Who’s Wagging Whose Dog?

What follows is pure speculation, but I have had a sneaking suspicion for a while that the Ukraine crisis is ready-made for an international “solution” that benefits a number of leaders politically while avoiding any serious down-side. Like a war, for example.

That suspicion is strengthened by the positive turn that reporting on Ukraine has suddenly taken. Thus, the London Times headlines: “Diplomacy with Russia can still save Ukraine, insists Johnson.” Subhead: “Britain and US talk of ‘crucial window’ as Moscow hints at peaceful solution.”

You can see it coming:

Boris Johnson and President Biden have said that there remains a “crucial window” to avoid a Russian invasion of Ukraine as Moscow hints that it is still open to a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

In a marked change of tone the two western leaders agreed there was an opportunity to avert conflict as international efforts to ease tensions increased. The Russian foreign minister used a televised meeting with President Putin to hold the door open to peace.

“It seems to me that our possibilities [of diplomacy] are far from being exhausted,” Sergey Lavrov said. “[Talks] certainly should not continue indefinitely, but at this stage I would suggest that they continue and be intensified.”

Separately the Russian defence minister said that some military drills, which have fanned fears of invasion, had ended or were coming to a close.

So why might war fever suddenly be subsiding? U.S. officials warned that Russia planned an invasion for Wednesday, preceded by a “false flag” operation to serve as a pretext. Then Joe Biden had a long phone conversation with Vladimir Putin in which Biden supposedly conveyed stern warnings. If war is now called off, who benefits? Joe Biden.

The U.K. jumped into the fray on Ukraine’s side, asserting British standing in world affairs and coming to Ukraine’s defense, including, I believe sending some troops to the area. So if the Russian invasion is called off, who benefits? Someone who needs a boost almost as badly as Joe Biden: Boris Johnson.

Emmanuel Macron, following in the footsteps of Charles DeGaulle, charted his own course independent of NATO and tried to be a broker via independent conversations with the Russians. He is engaged in a tough re-election race; if the Ukraine crisis dissipates, he will take credit for it.

And Vladimir Putin, by far the most secure of these four leaders, will benefit as long as Russia gets something out of its mobilization of troops at the Ukraine border. Putin is popular because he is seen as a strong leader, but no leader’s popularity is enhanced by soldiers being killed. So Putin gets the best of both worlds if he takes an aggressive position, mobilizes troops and threatens war, but then achieves Russia’s ends by peaceful means. And, of course, he avoids sanctions that could threaten Russia’s creaky economy.

Are the Western powers prepared to sell Ukraine down the river? The answer, I think, is how far down the river Putin has in mind. Some concessions are easy:

The developments came after Kyiv’s ambassador to London had signalled that Ukraine may be prepared to suspend its efforts to join Nato to avert war.

No voter in the U.S., the U.K. or France will care that Ukraine has agreed to stay out of NATO. This is an easy win-win.

It seems to me that the question is, what does Putin need in addition to Ukraine staying out of NATO? He annexed Crimea and obviously wants to annex eastern Ukraine, which is mostly Russian speaking and largely pro-Russia, as well. My guess–and it is purely a guess–is that this is what is now being negotiated. How much of Ukraine will the Western powers be willing to sever from that country, perhaps by plebiscite, over the heated objections of Ukraine’s government?

Call me cynical, but I think we may soon know the answer to that question. Or possibly some seemingly unrelated concession to Putin is on the table. But I think the congruence of political interests among the relevant leaders is too strong for war to be the most likely option.

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