Ukraine (Still) Has Not PerishedPosted: October 12, 2022
In English, the Ukrainian national anthem is known as “Ukraine Has Not Perished.” Indeed, it has not perished, even as the unprovoked Russian invasion of its territory continues. The initial invasion took place in February 2014 and the Russians invaded again in February 2022. Over seven months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin went all in on his long-standing desire to annex all of Ukraine, not just Crimea or the eastern part known as the Donbas. After seven long months of warfare, massive casualties continue to mount on both sides of the conflict. Recently, however, the Ukrainians have shown themselves to be the superior force on the ground — both in terms of their fighting ability and in terms of their will to destroy the Russian troops invading their country. There does not appear to be any comparable will to fight in any of the Russian units engaged in combat and thus the tide is starting to slowly turn in the Ukrainians’ favor.
Perhaps surprisingly so, the Ukrainian successes create an ever more dangerous situation. The last few weeks have shown that President Putin is not willing to back off of his stated goal to crush the Ukrainian people, overthrow its government, and install a puppet regime that is controlled by Moscow. Indeed, he is doubling down despite his gross miscalculation that he could take Ukraine in a matter of days with a quick strike into Kyiv. To show his resolve to control Ukraine, earlier this month he formally annexed the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine. That part of the country is where the fighting on the ground continues and the Russian and pro-Russian forces are concentrated there. The annexation was announced despite one important thing — the Russians do not control all of that territory. In fact, Ukrainian forces have the Russians in retreat in several parts of the annexed areas. This is where things get dicey.
President Putin declared that those four regions were now a part of Russia proper (just as he claimed Crimea in 2014) and that an attack on them would be considered an attack on the homeland. In a late September speech, President Putin declared that he was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity.” Since then he has reiterated that he is willing to use “all means necessary” to protect the newly acquired territory, which is a euphemism for threatening to use Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) to prevent Ukraine from retaking their own territory. (WMD are chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.) Bluff? Bluster? Empty threats? Warning? No one is sure, and that is the problem. Mr. Putin backed himself into a corner that now threatens the stability of Russia as a country and threatens his own iron grip on the population. He considers the current state of affairs to be “an existential threat” to Russia and to himself. Is it possible that if he sees his own safety and power threatened that he would lash out? Possibly, but let’s look a little closer.
The past few days have given us some ideas as to how Mr. Putin might respond to an expanded war. When the twelve mile long Kerch Strait Bridge from Crimea to Russia was partially damaged on Sunday, the Russians retaliated by launching massive air strikes using approximately one hundred cruise missiles and suicide drones in one morning to attack Ukrainian infrastructure and civilian neighborhoods. (So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack on the bridge, but Russia assumes it was Ukrainian special forces.) The Russian supply of such weapons is not endless, but air strikes are probably the primary method that the Russians will use to continue to disrupt daily life in Ukraine and to inflict serious damage. The intent is to break the will of the civilian population and force the Ukrainian government to seek a settlement of some kind. It will not work.
The Russian style of warfare is based on raw brutality. Massive numbers of people and weapons are used against every aspect of an opponent’s military and civilian systems, capabilities, support and people. The term “collateral damage” does not exist for Russia. Killing civilians and destroying playgrounds, hospitals, apartment buildings, and any other area of a city is the point. Torture is a tool to be used. Indiscriminate bombing is a tool to be used. Everything is on the table. If brutality is the point, then that adds credibility to any threat to use WMD. So does that include nuclear weapons?
In my opinion, no. Not because Mr. Putin considers them to be off the table. Rather, so far, he calculates that he has other means at his disposal to achieve his war aims. In my many years in the military, I never seriously believed that we, or anyone else, would use nuclear weapons. The deterrent impact of sufficient numbers of weapons on both sides made it highly improbable. But now, for the first time in my adult life (I was around for the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that is a different situation), the chances are not zero. I still think that the probability of Mr. Putin using a nuclear weapon, even as a “demonstration,” is incredibly low, but no one knows for certain what he may be capable of doing. Probably more likely is the use of chemical weapons. The Russians used them, or at least abetted their use, in Syria. It may be as the Russian army withdraws from yet another town or village that the incoming Ukrainian forces may be subject to a chemical attack. If so, it is likely to be on a small scale and intended to be a deterrent to a continuing Ukrainian offensive and a warning to the rest of the world that the Russians are not bluffing when they threaten to defend themselves using “any means necessary.”
More likely, the Russians will expand their use of asymmetric attacks such as cyberwarfare, economic warfare such as limiting or stopping the export of oil or natural gas, or halting the shipment of goods (especially grain) from the Black Sea. A clear sign of such efforts occurred in late September this year when Swedish and Danish sensors detected explosions in the Baltic Sea. It was soon discovered that the Nord Stream pipelines running from Russia to Europe were experiencing massive leaks, thus stopping the flow of natural gas to Europe. To date, there is no official blame or explanation for the leaks. It is widely believed, however, that Russian special forces are to blame. The Russians, and other nations including the United States, have the capability to operate from submarines near the seabed to disrupt the wide array of modern infrastructure that crosses great bodies of water such as gas and oil lines and fiber optic cables. As winter approaches, Mr. Putin may be pushing European nations, especially Germany, to give up their support of Ukraine by disrupting their economies and signaling that other elements of infrastructure could be at risk if their support to Ukraine continues. It may be a long, cold winter in much of Europe. In the short run, it actually hurts Russia as the gas it sells to Europe is a major element of support to the Russian economy. The side effect is to again signal that Mr. Putin is willing to do “anything,” even if it hurts his own people, to achieve his goals. I would expect to see more of these moves from the Russians, as long as they can plausibly (or in some cases implausibly) deny their involvement.
The war in Ukraine will drag on for months to come, possibly years. Mr. Putin knows that he is in trouble on the ground and his army is being destroyed. Recent attempts to mobilize 300,000 additional troops to fight in the war have gone badly. Russian men are leaving the country in droves. Reportedly, over 200,000 have fled to Kazakhstan alone. Another 100,000 are said to have left for other countries surrounding Russia in order to avoid conscription. Even if he raises an additional 300,000 troops, they will be poorly trained and equipped based on what we see with his allegedly “elite” forces that have already been decimated on the battlefield. They will only be cannon fodder, which is yet another indicator that the Russian army and Mr. Putin in particular have no concerns about the lives and well-being of their soldiers or their civilians. It is worth noting that Mr. Putin’s retaliatory strikes this week and his threats to use “any means necessary” are not aimed at the Ukrainian soldiers on the front. Rather, they are all aimed at the Ukrainian civilian population. It is terrifying for them, but as has happened throughout history, his terror tactics only increase the resolve of those under attack.
Mr. Putin has many options left in his bag of tricks. However, even he must recognize that he does not want to go toe-to-toe with NATO. He must also recognize that as his attacks on Ukrainian cities escalates, he runs the risk of NATO and other friendly nations increasing the number and sophistication of the weapons they are sending to Ukraine.
It is hard to know how this conflict ends, but it is increasingly less likely that there will be a negotiated settlement.