Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing "a dangerous game of chicken" with Western nations like the United States, writes David Satter in a Wall Street Journal opinion
Satter writes about the fighting in the eastern part of Ukraine, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 5,000 people
since last April.
Russia has its nose right in the middle of it, following its takeover of Crimea last spring. The U.S. and other Western nations have placed sanctions on Russia for its actions, sanctions that are starting to cripple Russia's economy.
Russia wants to seize control of Kiev, Ukraine's capital, and prevent it from joining the European Union and NATO, according to Satter.
Satter, an author whose list of books includes "It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past,"
makes the argument that Russia's goal in a "game of chicken … will be renewed slaughter."
Renewed fighting includes a rocket attack two weeks ago that killed 29 people. Russian troops and military equipment are flowing across the border into Ukraine, while there are an additional 52,000 troops ready to cross into the country.
"The timing of the surge in the fighting, however, in the middle of winter and after weeks of relative calm, is a reflection of a more general situation," Satter writes. "The Putin regime needs an end to sanctions not because they are crippling in themselves but because in combination with the growing crisis of the economy and the unpredictable trajectory of the war, they could help lead to the destabilization of Russia."
Satter writes that Russia is shooting itself in the foot with its actions — and if the West imposes more sanctions on it, Putin could lash out with military action against the West.
"Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Jan. 27 that if Russia is cut off from the Swift international payment system as punishment for its actions in Ukraine, its response 'will know no limits,'" Satter writes. "Andrei Kostin, the head of VTB, Russia's second-largest bank, said excluding Russia from Swift would mean 'war.' Igor Ivanov, the former foreign minister, said that a confrontation could involve nuclear weapons.
"In fact, the Russian leaders now face a crisis of their own making. The steady rise in living standards during the 2000s, stemming from high prices for oil and gas, led to euphoria and an implicit deal between the authorities and the population according to which the authorities would be free to steal as long as the income of the population continued to rise.
"Living standards did rise but corruption crippled normal development. Now that oil prices have collapsed, Russia has no other comparable source of revenue and Western sanctions are preventing badly needed investment."
There are reports that Russian soldiers are being asked to sign contracts that would allow them to be sent to Ukraine. And funerals for soldiers are now being held in smaller cities and towns, where they hold a lower profile.
Russia, writes Satter, is on a dangerous path.
"The pyramid of power in Russia is very unstable," he writes. "Capital flight is reaching epic proportions ($63.7 billion in the first quarter of 2014, according to the U.S. State Department) and thousands of Russian officials have made contingency plans to escape with their money to the West.
"Mr. Putin and his cronies will not take aggressive action if they fear that they could as a result lose their hold on power. This is why the time for maximum deterrence on the part of the West is now."
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