Regarding Putin and Power, Joe Biden was Right

For the second time in as many years, Joe Biden was right. Putin cannot remain in power in Moscow. Biden’s other correct statement was his choice of Chocolate Chip as the best ice cream. The problem is that Biden’s latest comment verifies perilous times for all of us.

As predicted here months ago, Putin has now painted himself into an inescapable box. His Ukrainian adventurism had three possible outcomes. First, by massing Russian troops on the border, Putin might have scared Ukraine and the West into significant concessions without firing a shot. Putin would then have been hailed as the most powerful man in the world. That title goes well with his 495-foot yacht with the gold toilet paper dispensers.

If that didn’t work, the Russian invasion plan predicted leading elements of Moscow’s 1st Guards Tank Army enjoying lunch at Le Cosmopolite on Vladimirskaya Street in Kyiv within a week of crossing the border. The borscht with garlic fritters, followed by Chicken Kyiv in the main dining room there, is not to be missed.

The third possibility was so remote that it was quickly dismissed. Defeat or a stalemate was never seriously considered. Putin’s advisors told him the Ukrainians would either welcome their Slavic Brothers with open arms or Ukrainian army resistance would evaporate in mere moments, just like Biden’s thought patterns. Of course, everyone expected wimpy NATO would do nothing. Even better for Russia, the easy victory in Ukraine would open the way for a Red Army march west to the Baltic. That would fulfill Putin’s dream of reclaiming the glory of a reunited Soviet Union as Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia again became Russian puppets.

One of Tom Clancy’s characters once correctly stated, “Russians don’t take a dump without a plan.” Putin’s plan predicted easy success. But Putin’s generals forgot Erwin Rommel’s military maxim; “No battle plan ever survives the first contact with the enemy.” George Armstrong Custer proved how correct that is.

Now, the nightly news leads with stories of how Putin’s plan has failed. A previously unknown Ukrainian sitcom star turned politician became a symbol of a smaller nation sending the Russian bear stumbling into a stalemate with its tail tucked between its legs.

Putin must now make a critical decision. One possible answer is a personal calamity for him. Another is a catastrophe for Europe and the rest of the world.

It’s important to remember that there is no middle ground in Russian politics. The power of membership in the nomenklatura is immense. Back in the day, the bosses at the Central Committee and Presidium level lived in the lap of Soviet socialist luxury. Access to Western goods, the finest caviar, and beautiful young women every night was theirs.

While the average Russian would never think of owning a car, the big bosses were all chauffeured through special reserved Moscow traffic lanes in their Zils. Zils were the Russian idea of a home-grown luxury car. To imagine one, think of a 1947 Packard with the chrome copied from a ‘58 Oldsmobile. American cars are evaluated in miles per gallon. Zils were measured in miles between breakdowns.

Actually, the very top of the Soviet political food chain did not have to settle for Zils. Instead, quietly, they all got Cadillacs.

But reaching for the top rung in Russia’s ruling class and then failing was never forgiven. When Leon Trotsky angered Stalin, he fled to Mexico City. Trotsky felt safe there until he died at the angry end of an ice ax wielded by a communist assassin whom Stalin sent.

Image made using a photo from Operation Crossroads Baker (colorized). Public domain.

Failed American politicians get seven-figure book advances, but Khrushchev was lucky to escape into obscurity after embarrassing Russia by removing his missiles from Cuba.

At least it was better for Gorbachev. No bullet in the head in the basement of Lubyanka for him. His embarrassment was having to do a Pizza Hut commercial, so he had enough money to live on. No, I’m not kidding about Pizza Hut. Check out Gorby’s last 60 seconds of fame on Youtube.

But flacking fast food will not be an option for Putin. He will either be liquidated by those he trusts, deposed into infamy, or conquer Ukraine using weapons of mass destruction. He has no middle ground options.

Deposed into exile is the least likely. Any agreement to flee Russia would require an American, British, and Ukrainian “understanding” that he would be safe there. That would mean locating himself somewhere as exciting as Uganda. China could be a possibility but the PRC would not want the ongoing diplomatic problems caused by cradling a deposed dictator who destroyed his country and sent 40,000 of his own soldiers home in body bags.

Assassination is a possibility. If the other real Russian power brokers, the oligarchs, decide Putin threatens their wealth and lifestyles, there could always be a helicopter “accident” or something of that nature. Those who destroy businesses in modern Russia do not get a golden parachute. They get a pine box.

The other outcome, winning in Ukraine, requires Putin to make a quantum increase in battlefield power and weapons. He cannot do that with conventional forces. Sophisticated Western weapons have taken their toll on Russian tanks and morale. The Russian soldier’s will to fight is gone. In addition, advanced weaponry, such as ground-launched British Brimstone missiles, is finding its way onto the battlefield. These weapons can kill a tank from 40 miles away.

Putin’s only avenue to battlefield victory is to escalate to chemical or nuclear weapons. Although we in the West see this as a huge increase in the level of conflict, Kremlin insiders do not. Putin already killed thousands of Syrians using Sarin. He freely employed the deadly nerve gas to keep his friend Bashar Assad in power.

Putin also had no moral problem when killing defector Alexander Litvinenko in England using radioactively poisoned tea.  Another Russian nerve agent, Novichok, poisoned a Putin opponent and his daughter in the idyllic town of Salisbury, just 85 miles from London. 

Regarding an escalation to nuclear weapons, Putin would not see that as nearly as significant as the West would. Mention nuclear and we think of city-killers such as those employed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One person can carry modern small, limited power, fission weapons. In 1965, the U.S. Army’s W48 low-yield nuclear artillery shell measured 6 inches by 34 inches and weighed 120 pounds. Its modern Russian equivalent would be perfect for the Russian version of FedEx to have in Kyiv absolutely, positively overnight.

Putin could easily sell the Russian citizenry on the view that it was no big thing. The West would panic.

To us, going atomic is unthinkable. Putin thinks about it every day.

The long-range problem of either a chemical or atomic escalation is how the West would react. That answer takes a crystal ball. Of course, the World would condemn Putin, but how much more than we already do? Such a weapon’s use would open the door to the next one, and the next one after that.

So Joe Biden is right; Putin cannot remain in power. Everyone sees the need. But no one sees the answer as to how.

Ed Sherdlu is the pen name of a former CBS television network reporter. He uses a pen name because his mother would be so embarrassed to know that Ed’s 12-Step Journalism Recovery Program had been a failure.

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