A word can often condense eloquence to define a situation. The Soviet-era encyclopedia on war had an array of phraseology conceptualised by strategists. One of them is Maskirovka, which effectively means deception. It essentially envelops a complex set of measures ranging from the positioning of forces, the stance of diplomacy to camouflage objectives in order to achieve intended outcomes.
It is not surprising that Vladimir Putin, a modern-day avatar of strongman Joseph Stalin, chose to deploy the Soviet-era idea of Maskirovka. The choreography of fear — the encircling of Ukraine by Russian troops, the nuclear drills in Belarus, the bombing of schools and pipelines, the call for evacuation of civilians from Donbass — wrapped in denials illustrate the potency of the approach. The saga could well be the next hit streaming into homes, ‘From Moscow with Love…Putin’s Fog of War!’
On Friday, US President Joe Biden asserted that Putin had made up his mind to invade Ukraine and target Kyiv which is often referred to as the mother of Russian cities. Neither the disclosures of intelligence reports nor the amplified chorus of diplomatese for peace laced with threats of sanctions seem to detain or deter Putin.
In the western world, the past is viewed as the prologue — and seemingly irreversible. The US and its allies internalised the theme of ‘the end of history’ propagated following the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then the parish of America and its allies have practiced ambiguity and benched ideology on issues rivetting their relevance — be it Russian transgressions in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and other episodes of geopolitical significance.
In Russia, in sharp contrast, it is said that the past is ever-changing — and for Putin, the past is apparently reversible or changeable. The commentary on the crisis is punctuated with questions on why Putin is doing what he is doing, the costs and benefits et al. Putin is invested in revising history and is investing for a legacy. He has been in power longer than most leaders in the world today — since he took charge, there have been five American presidents.
Leadership and goals are frequently influenced by estimations of identity, events and experience which cement the ideological basis. In December 1989, at the fall of the Berlin wall, Putin, as a young lieutenant colonel in the KGB, was posted in Dresden. His team was confronted by newly liberated activists and had called for assistance from a contingent of the Red Army posted nearby. The backup did not arrive and they were told, quote unquote, ‘Moscow is silent’.
That is not the only event scarring the psyche. Born in St Petersburg, home of the mighty Tsars, Putin had come to believe in greater Russia encompassing Ukraine. The collapse of the Soviet Union — triggered by the December 1991 Belovezh Accord signed by Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus — shrank Russia in size and stature. Putin believes the collapse of the Soviet empire is “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
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Putin’s defining credo, through his tenure, through events and expediencies, has been that Moscow will be heard. He is Moscow and as the parade of leaders to meetings — virtual and in person, at the long and short table versions — shows Moscow is being heard. The centrality of the conflict rests on Putin’s vision of Russia not as it is but as he sees it — Ukraine, which ironically means borderland, has always been on the agenda for Russia. In an interview with filmmaker Oliver Stone, Putin said: “I’m deeply convinced that the Ukrainian people and the Russian people are not simply close relatives. They are almost the same.”
It could be argued that the crisis of 2022 was waiting to happen. Putin has nurtured the quest for Greater Russia with words and wars. Following the March 2004 admission of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, Putin warned NATO that any plan to induct Ukraine would be ‘viewed as a hostile act’. Nevertheless, in April 2008, NATO promised Ukraine and Georgia induction at a future date. Putin’s response was manifest — in Georgia in August 2008 and later in Crimea and in Ukraine. The template of action is Masirovka using self-certified ‘republics’.
In 2022, Ukraine is stranded between the NATO promise and Putin’s wrath — it must fight for sovereignty or be an enclave of Russia — and it is on its own. There is much lather about China’s ‘right to sovereignty’ stance at Munich. The fact is that last month only China voted with Russia to stop a meeting on Ukraine at the Security Council and abstained from voting on the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Putin’s dare has jolted the US and its allies awake from the ideological slumber. But the coalition is far from cohesive on the plan of action — on the details of how to sanction on Russia. How the Ukraine crisis is resolved has geopolitical implications. There is no disputing that what happens in the European theatre will be cast as the prologue for what could happen south of the Straits of Taiwan.
The battle lines are clear. The challenge before the parish of the West is to step out of the cocoon of convenient convictions to preserve the idea of rule-based world order.