Observations of an expat: crunch meeting

Next Thursday and probably Friday and possibly the weekend – will be one of the most important dates in world history. NATO and EU leaders meeting in Brussels will decide – or not to decide – what to do in Ukraine.

Ukraine will then decide whether to continue fighting and how. Ditto Vladimir Putin.

Australia, Japan and South Korea’s foreign and defence policies will be dramatically affected. China may come off its rickety fence. India and the OPEC countries will have to make big decisions under heavy pressure from both sides of the warring coin.

International markets – stock markets, commodity markets, oil and gas markets—will either plunge or soar at the news from Brussels.

The world will wait to hear whether we have moved a giant step closer to nuclear Armageddon or inched away from it.

The variations are endless and each has known and unknown consequences. With the threat of nuclear war hanging over every decision, the room for error is nil.

If Vladimir Putin did not possess the world’s largest nuclear arsenal then the answer would be relatively easy: Attack and drive the Russians out. But he does, and he has threatened to use them. The question then arises: Is Putin Bluffing?

More to the point, can the Western Alliance afford to risk the possibility that he is not bluffing?

If he is not bluffing then there is an accepted three-stage nuclear escalation with a pause after the first two to give either side an opportunity to back off: battlefield nuclear weapons which would probably be confined to Ukraine; Intermediate-range nuclear weapons which would be confined to European targets and, then of course, strategic systems which would involve hitting the US.

Putin, however, refuses to play by the rules. He may go straight for American targets, which is why Joe Biden will block anything that could lead to a nuclear exchange.

So the option of committing NATO troops to Ukraine is off the table because Putin has threatened to respond with the nuclear option. That is, it is off the table for now.

Television cameras have brought this war into Western homes like no other war before. We are being fed a constant live stream of brave Ukrainians led by a heroic president. There is a growing public clamour to recognise Ukraine’s spirit and go to its aid. If this continues long enough then it will be difficult for Western politicians to ignore it.

NATO could, however, take a sort of halfway position of sending more troops to East European members. Some have been sent, but only a few thousand. They are certainly not enough to seriously deter Russian aggression either in Ukraine or against East European members. The danger of substantially increasing the numbers is that Putin will interpret that as NATO aggression and go straight to nuclear weapons.

The most likely scenario is more of the same. That is more weapons to Zelensky’s brave fighters and tighter economic sanctions. There are several problems with this approach. One is that it assumes that Ukraine will be able to defeat Russia, either in the current conventional war or in an insurgency that might follow it is the latter then an insurgency could last for years which means years of severe economic hardship for the entire world until a broken Russia is forced to its knees. Putin believes that the hardy Russian people can outlast the decadent West.

There is another political problem for the West. Leaving the fighting to Ukraine means leaving the political decisions and final settlement to Volodomyr Zelensky when – and if – Ukraine is victorious. At the moment the interests of NATO and Zelensky are the same. But that could change and Ukrainian president has been loud in voicing his frustration about NATO support. Zelensky will justifiably claim that Ukrainian blood has earned his country the top seat at any future negotiating table.

Finally there is the provision of an off-ramp or golden bridge for Vladimir Putin to enable to him to end the fighting with his reputation at least slightly intact. Does NATO and the EU want this? Leaders have painted the war as a battle between good and evil and said that Putin must be seen to fail. Putin has also suggested that the current conflict it is a long overdue East-West showdown. If those are the opposing positions then it makes an exit ramp difficult to negotiate.

If, on the other hand, a golden bridge is on the cards then it would be a good idea to enlist the aid of the Chinese. They are, after all, the experts at saving face. Apart from the Russians, they may have the most to lose whatever the outcome and have managed to stay relatively neutral while remaining friends with Vladimir.

The problem is that asking for Chinese improves China’s international position and the US—with a wary eye on its Asia pivot– is strongly opposed to anything that helps Beijing. The EU, however, would probably favour such a move which would bring it into conflict with Washington.

The biggest unknown that Western leaders face in considering all the above options is that no one seems to know what is in Putin’s mind or even if he is sane. He is calling the shots. The Russians themselves say that their decision-making processes are not so much a top-down pyramid structures but more of a top down vertical pole with Vladimir sitting at its summit.


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Simon McGrath 18th Mar '22 - 5:35pm

    “If Vladimir Putin did not possess the world’s largest nuclear arsenal then the answer would be relatively easy: Attack and drive the Russians out. But he does, and he has threatened to use them. The question then arises: Is Putin Bluffing?”

    That simply isnt correct. There are lots of reasons not to want to start WW3, not just Putin’s possession of nuclear weapons. Field Marshall Montegemery said the first rule of warfare is “never march on Moscow ” . Unless he attacks a NATO country we should try to avoid war.

  • Tristan Ward 18th Mar '22 - 5:58pm

    I am not sure it is inevitable that western governments will be forced to go to Ukraine’s and. Western voters are not stupid. They surely see the risk of nuclear war as much as anyone.

    Three things the west can (and should) do:

    1 give the Ukranians things to fight for by taking their women and children (and others of course)

    2 give them things to fight with (so far as we can without escalating risk) – money and arms

    3 fight with them so far as we can – economic sanctions-stop buying oil and gas etc, more NATO troops in the Eastern European NATO members and we have to rearm ourselves.

    I think Biden is playing a blinder so far but we have also to plan for the possible return of Trump.

  • Kyle Harrison 18th Mar '22 - 9:41pm

    Putin is bluffing. We need to military escalate. Provide jets to Ukraine. Send more troops east. Putin is not mad. He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to destroy the world. Putin came from the USSR. Was the USSR mad? Putin is playing Cold War games and the West needs to go back to the Cold War playbook. We did the Berlin Airlift at one time. Plus, Putin can’t launch nukes personally. There’s a whole command chain to activate. Do you think the Russian generals want a nuclear war?

  • David Goble 19th Mar '22 - 9:19am

    @ Kyle Harrison. I said to my wife a few days ago, “Our lives are in the hands of the Russian generals.” A sobering thought!

  • Brad Barrows 19th Mar '22 - 9:50am

    I believe that Putin expected to gain concessions without having in launch a war but, when his bluff was called, felt he could not back down. I think that partly explains the poor planning and logistical problems that Russian forces have experienced. The lesson from this is that I do not believe it sensible to call Putin’s bluff – whether through insanity, stubborn pride or any other reason, I do not think Putin will back down in such a situation. Therefore, let’s not be willing to go ‘all in’ on a poker player who is unlikely to fold, whatever the potential risks or costs.

  • Helen Dudden 19th Mar '22 - 10:44am

    When I consider, we have the son of a KGB officer in the House of Lords I cringe. Johnson has provided us all, with a world he feels is acceptable.
    Surely, we are at the mercy of a Party and government that is the most dishonest and self serving of all time.

  • @ Brad Burrows. Fully agree with all that you say. Putin has backed himself into a corner; he is alleging that all is going to plan and that the Russians are only suffering a few (relatively) casualties. Because of this, I feel that Putin cannot back down without seeming to show weakness. It is when he is in this situation that he is at his most dangerous. While it may go against all our natural impulses, NATO must stay on the sidelines and reinforce the borders of NATO member countries.

  • Tom sets out some of the possible short-term strategies and outcomes. However, my concern is the lack of evidence that western leaders have a coherent plan for longer term relations with Russia, in say five, ten, or fifty years’ time.
    Germany seems to have accepted that building economic co-operation with Russia was a mistake, and that military confrontation is a better plan for the future. But it isn’t.
    The original plan was right for Germany, for the west in general, and for the Russian people. The idea that huge military spending and constant belligerence is the way forward originates in the mind of one man, Vladimir Putin. Letting a single paranoid individual dictate the agenda is absolute madness.

  • Unfortunately the only thing Putin understands is power and we will have to fight him sometime. He has bullied us out of the situation in the Ukraine, whatever brave words we present to pretend he hasn’t. Next weekend will be even more brave words and little else.
    This resembles Poalnd in 1939, brave words then followed by next to nothing, the Poles were even awaiting French and Bristish assistance coming via Rumania, but no, we were busy trying to start an expeditionary force into Northern France and Belgium, shoring up our western flank, words familiar to now, “shoring up our Eastern flank”.
    This may well go down in history as the West appeasing again.
    Russia is going to take Ukraine and we are heavily responsible. I simply have no faith in NATO defending every inch of its territory, it is a sorry tale and hundreds of thousands of Ukranians just like thge Poles must suffer. I am ashamed.
    Just standing up in the House of Commons, the Reichstag, , Congress, EU Parliament etc and applauding means nothing to Putin, it just resembles the League of Nations greeting Haille Selasi, (have I spelt that right), when Ethiopa was going to be raped by the Italians, really meaningless, just a gesture.
    It is all very sad and one fears for the future. Many said if the UK and France had prevented Hitler from marching into the Rhineland in 36 then a war might have been avoided. It is all so familiar.
    Not sure being ashamed is a strong enough sentiment.

  • Putin needs a lifeline. One obvious move by the West could be to throw the “Nazi” brigades in Eastern Ukraine under a bus, and admit that there are far-right groups in that part of Ukraine. Accepting his reasons for invasion to a limited extent would be similar to what we did to end The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and would make it easier to negotiate Russian withdrawal from the rest of Ukraine. It was the Russians, very largely, who defeated Hitler, and they haven’t forgotten that, which is why the anti-Nazi rhetoric is so important, and works so well for Putin.
    The other lesson we seem to have forgotten is that punishing Germany after WWI led directly to WWII. We need to be planning a way to avoid leaving Russians impoverished and resentful after the future of Ukraine has been settled. Right now we seem to be doing the opposite.

  • No lifeline from us. He has perpetrated mass murder with his invasion so let him stew for now.

  • War is never the answer as Putin is finding out. The West is applying sanctions and this will deprive Putin of the money to continue this illegal war. Western economies are keen to install green technology and end their dependence on Russian oil and gas. The Russian economy is in freefall. They will default on their debts within weeks. Putin thought the West would let him get away with this invasion and did not expect them to stand together and sanction Russia. He did not expect the Germans to cancel the new pipeline.
    There is now a scenario where the Russian economy collapses, the oligarchs are forced to return to Russia with their assets confiscated and the elite in Russia are unable to continue their luxury lifestyle. They have backed Putin because they benefited from his rule. We have seen in the past the ruthlessness with which the former USSR, that Putin wants to emulate, dealt with leaders who had made mistakes and who suddenly found no seat at the politburo table and instead faced a firing squad or if they were lucky banishment to a dacha in Siberia.
    I give Mr Putin 3-6 months before that fate befalls him. Western nations must stick to their resolution and continue and extend sanctions, making sure that money from Russia is no longer dealt with through our banking systems, that all trade with Russia ceases and every single oligarch along with their entire families are sent back to Russia.

  • When the US President describes the Russian President as a war criminal; murderous dictator and pure thug there is no way back for Western relations with a Russia under the control of Putin.
    Putin has built a despotic state controlled with Orwellian propaganda and brutal repression of any dissent in both Russia and Belarus. He aims to extend this mafia state to Ukraine.
    There is no diplomatic outcome here of the kind achieved with Kruschev in the Cuban missile crisis. Ukrainian people are fighting for their lives and freedom. They must defeat the Russian invasion militarily to achieve a negotiated outcome that does not see them suffer the same fate as the people of Belarus i.e. murder, detention and disappearance of any political opposition to a puppet government controlled from Moscow. The same fate likely awaits Moldova and Georgia.
    Nato’s eastern members (including Turkey) have a strategic interest in an independent Ukraine able to defend itself against external aggression. Once it is understood that a military victory is the only viable outcome that will maintain Ukrainian political independence, then ensuring the supply of adequate munitions to the much smaller Ukrainian army follows. That includes soviet era jets and S-300 missile systems that can be operated by Ukrainian forces.
    At some point, as it did when the carnage reached genocidal proportions in Yugoslavia., pressure for a no-fly zone may become too much to resist. In Libya, the no-fly zome was provided by British, Canadian and French pilots with US logistical and maritime support. This is something the UK may need to consider in the coming weeks and months. A UN resolution authorising a police action (as Truman called the Korean war) might be possible, if a Russian veto can be disbarred on the grounds of being the aggressor state or alternatively a general assembly resolution that cannot be vetoed by Russia, albeit non-binding.

  • India has announced it will buy 3 million barrels of oil a year from Russia. Unilever and Nestle announce they will ignore sanctions. Egypt will continue with purchase of 2 million tons of wheat. Israel and Gulf states to maintain economic ties. Please nobody say sanctions are working.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Mar '22 - 5:37pm

    Mick Taylor 19th Mar ’22 – 12:40pm

    “We have seen in the past the ruthlessness with which the former USSR, that Putin wants to emulate, dealt with leaders who had made mistakes and who suddenly found no seat at the politburo table and instead faced a firing squad or if they were lucky banishment to a dacha in Siberia.”

    Really? The only Soviet leader – in the sense of the top man – I can think of to whom that applies is Khrushchev (the dacha option). Every single other “red Czar” – Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko – died in the chair regardless of how insanely dangerous or simply demented they became. There was an attempted coup against Gorbachev, but only because he was dismantling the power structures of the Soviet Union. Who – apart from the many enemies of Stalin whom he identified as threats and removed – was overthrown by means of a firing squad?

  • Brad Barrows 19th Mar '22 - 6:04pm

    For the record, I believe a case should be prepared against Putin for launching an illegal war and I think he should appear in The Hague just as soon as the trial of Bush and Blair, on the same charge, is concluded.

  • Tom Seelye Arms 19th Mar '22 - 6:43pm

    @ Andy Daer: I agree that thought needs to be given now to the structure of a post-Ukraine and (most likely) post-Putin world. I, for one, will be cogitating and researching and will communicate the results in due course. But for a start, I think any restructuring should not be confined to Russia. Or even, as some suggest, Russia and China. I think the re-think should extend globally and consider the values of every country.

  • I totally agree with Brad Barrows, and will happily sit beside him at all those trials.
    Returning to the real world, I still believe we need to find a way to end this conflict, and to do so in a way which allows the Russian people to emerge with some dignity intact.

  • James Fowler 19th Mar '22 - 10:44pm

    I think the nuclear angle is overblown. Remember that if put in absolute extremis then India, Pakistan, Israel and yes, we might contemplate the first use of nuclear weapons – but nobody is contemplating invading Russia. To use nuclear weapons in a discretionary way when the territorial integrity of his own nation was un-threatened would, I think, produce non-compliance by Putin’s own forces and world historic infamy and condemnation.

  • After the collapse of the USSR in 1989, former Soviet satellites states began to join the aliance: first the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999 and then Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004. The most recent addition to the alliance was North Macedonia in 2020.
    Lord Ismay was the first secretary general of Nato in 1952. He defined the purpose of Nato as keeping the Americans in Europe; keeping the Soviets out and keeping the Germans down. The latter is no longer an objective.
    In 2001 Putin revealed that the USSR had applied to join Nato in 1954 before the formation of the Warsaw pact Russia applies to join Nato. Putin also said that he suggested Russian membership of Nato when he became President, but was rebuffed by Madeleine Albright. In 1994, following the Budapest agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia officially signed up to the NATO Partnership for Peace, a program aimed at building trust between NATO and other European and former Soviet countries. President Bill Clinton described it in January 1994 as a “track that will lead to NATO membership”.
    Perhaps this should be the ultimate ambition for a post-Putin Russia. Joining the Nato alliance to secure for itself the collective protection of European democracies and the USA and putting to bed the threat of Nuclear war in the Northern hemisphere.

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Mar '22 - 2:02pm

    The challenge is bringing Russia into the world where diplomacy works. This might mean weakening it to an extent where its military is no longer a global threat. Nuclear disarmament must be part of the negotiations as would the lack of need for NATO to exist.

  • Russia insists that Ukraine is in the grip of Nazi elements while western sources report that this hyped up propaganda based around a few hundred far-right adherents to Ukrainian nationalism.
    Russian spokesmen also insist that they are not targeting civilians and that casualties are collateral damage arising as a result of Ukrainian forces deploying in civilian centres or being used as human shields.
    While this information war rages, innocent people are being killed every day and millions of refugees are fleeing their homes.
    A longstanding underlying complaint of Russian diplomats is that Western leaders have not accorded Russia the respect it deserves or listened to their legitimate security concerns. As with the information war, there is a great deal of talking past each other. Western democracies largely dispute the legitimacy of spheres of influence prioritising the right of nation states to self-determination and sovereignty.
    Ultimately, however, Ukraine will have to live with its much larger neighbour after this conflict ends. That necessitates an accommodation/peace settlement that both counties can live with in the longer term. Finland lost significant territory after its winter war of 1939-40 but was able to preserve its independence and Austria was able to maintain its sovereignty by adopting neutrality. For Russia to achieve the respect it desires, it needs statesmen that can craft arrangements that leave its neighbours free to choose their own path while not presenting a military threat to the Russian federation. Such statesmen have yet to appear.

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