Putin's big bluff is beating the West

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Key elements of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook against the West are on display again. This time, it is in the breakaway Moldovan province of Transnistria, which is situated between non-NATO Moldova on the west and Ukraine to the east.

Mirroring the People’s Republic of Donetsk’s request to become part of the Russian Federation in May 2014, Transnistria’s Congress of Deputies has asked the Kremlin “to provide it with protection, repeating in miniature the highly flammable scenario played out by regions of eastern Ukraine now occupied by Moscow.”

The timing is noteworthy. Putin is scheduled today to give a State of the Nation joint address to both houses of the Federal Assembly — the lower State Duma and the upper Federation Council. Putin is likely to use the speech to take a much-needed victory lap over Ukraine’s tactical withdrawal from Avdiivka in advance of Russia’s Mar. 15 presidential election.

Putin may be planning to use this opportunity to lay the foundation for yet another military intervention under the guise of protecting Russian-speaking peoples. This is exactly what he did in 2014 in the Donbas. An intervention in Moldova would create another front for Ukraine to manage and could also prompt a Romanian response.

Moscow might also use Transnistria as yet one more designed distraction for the NATO member-states, just as Putin, in coordination with Tehran, used Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack as cover for a bloody counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine. 

Asymmetric distraction is an increasingly important part of Putin’s playbook. We have already witnessed it elsewhere, including in Iranian-sponsored militia attacks against U.S. military forces in Iraq and Syria, and in ongoing Houthi rebel attacks on underwater cables and naval and maritime shipping, often with Russian military equipment.

Transnistria would offer much of the same, playing to both Putin’s long and short games against the West.

We cautioned in these pages in May 2022 that Putin ultimately was likely on a road to Moldova in retaliation for Finland and Sweden seeking to join NATO. Now, nearly two years later, Helsinki is in NATO and Stockholm’s accession has been green-lighted.

In the short run, Transnistria would serve as a distraction. In the long run, Putin’s maneuvering to get Transnistria’s Congress of Deputies to make this request aids Moscow’s goal of surrounding Ukraine and eventually putting added military pressure on the key Ukrainian Black Sea port city of Odesa.

Putin’s decision-making processes come in leaps, not gradually. His end states are always designed to set up the next stage of his overall plan, which is in effect to regain as much of the former Soviet Union’s territory as possible.

Temporary military setbacks will not deter Putin. They did not during the second Chechen War and subsequent insurgency, nor when he failed to take Kyiv in the opening days of his war against Ukraine. He did not shy away as his Black Sea Fleet was gradually sunk, nor as his Beriev A-50 surveillance planes were shot down, nor even as Yevgeny Prigozhin staged an uprising against him.

Putin is exceedingly daring when it comes to sending marginalized Russians — not the prized sons and daughters of Moscow and St. Petersburg’s elite families — to die in the meat grinders of Avdiivka and Bakhmut. This is why he is slowly starting to gain territory, despite holding a losing hand.

Bluffing the West has become a major element of Putin’s playbook, as it pits certain NATO member-states against each other. Nuclear bluffing is the poker blind that holds it all together. 

Moscow’s state-controlled media has long used Russia’s nuclear arsenal as a national form of a Russian-style Teddy Bear to mollify its citizens during the darkest days of Putin’s special military operation. Numerous examples abound, including Olga Skabeyeva, known as “Putin’s Doll,” proclaiming that the Kremlin should have “nuked” Queen Elizabeth’s state funeral, given all of the assembled heads of state, including U.S. President Joe Biden.

Recently, the Kremlin has upped that ante by reportedly planning to put nuclear weapons in space to threaten U.S. military and commercial satellites — and Dmitry Medvedev threatening to nuke the U.S. and Europe were Russia to lose its war in Ukraine and be forced to return to its 1991 borders.

Putin’s bluffing playbook, however, goes well beyond nukes. It has proven to be equally effective in creating divisions among NATO heads of state and getting many in the West to cower in the face of Russian threats. 

For example, French President Emmanuel Macron’s said in Paris on Monday that French troops could be deployed to Ukraine. Moscow immediately seized the opening, declaring that a “conflict between Russia and the U.S.-led NATO military alliance would be inevitable if European members of NATO sent troops to fight in Ukraine.”

The U.S., Britain, Finland, Germany, Spain, and Poland rapidly “distanced themselves from any suggestion they might commit ground troops. Even Sweden, technically still not yet a member of NATO, dismissed Macron’s proposition when Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson flatly declared Stockholm “had no plans to send ground troops to Ukraine.”

Putin’s bluff quickly turned into NATO’s unforced error. There was no need for pushback. Ambiguity of the unknown was replaced with the certainty of the known: NATO will not commit forces should Ukraine’s defenses falter. Message sent to Russia and Ukraine. Brussels should have left Moscow wondering if indeed NATO was ultimately considering that path if circumstances eventually called for it. 

NATO is off-balance right now, and Moscow’s machinations in Transnistria are likely just another Putin effort to keep Brussels and Washington on their back feet. Putin has a losing hand, yet the West keeps letting him to win with it. The West needs to recognize that it holds the winning hand in Ukraine and call Putin’s bluff.

Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy. Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer.

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