And Putin will obviously interpret the election victory as unconditional support for his actions. 

And then "we have to watch our hands" when, with the help of a new round of repression, suppression, and censorship, the tacit agreement will turn into a "sacred duty" of all Russians to defend the country, which, according to State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, cannot exist without Putin. In other words, Russians will be forced to fight against anyone the leader points to. And this logic will become an axiom in the near future.

Unfortunately, for Russians, elections are a ritual that, in their opinion, does not solve anything in particular. They consume Putin's deceptive normalcy, convincing themselves that it will continue to be so, repeating to themselves: "as long as it's not worse." This is exactly what the Kremlin ruler needs, because his regime is based on the indifference of the majority, which is ready to consume everything that comes from above. 

He is rapidly returning Russia to his ideal, the Soviet Union. But Russians should not expect greatness. First, they will face an era of new great terror like the one of 1937-1938, and then a new war, and it is quite likely that it will be with NATO countries. Everyone needs to realize that war has become a way of life for Putin's system of rule. The key here is whether the Russians will succeed in drawing red lines for their leader, such as a ban on the use of nuclear weapons or attacks on NATO countries, or whether he will be given an unlimited mandate, drunk on years of rule?

What Should NATO Countries Expect?

It is not the first time that Western analysts have wondered when and under what conditions Russia, or rather Putin, will decide to attack NATO countries. And this is not about the propaganda hype of the Russian media, but about a real act of aggression. In particular, researchers at the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP) think tank believe that if the war in Ukraine is frozen, Russia will have six to ten years to recover and prepare its troops for a direct conflict with the Alliance. 

This study is not just the product of theorists, but is based on information from sources in the German military and intelligence community. Experts are confident that Moscow will rapidly build up its military capabilities, so NATO has 5-9 years to build up its capabilities as well and prevent a direct or indirect conflict. Russia is likely to encroach on the Baltic states. Russia will dare to do so as soon as it is confident of the success of this attack. And for this it needs a weakened, split West, which it will defeat in Ukraine... In other words, the absence of a Russian defeat in Ukraine could become a negative precedent that would free Putin's hands for the next steps on his bloody path.

In turn, the head of Poland's National Security Bureau, Jacek Severa, is convinced that the necessary potential to deter Russian aggression should be created on the eastern flank of the Alliance in three years. That is, he considers the forecast of German researchers too optimistic and calls for action, in particular: increasing the number of army personnel and creating new army formations. He believes that Russia needs three years to recover from the losses it has suffered in Ukraine. Therefore, freezing the war in Ukraine, in fact on the Kremlin's terms, starts a countdown to a new aggression, but now directly against a NATO country. And, as we can see, some Europeans understand this, but not all. The same opinion is shared by U.S. President Joe Biden, who said that the Russian dictator would attack NATO allies if he succeeds in seizing Ukraine.

Russian propaganda has already spent a lot of effort to cast doubt on the effectiveness of NATO's collective defense principle. They have created a lot of provocative materials with a hypothetical threat, for example, to the Baltic states, where they tried to promote the narrative that NATO would not defend these countries. In fact, this was logical, because before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, NATO's strategy was to deter a potential enemy by threatening retaliation. That is, the Alliance allowed that the territories of member states could be occupied until allied forces (primarily the United States) came to the rescue. However, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops and Russian war crimes in the occupied territories forced the Alliance to change its defense concept. Now, NATO is preparing to defend "every inch" of its land from the first day of an attack. But it should be understood that much more needs to be done to implement the new strategy, in fact, to completely rebuild the approach to defense, which means time, money, and many other resources. And the Russians are aware of this. It is likely that they may view the time of restructuring as a window of opportunity.

***

Thus, we should expect that after the election, having renewed his internal legitimacy, Putin will act even more aggressively. In addition, he wants to preserve his external legitimacy through the elections, appealing to the world that you have to communicate with me because I was elected. So the West needs to act more aggressively. For example, it should adopt the PACE resolution that recognizes Russia as a dictatorship and Putin as a dictator. It calls for not recognizing the legitimacy of the Russian president after his current term is over. It is clear that this is difficult, and not everyone in the world will respond to this, but it is worth creating a coalition of "non-recognition of Putin." We have to remember that he perceives any concessions as weakness, which invites him to new aggression. And his appetites are growing, which is also worth remembering.

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