EXPERT POINT OF VIEW — Russia is gradually beginning to impose itself in Ukraine and the West is just beginning to lose track. Neither France and Germany, nor the United States and the United Kingdom have coherent ideas on how this war will end. And there is no credible deal with Putin that anyone can trust. So, a new reflection is necessary. The Black Sea and Belarus offer two options.
(Ed Note: A UK version of this piece by Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey was first published by The Scottish)
To paraphrase the BBC reporter Quentin Sommerville; if you still think that Ukraine is winning the war “it’s because you haven’t paid attention to it”. In recent weeks, the brilliant Ukrainian success in defeating the Russians north of Kyiv has been replaced by gradual and brutal Russian advances in Donbass. This is a throwback to the traditional Russian WWII playbook. No other country has the reputation of tolerating such levels of massive casualties while enduring and inflicting extreme suffering. Russia intends to take the Donbass village by village and city by city using artillery in a war of attrition that Ukraine cannot match.
Meanwhile, the West is already demonstrating the lack of “strategic patience” displayed last August in Afghanistan. Where once the major news channels had seasoned presenters on the rooftops of Kyiv, Ukrainian news has already fallen below concerns over food and energy prices, let alone celebrity lawsuits.
French President Emmanuel Macron was the first to take cover by suggesting that President Volodymyr Zelensky seek peace by handing over Russian President Vladimir Putin a territory. It would be surprising if Macron’s “solidarity” visit to Kyiv last week with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi did not include further “encouragement” to settle. The next day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an unexpected trip to Kyiv to bolster Zelensky’s resolve.
While it may be satisfying to see the British government resist what looks like appeasement from Paris, Berlin and Rome, its ultimate goal is also unclear. US President Joe Biden also appears to have little clarity about his goals. He even spoke of a regime change in Moscow. A pious wish is not a policy.
There have been speculation that Putin has cancer or that he could be overthrown by a palace coup. Meanwhile, Berlin’s much-vaunted foreign policy conversion at the end of February looks increasingly illusory as German arms deliveries fail to arrive at the front.
So what will stop Putin?
One possible outcome would be his army breaking up under the pressure of casualties and mutiny. Putin would be most dangerous in the face of impending defeat. This is when it could access its nuclear arsenal and fire a tactical weapon to warn Ukraine and its Western backers not to try (for example) to retake Crimea.
There is also a chance that Putin will stop his advance if Russian troops take all of Donbass. He can then present his intervention in Ukraine as a success and buy himself a few years to reconstitute his bruised forces. The Army, Navy and Air Force will need a thorough overhaul after a campaign that exposed poor training, inadequate equipment and tactical and strategic ineptitude.
But it’s also possible that Putin won’t stop until he captures Odessa. After taking Kherson and making significant progress towards Mikolaiv, there are only 80 miles left to reach Odessa and another 40 to get to the Moldovan border. This would deprive Ukraine of its Black Sea coast and make it a landlocked country dependent on Russia for all its maritime exports. Having already destroyed Ukraine’s main industrial cities, Putin would have turned Ukraine into a costly Western dependency.
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But any attempt to take Odessa would prolong the war for months or even years, and lead to the destruction of another city. It would cost thousands of Russian lives and provide the Ukrainians with excellent opportunities against long lines of communication, playing on Ukraine’s nimble tactical forces rather than the Russian baton.
Whether Putin stops Donbass or tries to take Odessa, there is a much bigger problem ahead. How can a peace deal be reached when Putin has made it clear that he has unfinished business? not only in Ukraine, but also in Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic States? Who can guarantee a deal?
The United States and Britain failed in their “assurances” when the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 was violated by Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. And the “Normandy format” of France and Germany and the Minsk agreements provided no security in Ukraine in February.
Some have suggested that China could be a credible guarantor. Although China has publicly sided with Russia since the invasion, its actual position is more nuanced. Beijing is wary of Moscow’s role in Central Asia and once had good relations with Ukraine. But would it be wise to invite Xi Jinping’s China to play a major political role in the heart of Europe; especially when his own ambitions for Taiwan have such resonance with Putin’s quest in Ukraine?
Under such circumstances, Macron’s concept of territory for peace makes little sense. So Putin needs to be put under more pressure. A new strategic reflection is necessary.
Putin’s actions in the Black Sea are against international law and must be vigorously challenged. An intriguing idea suggested by a defense policy scholar would be a naval task force of neutral grain-importing countries (such as Egypt and Pakistan) to clear mines and reopen Odessa to exports.
Then there is Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko is clearly worried about another color revolution and reluctant to be drawn into Putin’s war. There have been recent reports of dissension in the lower ranks of the Belarusian army.
It would be a good time for the people of Belarus to overthrow their dictator as they nearly did in 2020.
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