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 North 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 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.
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. In the East ablockade 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. Once a city is blockaded to “death” or flattened, Putin’s army may employ a 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 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.
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.
In the short term, at least, Russia and the world’s economic and military outcomes will be driven by political choices.
Vladimir Putin political choice will be determined by how much of Ukraine he wants. Once he is satisfied the western power projection by his ground forces will pause or end. He could use this time to reinforce his military and plan for the next campaign further west, south or north. This could include him giving up, at least in the short term, any design to control all of Ukraine.
Between now and then insurgents will continue to flow into Ukraine and their ability to destroy the Russia war machine will expand. US, Europe, Japan, the insurgents flowing into Ukraine, and much of the world will face their own political decision when Putin ends or pauses his current campaign. Will Russia be permitted to control arguably half of Ukraine? This is unlikely, so the current sanctions, export bans and closed companies will remain.
Unless Putin reaches some type of settlement, the insurgency will pound the Russian military in Ukraine. Without giving back most or all of Ukraine a settlement is unlikely. The insurgency could grow in numbers, sophistication, technology and organization. Putin’s desire 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. In addition, Western Ukraine identifies more with Europe than Russia.
Much of the world will want to increase trade sanctions. The economic pain and political consequences would be such that any additional sanctions will be more rhetorical and substantive.
The high cost of using conventional military resources in Western Ukraine could incentivize the Putin to use biological or tactical nuclear weapons, referred to in the March 10, 2022, article as “Crazy Ivan.” This is a political choice with far reaching and long-lasting consequences. Putin may escalate if he believes he would otherwise be removed by his own people.
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 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 or military 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.