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The Main Cards in Putin’s Hands

The Russian war on Ukraine occupied the main agenda of two different summits that took place last week: the G7 leaders meeting in Bavaria and the heads of NATO summit in Madrid. In the Bavarian Alps, G7 leaders attempted to speak in one voice to back Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and affirm their support for his country politically and militarily. Important decisions were made: a significant increase in military aid and funding, providing long-range missiles to the Ukrainian forces, and their continuous training on Western weapons. Meanwhile, in Madrid, growing fears of Russia’s threat to European security pushed NATO to adopt a “historic” decision to open its doors to Sweden’s and Finland’s accession into the organization. It is difficult for Russian President Vladimir Putin to mitigate the difficulties of the new geopolitical situation in which he finds himself. A quick glance at the map shows how Russia has become encircled by NATO members and has no friendly relationship with any of its neighbors except for Belarus. And the Russian president, who was complaining before the invasion of Ukraine that the West was “at his doorstep,” is now facing NATO stretched along 1,300 kilometers of his country’s border with Finland. Not only was the “doorstep” surrounded, but the entire western borders of Russia will now need constant protection – a situation that the leadership in Moscow didn’t even consider since the end of the Cold War. In the wake of this situation, Putin can play many cards. For example, the card of military escalation in Ukraine in the form of seizing the largest amount of land in the Donbas region and beginning to include them, administratively and economically, in the Russian administrative and financial system. Alternatively, he may also play the card of economic escalation by placing enormous pressure on global energy and food production, which has already caused a rift among Western countries. Then there is the political escalation card, in which Putin will try to exploit the positions of several Western countries (such as Hungary, France, and Germany), which seem more inclined to keep the possibility of negotiations with Moscow on the table, in order to search for a peaceful end to the Ukrainian war. Although Western leaders tried to show a coherent position at the G7 and NATO summits, many signs emerged indicating divergent views surrounding the war with Russia. The most effective card in Putin’s hands, however, is his constant intimidation of the West from the danger of slipping into a nuclear confrontation. Keir Giles, an expert on Russia at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, says that Russia’s campaign of escalating threats against Western countries has an impact on the decisions of these countries and makes them reluctant to provide the most advanced weapons systems to Ukraine. Therefore, Putin feels that the weakness of his military capabilities in comparison with Western capabilities can be overcome by raising the level of Western concern about the consequences of nuclear escalation. The repeated references made by Putin, Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev, and other Russian officials, regarding Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons and its ability to reach any European target, are not hidden. In addition, Western countries are facing the economic impacts of the war, which are now reflected in a rise in prices and growing inflation, putting popular pressure on Western governments ahead of upcoming elections. The most important element in the Russian-Western equation remains the element of arms. This is a war that is not fought with words but with weapons. As long as Western countries are reluctant to provide Ukraine with weapons that would grant it a qualitative military edge and change the equation in favor of a Russian defeat, the war will continue to unfold in Moscow’s favor, and over time it will turn into a war of attrition for Europeans, Ukrainians and the world. –Elias Harfoush (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)