Will Biden have a backbone when it comes to Putin?


Russia is massing troops near Ukraine and we are pondering what it can possibly mean.  Yup.  That’s a puzzler.

NBC at any rate is puzzled.  It told me “Tens of thousands of Russian troops and convoys of tanks have been massing near the Ukrainian border since March, causing grave alarm in Washington and across Europe.  Western officials and experts are now trying to decipher what Moscow might be planning: Is Russian President Vladimir Putin testing President Joe Biden’s mettle — or is he actually trying to spark a fresh military conflict on the fringes of Europe?”  But we have a false dichotomy here.

The question isn’t whether Russia is “testing… Biden’s mettle” or is up to something.  It’s whether its test of Biden’s mettle will convince the Kremlin it can get away with starting a conflict.  Welcome to the real world.

In which, I notice, nobody thinks Putin is testing Trudeau’s mettle.  They would have to find it first, and nobody thinks it’s worth looking for because we have let our armed forces rust to the point that nobody worries what we might do, not even our allies.  And because nobody doubts that our response will be sanctimoniously spineless.

Still, Canadians might profitably think about the purpose of foreign testing of Western democracies’ mettle.  Which, to state what should be blindingly obvious, leads us into murky waters.

First, in geopolitics as in chess, the threat is often stronger than the execution.  A military that looks unbeatable on parade may flounder in action, as the Americans found in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan.  As Adolf Hitler once said, “The beginning of every war is like opening the door into a dark room.”  Or in his case a bunker; one might jibe that he was not just the Führer, he was also a client.

Second, since the early 1960s miscalculation could result in a large-scale exchange of nuclear weapons that everybody loses, even non-combatants.  But the fact that something is hard doesn’t mean you get to skip it.  In geopolitics as in life generally, the reverse is more probable.

So third, if I might summon the shade of Richard Nixon, who was not just the president but also a client of geopolitics, it is very important to retain generally convincing “credibility” precisely so nobody blunders into the darkness.  Meaning Biden must demonstrate “mettle” here so Russia doesn’t “spark a fresh military conflict on the fringes of Europe”.

As Kenny Stabler was wont to say, “Easy to call, hard to run.”  And even harder because China is currently buzzing Taiwan repeatedly in what ominously resembles a prelude to invasion.  And typically, the Trudeau Administration’s response is threaten to defund the Halifax International Security Forum if it gives an award to Taiwan’s democratically elected liberal feminist president.  But anyway, if China does invade Taiwan what can Canada do?  Glare at them?

The United States by contrast can do many things.  Including putting its cherished aircraft carriers in the way of China’s new hypersonic cruise missiles and seeing who emerges from the dark room… if anyone.  Especially if one thing leads to another and nuclear weapons are used.

Here many people will throw up their hands and say no, nukes must be our last resort.  But then surrender comes first and, crucially, our opponents will know it.  In which case they will definitely “spark a fresh military conflict on the fringes” of Europe or Asia or some such continent that turns out to be big, close and important.

Thus one might now regret that when Ukraine left the disintegrating mess formerly known as the USSR it gave up its nuclear arsenal in return for iron-clad Western security guarantees that fairly quickly rusted out, making establishing our “mettle” a lot harder now without making it any less vital.  One might even say the beginning of every appeasement is like opening the door into a well-lit room filled with humiliation and danger.  But this ghastly blunder is now spilled milk.

So what will it take to deter Putin?  His chronic “irregular” aggression against Ukraine has been low-risk, a mere irritant in already very irritated relations with the West.  But it seems to be dragging out and at 68 he, like Xi Jinping at 67, may feel that time is running short for his planned glorious conquests.  (Even Hitler worried that starting World War II at 50 was cutting it close.)

So it is hard to know what exactly to do about it.  But one thing is not hard to know.  To quote another evil genius, Lenin said “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push.  If you find steel, you withdraw”.  And the question is not whether Putin is probing or pushing.  It’s whether Biden’s mettle is metal.

For all our sakes, it better be.

Photo Credit: Financial Times

More from John Robson.    Follow John on Twitter at @thejohnrobson

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