Cool hand Vlad or Crazy Ivan?

This month’s invasion of the Ukraine marks a new era in Russia’s relations with the rest of the world. 

Vladimir Putin inherited Russia in a time of economic and political collapse.  Slowly he stabilized the economy and gradually stabilized the domestic political scene.  As an authoritarian thug he jailed, tortured and killed his political opponents.   

Once his credentials were established he took this violent show on the road.  Those who failed to show fealty to the new Czar were targeted, particularly the countries of the former Soviet Union.  Putin explained, “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”  Through a revitalized Russian imperialism Putin recreated the work of the Czars and Bolsheviks. 

His initial efforts in Georgia were deadly, effective and efficient.  Internationally he appeared to have a cool and deft touch when raining death on his enemies.  Internally, the Russians recognized many flaws in their invasion and retooled their military and defense industrial complex. 

In Ukraine a similar, if more efficient, playbook was followed in 2014.  Casualties were kept to a minimum and the objectives were limited and specific.  Once the objectives were completed the Russian military stopped to rebuild their resources and prepare for the next assault.  Internationally Putin and was recognized as something like “Cool Hand Vlad.” 

This month’s invasion of Ukraine is another matter altogether.  It is quantitatively, in terms of the time and geography, and qualitatively, in terms of risk, different from Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. The view is emerging that he may use the scorched earth tactics of Grozny and Idlib, Syria, to level the capital and other larger urban centers in the Central and Eastern Ukraine. 

This would leave Ukraine west of the Dnieper River as ground central for a rebellion.  The geographic difference in Ukraine is significant.  In the East the population is mainly Orthodox and includes many Russian speakers with loyalty to Russia.  The West was formerly part of Poland and Lithuania and speaks Ukrainian. The Western part of Ukraine has many members of the Uniate or Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which recognizes the Pope as its authority.  It makes the region more culturally similar to Lithuania and Poland than Russia.      

Sources in Ukraine have reported more than ten thousand volunteers from outside the country have flowed into the West of country to fight the Russians.  This includes private citizens from Poland, America, Japan, Georgia, France, Germany and Great Britain. These forces could be supplemented by contractors from NATO countries and citizens from the Muslim world, including Chechnya, Dagestan, Bosnia and Kazakhstan.

Moreover, a pipeline is already being created in Eastern Europe to arm the Ukrainian military and their militias.  This pipeline is expected to grow in the coming months as a reaction to the Russian invasion.  This nexus will be able to ship a robust stream of weapons, munitions and insurgents into Western Ukraine.   

Former Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and CIA operations, Michael Vickers, predicted any puppet government set up by the Russians would be quickly overthrown.  He also suggested Russian occupation of the country could generate the same level of death and destruction the Soviets experienced in Afghanistan.  If Russia deployed more troops in the West to control this insurgency it could be overextended.  It might require the redeployment of troops it would rather use to defend Russia’s South and East.

Can Cool Hand Vlad survive this scenario? 

Recently commentators and “intelligence” sources have questioned Putin’s behavior.  Some have speculated that Putin has acted differently over the last few years as he has been largely isolated since the outbreak of the coronavirus.  

If the plan in Ukraine was to split the country down the middle between West and East it could have made sense, on paper.  Putin may be counting on killing or capturing most of the county’s leaders, putting them through show trials and condemning them for life.  If he dominates the territory to the east of the Dnieper River, he could then sue for peace from a position of strength.

But, as Moltke explained, no plan survives contact with the enemy.  The Ukrainians are fighting back more than expected and Russian forces have been less aggressive than Putin planned.  Technology from the U.S., Europe and Turkey has played a role in destroying Russian tanks, armored personal carriers and helicopters. 

U.S. intelligence is leaking that Putin has been lashing out at subordinates for the lack of military progress.  According to NBC, “The main concern is the information he’s getting and how isolated he is.  The isolation is a really big concern,” the diplomat said. “We don’t believe he has a realistic understanding of what’s going on.” 

Putin has put the country’s nuclear forces on alert and the Russian military attacked a nuclear power plant.  Although the President of Ukraine is Jewish, Putin has called the leaders “Nazis” and “drug addicts.”  He has compared economic sanctions to “a declaration of war.” 

Suggestions that Putin is unstable have spread following recent appearances.  Russian submarine commanders use a tactic labeled “Crazy Ivan.”  This maneuver was memorialized in the movie, “The Hunt for Red October.”  Some have suggested Putin is attempting to appear unstable so he can demand more outrageous concessions in exchange for halting the invasion.

In the short-term Putin’s hand remains very strong in conventional warfare.  Russia’s long-term prospects in Ukraine, however, appear dark as an insurgent Ukrainian resistance seems inevitable. 

This could raise the potential of using a tactical nuclear weapon to kill two birds with one stone.  The President would announce it as a necessary effort to control Muslim terrorists in Ukraine.  A low-yield tactical nuclear weapon could eliminate most of an insurgency in the West of the country and make it impossible to ship supplies to an insurgency in the short term.   

The global condemnation of Russia, in general, and Vladimir Putin, in particular would be complete.  But it would likely allow Putin to remain as President and give Russia the ability to control is largest vulnerability, the flat Eurasian landmass.  The resistance in Ukraine would be decimated and demoralized, which might make Putin more popular in Russia.

This situation will unfold in the coming months and be governed by the actions of “Cool Hand Vlad” or “Crazy Ivan.”     

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