Streetwise Professor

April 17, 2021

Putin Calls Biden’s Bluff: Xi No Doubt Watches With Amusement

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:20 pm

Domestically, the US political situation is dysfunctional. On its best days. To compound the dangers, the international situation is fraught.

At present there are two smoldering hotspots involving world powers (and arguably superpowers) that could suck the US into a confrontation with such powers–Taiwan and Ukraine.

China has ramped up the rhetoric over Taiwan. It has also increased its provocative military behavior around the island.

Russia has amassed a 50,000 man plus military force, heavily armed and armored, on the borders of Ukraine.

Taiwan and Ukraine have been hotspots for years, but it is at least plausible, and in my view likely, that the increase in tensions is the direct result of the change in administrations. That is, China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin are testing Biden. Or they believe they have already found him wanting in the fortitude and strategic departments.

Who can blame them, really?

In Ukraine in particular, the Biden administration has played things in about the worst way imaginable, and has no doubt convinced Putin that they are weak.

Most notable was the embarrassing exhibition involving the supposed dispatching of two US destroyers into the Black Sea. The Russians reacted quite aggressively, and last week it was announced that no ships would be transiting the Bosporus after all.

I thought it was a horrible idea to send the ships in any event. Play out the game. If deterrence fails, and Russia and Ukraine recommence the hostilities that (sort of) ended 7 years ago, then either the DDGs would have to turn tail (which would not be a good look), or they could get involved in combat with the Russians. Even overlooking the dire consequences of armed confrontation between the US and Russia, the ships would have been able to accomplish little, and would be at extreme risk. Yes, they are very capable platforms, but are intended to operate as part of a carrier battlegroup. Operating independently, they would have little influence on a battle in Ukraine, and would be extremely vulnerable operating within range of dominant land-based air and missile forces. Which is why they almost certainly would have turned tail.

The Russians would have known this, and playing out the game, would have realized that two DDGs would not effect their operations in Ukraine. So the deterrence value of the deployment would have been close to zero; the upside of the deployment negligible; and the potential downside huge.

In other words, don’t make non-credible bluffs. That’s exactly what the administration did, before backing down. Thereby revealing that it was bluffing, and had no intention of backing it up.

This came to mind:

(That was John Cleese as Putin at the end.)

The worst possible way to play this, regardless of whether you believe that the US should risk a confrontation with Putin over Ukraine, or not. The. Worst.

It’s sickly ironic that this climbdown from a confrontation with Putin occurred about the same time that one part of the administration discretely acknowledged that the “Russian bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan” story was a complete crock. That story was flogged incessantly over the summer to reinforce the narrative that Trump cowered before Putin, and was running away from Afghanistan as a result. Well, the story was bullshit, so there was no cowering. It is the Biden administration that is demonstrably cowering. (Even while the Pentagon was backing off the bounties story, others in the Biden administration were continuing to assert it.)

That story was another flagrant example of media mendacity. The NYT journalists who wrote it should be consigned to oblivion–but they won’t be. If they were lied to by their anonymous sources, they should call them out–but they won’t. So there is NO accountability for lying, or for trading in lies (as the NYT journalists and so many other journalists do). They used to say never trust anyone over 30. That was always a dubious statement. It is anything but dubious to say never trust any journalist, regardless of age.

Furthermore, Biden cemented his image of weakness before Putin by offering to meet him in a summit–at least, you can be sure that this offer cemented an image of weakness in Putin’s mind. It makes it look like Biden is coming to Putin as a supplicant.

Another own goal.

And shifting to the other end of the world, you know Xi is watching this very, very closely.

The coming months could be worrisome, indeed.

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  1. We are so screwed. On the other hand, the rest of the world gets a crash course in taking care of itself. There are consequences to a stolen election, as our glorious leaders are assiduously not learning. They installed a husk in the White House, but thank God they got rid of that horrible Trump.

    Comment by Christopher L Hunt — April 17, 2021 @ 7:25 pm

  2. Prof my understanding is that the Russian mobilisation is a response to a decision by the Ukrainians to retake, with military force, the eastern parts of the country that have effectively seceded, and also Crimea. The Ukrainians began mobilising forces eastward in early March, and in late March President Zelensky signed a decree committing the country to retaking Crimea.

    Regardless of who is right and who is wrong in this situation, this is a dangerous escalation in the situation which the Ukrainians would never have undertaken without backing, or a ‘nod’, from the US.

    Putin is no doubt putting on a show for Washington. But he is also doing so in response to Ukrainian mobilisation.

    The Washington Establishment has long wanted to settle accounts with Russia and Putin, not least after he embarrassed them, not once but twice, in Syria, stealing the prize of Damascus from them. Clinton’s rhetoric in 2016 was clear, the Russians certainly heard it, and thank heavens Trump’s victory bought us four extra years of reasonable calm. But now the warheads are back in charge and they have wasted no time in increasing the pressure on Moscow. It’s no accident that Zelensky has gone on the offensive within five months of the establishment re-sinking their posteriors into the White House swivel chairs.

    You’ve rightly highlighted the incompetence in Washington. What I think is their greatest failure is they don’t realise how serious the Kremlin is about protecting its interests in Ukraine. It’s not idle talk about the Russians taking Kiev and reconfiguring Ukrainian statehood, as Putin has warned. Ukraine is existential for them. You’re a military man: compare a map of NATO containing Ukraine with a map of the furthest extent of Nazi penetration of the Soviet Union in, what, 1942. Now realise that this wouldn’t be the furthest extent of penetration in a new war, but the kick-off point! The Russians will fight tooth and nail to prevent a NATO-aligned Ukraine on their southern border.

    Now is the time for everyone to cool their jets and back off. That this isn’t happening gives an insight into just how grave the miscalculation is in Washington.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — April 17, 2021 @ 11:43 pm

  3. @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break

    “my understanding is that the Russian mobilisation is a response to a decision by the Ukrainians to retake, with military force, the eastern parts of the country”

    And this understanding must certainly be based on analyzing some facts, which would not be difficult for you to point out, right?

    Alternatively, your understanding might be that the Nazi invasion of Poland was a response to the Polish decision to take Gleiwitz, with military force.

    Comment by Ivan — April 18, 2021 @ 12:40 am

  4. @Ivan,

    Re. east Ukraine: most of the videos I saw of the movement of heavy military equipment were on Twitter, and Jack has locked me out of my account because I dared say something mildly sceptical about the Covid vaccines, so I can’t retrieve them now. To avoid the problem here of having comments rejected when they contain a link, search for ‘MBT in Mariupol’ on Youtube for a short clip of a train transporting tanks in eastern Ukraine, dated March 10. I searched for news reports of the Ukrainian buildup but couldn’t find anything in the English-language press.

    Re. Crimea: Ukraine National Security and Defense Council Decree no. 117/2021

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — April 18, 2021 @ 5:17 am

  5. Of all the stupid things to go to war about the Ukrainian claim to Crimea takes the biscuit. The runner up is the fate of “Donbas”.

    The US has a better claim for the rightness of defending Taiwan, though it might well lose its fleets to Chinese land-based missiles if it tries.

    Comment by dearieme — April 18, 2021 @ 8:07 am

  6. @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break

    In other words, a few random videos, probably twitted by Prigozhin’s trolls, is all you need to form an “understanding”? For the sake of the globe, I hope you tend to apply more thought to whatever you superregulate.

    Comment by Ivan — April 18, 2021 @ 10:24 am

  7. I wonder why China and Russia don’t plan their respective invasions simultaneously. What would we be able to do about it? Who would we boycott then? (said facetiously)

    Comment by Howard Roark — April 18, 2021 @ 2:24 pm

  8. Ivan,

    Yeah, you’re right, nothing to see here. Ukrainian heavy armour moving towards the live-firing line of control in eastern Ukraine in early March, a week before POTATUS called Putin ‘a killer’ and two weeks before the Ukrainian government announced that it planned to re-take Crimea.

    Has the Defense Intelligence Organization asked you to teach their analysts courses in strategic warning? This bright a light shouldn’t be hidden under a bushel.

    Anyway, you can go back to sleep.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — April 18, 2021 @ 3:07 pm

  9. @Howard–Don’t think for a moment that this hasn’t crossed my mind. The US long ago gave up striving to maintain a capability to fight simultaneous high intensity conflicts in two theaters. The credibility of that commitment was always dubious, but now it’s non-existent.

    In these matters I think a Realist approach is necessary. Realism involves making strategic priorities, evaluating how to act based on those priorities and an assessment of capabilities and costs. A hard-headed analysis requires prioritizing China. Further, especially in the Ukraine theater, the correlation of military forces is decidedly in favor of Russia. Even absent a risk of a conflict with China, I would assess the cost-benefit calculus of conflict with Russia over Ukraine is highly unfavorable. The cost-benefit calculus is even more obviously unfavorable when one realizes that if the US were to become embroiled there it would give the Chinese an opening in Taiwan and the South China Sea generally.

    It’s not a pretty conclusion. But it’s a realistic one.

    @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break–For the above considerations alone I am ambivalent about giving any commitments to Ukraine. Your comments provide additional reasons. The dysfunction of Ukraine–it is in many ways more Sovok that Russia itself–has long been evident. Global powers (including imperial states) are always at risk of being played by locals. I assess that risk to be large for the US in Ukraine. (Serbia in 1914 thinking that Russia would rescue it comes to mind.) It was far less a risk under Trump (who quite frankly didn’t really give a shit about Ukraine) than it is under Biden, especially given that the usual suspects (e.g., Victoria Nuland) in the State Department hold considerable sway.

    It is said that Mexico’s tragedy is that it is too close to the US, and too far from God. In the same vein, alas, Ukraine is too close to Russia, and too far from God. It is also too far from the US, truth be told. We need to recognize that. As @dearieme says, it would be a strategic folly for the US to get involved kinetically in Ukraine, or to give the Ukrainians any illusions that the US would save their bacon. Any US involvement must be asymmetric in nature, and avoid any military commitment. This is especially true given that Russia is not the only game in town, or even the most important game.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 18, 2021 @ 5:11 pm

  10. @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break. Kudos on being sufficiently obstreperous to draw Jack’s ire. It’s something of an honor. I’m somewhat envious. I’ve been trying!

    Comment by cpirrong — April 18, 2021 @ 5:15 pm

  11. @1 Super-Regulator on Lunch Break

    Ukrainian government announced it planned to retake Crimea? Have you actually read a line from the document you referred to? Here is a video recap:

    Just one last question before I go back to sleep: I bet one can easily find on Twitter the photos of that despicable act of aggression, maybe even newsreels of heavy Polish cavalry gallopping westwards — but what do you think was the actual reason that Poland invaded the Third Reich?

    BTW, just found out Czechia provoked the Russians into blowing up an ammunition depot there back in 2014. Those small Slavic nations really do have that annoying habit of jeopardizing peace for our time, don’t they?

    Comment by Ivan — April 18, 2021 @ 7:27 pm

  12. @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break

    Ivan is right (despite of his name).

    Russia accused Ukraine of something it has been actively doing itself (military buildup, that is). Classical.

    That scary “Crimea retake strategy” you are referring to is just a toothless document saying that “We REALLY do not recognize the annexation of Crimea, and will get it back. Some time in the future. Somehow. Hopefully.” It took the GOU long 7 years to formulate it. If that is provocative, it only provokes amusement and disbelief.

    Comment by EasternPromises — April 18, 2021 @ 9:36 pm

  13. Selective memory at work here. All three previous US presidents have form in caving in to Putin, Dubya in 2008 following the conflict in Georgia (remember that, when the US egged on Saakashvilli to challenge Russia then cut him loose when it all went to sh*t?), Obama with his red line in Syria, Trump with his even lamer red line in Syria and in pretty much with every interaction with him.

    I recall Dubya sent a couple of warships (the USS McFaul! Love that name!) into the Black Sea in response. They duly stooged around a bit, looking more than a little outgunned in front of the amassed forces, then quietly withdrew. Maybe Biden remembers that little debacle?

    PS I’d love to have a window on that parallel universe where Trump won a second term, just to see how he would responded to these challenges (esp Taiwan).

    Comment by David Mercer — April 19, 2021 @ 2:30 am

  14. I am saddened to say the younger generation doesn’t get my Monty Python references…and are increasingly offended by them

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter — April 19, 2021 @ 7:52 am

  15. @Carter: Alas its been taken off the school curriculum here.

    On this topic I’ve been contemplating writing to my MP to demand that any Python references made by Americans be subject to royalty payments in our upcoming mega trade deal. Craig would probably go bankrupt as a consequence.

    Comment by David Mercer — April 19, 2021 @ 9:29 am

  16. Poor innocent Russia – surrounded by small, weak, unstable and poorer countries like Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, etc. – all of which seem to want to take shots at Russia.

    The Russians have been so unlucky to be constantly subjected to such obvious military aggression. What are the chances, eh?

    But thankfully we have insights derived from obscure social media posts which show how these weak and unstable countries, despite how improbable and illogical it looks, are the actual aggressors while Russia is just defending itself.

    The Russian misinformation campaign before the Georgian intervention should be studied by anyone interested on Russia’s template for invading their neighbours. This Ukraine job looks similar – months before, start spreading lies and misinformation on how Russia is being provoked or at least create enough confusion around the subject so that when the Russians do invade that it feels like some sort of local regional squabble and an invasion by a hostile super-power against a small relatively defenceless neighbour.

    Not that this is a reason for the US to get involved of course. But there’s no need to parrot Russian lies and clutch to delusional ideas of innocent Russia being constantly “provoked” by its neighbours.

    Comment by derriz — April 19, 2021 @ 1:40 pm

  17. Prof, completely agree. Especially about strategic folly.

    But the heart has reasons that reason cannot know. And the neocon heart wants to march on Moscow, dragging the rest of us with them.

    Maybe you could send them some of your think-pieces on Rasha and its problems – try to show them that the juice ain’t worth the squeeze. Especially when it’s China that is eating their lunch with ever larger bites.

    We can only hope strategic realities burst the neocon dream-bubble before another chapter is added to Tuchman’s ‘March of Folly’.

    As for your struggles with Jack, remember the words of Eric ‘Weightgain 4000’ Cartman: ‘Follow your dreams. You can reach your goals. I’m living proof.’

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — April 19, 2021 @ 5:22 pm

  18. SWP, I agree with you and it’s quite sad that it’s the case. The only hope for a stable Ukrainian nation state is to cede the occupied territory and retrench within their smaller borders. The country was torn in two politically already between the Lviv side and the eastern regions. They would have more political unity as a result. However, that wouldn’t end Russia’s lust, nor would it be very defendable. Mix that in with the acute Sovok factor and the execution of this plan would always flounder.

    Taiwan is a legitimate nation state that can govern itself. It deserves a chance. However, after seeing how Hong Kong has fared with barely a whimper from the West, I don’t see how there would be enough political will to defend it. Folding to China has gained great momentum throughout the world, so if China attacked Taiwan suddenly, I could easily see a lot of shoulder shrugging. My only morbid hope would be that a relentless Taiwan insurgency would drain China of some of its might.

    Both comments above are already too early to tell, but the arch of history is very long.

    Comment by Howard Roark — April 20, 2021 @ 6:17 am

  19. @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break. Great comment. I used to have neocon inclinations. But that was before the collapse of the USSR. The persistence of neocons after their reason for being (the USSR) had disappeared has been an absolute disaster. The “end of history” bullshit in particular. Sorry, Afghans, jihadis, Chinese, others don’t want to be Western liberals. They want to destroy them. (Samuel Huntington was also considered a neocon, but his Clash of Civilizations has aged much, much better.)

    Perhaps not surprising, because at root neoconservatives are progressives/Hegelians.

    And your reference to that South Park episode cracks me up.

    Yeah, I’m really starting to fill out nicely.
    You’re not filling out nicely, you’re fatter than ever!
    I’m not fat! I’m getting in shape!
    Cartman, you’re such a fat ass that when you walk down the street people go “God damn it, that’s a big fat ass!”

    I think about that bit a lot because 15+ years ago I had bulked up and then realized that I wasn’t big, I was fat. So I lost 55 lbs. Can’t lift as much, but that’s a small price to pay.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 24, 2021 @ 11:57 am

  20. @Jeff–at the risk of sounding like an old fart, further proof of the uselessness of the “younger generation.”

    Consider this scene from Life of Brian. It is spot on in so many ways. But today it would be an anathema. You could not do it today. I’m surprised it hasn’t been withdrawn.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 24, 2021 @ 12:01 pm

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