I think the time has come again for me to write about my favorite subject: Russia and Vladimir Putin. It’s Saturday 19 February 2022 and as I write Putin’s army is massed on Ukraine’s borders. I’ve had a lifelong interest in Russian history, government, it’s oligarchs and ruling
elite. Long time readers of this blog will recall my post “So It Was, So It Is, And So It Will Be” where I wrote about Putin’s Crimean land grab. It was Act one of Putin’s personal play and now we’ve arrived at his final scene.When I hear pundits and think tank experts say that Putin isn’t a thinking man playing chess with the West, that he can be boiled down to a simple denominator rooted in his KGB past I shake my head. Putin, they say, yearns for the return of old-world Russian glory and that alone drives his actions. This is partly true, but only in the sense that a layer is a part of an onion. There are many layers, and no single one alone makes an onion an onion. So it is true with Putin.
Vladimir Putin is about to invade Ukraine. The West has squandered opportunity and now Putin will move to enact a cost to the West. There are those out there that believe Putin wouldn’t be foolish enough to do so or that the threat of sanctions against Putin’s inner circle and even Putin himself will be enough to change his calculus. This, I argue, is a terrible miscalculation.
The West is viewing Putin through a Western lens. The West believes that to stop Putin you need to hit him financially, punish his country economically (and thus the oligarchs of his inner circle for all of them control companies in key industries throughout Russia). This line of thinking is faulty because it does not account for how Putin see’s the world.
Putin and his chekist circle of oligarchs have plundered and pillaged from the Russian state, and thus the people of Russia, for so long that it’s a matter of due course to them. Sanctions punishing Russia mean as much to Putin as sanctions mean to the rulers of Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. The West seems to forget that Russia has been under various sanctions for years, and for Putin and the oligarchs this is the price you pay for doing business in Russia.
I watched President Biden on television 24 hours ago figuratively wagging his finger at Putin before press cameras, lecturing on what he, Putin, is to do. It was an incredible display of stupidity. I have nothing against Biden nor do I harbor positive or negative feelings toward him. He’s just a data point to me in a geopolitical universe of data points that when taken together paint a broader picture. Biden has been in public office for so many decades that he’s a well-known quantity. To people who understand this, Biden’s national address was akin to a penguin trying to act like a hawk. I know this and of course Putin knows this.
Putin has achieved all the things he has ever wanted in life. He sits atop the criminal food chain. The Godfather of all criminal Godfathers. Except for one difference, he has a powerful army at his disposal, and an entire nation and its resources. This is a man who hails from a poor Russian background. Against all odds he rose through the ranks of the world’s most ruthless intelligence service the KGB, rose through public office before ascending to president of Russia for life. And pundits say Putin isn’t a calculating man? Far from it. He MUST be a calculating man for his past reveals this. No one in Russia rises to the top of the food chain without carefully calculating their every move and leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Fail to do so and you’ll find yourself ensnared in the very spider web you are trying to traverse.
I hear pundits and experts say that Putin has the weak hand and the West the strong hand. This is only partly true. But here again the West is miscalculating, for within this statement is the implication that Putin views “strong” and “weak” from the same angle that the West does. He doesn’t. The best way to understand this is for me to put it into a poker analogy.
In Texas Hold ’em there are hands that are neither weak nor strong. However, these very same hands can become very strong and overcome initial positions of weakness. When players have hands like these they are able to semi bluff, basically bet as if having the better hand with the hopes of getting your opponent to fold and relinquish the pot to you. Until then you and your opponent continue to build the pot. And since all gambling in life boils down to a math equation, depending upon how much money is already in the pot (so called ‘pot odds’) determines what you should do (fold, call or raise). When semi bluffing you must ask yourself, “How far am I willing to go with this hand?” You must answer this question before the first chip is in the pot in order to effectively play such hands. If you don’t know this answer, it is easy to inadvertantly trap yourself in the hand because you have pot committed yourself. This occurs when there is so much money in the pot that pot odds (the math) require that you MUST call any bet.
This is exactly what has happened here with the West and Putin. Putin engaged in what amounts to be a semi bluff, to put pressure on the West in order to extract certain concessions. The West responded in a manner that has inadvertently pot committed both parties. But since it was Putin who initially semi-bluffed he already knew how far he was willing to go, and that a pot commitment might occur. This was part of his calculus from the start. And recall, that these semi-bluff hands can and do sometimes become very strong hands, that in the end the player with the initial better hand loses. This is not lost to Putin.
I believe that Putin has legitimate security concerns, most centering around the Kaliningrad, Lithuania, Estonia region, and I argue that the West needs to take these seriously. NATO rings Russia to the north of Ukraine, and Ukraine joining NATO puts NATO on Russia’s border and within easy strike distance of Moscow. Consider that truth for a moment. What if the roles were reversed? What if Canada and Mexico wanted to join a Russian alliance? Do you think the United States would sit by idly and allow that? Not in a million years. The Russians have legitimate concerns and sincere effort should made to address them.
Is Putin right to invade Ukraine? No. Was he right to have taken Crimea? No. Was he right to have invaded Georgia? No. But the West needs to understand that this is a man who sees the world through a different lens. He’s 70 years old, and at a point in his life where invading Ukraine is worth the cost to him. Most importantly, he has watched the United States over a lifetime make and break promises. History is strewn with nations who were discarded by the U.S. once their usefulness played out.
Consider this: Putin watched as we once supported Libyan leader Ghaddafi, convinced him to abandon his WMDS and WMD research, only to watch later as the U.S. stood idly by as he was hanged in the streets by angry mobs; how we propped up and supported governments in Iraq and Afghanistan until we no longer “needed” them; and most importantly how 30 years ago we convinced Ukraine to abandon their 1,200+ nuclear weapons in exchange for the U.S.’s word that we’d guarantee their security. What does Ukraine have now? Exactly what history has shown they would have. Nothing. It’s not a difficult stretch for Putin to put himself in the shoes of those leaders, and the message is clear to him: trust the United States and you could end up like Ghaddafi if you aren’t careful. I blame our leaders here in the United States for this mess. Both political parties are responsible for the future that unfolded and there is no one else to blame.
When I write about prisoners and rehabilitation efforts, some readers may find it hard to understand how a prisoner can neglect to take into account the feelings of others, and how his or her actions have impacted others. These very issues are the source of most the pain and suffering families and friends of incarcerated loved ones endure. It has everything to do with how prisoners problem solve and view life’s situations. “Rehabilitation” is all about changing this.
Putin is a criminal. The only difference is that he resides at the top of the criminal world order. When interacting with him we cannot and must not assume he sees and views situations and his place in the world as we do. I argue that he cannot be summed up in his KGB past alone, for no man is the sum of a single experience.
So what is about to happen in Europe has as much to blame on NATO and it’s allies as it does on Putin himself. Barring an 11th hour key concession by the U.S. and NATO the future is set.
Until the West is willing and able to understand the truths I laid out and then act accordingly, I argue that there will never be peace with Russia. At least, not as long as Putin and his inner circle are in power.
Christopher (MACI) (OH)
Discover more letters from this blog in the book titled “Behind The Wall: A Prisoner’s Journal” By Christopher Monihan. Available on Amazon in paperback and eBook.
Thank you! for following. Please share these posts with others.