Something Happened
by Michael Brenner on 27 Feb 2022 5 Comments

My muse knocked at dawn. Exhausted after catching the redeye from Moscow and then diverted over Finland. He insisted on a full breakfast before whispering in my ear. A week pulling up the grass roots from the permafrost in Gorky Park while subsisting on borscht and boiled cabbage had drained him. Reanimated, the Truth began to flow – in short, staccato sentences with none of the usual refinements and subtle similes.


1] Context and background are everything in understanding the Russian attack. Look at the process of decision as dynamic over time rather than sharply focused in the immediate.


2] Putin is not a dictator. He cannot simply choose a course of action and give commands a la Stalin. Never has been. He has great authority; yet, at the same time, he represents the underlying convictions, thoughts and interests of powerful people in and around the government. Most of them were seated in that semicircle at St. Catherine’s Hall for the televised meeting of the Russian Security Council.


They, along with most all of Russia’s political-cum-economic class, have felt deeply humiliated by what they see as the shabby, patronizing treatment they have received from the West – led by a crass America – since 1991. The insults in word and action have hit them non-stop since 2014, reaching a crescendo from March 2021 onward.  They have known full well that the aim is to denature Russia as a political-cum-diplomatic power in Europe – and beyond. The West want it neutralized and marginalized so that the U.S. can remain master of Europe as it prepares for a titanic struggle with China for global supremacy. Unfettered access to Russia’s wealth of natural resources is a bonus.


3] Concrete security concern have sharpened progressively as Washington has broken a series of major arms control agreements, expanded NATO, connived to replace friendly governments with American proxies via the notorious “colour revolutions,” sought to undercut energy ties with European states, and deployed advanced weapons systems (above all, the anti-missile systems in Poland and Romania able to be converted into offensive missile launchers), and via its ‘rules-based international order’ sloganeering and democracy vs. autocracy campaign make explicit its intention to do everything possible to rig the game of world politics in its favour.


4] Ukraine, they believe, became the occasion (not the cause) to pin down a Russia whose growing strength discomforted and annoyed the Americans. It represented a conscious decision of the Biden administration under the sway of reborn Cold Warriors in State Department, the NSC, the CIA and the Pentagon. The triumph of their will in a government bereft of contrary voices and led by a weak, manipulable President was a sure thing. The Ukraine anti-Russia operation began in March with the Washington encouraged build-up of Ukrainian military forces along the Donbass Line, delivery of large quantities of arms including Javelin anti-armour weapons, renewed talk of heavy economic sanctions, and a chorus of shrill rhetoric from all quarters in Washington and Brussels.


5] The American objective of putting Russia back in its subordinate place was taken as an obvious given by the Kremlin. Uncertainty existed on the question of what initiatives on the ground to expect: a major assault on the Donbass or provocative acts to force a Russian reaction that could be used as a pretext for imposing sanctions (above all, the cancelling of NORDSTROM II). 


6] It is likely that senior policymakers in Washington themselves had not made a definitive judgment on the issue. Divisions among individual players and a wavering President could very well left have important matters unresolved within a soft, cloudy consensus. There was visible evidence of this in the repeated juxtaposition, and alternation, of bellicose rhetoric and Biden’s mollifying words in public and the “let’s not go to war” telephone conversations he initiated to Putin and reaffirmed at their Geneva Summit.


7] In Moscow, too, there likely were differences of opinion – or, more accurately, of emphasis. They surely led to some divergences over what actions Russia should take. It is essential to bear in mind that Putin himself seems to have been closer to the dovish end of the continuum among Security Council members on the overarching issue of how to deal with the U.S., with the West, and particularly Ukraine. One could imagine a gradual hardening of thinking among all individuals as tensions mounted and frustrations grew in the Kremlin. A Putin, who might have been trying to fashion an approach that reconciled his own wariness about military confrontation with genuine worry about the threats to Russian security presented by Washington’s hardline, might have found himself in a quandary.  I suspect that American official have very little understanding of this reality or appreciate its implications.


8] That could explain the promulgation of that strange position paper/demarche wherein he laid out in detail a list of demands for a drastic revision of Europe’s security configuration punctuated by an emphasis on time urgency. That is to say, a Hail Mary to stay the hand of a growing consensus that the time had come for Russia to hit back at the West in the Ukraine. Two things perhaps tipped Putin’s thinking into accepting the necessity of doing what he did. One was the West’s unbending and unaccommodating response. The other was the Ukrainians’ launching an unprecedented artillery and mortar barrage against the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Who forced that fateful step? Elements of the Ukraine Army and/or security services? The AZOV brigade and associated parties? Zelensky? With how much encouragement from the CIA and/or the White House? 


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