President Putin in a Dilemma

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J. Soedradjad Djiwandono
J. Soedradjad Djiwandono, Emeritus Peofessor of Economics, FEB,Universitas Indonesia, Jakarta and Professor of International Economics, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore

Jakarta, IO – It was several weeks ago in my op ed in this news weekly, discussing the Russian military incursion into Ukraine, I quoted an observation of Professor Mearsheimer, one that sounded like a warning to President Biden and US allies, that a superpower should not be cornered. 

In fact, what has been going on in the Kremlin seems exactly like what this warning was concerned about. As a result, it now happens that President Putin is making moves that certainly look to me like acts of desperation. 

The Russian Federation leader is reportedly imploring President Xi Jinping for economic aid and military armaments.

Of course, this news was immediately denied by both Beijing and Moscow. However, President Biden’s Chief Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, and his Chinese counterpart were reported to be meeting in Rome to discuss the matter. Jake Sullivan issued a statement that during that nearly seven-hour-long meeting he informed his counterpart that the US is closely follows these developments and would simply not allow such support to take place without considerations of its repercussions on US-China relations. 

I do not know what to say about President Putin’s move, except to observe that this appears to be an act of desperation. He might not have had sufficient intelligence prior to the invasion; he might also have underestimated Ukraine’s resolve to resist the Russian invaders, a military force that some Ukraine leaders describe more like mercenaries than disciplined servicemen and women. CNN news also reported that Russian missiles were observed being shot down by Ukraine military anti-missile weapons, detonating them in the air. In the meantime, attacks have become more random, with many civilian casualties kept being reported. One very graphic video showed a maternity hospital being hit; a young pregnant Ukrainian mother was evacuated, but she and her newborn died a few days later. 

What next? 

Frankly it is hard to read what President Putin’s next move might be. It was in the news that China did seem receptive to the Russian plea. But what would be the response of NATO, and the USA, if this was confirmed? President Biden publicly emphasizes that he will not be drawn into a Third World War, one that would certainly end in the destruction of the whole world from nuclear devastation. The question is whether or not President Biden or anyone else could prevent that from happening. This is a major question indeed. Any conflict that erupted from this current confrontation would produce no winners: every country would certainly end up a loser. 

I think in this respect that even President Putin realizes this. So hopefully common sense will be the winner for every party concerned, to do their utmost to avoid this Armageddon. 

Here let us hope that President Zelensky, and those backing him, will also be able to control their emotions and tone down his plea to President Biden and the US allies for a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine. Such a demand is not realistic. 

It is not just unrealistic, but dangerous. Even the economic sanctions that the US and its allies are imposing against Russia have already been dubbed an “economic war” as if identical to a real war. An announcement of a no-fly zone would be considered a declaration of war by Russia. Thus, no country would want to be the one to initiate that. 

President Biden and Secretary Blinken kept continue to remind Ukraine and the world that they have been increasing their assistance to that country, economic as well as humanitarian. The US itself has appropriated USD 16 billion for such aid, not counting all the humanitarian assistances provided by Germany and others, as well as neighboring countries doing their part to receive Ukraine refugees, a flow now totaling 2.8 million: old Ukrainians, along with women and children, while the young men stay behind, carrying weapons to defend their country. 

Final note. 

I do not know what Indonesia and the region could do to help avoid the specter of WWIII. History shows that a world war may be triggered some trivial incident, one that looks so unimportant and has nothing to do with war. We hope that all countries remember this, so as not to make any unwise move that could force a superpower to go to war. 

Indonesia is currently holding the Chair of the G20. Let us hope that our leaders will be able to come with a proposal that can be shared with other G20 members – a workable solution as a meeting of the minds between the superpowers: the United States of America , the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation and the European Union. Let us hope and pray this will come to pass.