Will Putin attack Ukraine – or is that the wrong question? Part 2

Picking the right time

Well, let’s be fair: we won’t be able to say he didn’t warn us. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ultimatum is coming over loud and clear: expect an invasion of Ukraine in the none-too-distant future unless security guarantees are received.

That has been his message since late November, reiterated most recently at his annual press-conference and in his statement to a gathering of the country’s military top brass (to be precise, an “expanded” session of the Collegium of the Ministry of Defence).

Reiterated – and somewhat elaborated. Mr Putin spent a good deal of his time riffing on his main argument that he does not need international legitimation to attack Ukraine, directly alluding to the chemical weapons pretext given for the US invasion of Iraq. And, for good measure, he stoked up the hysteria with a fictitious worst-case scenario involving US chemical weapons being used in the breakaway Donbass region of Ukraine and US hypersonic missiles attacking Moscow and Crimea from Ukrainian territory.

Which was, shall we say, very creative thinking on his part. It’s not at all clear why the US should suddenly go chemical after a century of abstinence. And as to US hypersonic weapons, Mr Putin glossed over the facts that these are still in their testing phase and have been developed only in response to Russian hypersonic missiles which, as Mr Putin’s generals have helpfully pointed out recently, are already in service.

But let’s not quibble. The argument served its purpose admirably. Said purpose being: to justify the classic call to unity – that “the Motherland is in danger” – and to mobilise Russians for a new Great Patriotic War.

And, if the top man has been talkative, this has been matched by overall media pressure and by a flurry of statements from Mr Putin’s key henchmen. Analyses and Alternatives has already commented at length on one of these, an interesting, thoughtful and profoundly scary piece of strategic reasoning and context-provision, penned by Kremlin eminence grise Vladyslav Surkov and entitled “Where has chaos gone? Unpacking stability”.

Concurrently, all the Kremlin’s high fliers have had their say. And very closely coordinated their utterances have been – and deserving of very close attention. For instance, they have included Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and State Security Council SecretaryNikolay Patrushev – effectively the country’s top security officials.

Nikolay Patrushev’s thoughts are especially worth noting: he is not normally a man to give interviews, but he was surprisingly talkative in one granted to the Argumenti i Fakti weekly on November 23: in conditions where the Ukraine found itself as a Western protectorate, with its economy ruined and its society reduced to lawlessness, predicted the security boss, a crisis could flare up in the country forcing millions of Ukrainians to seek shelter elsewhere.

The war of subversion – in full swing

In similar apocalyptic vein, Mr Patrushev had argued back in August that “supporters of the American choice in Ukraine” would face a crisis like that observed in Afghanistan (where Kabul had just fallen to the Taliban amid chaos, panicky evacuation and US disgrace). Washington, Mr Patrushev argued, continues to bring to power people loyal to the US while supplying Ukraine with arms that are surplus to American requirements.

Not much decoding is needed: Mr Patrushev’s November utterance was as good as saying that an attack on Ukraine would rely on protests, an internal fifth column, and operatives from Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) and its foreign intelligence service (SVR). The August subtext was even clearer: the US is in retreat, incapable of supporting Ukraine – and heading for further humiliation.

Nor are these the extreme thoughts of a peripheral maverick: witness, aside from Mr Patrushev’s seniority, the fact that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hastened to defend his November statement, calling it a “well-reasoned point of view”, the point of view of the second-in-rank at the Security Council, which “deals with a very wide range of information”, of “a representative of the agency that analyses this information and simulates various scenarios of how it may develop.”

Even more telling than Mr Patrushev’s contribution, however, is that of Sergey Markov. As head of the Institute for Political Studies, he runs a key think-tank for the Kremlin and is a high flier in Putin’s world (especially close to foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and several other Putin “clansmen”). But he is not senior enough to be bound by considerations of “political correctness”. And, sure enough, an interview he gave at the end of November to Ukraina.ru – the Kremlin’s premier outlet for propaganda beamed at its neighbour – was revealing and detailed about the psyop in prospect. And, it seems, the Kremlin regarded it with intense approval, since for days afterwards Ukraina.ru was publishing short pieces linked to the interview and focusing on aspects of it.

The central message was clear: “red lines” had been crossed by the West’s and Kyiv’s actions and Russia was ready for a military operation to “free Ukraine”. Modalities and scenarios connected with that operation were explored in the interview, in which Mr Markov reflected on the strategy that would be used to divide and confront various Ukrainian forces – political parties, social and ethnic groups – including the Ukrainian business oligarchy, which depends on cheap Russian gas, raw materials and access to the Russian market.

Invade on humanitarian grounds

Having pondered on the threat that Ukraine’s independence and its bonds with NATO represent for ethnic Russians and their ties to Mother Russia, Mr Markov observes sadly that “the citizens of Ukraine are deprived of opportunities to form a government that would respond to their aspirations.” Which, in effect, is an admission that democratic elections in Ukraine only serve to consolidate Ukrainian statehood and independence – and that military intervention and subversion become indispensable to reverse the process and attain the goals of Kremlin.

“We can conclude,” Mr Markov continues, “that Ukrainian citizens will have to act formally outside the law, possibly with the help of the brotherly Russian people”, which will offer help in various forms”, including “reduced natural gas prices”. The gas weapon again: it’s not just Germany and Austria that will be hit by gas shortages as the crisis peaks. Ukraine too will suffer, spiking social unrest and mass discontent. And Gazprom can then come into play with generous offers of cheap and plentiful gas, brokered by Russian proxy politicians and oligarchs.

It’s not a pretty picture. Even the most indulgent reading of Mr Markov’s words would imply separatism and violence, even a civil war – and a first-rate excuse and invitation to the Kremlin to intervene along the Crimean pattern. Which, of course, becomes even easier because Kyiv is now routinely described in terms of affinities with the Nazis (or with Stepan Bandera, the extreme Ukrainian nationalist who sided with the Germans in the later stages of World War II): if you’re dealing with Nazis, you don’t have to bother with tedious niceties like moral restraints or international law imperatives.

For Russia, Mr Markov reassures us, this is “not a war with Ukraine or occupation of Ukraine, but a salvation of the Ukrainian people and the liberation of Ukraine from occupation.” And that, it may occur to more historically minded readers, sounds suspiciously like the rhetoric surrounding the occupation of Poland in 1939 by Stalin and Hitler.

In parallel with the de-legitimation and destabilisation of Ukraine’s government, demoralisation of its army is on the cards: in Mr Markov’s words, over 70% of the Ukrainian military are ethnic Russian recruits from the southeast and east of the country. And when these troops encounter combat units of the Russian army, alleges Mr Markov, they will refuse to fight and join the attackers. That, of course, would be massively convenient, for the surrender of the Ukrainian army is the only obvious scenario entailing a quick military win, allowing vast areas of coastal and eastern Ukraine to pass under Russian control. One might, in fact, suspect that Mr Markov is indulging in an unhealthy degree of wishful thinking. One thing’s for sure, however: he wouldn’t be on the battlefield to see his theory tested in practice. He’d be snug in his study at his Institute in Moscow – while Russian soldiers die far from home.

One final point emerges from Mr Markov’s interview: the Kremlin’s scenarios for war do not provide for coexistence with the current government, but nor do they envisage swallowing (and keeping) Ukraine whole. Instead, they imply its division into an Eastern part, under Kremlin rule, and a Western one, the land of the “Banderists”. Even the capital Kyiv would not be unambiguously within the Russian sphere – within what others have referred to as “Novorossiya”: capturing Kyiv would be a bloody and costly adventure, so Mr Markov envisages a special status for the city.

Picking the time

Two things are clear. The first is that timing will be of the essence for Mr Putin in more than one sense. And the second is that he can’t afford to think, and in fact isn’t thinking, in purely military terms, but will need to play a sophisticated political, diplomatic and psychological game as well.

The key point about timing is that the Kremlin couldn’t handle a protracted war for various reasons:

  • On the ground it would be nasty, expensive in terms of both money and Russian lives, and eventually very unpopular at home. The Ukrainian army would be fighting on its home turf, which is always an advantage, and would probably fight very effectively – especially if there were adequate (though non-combat) support from the West. And Ukraine is not a small territory, like Georgia or Crimea, to be overwhelmed quickly. The body-bags could be concealed, and the difficulties given a positive spin, up to a point, but not indefinitely, in this internet age.
  • In a protracted war, Ukraine could mobilise sympathy and massive diplomatic support and military assistance in the West, which could up the cost for Mr Putin. The longer and stronger the Ukrainian army’s resistance, the more significant the chance of Western military aid and the larger its likely scope.
  • Once sanctions were in force, severing the Kremlin’s ties with global financial and capital markets, Russia’s economy would be unable to sustain a war effort beyond a few months. And, this time, really serious sanctions are very likely.

So, a quick win would be essential for Mr Putin’s decision whether or not to take military action. Deployments and recent military drills suggest that he could contemplate, at least in theory, simultaneous attacks from the North, the East and the Black Sea. But they would have to be dressed up as an operation for humanitarian reasons – presumably one to help beleaguered ethnic Russians. And successful Blitzkrieg working by purely military means isn’t plausible: Russian superiority on Ukrainian soil would not be so overwhelming. Mass defections by ethnic Russian serving in the Ukrainian army might do the trick – which is why Mr Markov talks so enthusiastically about it – but it is a doubtful scenario disguising an overdose of wishful thinking.

The priority will, rather, be to minimise the negative fallout by launching pre-emptive disinformation and hybrid operations, securing the military campaign by diplomatic means, including high-level talks with US and EU leaders, to weaken resolve and spread divisions. It is worth recalling that, back in 2014, the US intervened diplomatically to discourage further military escalation from Kyiv, after the takeover by Mr Putin’s “Little Green Men” of Crimea’s essential infrastructure.

So, the West needs to have a clear idea in advance of how it will respond to analogous moves – and of whether it can afford to throw away advantages so lightly.

And something to be factored into that calculation is that Mr Putin can repeat the ‘brinkmanship’ exercise if appropriate. He can ill afford a prolonged conflict; but he might be happy with a series of short ones. If the first push proves successful and its cost affordable, other assaults can follow. And probably will follow, unless the West minimises that success and maximises that cost.

Another point about timing is this. Just now, there are good reasons to suppose that the period between mid-February and mid-March is the likeliest time for a military operation. Not only is that the season when the move on Crimea took place. There’s also the ‘gas factor’ to consider: Germany and Austria have record-low gas storage levels now – and those are likely to be further depleted by that time. Moscow may therefore hope, first, that winter will cool off any extreme reactions to an invasion by the West; and, second, that German and Austrian leaders will be desperate to reach out to Gazprom for emergency gas supplies. Result, the Kremlin may hope: the gains from a short military adventure will be treated as yet another fait accompli.

The implications of which are twofold.

  • First, we shouldn’t feel too relieved if no military moves are made now.
  • And, second, to the extent that it is possible to do anything about gas supplies meanwhile, it might be a good idea politically as well as economically.

Over there: Uncle Sam and Grandpa Joe

Now, we need to think a little about possible Western responses – about what Mr Putin assumes and whether those assumptions are justified. In our previous article, we gave some tentative grounds for supposing that, overall and notwithstanding some very serious qualifications about the likely conduct of Germany and Austria, European responses would not be anywhere near as supine as they were in 2014.

But what about the USA?

Well, let’s just say that the performance of the man at the top has been less than stellar so far, that the jury is still out, and that crucial tests for him might not be far off.

Though he had seemed to show promise on Ukraine and the controversial Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline (NS-2), both before and as he took the helm, US president Joe Biden quickly lapsed into irresolution on the matter of sanctions, prioritising the goodwill of Germany and Mrs Merkel over the aim of stopping NS-2. He hasn’t been very helpful in one crucial respect, namely doing what he could to encourage US LNG flow to Europe rather than to America’s arch-rival China. His foreign policy and defence credibility (and possibly his political capacity) has been weakened by the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan – though it’s just possible that the humiliation is now a compelling reason to redeem himself with a show of toughness and competence.

As to the recent “tele-summit” with Mr Putin, that achieved little – at least from Mr Biden’s point of view. Though, judging from the press releases, Mr Biden’s tone at the meeting seems to have been commendably forthright, no achievement of substance appears to have matched it.

The meeting did nothing to dissuade Mr Putin from attacking Ukraine. But it did allow him to gauge the types and the strength of the retaliatory action he could anticipate if his troops crossed the border. It also achieved the Russian President’s goal of discussing security guarantees and Ukraine as an equal in direct talks with the US President (having abandoned his previous, now untenable, position on Donbass of isolating the US and relying on the Minsk format). True, judging by what we know from Mr Biden’s narrative, Mr Putin didn’t receive any concessions on the question of NATO expansion: but then he cannot have been expecting any, and – it has emerged since – can use the (in practice very remote) prospect of Ukrainian membership as an excuse for threats. And, by sitting down with Mr Biden, he may have hoped to take some of the wind out of the sails of the “strong-response” and pro-sanctions party in Congress – though the hard-line sequel presumably means that this was not a very long-lasting response.

Meanwhile, there were certain obvious inadequacies in Mr Biden’s positions:

For instance, it was – and remains – unclear how the US will help Kyiv enhance its defence capabilities as a deterrent before, rather than after, a potential Russian invasion. No one expects the US to send troops to defend Ukraine: there is no obligation to that effect and the will doesn’t seem to be there either. Mr Biden threatened to “act differently” from how the US reacted to the invasion of Crimea in 2014. But that is vague and would have a meaningful impact only if substantiated with credible and tangible steps. The best that can be said is that vagueness could work both ways. It might reassure Mr Putin that a quick ‘win’ and a limited operation could present him with yet another fait accompli, as the West continues to buy his energy resources. Or it might keep him guessing and make him cautious. I regret to say, as a long-term Putin-watcher, that my money is on the former.

Again, the notion that “if Russia invades, sanctions will follow” is rather unhelpful, as it does little to pre-empt virtual strikes on Ukraine’s welfare and security – which are almost certain to be the prelude to any invasion, quite possibly a very lengthy prelude. Unless the US Congress takes the lead and thwarts Mr Putin’s attempts to play the executive against the legislative branch, the Kremlin will remain subject to that apparently chronic temptation. Encouragingly, the agreement between the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Ted Cruz – providing for a vote before January 14th on a bill to reinstate sanctions on NS-2 – would seem to rule out even the slightest possibility of Congressional assent for a potential security guarantee to Russia, even if President Biden seems willing to engage in a due diplomatic process.

Besides this, the logic of the Biden Administration’s reluctance to release military assistance to Ukraine is flawed. It reflects belief in one or both of two propositions. First, that this step would “send the wrong signal” to Kyiv, which might be tempted to mount an offensive in Donbass and trigger an intervention from Russia. Second, that Moscow would treat it as the crossing of a “red line”, forcing it to take pre-emptive action. In both cases, in this line of reasoning, military aid would encourage war, not avert it.

The flaw in this argument is simple: if war breaks out aid would come too late. So, the actual effect would probably be the prospect of an easier victory for Mr Putin, strengthening his reasons to make a move. Indeed, remember what happened in 2014, when Washington gave no aid even after the invasion of Crimea, with a view to containing military counter-action from Kyiv and preventing the escalation of conflict.

The binding security guarantees Putin seeks

The Kremlin’s decision to go public with its demand that the US and NATO provide legally binding guarantees of Russia’s security – including veto power for Russia over the expansion of the bloc in Eastern Europe and among all former Soviet states – takes the confrontation to a new level. Moreover, the propaganda is becoming more and more intense too, with Deputy Foreign Ministers Sergey Ryabkov and Alexander Grushko pumping up the volume.

The proposed draft of a Russia-US treaty on unilateral security guarantees further demands a roll-back of NATO and US military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Such revanchist ultimatums can hardly serve as a pragmatic opening to a diplomatic process, aimed at getting results. On the contrary, they are intentionally provocative, and therefore meant to cause a further escalation, raising the tension to an intolerable level at which European and US leaders finally blink.

By suggesting massive counterthreats and posing a stark choice – agree to our demands, or we will attack – Mr Grushko claims, the Kremlin is forcing Western governments to face an existential question. Which we may phrase as follows. Are those governments ready to defend, by force if necessary, the sovereignty of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia or even the Baltic states? Or do they tacitly agree to a Russian sphere of influence and give Mr. Putin carte blanche to do pretty much what he wants within it?

And existential that question certainly is. For any wavering will cause irreparably damage to the integrity of both the EU and NATO – which is goal of Russia’s escalating stress strategy.

Undoubtedly, Putin has a new Yalta agreement in mind. He calculates that he can live with sanctions, at least for a while – long enough to wear thin the endurance of the US and EU, before they start sending money, military assistance or troops. And his calculus seems correct; at least on a tactical level. There is not a single NATO country that has offered to help Ukraine with boots (or even advisers) on the ground, as such a move would inevitably engage NATO.

The US government is treating European affairs and the Russian threat as a lower priority than China. No doubt that makes sense in the grand historical scheme of things, but the reasoning is subject to a relatively short-term but utterly fatal flaw. Washington can ill afford to allow Mr Putin’s showmanship to dominate the theatre, as this will shatter its reputation beyond repair – not leaving the US much to work with in countering China. If CEE countries watch live a display of Washington’s leniency to Putin, denying tangible support to Ukraine, well beyond sanctions, the value of US and NATO security guarantees will vanish.

And that is the whole gameplan. Mr Putin trusts that the West is weak and indecisive, and that he can get away with tough talk and gamble with opportunist military action. And there’s one final piece of timing to consider: 2024 is fast approaching and, with it, presidential elections in Russia. What can Mr Putin hope to deliver by then? Not welfare and security, that’s for sure, and he knows it. But he can offer a substitute opium – more effective for his people even than religion – namely, war and victory. ‘Chaos’ at home is bound to rise, and the Kremlin needs to block the potential for turbulence and divert public attention with military action in the “near-abroad”, keeping the West en garde long enough for its resolve to dissipate.

Russia’s imperial modus – expansion and brutal force

There’s a consistent thread that runs throughout Russia’s long history. Russia has survived in its gigantic proportions for one basic reason. That reason has not been internal cohesion between diverse conquered nations and ethnic groups. Nor has it been the functioning of a vast melting pot, blending peoples via shared interests and aspirations for common prosperity and security. No, the reason has been the application of brutal force and mass oppression, both at home and abroad – indeed, mostly abroad. Every now and then, when internal balances are put at risk, in the best of Russia’s imperial traditions, the Tsar calls on his troops to wage yet another war abroad. This is such a time: Mr. Putin’s re-election in 2024 is at risk, given his abysmal record in managing the economy, handling the pandemic and ensuring the welfare of his people. As Mr Surkov put it in the revealing article mentioned above: “Russia will expand not because it is good, and not because it is bad, but because it is physics.” He had been even more explicit and specific in an interview earlier in the year for the Kremlin-proxy Telegram site WarGonzo: “Ukraine can be ‘returned’ only by force”.

So that’s the big picture. Back down to earth now for

Analyses & Alternatives’ very short-term forecast.

The new year will see Mr Lavrov take centre stage for a time: having let his two deputies – not to mention ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova – lay down the verbal barrage needed to soften Western defences, the foreign minister will emerge to strut his diplomatic stuff and act, perhaps a  little abrasively, as deal-maker. Whether he succeeds – and whether he will intend to succeed rather than providing excuses for further action – remains to be seen. But that will set the stage for the penultimate act, in which the star of the show, Tsar Vladimir himself, puts the finishing touches to his war of nerves and continues his campaign of bullying. And the final act? That, dear readers, is in no small measure down to us and our leaders, and to the resolution we show: the script is still being written.

(Source: Analyses & Alternatives)

Ilian Vassilev

Diplomat, political analyst, energy expert (Bulgaria)

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January 2022
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