Do you suppose that Vladimir Putin is feeling his oats these days and thinking that he has essentially a free hand to do what he wishes? That’s an intriguing question as a thought experiment when policy wonks want to sit around over coffee and hash out the known unknowns, but if reports out this week are accurate it may be leaving the realm of the hypothetical in short order. The Russian military has apparently staged tens of thousands of troops and military equipment near the Ukrainian border for what could turn out to be a replay of a very bad story. (Washington Free Beacon)
The Pentagon has identified eight staging areas in Russia where large numbers of military forces appear to be preparing for incursions into Ukraine, according to U.S. defense officials.
As many as 40,000 Russian troops, including tanks, armored vehicles, and air force units, are now arrayed along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia.
Additionally, large numbers of Russian military forces will conduct exercises in the coming days that Pentagon officials say could be used as cover for an attack on Ukraine.
The good news (assuming there is any) is that this could just be an exercise. But if so, it’s a massive and expensive one which immediately makes me question how much cash Putin would sink into something like this. Further, we have some history to draw on. These are precisely the types of “exercises” which Russia engaged in back in 2014 right before their incursion into the Black Sea peninsula. Putin could be looking to strengthen his position on the Crimean peninsula but he doesn’t exactly have any worries about a hostile force coming after him at the moment. If this isn’t some form of preparation for an offensive move it’s a curious strategy.
What we may be seeing is yet another sign that Putin feels he has a free hand in that region and that nobody will be stepping up to stop him if he gets into an expansionist mood. And why would he? The United States hasn’t exactly been flexing its military muscle and there are plenty of other pots on the burner at the moment anyway. Putin also finds himself the center of attention for other admiring despots these days and he has the roots of a growing coalition on his side. He has air and sea based capabilities in the form of his fast friends in Iran, Turkey’s president is paying house calls for high tea and even Kim Jong Un is asking for some face time. That’s a toxic mix of nasty business, but it speaks to a world where Putin could be in the early stages of building a new axis of evil and he doesn’t see much happening in the west to indicate that anyone has the resources or the inclination to seriously stand in his way. Mikhail Baryshnikov was quoted this week as saying that Donald Trump’s rhetoric reminds him of the old Soviet Union. He might want to look at the heart of the actual Soviet Union today and comment on that instead.
The international stage is in disarray and badly in need of strong, democratic, western leadership. Looking at the tea leaves for the near future, I suppose I wouldn’t blame Vlad for thinking that won’t be coming any time soon.