Russian troops have invaded Ukraine, this is not in question. Whether or not they have the official sanction of Russia itself or are merely “on vacation” fighting for a good cause is up to the reader to decide. The main contention so far is what exactly Putin is doing by playing a very silly game by trying to invade without invading, telling the world a fairly transparent fairy tale that no one believes
I think that the key question has to lie in Putin’s head, which is to say how he is responding to the forces on him. That requires a lot of speculation in the absence of any good information. Good reporters (and bloggers) don’t go deep into speculation, so if you don’t want to read this I’ll understand. But it seems that Putin is eyeballs deep into a war he can’t lose but also can’t fight.
My speculation starts with my belief that this is essentially a conflict between two rival gangs – one based in Moscow and the other in Kiev. The Moscow faction was exerting more and more influence over Ukraine until the uprising last November. The good people of Ukraine are largely in the crossfire, Europe wants nothing more than stability and the rule of law. It’s hard to find “good guys” in the fight.
I also firmly believe that for all his bravado, Putin is not the Don but merely the Enforcer in Chief.
If the Bratva, or Moscow based mafia, can’t own Ukraine the least they can do is keep it destabilized. That would be the goal of a permanent state of war in the East, which Russia has been obviously cooking for months. They can’t have effective rule of law if they are going to keep getting away with their trade in sex slaves and cyber crime in Ukraine.
But the Russian side was losing, and losing badly. The volunteer rebels had a tendency to flee when the shooting started, having little stomach for an actual fight. It wasn’t exactly their war, either – as shown by their actions. So gradually more and more Russian arms and now men have come into Ukraine to keep the war going.
That gets us to what is on Putin’s mind. In the otherwise friendly state of Belarus he refused to participate in the traditional ceremony of eating bread and salt, apparently from fear of being poisoned. This is more than paranoid behavior. Belarus also has a deeply entrenched Bratva. So who is Putin really afraid of?
The short answer is that his job, as enforcer, is not going well. The war they can’t fight is a war they can’t lose. And now the choice has come down to actually fighting or actually losing. Neither possibility suits the Bratva, which only wants a weakened and destabilized Ukraine.
In short, Putin has failed. And in his failure, he probably fears his masters more than NATO at this point.
This speculation is important because if we are to guess where this is going, and indeed how close to the wall Putin is willing to go, we have to understand his mindset. That means we have to know what forces are driving him and who is really pulling the strings. His behavior has been bizarre by many measures, trying to tell the world that Russians aren’t involved when it is obvious that they are. Fear of poisoning is simply another clue.
What do you do when you have a can’t-lose war that you can’t fight? You draw it out as long as you can and hope for the best. That isn’t working out. The pressure on Putin is clearly building. I think we can expect more bizarre behavior in the next few months before the Bratva really does take him out. It’s just a guess, but mafia don’t usually take kindly to an enforcer who can’t do his job.