Staunton, April 29 – The Kremlin thought it had a winning propaganda theme offered up by some in the United States by “the sacramental question: ‘Do you want to die for Narva?’” Andrey Pionkovsky says, because in fact no one in the West “will ever go to war with Russia in the defense of Estonia” or Latvia or Ukraine.
But what Vladimir Putin apparently “underestimated” is another fundamental reality: If NATO ever fails to defend the territory of its members, that will be not only “the end of NATO” but also “the end of the US as a world power [and] the withdrawal of the West from World History”.
In a post on Ekho Moskvy today, the Russian analyst said that Putin had made a number of ideological missteps since he launched his Ukrainian campaign, including drawing on Hitler’s speech about the Sudetenland for his comments about Crimea, and statements by some of his supporters about Russians being the descendants of Aryan tribes.
Those were serious mistakes, but they ultimately may not matter as much as Putin’s increasingly expansive talk about Novorossiya and even northern Kazakhstan as part of his “Russian world” and as potential objects of his drive to go down in history as the latest “ingatherer of Russian lands.”
Putin has said these things because they play well at home and because he was confident that he could intimidate the West to the point that it would take no action against him. To be sure, Piontkovsky continues, the West “always was prepared to sacrifice Ukraine,” pointing to “the first automatic action” of the US and NATO that they excluded any military response because Ukraine is not part of the Western alliance.
“In reality,” the Russian commentator says, “who would go to war with a nuclear super power in order to defend a state about which no one had taken any obligations. It was [quite] possible to forget about the Budapest memorandum as a meaningless piece of paper.” After all, “a chicken is not a bird, and a memorandum is not a treaty.”
But Putin’s initial success at intimidation of the West not surprisingly has led him to overreach. If he takes in all of the Russian lands in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, “what then remains to support the vitality of the idea of the ingathering of Russian lands? Narva. Russian Narva. A city of Russian military glory” that is now within the borders of a NATO country.
According to Piontkovsky, the current power balance between the conventional forces of NATO and those of “the Russian world” is such that regardless of how many “little green men” came from Russia to Narva to secure the conduct of a referendum about unification with Russia, they could be liquidated by [NATO] forces in the course of half an hour.”
But as the Russian commentator notes, the question is not whether such Russian subversive forces could be liquidated but rather whether they would be. That this might be a real question was suggested by its being raised in the United States by people ranging from “the veteran of Soviet intelligence Dmitry Konstantinovch Tsimes to that veteran of American diplomacy Henry Kissinger.”
It seemed obvious to both the Kremlin and these analysts that the West “would never go to war with Russia” to defend Estonia or Latvia just as it had not been willing to do so over Ukraine. But what Putin failed to recognize is that “the West cannot in any case allow itself to refuse to defend militarily the territory of a NATO member country.”
“Does the West have a way out of this logical trap?” Piontkovsky asks, and he suggests that the West is moving toward it. It is doing everything it can not to allow “the dilemma of Narva” to arise, and that has serious consequences for Putin and all because of his acceptance of the notion that the old idea of “the ingathering of Russian lands” can be revived.
The sanctions regime of the West is beginning to hurt not only Russia but the economies of other countries. But, after Putin suggested in his speech of March 18 that he would follow that old notion, he “became for the West an existential problem” even if the West has to suffer as well to solve.
And the West is set, in order to avoid the Narva question, to move beyond just economic sanctions and to show to Russians and the world “the nature and structure of the personal wealth of Putin and his closest cronies.” That step is “a politically much more terrible threat to him” than any simple freezing of accounts would be.
That is because, Piontkovsky says, “to continue successfully his [self-proclaimed] historical mission of spiritual leader of the Russian World will be extremely problematic for him if that is his reputation in the eyes of his subordinates.” And the American announcement that it will pursue this issue is for Putin “the last warning” that he is going to have to choose between “the ingathering of Russian lands and [having] American dollars.”