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One for the history books: Is Putin playing the long game?

Ukraine has no need for foreign allied troops on her lands according to President Volodymyr Zelensky. His statement comes after months of political deadlock between the West and Russia. “We have no need for soldiers with foreign flags on our territory. We are not asking for that. Otherwise, the entire world would be destabilized,” he noted.

It seems like the truth has finally dawned on Zelensky. The Russians have the US and its NATO allies on the back foot. The Russians know this, the US knows this, NATO knows this and now, the Ukrainians too.

Hence, it was not surprising when Zelensky followed up by stating that Ukraine was ready to hold diplomatic talks with Russia to find a peaceful solution. While appreciating the efforts of other countries that offered to host the talks, he told reporters that he was ready for any format of talks.

Perhaps, this was what Putin wanted all along. His end-game possibly, but no-one knows for sure. The Russian President is well-known for being an unpredictable figure, but a rationale man nonetheless. With the Ukrainian side announcing their openness to talks, Putin might as well chalk it up as a win.

The US and its squabbling NATO allies know that their hands are tied on the matter. Putin knows this too. He knows that he has got them by the short and curlies and will be looking to squeeze every favourable deal out of it.

Whether Moscow will acquiesce to the proposed talks, only time will tell. Nevertheless, one thing is clear. Putin’s actions have unveiled the widening schism between the US and its allies, not to mention the discord within NATO itself. For all its claims of being an international super-power, the US has come out second-best yet again.

Blood in the water

Biden’s handling of the botched Afghanistan withdrawal left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, including his core advocates. To put it bluntly, it was a humbling retreat, comparable to the country’s exit from Vietnam. On the world stage, such blunders are costly and at times, self-destructive even. And now, the sharks have smelled blood.

Putin will press home his advantage. He has already made a number of demands, including three main ones. Firstly, he wants legal guarantees that NATO will not expand Eastwards, meaning that ex-Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine should be refused entry into NATO. Secondly, no deployment of strike weapons, missile systems included, near Russia’s borders. Last but not least, a rollback of military infrastructure to 1997 levels.

Moscow has no illusions about its demands being accepted by the US. The Biden administration would never hear the end of it – both at home and abroad – if it gave in. This, then begs the question: Why did Putin play such a strong hand if he knew the US would be hard pressed to accept it? The answer, Ukraine.

Checkmate?

Most of us tend to forget that Vladimir Putin and his close circle of aides grew up in the Soviet Union. Their childhood, education and even their careers took off when the Soviet Union was still a thing. Their whole lives and their future expectations were centered around it. And then, bang. The Soviet Union was no more.

For them, Soviet Russia meant everything. It was a way of life. A power that could stand up to the perceived arrogance of the West. All that was gone in a flash. Imagine having your whole life planned out perfectly, only for fate to sweep the carpet from under your legs. Everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up.

The Russia that we know today may be modern in its outlook but its elite still harbor nostalgia of the old days. This is why Putin will never see Ukraine in the same light as the West does. For him, Ukraine is not a different country. Rather, it is a part of Russia; an extension, if you will. But Putin is a rationale man. He knows that it is nigh impossible to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s fold. Hence, his demands.

As long as Putin can keep Ukraine out of NATO’s clutches, he can count it as a win. The thought of a NATO Ukraine scares him. A chain of missile batteries pointed towards Moscow is the last thing that he needs, especially at the twilight of his career, which brings us to the next point.

His legacy

Putin is an avid amateur historian. He loves reading up on history and he knows the importance of leaving behind a legacy. In fact, he has been known to ask the few historians an infamous question: “How are they going to be writing about me in 100 years’ time?” Putin realizes that he has some good years, at best, before he passes on the baton. He does not want to be remembered as the guy who cowed before the West.

Getting the West, and the US especially, to acknowledge Russia’s international standing would be his crown jewel. In his own way, Putin is choreographing the whole dance. And what better way to go out than orchestrating a swansong that will instill you in the hearts of your people?

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