It wouldn’t be the first time that the US wrote off eastern Europe’s security concerns to appease the Russians … and not even the first time we’ve done so with Vladimir Putin. NBC News reports today that Joe Biden will offer a balanced drawdown by both sides in eastern Europe in an attempt to head off a war in Ukraine. That would include a reduction of NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic states, but would require a broader Russian drawdown than just in Ukraine:
The discussions could potentially address the scope of military drills held by both powers, the number of U.S. troops stationed in the Baltic states and Poland, advance notice about the movement of forces, and Russia’s nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in the Russian territory of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania, the sources said.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border, the Biden administration is threatening unprecedented sanctions and other tough steps if Russia takes military action against Ukraine. But the administration is also exploring ways to defuse tensions with Russia as U.S. officials prepare for a series of high-stakes discussions with Moscow starting Monday.
The administration “is compiling a list of options for force posture changes in Europe to discuss with Russia at the talks,” an administration official said. If Russia appears willing to discuss scaling back its presence in the region, the U.S. will be prepared to discuss specific moves, the official said.
For any change in the U.S. military presence in Europe, Russia would have to take reciprocal, equivalent steps to scale back its forces, and pulling back Russian troops from Ukraine would not be sufficient, the current official and former officials said.
Did Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken run this by NATO yet, let alone the Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians? That’s not just a rhetorical question. Twelve years ago, Biden’s then-boss Barack Obama yanked the rug out from under Poland with his decision to cancel missile-shield system installations on the NATO frontier. Obama also did that on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, just to rub a little salt in the wound of the US betrayal for supposed geopolitical cooperation from Putin. Supposedly, Obama traded that for a tougher stand on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a fight which six years later Obama would largely abandon again with his Iran deal.
What did we get from Putin from that exchange? Even before Obama gave up on pressuring Iran, Putin invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea. The sudden military and paramilitary actions created grave concerns among the frontier NATO countries, and finally resulted in shows of US strength in those border countries as a counter to Putin’s adventurism.
This looks like a repeat of the 2009 impulse to appease Putin. Presumably this would entail verifiable withdrawals, but let’s not forget that the Ukraine aggression involved mainly Russian-backed militias in the Donbass. Putin could pull his own troops out of that region without ceding significant control in eastern Ukraine or reducing the overall threat to eastern Europe. It almost certainly won’t include a requirement to pull out of Crimea, which would make this a tacit recognition of Putin’s claim to it.
And what would we get out of it? Apart from meaningless shifting of Putin’s forces along its frontier, nothing at all. If anything, it leaves Putin more free to advance his ambitions by using Russian-ethnic minorities in parts of the Baltic states, Poland, and Moldavia to assert Moscow’s primacy in those regions. If NATO pulls back, that strategy has a better chance of succeeding in at least creating enough unrest to destabilize the current pro-Western governments in those countries and allow Putin to make mischief accordingly.
Of course, Putin might not have a lot of bandwidth for that in the near future. He’s presently rescuing Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev from a populist uprising in Kazakhstan. Putin is sending Russian troops for the first time for a domestic threat under the terms of NATO parallel Collective Security Treaty Organization, and appears to be sending mechanized units now to put down the rebellion:
Military vehicles wait to be loaded onto Russian military planes to be deployed to Kazakhstan, after Kazakhstan's president appealed to a Russian-led military alliance for help in quelling mass protests gripping the country. https://t.co/TVF62zEDFc pic.twitter.com/wiKfO4Tjo7
— ABC News (@ABC) January 7, 2022
This won’t be any short-term deployment. In fact, Tokayev is treating this as a civil war, ensuring the need to get Moscow’s military help for a long time to come, by ordering Kazakh security forces to “shoot to kill” in response to demonstrations:
Kazakhstan’s president said Friday he had ordered his troops to “shoot to kill without warning” in an effort to quash anti-government protests that have been raging since the weekend.
Chaotic and violent scenes persisted in the resource-rich Central Asian country of 19 million, as the first “peacekeeping” troops from a Russia-led military alliance arrived following the leader’s request for foreign intervention to deal with widespread protests over a decrepit political system and dramatic energy price hikes. Some protesters have also issued a list of demands for peaceful political change.
Dozens have been killed across the country so far, with authorities saying that nearly 4,000 “riot participants” had been detained and at least 18 police officers were dead.
In his speech, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the lives of “hundreds of civilians and servicemen” had been damaged, dismissed calls “from abroad” for negotiations as “stupidity,” and vowed to crush the demonstrations.
“What negotiations could there be with criminals and murderers? We had to deal with armed and trained bandits and terrorists, both local and foreign. Therefore, they need to be destroyed, and this will be done in the near future,” he said in a televised address.
These aren’t “peacekeeping” forces that Putin’s sending. They’re enforcers for Tokayev, and their presence means that Tokayev is more dependent than ever on Putin. Tokayev has essentially made Kazakhstan a vassal state to Moscow, perhaps even more so than Alexander Lukashenko has done in Belarus.
Under the circumstances, Putin might well decide to take an offer from Biden while he consolidates the security situation to his south, especially if it doesn’t require him to relinquish Crimea. Putin can afford to bide his time. So can Biden, but it’s pretty clear that Biden doesn’t understand that, nor does he care much about anything except avoiding a conflict that he’s clearly incapable of handling.