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U.S. President Joe Biden stated, after unsuccessful negotiations concerning Ukraine, that the Russian president himself does not know what he wants. If that were the case it would be catastrophic, but Biden is likely to be incorrect: Vladimir Putin knows well what he is doing. And the fact that many people are aware of his intentions is indicated by the unprecedented military advance taking place in the region — from the Baltic to Crimea.

According to Pavel Baev, professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, “It gradually dawned on Putin that if he stays on the track of stable and predictable, as Biden indicated, he’s the designated loser. Something needed to be done. He went for this escalation quite sharply.”

The professor has a keen eye for reality: The world — not counting the Cuban missile crisis — has not been this close to a total war since 1945. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov might be aware of some things; even though he referred to his discussions in Geneva with Secretary of State Antony Blinken as “honest,” he added, “I cannot say whether we are on the right track or not on the right track.”

Hopes are not high for the “right track.” Baev might have been correct when he said, “What is happening on the Russian side in the last couple of weeks is not really diplomacy. It’s a combination of bluff, blackmail and warmongering.” Even if it is a bluff, we are only a step away from its becoming the kind of reality that would involve Europe and the whole world: Europe because of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; the Far East because of Taiwan.

We are reminded of Adolf Hitler’s Gdansk or Sudetenland arguments and the Gulf of Tonkin incident: ”We will not tolerate when our citizens are attacked,” said Konstantin Gavrilov, head of the delegation of the Russian Federation to the Vienna Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control. It is almost comical that Kay-Achim Schönbach, chief of Germany’s navy, said, “Having this big country, even if it is not a democracy, as a bilateral partner … probably keeps Russia away from China.” In addition, the annexed territories of Crimea, according to him, were “gone” and would “never come back” to Kyiv. Schönbach referred to the European democracies’ inability to act.

The geopolitical situation is more than uncertain; it is on the edge of disaster. The Western democracies maneuvered themselves into powerlessness and are unlikely to be able to move past the methods of the 20th century to protect themselves from the authoritarian threat. Moreover, Putin’s Russia presented unreachable demands: NATO’s withdrawal from Eastern Europe, even though it is the sovereign right of every nation to enter into any organization, and Moscow’s justification of its expanded sphere of interest.

The world is being redivided. China does not feel pressured; Russia’s economy is strong enough for explosives and engagement in energy blackmail, but too weak for peaceful progress. And the West struggles to find its footing.

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