The escalating crisis in Ukraine being engineered by Vladimir Putin is taking on the feel of the Guns of August: an inexorable march towards a wider conflict, and perhaps a conflagration. Having few good options to prevent the Russian autocrat from taking whatever he wants from Ukraine and possibly other neighboring states the Kremlin in what calls “the Near Abroad,” Europe and the Obama administration have been ratcheting up economic sanctions on individuals, banks and companies known to be favored by the Putin regime.
The London Daily Telegraph gives a flavor of what is in store in the wake of murderous attacks on Ukrainian military personnel by Russian special forces and others and retaliatory action by the government in Kiev:
“The International Monetary Fund said the conflict risks deep damage to Russia’s economy, starving it of foreign funds and know-how. ‘Geopolitical tensions have brought the Russian economy to a standstill. Russia’s actions have increased the uncertainty of doing business in Russia and are having a chilling effect on investment. Capital outflows could reach $100 billion in 2014.”
“This comes at a crucial moment when the old growth model based on energy has been exhausted, [the IMF] said. [It] expects growth to fall to 0.2 percent this year, with risks ‘starkly to the downside.’”
“Russia’s central bank chief Elvira Nabullina said capital flight was playing havoc with exchange rate policy. ‘Rouble stability is impossible unless we slow capital outflows.’”
If Putin intensifies his interference in Ukrainian affairs, the Russians seem likely to experience still worse economic dislocation. The Telegraph reports that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has issued a strategy paper that “called for a complete change in policy, deeming it impossible to work with the Kremlin so long as Vladimir Putin is in charge.” That would mean that the Western government heretofore most determined to avoid harsh sanctions on Russia (not least because they would harm Moscow’s many trading partners in Germany) will no longer run interference for the Kremlin and will seek the downfall of its long-time master.
So far, Vladimir Putin is responding to such economic measures and strategic developments by doubling down. He declared on July 1, “I want everyone to understand: Our country will continue to defend the rights of Russians abroad and to use our entire arsenal.”
Such statements would be ominous under any circumstance. That arsenal is formidable and has, to varying degrees already been brought to bear:
Putin has put into place the ground forces needed to seize the industrial heartland of Ukraine. Other nations on Russia’s littorals – including NATO member nations in the Baltics – could also suddenly face Kremlin-manufactured separatist movements that ask Mother Russia for solidarity and protection.
Putin has already engaged in economic warfare against Ukraine, most recently cutting off its access to natural gas imports – ostensibly over payment arrearages, but clearly with an eye toward euchring accommodation of Russian demands.
President Putin has made no secret of his determination to brandish Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile. He is comprehensively modernizing it, in contrast to the steady atrophying of America’s strategic forces, rationalized by President Obama’s reckless, unilateral pursuit of a “world without nuclear weapons” – starting with ours. The Russian despot has resumed provocative Cold War-style penetrations by long-range nuclear-capable bombers of U.S. and allied airspace. He has also threatened to engage in nuclear attacks on adversaries, near and far.
It appears, however, that Putin may have just added to his “arsenal” a new weapon, one that could give him a new and devastating “nuclear option.” In fact, the mere threat of its use against the Europeans and the Americans may be sufficient to impel their acquiescence to his demands on Ukraine and, for that matter, just about anything else he wants.
According to a CNBC report on July 1, “The industrial control systems of hundreds of European and U.S. energy companies have been infected by a sophisticated cyber weapon operated by a state-backed group with apparent ties to Russia.” If true, Putin could threaten to unleash at any time via a Stuxnet-like computer worm an attack on the electric grids of the United States and Europe. Such a cyber attack could potentially disrupt the distribution of power to their respective critical infrastructures for protracted periods.
Should that occur, societal breakdowns, economic collapse and losses that run to the hundreds of millions of lives are distinct possibilities, if not certainties. The Free World as we have known it could cease to exist, without a shot being fired.
Such a scenario was among those validated in London this week at a meeting of top government officials, legislators, public utilities regulators, electric industry leaders, scientists and other experts from the United States, Britain, Israel and a number of other countries. The good news is that, in light of such very bad news about the dangers we face – with or without a Russian Stuxnet 2.0, this Electric Infrastructure Security Summit seemed to precipitate an unprecedented willingness on the part of the various stakeholders represented to collaborate for the purpose of protecting the grid against all hazards.
The prospect of Vladimir Putin or any other adversaries being able, one way or another, to pose such an existential threat to our nation demands corrective action without further delay. What is needed now is nothing less than a crash, supreme-priority Manhattan Project-style national effort. We must bring to bear the best minds and the necessary resources to protect our critical infrastructure and, thereby, help preserve this country and the rest of the Free World in the face of the present danger – and those in the offing.