How accurate is the West’s current assessment of Moscow’s intentions?

Western governments don’t know exactly what Vladimir Putin is likely to do next, but they do know enough to start preparing for the worst.

For the past three months, we’ve seen the foreign ministers of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania visiting the world’s capitals warning about how their countries might become Vladimir Putin’s next targets.

Some take these warnings as overcautiousness or simply fear. Others take the warnings seriously. How realistic are they?

The first step to take in order to foresee if Russia plans a military operation is to check all available military intelligence and pay attention to the movement of troops, logistical lines, military bases and fortifications. You don’t need to be a particularly bright analyst to make conclusions based on such information. You either have Russian troops and weapons in range (which is risky for you) or you don’t.

Putin has certainly been increasing Russia’s military presence in the country’s north-west—so if you’re looking at military intelligence data, you might conclude Russia is indeed intended to invade, let’s say, Estonia.

Then, all kinds of political calculations come in to play. Is Putin spreading fear and chaos without any real intention of launching an invasion? Perhaps bringing his troops closer to the Estonian border merely in order to make the Estonians nervous and to push Tallinn to end its backing for Ukraine.

Or, given Estonia’s small size, maybe Putin is willing to attack, even though the country is a NATO member. Putin knows full well that NATO isn’t willing to fight on Russian territory, would likely not bomb Moscow or St Petersburg, while taking losses in Estonia would be fine with Putin’s risk-taking approach. A full-scale war need not be necessary—it could be an operation or two. The Russians will be satisfied with anything they achieve through such an operation.

A guessing game

Putin is well aware that analysts in Washington, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, London and other places are trying to predict his next move, so he keeps playing his game, saying something controversial or even doing something inconsistent. He wants to keep his enemies guessing.

What we see in the West is that in most places political leaders delegate assessment of Russia’s military plans to their defence ministers, military strategists, generals and intelligence officers. That’s what Estonia does. That’s what Germany does. That’s what Britain does. That’s why their analysis is showing a high probability of a Russian attack in a new direction, which might involve Estonia, Finland or some other country.

They see an increase in Russia’s military resources—and they cannot be certain that these are all bound for Ukraine.

America is different. There, the US president usually prefers a separate channel of military and security analysis from civilian analysts, not from the Pentagon or the US Armed Forces. What’s interesting is that while General Charles Brown, US chief of general staff, doesn’t believe that Russia’s military threats against thre US or NATO are realistic, people in the White House do. Such a conclusion has been reached solely through political analysis. White House analysts know Putin is aggressive and they know he’s unpredictable, so they have to sign up for the worst case scenario which is, perhaps, a Russian nuclear strike targeting some location on American soil.

Generally speaking, current Western calculations reveal that while governments don’t know what will happen, they do know enough to start preparing for the worst.

Such uncertainty in assessing military risks creates more space for Putin to carry out his geopolitical maneuvers. This is not especially beneficial to Russia, but this worsens the security situation in Europe and America, causing more military spending which needs to be funded either through higher taxes or through issuing more sovereign debt.

Both moves are unpopular with the general population.

New leaders needed

Which leads us to the political conclusion of all this: there is a growing demand for a political solution. I’m sure many Estonians, Finns, Latvians are tired of living with the fear that Russia might attack them. Other nations feel the same.

Worse, if the current generation of Western leaders aren’t able to produce a solution, voters will start looking for new leaders. That points to Donald Trump in the US, seen as an unconventional leader in a situation where a conventional leader such as Joe Biden has failed. That a Trump presidency could doom Ukraine is irrelevant to many US voters.

I’ve read terabytes of articles, social media posts and statements from politicians in various countries about Russia and its war against Ukraine. And yet I haven’t seen any substantial ideas on how to stop Putin.

Yes, with more military assistance Ukraine will be able to get its territories back. But what if Putin invades again? It all starts over.

From my point of view, three steps must be taken.

Firstly, a global political leader has to stand up and say: “Our goal is destroying the Putin regime in Russia and preventing any regime of this type re-emerging there, by using short-, medium- and long-term strategy and methods”.

Secondly, such a leader should be able to create an international coalition which would subscribe to that goal, allocating all necessary human capital, assets and resources to achieving it.

Finally, this whole project should be organised in a way that would make it able to survive any electoral cycles and any swings in political emotions within society.

It will be hard, but politics has never been easy. What’s needed is a leader of the right calibre to achieve it. We need new Churchills, we need new Lincolns, we need new de Gaulles. Otherwise, we’ll get new Putins.

Photo by Alexey Larionov on Unsplash.

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About the author

Ivan Verstyuk

Ivan Verstyuk

Ivan Verstyuk is an analyst and journalist based in Kyiv. His book, Changes Outside My Windows, about life during Russia's war on Ukraine, was published in late 2022 by Yakaboo.

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