Lots of pundits are trying to get into Putin’s head and looking for a so-called off ramp.
I am not a pundit and I do not pretend to be able to read Putin’s mind. However, I do listen carefully to those closest to Russia who have better insights than American pundits, academics and foreign policy theorists.
As co-chair of the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus, I hear regularly from Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians.
These countries are historically Western in every sense except geography.
But, they have had a long, and often painful, exposure to the Russian/Soviet/KGB way of thinking.
Our Baltic friends can help others in the West who cannot fathom what is going through Putin’s mind.
The fact that we cannot understand Putin’s mindset is because he doesn’t think like a modern, Western leader. This is an important insight from my Baltic contacts.
Putin is stuck in the 17th and 18th centuries. I like history so this is something I can understand.
Putin thinks like a czar expanding his empire.
He regrets the collapse of the Soviet Union, not because of the communist ideology, but because it reconstituted the Russian Empire.
In foreign policy, it is easy to assume other countries are just like us. Experts don’t know what to make of an 18th century imperialist.
Some observers have speculated that Putin has gone crazy because he does not seem to be acting rationally. But, from the standpoint of someone who thinks Ukraine is not a real country, as he has said for decades, and who regrets the collapse of the Evil Empire, he is acting rationally.
Our Baltic allies have been warning the West that Putin is an aggressor since well before the current invasion of Ukraine, before the 2014 invasion of neutral Ukraine, before the disastrous Obama administration “reset” of relations with Russia and before the 2008 invasion of Georgia.
The Baltics have often been dismissed as hysterical, or Russophobic, or at least exaggerating when they warned about Russia.
Well, the world has woken up to the fact that the Baltics were right all along.
We should have armed Ukraine to the teeth years ago.
Putin only understands strength.
What lesson should we have learned from Putin’s pattern of aggression over the years?
Putin only understands strength and weakness is provocative.
During the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, when the Hungarian people were protesting to break free of Soviet control, the Eisenhower administration paid lip service to their aspirations for freedom but was secretly obsessed with not provoking the Soviets.
Secretary of State Dulles made a speech in Dallas, Texas where he said, “The U.S. has no ulterior purpose in desiring the independence of the satellite countries,” and, “We do not look upon these nations as potential military allies.”
However, after his speech, he then cabled the U.S. Embassy in Moscow instructing that this be brought to the attention of the highest Soviet authorities.
The Estonian historian and former prime minister, Mart Laar, maintains that this message from Dulles was interpreted by Moscow as a carte blanche to intervene and the Americans would not stand in the way.
That’s why he titled the relevant chapter in his book on the rise and fall of communism in the region “The lost opportunity: 1956.”
So what do our Baltic friends advise now in the face of Putin’s threats to escalate if we supply Ukraine with fighter jets or other advanced weapons?
Believe it or not, their advice is to relax.
In other words, do not overreact to Putin’s threats.
We have a nuclear deterrent and Putin knows that. The more we show we are scared by his threats, the harder he will push.
And, we absolutely need to stop declaring what we will NOT do.
That just emboldens Putin to push harder.
The failure to push back to previous Russian aggression, the failure to enforce previous red lines in Syria and the perception of weakness from the Afghanistan pullout debacle, is what got us here.
I hope President Biden has picked up on this.
Now is the time to re-double our efforts to reinforce Ukraine.
Putin appears to have accepted he cannot conquer all of Ukraine, but he’s repositioning forces to take as big a chunk as he can.
Ukraine must win this war. On to victory!
Anything short of a Ukrainian victory is an invitation for future Russian aggression.
We’ve got to stop the finger pointing and excuses and get Ukraine air defenses, drones and anything else to shift the balance.
To date, the United States and our allies have supplied the heroic Ukrainian military with the kind of weapons that have allowed them to hang on while their cities are shelled and civilians are massacred.
The Battle for Kyiv may have been won, but the battle for the East is about to intensify.
Unless we tip the balance, this could go on for a long time.
We’ve seen how brutal the Russian occupation has been in just a month. Imagine months and months of this in eastern Ukraine.
I have a bill with Senator Durbin to guarantee that the United States will backfill certain critical weapons transferred to Ukraine by our eastern flank NATO allies.
Many NATO countries have been very generous in handing over weapons to Ukraine.
This is leaving a security gap in those countries. But, they know that if Putin isn’t stopped in Ukraine, they are at greater risk.
As Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas says, “Putin cannot even think he has won or his appetite will grow.”
Some of our NATO allies also have air defense systems or drones that could make a big difference in Ukraine.
There are rumors of negotiations to supply items needed in Ukraine provided there is an agreement to acquire American replacements. My bill would provide that assurance upfront without all the red tape.
Putin has talked constantly about “demilitarization and denazification” as his justification for launching this brutal invasion.
That phrase does not make much sense on its face. But, again, we have to keep in mind that Putin has an imperial mindset.
No military analyst looking at Ukraine and Russia could possibly think that Ukraine posed any military threat to Russia.
The Russian military dwarfs the Ukrainian one in manpower and equipment. In fact, it is clear that Putin and his military leaders underestimated the fighting ability of the Ukrainians.
The same is frankly true of NATO’s military power along Russia’s borders.
What Putin means by de-militarize is to shrink Ukraine’s military to the point that it is indefensible. He wants Ukraine totally susceptible to Russian threats, meaning back within Russia’s sphere of influence.
What about denazification?
Ever since World War II, Soviet leaders routinely labeled those in the Soviet Republics who expressed a desire for independence a fascist or Nazi.
It is pretty clear that Putin’s initial goal was to eliminate Ukraine’s current government, starting with President Zelenskyy.
So, despite being descended from Holocaust survivors, denazification starts with eliminating Zelenskyy.
A recent article in a Russian publication, RIA Novosti, confirmed that denazification means the elected government must be eliminated as well as the Ukrainian military.
But, it goes on to say, “However, in addition to the top, a significant part of the masses, who are passive Nazis, accomplices of Nazism, are also guilty. They supported and indulged Nazi power… Denazification will inevitably be de-Ukrainianization.”
That is chilling, especially in light of the massacre at Bucha and other Ukrainian cities.
That statement reminds me of this quote from Catherine the Great after she completed her takeover of an independent Ukrainian state over a decade before our Declaration of Independence, “every effort should be made to eradicate them and their age from memory.”
Stalin killed millions of Ukrainians by intentionally starving them to death with the same goal.
Putin has praised Stalin and is now imitating him.
The UN Genocide Convention defines genocide to mean “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
That sure seems to fit with what we know about the Russian occupiers in Ukraine.
There’s another lesson we can learn from our Baltic friends.
Despite the murder and deportation to Siberia of masses of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians to suppress their national identity, there were ten years of active guerrilla warfare by bands of “Forest Brothers.” In fact, resistance never really ended until the Baltic countries threw off Soviet rule.
I will leave you with the first few lines of the Ukrainian National Anthem, “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished, Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians. Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine, and we, too, brothers, we’ll live happily in our land.”