On the phone from Moscow was Mikhail Gorbachev’s long-time right-hand man, Pavel Palazhchenko. At the Gorbachev Foundation, he’s been trying to assess if a Ukraine invasion is likely or whether the West is overreacting.
He leans to the latter. He’s found certain things strange. In Vladimir Putin’s state-controlled media there’s been no drumbeat for war. If the Kremlin leader is about to invade, isn’t it likely that his propaganda machine would be making a big case for it? “You would think so,” said Mr. Palazhchenko, who first worked with Mr. Gorbachev in 1985.
As far as he can gauge public opinion, which isn’t easy to do in Russia, he sees no appetite among the Russian people for a showdown. “They don’t want war.” There’s some complaints about NATO meddling in Ukraine, he said Tuesday, but it’s not a top-of-mind issue. “The Western reaction is what is becoming more severe.”
Kyiv has been putting out signals that the West is overreacting as well. Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Tuesday that there is no reason to think Russia is planning anything. The situation along the border hasn’t dramatically changed since last spring, he said. The head of the country’s national security council accused some Western countries and media of hyping the situation for geopolitical purposes.
That this may be the case is the hope at the Gorbachev Foundation. Mr. Gorbachev believes, Mr. Palazhchenko said, that “there is no reason for Russia to invade and nothing useful to be gained from this kind of military action.”
Sadly, the 90-year-old Mr. Gorbachev, the driving force behind ending the Cold War and halting the nuclear arms race, is in quarantine owing to the pandemic. Asked if he had COVID-19, Mr. Palazhchenko paused. “We prefer not to speak on questions of President Gorbachev’s health.”
Though he favours a diplomatic solution to the crisis, Mr. Gorbachev supports Mr. Putin’s view opposing the expansion of NATO influence to Ukraine and former Warsaw Pact countries. He felt he had a commitment from the United States not to encroach at the time of Cold War negotiations.
He hasn’t tried to gain access to the Kremlin leader. “Like former U.S. presidents, he doesn’t speak out much,” Mr. Palazhchenko said. It’s not that he’s intimidated by Mr. Putin. “He’s old now and doesn’t care what Putin thinks of him.”
Mr. Gorbachev’s idea of a diplomatic solution is one that would see the U.S. halting any attempt to draw Ukraine and other Eastern European countries out of Russia’s orbit. Chances of that are slim. President Joe Biden retreated with much embarrassment from Afghanistan. He can’t afford to be seen to be acceding to diplomatic demands or the sabre-rattling of the Kremlin.
The U.S. President has been dramatically raising the stakes in this crisis, saying an invasion of Ukraine would be the largest military operation of its kind since the Second World War and that it would “change the world.”
It’s clear from that kind of talk that if Mr. Putin wants to spread panic among Western leaders, he has certainly succeeded. With his aggressive military deployments, he may just be toying with the West to demonstrate what a powerful player he is.
If he doesn’t push forward with an attack, Mr. Putin still benefits in that respect. And Mr. Biden can profit politically as well from being seen as successful in staring down the strongman.
One of Donald Trump’s popular policies was that of ending endless wars. American public opinion doesn’t favour a conflict over Ukraine. And Mr. Biden surely knows his war history. Lyndon Johnson ruined his presidency because he overinflated the communist threat (domino theory) in Vietnam, and George W. Bush undermined his own time in office with his fear-mongering over non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
As much of an autocratic bully that he is, Vladimir Putin is no Leonid Brezhnev or Joseph Stalin. The threat of totalitarianism is not like it was from 1950 to 1990. Nor is the nuclear threat.
That said, naked military aggression in Ukraine of the type threatened by Mr. Putin cannot be tolerated. There can be no debate over which side holds the moral high ground in this crisis. One side stands for democracy. The other doesn’t. Given a choice, the people of Ukraine and Eastern Europe would favour the Western option.
But to the extent of NATO influence in the region, there is room for compromise from each side. What must prevail is the negotiating spirit of the ailing Mr. Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.