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.
As mentioned in my previous article, war changes the decision analytics of international relations by hardening the warring parties’ goals and attitudes to the point where the outcome becomes a matter of personal and national pride rather than strategic. Vladimir Putin’s recent speech recounted in this article is a frightening example. To him, the war in Ukraine is now a two-front war, the most critical to Putin being his war at home against Russian opposition and to establish his totalitarian rule. He now may believe he must win both wars to survive and so cannot accept anything other than Ukraine’s surrender or destruction. It also means that, to the extent Western sanctions threaten that survival, he will do whatever is necessary to weaken them. Even more dangerous days may be coming.
This interactive history of the Russian invasion prepared by the British Royal United Services Institute for the Financial Times newspaper an excellent history of the war up to now. As the final slide says, Russian forces have reached a culmination of a phase of the war that frankly has failed to achieve its original objectives. Based on the vicious siege of Mariupol, the second stage will follow the traditional Russian tactics of using artillery and aerial bombardment of cities to break the will of Ukrainians. The images will be even more horrendous before this is over.
It is hard to find anything amusing about this subject, but our friends to the north may have provided one. The Russian delegation to the United Nations had the audacity to circulate a proposed resolution urging the “parties” to the conflict to support humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. The Canadian delegation returned it with the attached comments and corrections to highlight its absurdity. If you’re a fan of dry British humor, you’ll enjoy it.
P.S. A copy was sent to all other UN delegations. The Ukrainian delegation responded with “Accept all changes”.
Escalation or Negotiation? That is the question as the Russian invasion of Ukraine grinds on. Negotiation is still the better course as I previously argued, but it requires the participation of two parties willing to compromise. Ukrainian president Zelensky has already said that he is willing to accede to Russian demands to renounce any prospect of joining NATO and potentially accept the loss of the Donbass region and Crimea. These are the concessions that Russia sought before the war, yet Putin has not recognized them and agreed to a ceasefire. Recent reports about the negotiations are encouraging, but Russia still has not apparently dropped its contemptuous condition that Ukraine effectively surrender first by ceasing resistance to the Russian invasion. Putin apparently has yet to accept the reality of his mistakes, specifically
Russian military failure in the field due to continued logistical and operational failures and successful Ukrainian resistance
The ferocity and extent of Western economic sanctions and the resulting economic damage to the Russian economy
The success of Ukrainian information operations in rousing sympathy and international support.
A recent article applying relevant international relations theory to the war discusses, among other things, the “commitment problem” gripping Putin at this point. Having convinced both himself and most Russians of the necessity of the war (see this on the “Z “ campaign) , he cannot accept less than a victory, especially since failure would endanger him personally. If this is true, the current targeting of civilians and brutality may herald an escalation that endangers NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic states. Indeed, he may intend to convert the past failures into apparent strengths, to wit,
Since Russian forces thought the invasion would be easier, they refrained from using their best weapons and most sophisticated strategy, which was designed for a full-scale war with NATO. Thus, their capability in such a war may be more formidable than it appears now.
Putin has already called the Western sanctions an economic declaration of war against Russia. He could thus use them to rally the Russian people in support of a wider war.
The regular broadcasts of shelling and civilian deaths may sow fear among other nations of confronting Russia.
How will we know which path the conflict will take? If Putin abandons his unrealistic demand for unilateral surrender and agrees to a ceasefire, then a negotiated solution may be possible. If he fails to do so, the next breakpoint will be whether the Russians make good on their threat against the outside flow of weapons into Ukraine. If they escalate by attacking the supply lines in Poland, it will trigger NATO’s Article 5 obligation to defend Poland, probably by an air strike against the source of the attack. We would then have the right to escalate by declaring a partial no-fly zone over western Ukraine purely as a defensive measure. Russia would certainly hesitate to challenge the zone since it could lead to its expansion over all of Ukraine.
The key to ending the war lies, as usual, in both sides deciding to cut their losses and accept a difficult peace. The West will have to be ready to convince the parties to accept such a result by offering to lift the more onerous financial sanctions on Russia once such an agreement is reached. Ukraine would have to give up its dream of NATO membership and sovereignty over the Donbass and Crimea. Without such an agreement, the best case scenario may become the de facto creation of an East and West Ukraine reminiscent of Cold War East and West Germany. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. Russia’s invasion, the successful Ukrainian resistance, and the potentially catastrophic effects of the war on the rest of the world means the United States must finally recognize and prepare for a new upsurge in nationalism-based international relations. The next post will discuss the implications for us here in the US.