Russia’s announced strategy of re-orienting its Ukraine invasion to “liberating“ the Donbas region and its withdrawal from Kyiv appears on the surface to be a humiliating climb down from the original goal of “denazifying” the entire country. The horrifying war crimes disclosed as they withdraw will stiffen Ukrainian’s fight against the brutal invasion. Ukraine has shown throughout this war the kind of iron will and mettle that Theodore Roosevelt admired and embodied. At the same time, negotiations continue between the two sides. We are now at a transition in the conflict that poses serious questions for all concerned, including the United States.
First, Vladimir Putin’s past and his apparent obsession about Ukraine suggests that he is more likely to escalate than accept a defeat. Thus, the “re-positioning” of Russian forces may be a crafty way of escalating the conflict by prolonging it to a point where it is unsustainable for both Ukraine and the west. The continued shelling of cities may mean that Putin plans to hold on to current territory, expand in the Donbas and then hunker down to avoid combat casualties while bombarding the country often enough to prevent any reconstruction effort. In addition to prolonging Ukrainian suffering, this strategy holds the world economy hostage by preventing wheat planting and production of fertilizer and minerals such as nickel, an important element for electric batteries. The bet is that the West and the rest of the world cannot maintain the level of economic sanctions and/ or he can find ways to evade them.
More ominously, there is an important national Russian holiday that may force Putin to engage in a more dramatic escalation. Russians celebrate their victory in World War II (or as they call it, the Great Patriotic War) on May 9. A defeat in Ukraine, or just the absence of a clear victory, by that day could spell the end of Vladimir Putin’s rule. If Putin believes he may not at least achieve control of the Donbas by that holiday, the risk of escalation grows, which includes the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Theodore Roosevelt’s famous maxim “speak softly and carry a big stick” summarizes the best strategy for preventing such a disastrous scenario. Since the primary purpose of sanctions on Russia should be to force a lasting end to the war, NATO should be telegraphing to Russia via diplomatic back channels that the more onerous sanctions would be lifted if it reaches a peace treaty with Ukraine that both legally and practically accepts its sovereignty and independence. This would not prevent the U.S. and other Western nations from continuing some sanctions in light of Russian atrocities. At the same time, the West should both continue their military aid and broaden the type of aid to include offensive as well as defensive weapons. NATO can also telegraph the potential costs of an escalation to WMDs by discussing in public the potential deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Eastern Europe. Indeed, a Polish leader’s recent statement that it would “be open” to hosting tactical nukes already presents that possibility to the Kremlin.
The next few weeks could determine the future of not only of Ukraine, but also American foreign and defense policy for years to come. One of the most important elements of that strategy is the extent to which Europeans will step up to be the world power they claim to be. They have both the economic and structural tools to assume the responsibility of defending Europe and potentially Ukraine as well. My next post (if events allow) will detail why and how they could meet that responsibility.