Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine to reset the boundaries of a New Cold War. He will use the control of Ukraine to threaten and destabilize Eastern Europe the way he has undermined Ukraine since 2014. He is doing this because he believes Russia is vulnerable to a NATO invasion across the flat European landmass, which includes Ukraine.
Putin believes securing “mother Russia” is more important than the people of Ukraine, the post-Cold War peace or the economic growth much of the world, including Russia, has experienced since 1991.
So peace, prosperity and Ukraine, as it was previously known, are going the way of the Dodo bird. The world is only slowly recognizing this, but the end of prosperity will be addressed in another article. The focus here is politics. As Clausewitz noted that war is a continuation of politics with the addition of other means, this article will start on the battlefield.
Tactically, the Russian military is using three, and a possible four, tactics to destroy the polity defined as Ukraine. These include conventional military means to pacify, blockade and flatten Eastern Ukraine.
In the South a pacification strategy is being employed. In Kherson, Kakhovka and Skadovsk Russian troops have surrounded the cites but allowed access to power, water and some communications. This region is largely self-sufficient in food but not in medicine or fuel. Some municipal leaders have been arrested and neutered but others are allowed to help the cities function. There have been some anti-occupation protests but they have also been dispersed by gunfire and discouraged through arrests.
In the East a blockade strategy is being utilized, most visibly in Mariupol. The city is under siege and is cut off from food, water, power and communications. The population is being choked and starved until it is destroyed by mounting deaths.
While Putin may have hoped to blockade the northern cities Kharkiv and Kyiv the Russian army has largely shifted to a crush and flatten strategy. This strategy difference may be because it requires fewer soldiers. Conventionally, flattening is largely done through artillery, tanks and planes shelling city structures until they are destroyed and the population is killed or surrenders. Increasingly the flatten strategy is being used in Mariupol as well.
These blockade and flattening strategies have been combined with occasional cease fires and humanitarian corridors. The corridors have allowed women, children and elderly men to leave. Yet many have remained holed up in basements and subway tunnels convinced it is safer than fleeing. Once a city is blockaded to “death” or flattened, Putin’s army may employ a longer cease-fire. This will be used to arrest and disarm members of the remaining military and political leadership. It now appears, this combination of strategies will be used to subdue Ukraine to the east of the Dnieper River. This could take another month.
Professor Stephen Biddle has described this as a “long and ugly” process. He has explained the siege of Leningrad took two years during WWII and killed more civilians than the U.S. nuclear bomb in Hiroshima. On the other side of the battle, in another month Russia will have lost as many soldiers as it lost over nine years in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the logistics capability and personnel of the Russian Army have been degraded through extensive corruption. Officers received the salaries for enlisted personnel they no longer employ and pilfered fuel, batteries and spare parts for their personal use.
During the next month Russia will have to contend with a growing insurgency fueled by anti-armor and anti-air resources from Western countries. The US and NATO sent enough anti-tank weapons in the first week to eliminate every Russian tank on the planet, not just the ones in Ukraine. Many of the volunteer insurgents streaming into Ukraine have a historical bone to pick with Russia.
Domestically, Russia is dealing with inflation, panic buying and an economic contraction. They will soon have to deal with shortages and rationing as prices could rise by one hundred percent this year. Foreign companies are closing and workers are being laid off. Companies that can’t get supplies are giving their employees early “vacations.” It’s a nasty time with fewer people working and the cost of nearly everything skyrocketing.
In the short term, at least, Russia and the world’s economic and military outcomes will be driven by political choices. Once Putin has control of Ukraine to the east of the Dnieper River he may begin a longer cease fire. However, this might still grant Ukraine access to the Black Sea through the port of Odessa.
With or without Odessa, Putin and the rest of the world will have to recalculate. Will the West (US, Europe and Japan) and the insurgents accept Russia’s control of arguably more than half of Ukraine? This is unlikely, so the current sanctions, export bans and closed companies will remain. The number of insurgents will grow and their ability to destroy Russian military hardware will expand.
The West will want to increase trade sanctions. In the short term, Europe and Japan cannot afford to exert maximum pressure which would include cutting off future purchases of oil, gas and coal from Russia and Ukraine. The U.S. will also have a hard time imposing stricter sanctions that substantially damage Russia. Maximum sanctions would generate unacceptable levels of inflation and possible shortages of fuel to keep the heat on and vehicles moving in Europe and Japan. Domestically, it could shift an almost certain defeat for the Democrats in the 2022 elections into an unstoppable landslide for Republicans.
The U.S. could increase some limited financial sanctions without taking a large hit economically. Therefore, sanctions will likely be increased rhetorically but not substantially by the U.S. and the West.
The other calculation will be a political decision of Vladimir Putin. He could stop east of the Dnieper River and reinforce the Russian military position to combat the growing insurgency. Unless he reaches some type of settlement, the insurgency will present a large and expanding threat to the Russian Army in Ukraine.
Putin could also shift from a battle with conventional weapons to use biological or nuclear weapons. An effort to subdue the Western half of Ukraine with conventional weapons will be even more difficult than destroying the East. The ample foliage in the West will provide greater cover for insurgents. The Russian Army, due to corruption, is undermanned and lacks the resources needed to accomplish this task. In addition, Western Ukraine identifies more with Europe than Russia. Almost all her citizens speak Ukrainian and a majority are Catholic. The Russian language is common in the East and the population is mostly Eastern Orthodox; the majority religion of Russia’s citizens. Those in Western Ukraine have more ethnic, historical and religious links to Poland and Lithuania. This identification of Western Ukraine with Europe, rather than Russia, has been reflected in voting results.
The high cost of using conventional military resources in Western Ukraine could incentivize the use of a biological or tactical nuclear weapon, referred to in the March 10, 2022, article as “Crazy Ivan.” These battlefield nuclear weapons or biological weapons could kill native Ukrainians and insurgents alike while poisoning the battle space. These could be used independently or in conjunction with conventional tactics. Estimates have put the Russia stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons at close to two thousand and their use has been included in Russian war planning called, “tailored damage” and exercises.
Any Russian use of nuclear or biological weapons will force another political decision in the West. The use of biological weapons was debated when Saddam Hussein used mustard gas on the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. In 2013, the Obama administration largely sidestepped the issue when sarin gas was used by the Syrian government.
President Biden will not have that option. The pressure will be far higher to impose further economic sanctions on Russia. The level of international condemnation may change the political calculus in the U.S. Votes or expressions opposing further sanctions will be portrayed as unpatriotic and appeasement of the Russian dictator. Associations between Putin and Hitler will be commonplace. While future sanctions are unknown, it seems certain that they would cause further economic pain in the U.S., Russia and around the world.
Putin is betting the Russian population will be able to live with harsh economic sanctions longer than the citizens of the West can afford to care about Ukraine. He also believes the Russian population can hold out longer than the leaders of the West can stay in office.
Vladimir Putin is not a master strategist. He’s a gambler who believes he still holds the high cards. The political and economic wherewithal of the West is being tested. While the outcome is uncertain, things are likely to get worse before they get better.