By Shivaji Sengupta
The 15th, is the Ides of March as the Romans used to say. It is the day Julius Caesar was assassinated by Roman senators, driven desperate by Caesar’s dictator-like attitude and rule.
Last night, in an absorbing discussion between the Indian TV journalist, Karan Thapar, and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, the question was asked: is there any way Vladimir Putin can be stopped by his own government, his own lieutenants? Can he be deposed? According to Zakaria, no. Not even the Russian army can enter Putin’s mansion. He has his own Praetorian guards, a Roman term for a unit that served as personal body guards and intelligence agents for Roman emperors. Caesar had one; as did Saddam Hussain of Iraq. Putin has been building himself up for twenty-two years, to where he is today. Invincible.
Now, after nearly three weeks of war with Ukraine, he has become rigid to the extent he is almost unrecognizable to Western journalists who used to know him. Twenty years ago, he used to be a self-effacing, rational man of few words. His actions were measured, well thought out. Now, according to these very same journalists, he has become aloof, remote, not trusting of almost anyone. Having committed himself to war, and not being able to make it short, swift and decisive, having tasted blood, he is no longer satisfied with Ukraine not joining NATO, its promise to be neutral, its willingness to continue to negotiate some form of autonomy for Donetsk and Luhans. Now Putin wants more. He wants an official surrender, a demilitarized Ukraine, and he wants a regime change. If Putin has his way, Zelensky can no longer be Ukraine’s president.
These are impossible conditions to accept for any self-respecting nation; especially Ukraine which has been in stiff opposition to Putin’s Russia since the annexation of Crimea. The people of Ukraine have been steadily moving toward Western Europe, valuing the so-called individual freedom and its attendant lifestyle. They will never agree to accept the Russian way, being ruled by a dictator as they see Putin, and oligarchs. Putin, in power for the last twenty-two years, has become unmovable, both as a dictator and in his mind set. So where do we go from here? This man has already issued two warnings that Russia might use nuclear weapons in this war. Is he serious?
As I see it, this war can develop in four different ways. I will start with the second worst-case scenario. (The worst-case being nuclear war.)
The gloomiest prediction – for now – is for the present situation to continue, Ukraine’s people resisting bravely, dying by the hundreds and injured by the thousands. Putin will try to grab the whole of Ukraine which will probably take a month more. However, as many journalists and war experts predict, the official fall of Ukraine is the easy part. The country will not surrender, will not demilitarize. Zelinsky will not go unless he is captured or killed. The people will resist, fight, conduct guerilla warfare – for the Russians, it will be Afghanistan in the 1980s all over again. Russia will lose thousands upon thousands of soldiers. The war will be costly. Add to that the long-term effects of the sanctions, and Russia will be an economic wreck. Vladimir Putin might himself lose popular support. Meanwhile, the NATO countries will continue to be on the sidelines, helping Ukraine with money and military. Joe Biden will watch most of his predictions slowly coming true. The worse Russians are off, the more Biden will gain in popularity at home provided Covid continues to subside, he can control the run-away inflation, and get the infrastructure bill passed by Congress, bringing jobs and putting money into people’s pockets.
A second scenario would be for both Ukraine and Russia to realize that this war, if it ends with Ukraine’s surrender, will benefit neither. Ukraine will be decimated, its leader, Vlodymir Zelensky deposed, and the country will be under Russia. For Russia, on the other hand, the trouble would just be beginning: a long drawn-out protracted war in Ukraine, with many Russian sympathizers wanting their soldiers back home, and the country bankrupt. Given such threatening situations both Zelensky and Putin might declare a face-saving cease fire. If that happens, Zelensky will be a hero in many parts of the world. Biden will gain at home politically. Putin will be further disgraced in the west. People will say his strategy of waiting out Putin worked.
A third scenario could be the European nations, slowly getting weary of the effects of the war in their continent, might secretly try to discourage Zelensky to continue the resistance and agree on a cease fire. Putin might compromise on surrender, no longer push for Ukraine’s demilitarization and be willing to accept Ukraine giving in writing that it would not join NATO, and be prepared to give some measure of autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk.
A final scenario is China playing a major role in the cease fire. We have been hearing about the China-Russia friendship, and China’s abstaining from voting to condemn Russia in the United Nations General Assembly along with thirty-five other countries (including the entire subcontinent). Currently, it is propping up the Russian economy by buying its oil, ignoring the sanctions. Moreover, they have already been exporting to Russia articles of everyday use. However, what we do not much read about in America is that the Chinese are not too happy with the way Putin is bullishly going ahead with the war with a sovereign nation, thus defying a foundational principle in China’s foreign policy. Besides, as the war and the sanctions continue, China’s economic relationships with major Western European countries can be jeopardized. If there is one thing the Chinese understand, it is money. Mess with their money, and you run the risk of being bypassed by them. Putin might heed China because of Russia’s heavy dependency on it. It all depends on what sort of compromise Xi Jin Ping can work out with Ukraine and Russia. If China can broker a deal with the two nations, it will gain instant popularity in the world. Just as likely, America’s image as world leader will take a hit, despite Biden being the principal architect of the sanctions on Russia and Putin. We should remember that even if China were able to broker a cease fire, it couldn’t happen without the sanctions.
Whatever its outcome, the Russia-Ukraine war is likely to change a lot of things. Mindful of Russia’s invincibility because of its nuclear weapons superiority, other countries will be adamant about possessing nuclear weapons. Ukraine will want to get back theirs and Iran will be a handful.
John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, has observed that the world could be in great danger of a nuclear war between NATO and The United States, and Russia. Yes, Russia is to be blamed for starting the war, and bringing to a point where no one can predict how it will end. But why this war was started in the first place has a lot to do with Western Europe and the U.S. cajoling Ukraine further and further away from Putin’s Russia, instead of encouraging it to stay neutral. Even if America succeeds in preventing an outright Russian victory against Ukraine, Ukraine, already severely damaged, may be decimated forever by this war: its people abandoned, maimed and killed; its economy tanked, Kyiv becoming a ghost town, an Indian journalist has observed, quoting W.H. Auden:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face…
This war, and all the intellectual discussions thereof, continues unabated. Meanwhile people are dying, by the thousands.
By Shivaji Sengupta