Russia’s threat to Ukraine and the Baltics grows

A day after the world watched intensely for signs that President Joe Biden had convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to drop plans to invade Ukraine, there are none — only a stark reminder of why 100,000 Russian troops are still camped on Ukraine’s border.

On Dec. 8, 1991, the leaders of three Soviet Republics — Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — declared that the Soviet Union would be no more. Subsequently, all 15 of its republics were set free.

But exactly 30 years later, a different Soviet-inspired regime, led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, appears well along the path of trying to take Ukraine back — a move that would undoubtedly change the nature of freedom in Europe.

“If Ukraine falls to Russia, Europe is over,” said Kurt Volker, former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

A successful invasion, Volker said, doesn’t mean that “the EU disappears or Western Europe loses its freedom. But this idea that Europe is a place where all of its people can live in freedom and democracy, with prosperous market economies and have security in their own territories — that idea is lost.”

But for smaller eastern European nations, that loss could lead to them falling like dominoes under Russian dominion.

“I worry that Russia would start putting forth pressure to topple Moldova next,” Volker said. “Another [country] that’s on the table is Georgia.”

And the invasions wouldn’t likely stop there.

“We’ve seen Russia take de facto control of Belarus already. And the one [issue] that would be very worrying, to us here in Washington and in Europe, would be the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — because they are now fully members of NATO and the EU,” Volker said.

Those nations share borders with Russia and were occupied by the Soviet Union. Russian attempts to invade those countries, according to Volker, “would actually require an immediate U.S. military response.”

Why is Ukraine so important to Putin?

Ukraine, during the Cold War, was the most powerful and populous of all the Soviet republics except Russia. It was the breadbasket for the USSR. Most of its military industries and a large portion of its prized nuclear weapons were located there. Experts, such as Volker, say it was Ukraine’s decision to leave that solidified the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc.

Today, riddled by corruption and squeezed relentlessly by Kremlin efforts to destabilize it, Ukraine represents more than just a pawn in Moscow’s geopolitical chess match with the West. If Russia loses Ukraine to NATO and later the EU, it would not only have to face a massive economic and military juggernaut in its front yard, but the shame for Putin would be enormous.

“Ukraine is the cradle of Slavic civilization,” Volker said. “In the early 800s, the Kyvian Rus built the country of Ukraine and later founded Moscow. So if Ukraine becomes a successful model of a modern country, a democratic, prosperous rule-of-law center, it really exposes Russia as a decrepit, corrupt, authoritarian state.”

There is a lot at stake for both Russia and the West.

Geographically, Ukraine is the largest country located entirely within Europe. The population of about 40 million people, enormous natural resources for agricultural production, mining and energy resources make it a coveted jewel.

Volker said it could be “a strength for Europe or it could become a threat to because of Russian aggression.”

Why Russia has ignored Washington

During a week of interviews and conversations with more than a dozen intelligence experts, and U.S. and foreign government officials, WTOP has learned the Kremlin doesn’t believe the Biden administration can or will do anything to stop them.

Former CIA officer Robert Baer said, “Biden has no power in Congress.” In addition, Biden’s approval rating among American voters continues to sink.

Several top diplomats from countries allied with the U.S. agreed that any effort to put Russia in check has to be led by the U.S. — not NATO, the EU, nor any single country.

But there are doubts about whether Washington — and, frankly, America — are unified enough to lead this effort. And Putin, these diplomats said, knows it.

The source of Biden’s political weakness

Most of it is inside the Biden camp itself. There is discord. There are questions about whether President Biden will run for President in 2024. That election is three years away and reports from inside the administration indicate there is already jockeying to take his job.

Vice President Kamala Harris has lost two top staffers within weeks — spokesperson and senior advisor Symone Sanders and communications director Ashley Etienne. These departures, according to sources, is due to tension between the vice president’s staff and the West Wing.

Members of Biden’s own party on the Hill openly complain that senior members of the Democratic Party have frozen other members out of key decisions, meetings and opportunities to set the agenda for the administration.

This dysfunction, on top of the Republican/Democratic political divide on the Hill; serious missteps in Afghanistan that angered allies; and the AUKUS blunder that alienated France, have left global partners nervously shaking their heads. They know a weak response to Putin’s attempts to invade Ukraine would likely encourage him to continue engaging in aggressive behavior.

Warning for Putin and the West

“We remember what you did. We know your tactics. We know your end goals. We are like guard dogs, watching you. We’re not going to make it easy for you to spread your influence all over the world.”

Those are those are the words of Natalia Arno, founder and president of the Free Russia foundation, an international organization supporting civil society and democratic development in Russia. She said an invasion of Ukraine would be ruinous for Putin inside Russia.

Her organization is made up of some the Putin regime’s fiercest critics. One of them is foundation Vice President Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has survived being poisoned twice by Kremlin assassins. The foundation has its finger on the pulse of the 30-million-strong Russian diaspora, but more importantly, it’s keenly aware of how most of the 144 million Russians still living there feel.

“Russian people don’t want confrontation with the West, and they definitely don’t want any war or military activity,” Arno said.

Russians are also increasingly turning off state television and other sources of media linked to the government, according to Arno.

“The consumption of internet is growing bigger and bigger, and probably by 2024, when there is this anticipated illegitimate re-election of Putin, the internet will overtake television.”

She believes this change in media consumption habits will neutralize Putin — someday. But right now, despite what is being positioned as a successful meeting between Biden and Putin, there was no fundamental breakthrough.

Russia expert Eeva Eek-Pakuste, director of the Lennart Meri Conference in Estonia, said, “The problem is that Biden and Putin speak on parallel levels with no chance to really hear each other.”

As a result, Eek-Pajuste said, “Their misreading and misunderstanding of each other are key problems, on both sides. The erosion of the ability to understand and read the other side is catastrophic.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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