Putin’s Comeuppance, Though Unfolding, Starts To Pay Dividends for West

Polish missile defenses get a timely boost, sending signal to the Kremlin.

Russian Presidential Press Service via AP
President Putin at Moscow, June 26, 2023. Russian Presidential Press Service via AP

Dagestan, an obscure Russian republic that borders Azerbaijan on the south, is not a place typically on President Putin’s itinerary. Yet in what Russian press describes as a working visit on June 28 — Mr. Putin’s first known foray outside Moscow since a weekend of unprecedented domestic turmoil — the strongman was shown meeting and greeting an adoring crowd in Dagestan.

Whether it was staged or not, the desired optics were that Mr. Putin is still number one and the public loves him. The reality is that as mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived rebellion against the Russian government got under way on June 23, some Russian officials were already trying to book tickets out of Moscow.

That alone had to be music to the ears of many in Ukraine, for whom any sign of cracks in the Kremlin is a morale boost on the battlefield. While an attempted coup in any number of small countries typically has limited international repercussions, the case is different with the largest country in the world.

The biggest immediate impact of the weekend’s events west of Moscow is in Belarus. The depiction in the international press of Belarusian president, Aleksander Lukashenko, as last-minute mediator between Mr. Putin and his rebellious mercenary man is deceptive. 

Yes, having defied Mr. Putin’s authority, Mr. Prigozhin bolted to Belarus. Yes, Mr. Lukashenko said that he would accommodate fighting members of the Wagner group if necessary. Exactly what he meant by that is still unclear. In any case, Belarus was and still is a vassal state of Russia. 

On the other side of Belarus, is NATO member Poland. The two counties share a land border that runs 250 miles long from north to south. Despite lingering political differences with Kyiv, Warsaw has been arguably the most vociferous supporter of Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invaders on the Continent.

Nobody in Poland, where historical memory runs deep on many levels, wants to see Russia at its doorstep. Then again also, too, Poland already borders Russia, at a least a part of it — the exclave of Kaliningrad. 

Just last month, though, Poland officially ceased calling the Baltic coast exclave by its Russian name, choosing instead to revert to its historic name of Konigsberg, or “Krolewiec” in Polish. The Kremlin branded that shift in nomenclature a hostile act

On Wednesday the Pentagon confirmed that the State Department approved the sale of a $15 billion Integrated Air and Missile Defense  Battle Command System and related equipment to Poland as it upgrades its air defenses. In a statement, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said that “a possible sale meets the foreign policy goals and objectives of ensuring the national security of the United States, since it increases the security of a NATO ally.”

Raytheon and Lockheed Martin will be likely contractors for the purchase, according to the statement. This comes after the State Department approved in February a Polish request to purchase HIMARS rocket launchers and missiles to the tune of about $10 billion.

Defense News wrote that Poland should receive 18 installations. In March, Poland’s defense minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, announced plans to deploy the missile installations close to the border with Russia’s Kaliningrad region. The first HIMARS deliveries were undertaken last month.

The message to Mr. Putin could not be clearer: Stay away. Nobody is suggesting that the Russian roughneck wants to make inroads on Poland — he can barely keep his own house in order — but the strongman’s belligerence in Ukraine points to a prolonged period of unpredictability in Europe in general. Warsaw has a particular history of being unprepared for battle that no one at Washington would care to ever see repeated. 

This all comes at a time when Europeans are realizing that they have shirked responsible defense spending for too long. In a speech over the weekend, Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands said that “We felt so secure as a society that we thought perhaps defense could be scaled down. We were wrong.” Added he: “Since the end of World War II, peace in Europe has never been under more pressure than now.”

The view from the Kremlin is the opposite. Foreign Minister Lavrov told a Russian television station on Wednesday that “Ukraine is an instrument of the West for waging war against us” and that “the collective West is obsessed with the desire to prevent the formation of a multipolar world order.”

He added that “Americans and the West in general like to ‘cancel’ everything that is not in their interests.” As for his selectively itinerant boss Vladimir Putin’s attempts to redraw the map of Europe on his terms alone, well indeed Mr. Lavrov, consider them canceled.


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