(Photo by Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
At first glance, the latest twists and turns in the Ukraine poker game might present Russian President Vladimir Putin as the winner.
After all, he is reaping what he sowed eight years ago, when he incited ethnic Russian secessionists to set up breakaway "people's republics" in parts of Ukrainian territory, in Donetsk and Lugansk. By stationing troops in the two enclaves, Putin makes official an occupation that he had indirectly exercised through Wagner mercenaries and local militias. Imposing two "cooperation treaties" on the breakaway "republics," he also shows their annexation in all but name by Russia.
Initially, aware that he must cast himself as victim in order to win sympathy in Western public opinion that warms up to figures like Saddam Hussein or George Floyd, he presented Russia as a victim of NATO "expansion" and his saber rattling as an act of self-defense.
Never mind that NATO is a defensive pact and not allowed to attack anyone unless one of its own members is first attacked. Even then, Article V, under which military action is allowed, is not automatically applicable and hasn't been applied since the alliance was created. In contrast, led by the now defunct Soviet Union, the rival Warsaw Pact was used for military interventions in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia to crush popular uprisings against Russian domination.
Putin claimed that NATO plans to include Ukraine as a member and use it as an advance base against Russia. That claim shows that Putin sees a war between his Russia and NATO as a possibility if not a probability in the short run. That claim is hard to sustain if only because, under NATO rules, a country that has unsettled irredentist disputes with its neighbors cannot be admitted as a member. That rule applies to both Ukraine and Georgia, another country invaded by Putin, both of which are barred from NATO membership because of their territorial disputes caused by Russian aggression.
Thus, Putin was making a song and dance about something that couldn't happen under NATO's own rules.
In time, however, Putin may find out that he has scored hollow victory at great political, economic and even security cost.
To start with, he can no longer play wolf disguised as sheep. Revealing himself as an adversary, if not a mortal foe of the democratic world, Putin makes it easier for those in the West who have enough backbone to stand up against appeasers. Putin may find out that although Joe Biden may be weak and a pushover, the United States and the family of democratic nations are not.
Putin's call for the recognition of his two phantom republics is also likely to fail, as did his similar calls for recognition of the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the "independence" of Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. Even his stooges in Tehran have not dared recognize those acts of aggression as legitimate. His latest buddy, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called it "unacceptable" while Big Brother Xi Jinping in Beijing has drowned the issue under an avalanche of equivocal spit. That leaves, Belarus's "Mad Max" Alexander Lukashenko who may or may not endorse Tsar Vladimir's latest naughty crack.
Putin would be wrong to think that with the passage of time the rest of the world will endorse his "conquest", just as no one ever recognized the annexation of the Baltic republics by Stalin.
Putin is also wrong to think that forcing "Finlandization" on Ukraine could offer Russia the glacis he wants.
In fact, Finland, the original model for "Finlandization", has steadily strengthened links with Western democracies by becoming a member of the European Union and forging close ties of cooperation with NATO. It has also built a strong defense, guess against whom?
Recently Finland bought 64 ultramodern F-35 warplanes, enough to knock out half of Russia's antiquated flying machines.
Sweden, another non-NATO democracy and thus regarded as "Finlandized," has taken note of Putin's growing aggressive behavior and increased its defense expenditure and strengthened its military presence in Gotland archipelago.
Since the Russian invasion of 2008, though barred from NATO membership, Georgia, too, has been rebuilding its military defenses, almost doubling the size of its army and acquiring modern hardware from the West.
Thus, there is no reason why Ukraine, which cannot join NATO until it has settled territorial disputes with Russia, won't be able to upgrade its defenses with support from Western democracies, something that is already happening albeit on an as yet modest scale. Putin's aggressive behavior strengthens the hands of Ukrainian nationalists who seek a "European future" for their nation. In turn, that would justify more expenditure on Ukrainian defense, something that could force Putin into a mini-arms race on Russia's Western fringes.
The spectacle of ancient Russian tanks and armored vehicles creeping into Donbass showed how antiquarian Putin's arsenal is.
Keeping 150,000 troops or 10 percent of his usable military capacity in Donbass cannot be a realistic prospect at a time Putin has got Russia militarily involved in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Transcaucasia, Tajikistan, Syria, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic.
Empire-building is also costly. Since 2014 Crimea, deprived of its principal source of revenue, foreign tourism, has cost Russia some $40 billion including the cost of a bridge to the mainland. With Donbass at point zero in terms of economic survival, Putin would have to cater for over four million new "socially assisted" people, including many old age pensioners.
Anyone following Russian politics with some interest might notice another fact that might expose Putin's victory as hollow: the absence of a large consensus on Tsar Vladimir's latest gamble. In the televised show designed to show that Putin was acting on the advice of the highest officials, Prime Minister Mikhail Michoustin and at least two other members of the National Security Council sounded less enthusiastic about the course suggested by Putin and hinted that the diplomatic course might not be blocked.
The haste with which Putin pushed "treaty" texts through the Duma, the Russian parliament, also indicted concern that genuine debate might indicate lack of full support for the Donbass adventure. Those who see Putin as a potentate might dismiss that suggestion as fanciful and they may be right. Nevertheless, the possibility that some in the Russian leadership elite may be concerned about Putin's paranoia shouldn't be ruled out.
This is a multi-round match and Putin may have won the first round. However, the final bell hasn't sounded yet.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.