PERSPECTIVE OF THE EXPERT – Russia is gradually starting to prevail in Ukraine and the West is just starting to lose focus. Neither France and Germany nor the US and UK have consistent ideas about how this war will end. And there is no credible deal with Putin that anyone can trust. Hence, new thinking is needed. The Black Sea and Belarus offer two options.
(Editor’s note: A British version of this piece by Cipher Brief expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey was first published by The Scotsman)
To paraphrase BBC reporter Quentin Sommerville; if you still think Ukraine is winning the war “then you didn’t pay attention”. In recent weeks, Ukraine’s brilliant success in defeating the Russians north of Kiev has been replaced by gradual and brutal Russian progress in the Donbas. This is a throwback to the traditional Russian World War II playbook. No other country has a record of tolerating such levels of mass casualties while enduring and inflicting extreme suffering. Russia intends to take Donbas village by village and city by city using artillery in a war of attrition that Ukraine absolutely cannot match.
Meanwhile, the West is already demonstrating the lack of “strategic patience” shown last August in Afghanistan. Where once major news channels had top-notch presenters reporting over the rooftops of Kiev, news in Ukraine has already dipped below related concerns about food and energy prices, not to mention celebrity trials.
French President Emmanuel Macron was the first to break the cover with the suggestion that President Volodymyr Zelensky should ask for peace by ceding some territory to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It would be a surprise if Macron’s “solidarity show” visit to Kiev last week with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi did not include further “encouragement” to settle. The following day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an unexpected trip to Kiev to bolster Zelensky’s resolve.
While it may be satisfying to see the British government oppose what appears to be a pacification by Paris, Berlin and Rome, its ultimate goal is also unclear. US President Joe Biden also seems to have little clarity on his goals. He also spoke of regime change in Moscow. Wishful thinking is not a policy.
It has been speculated that Putin has cancer or could be overthrown by a palace coup. Meanwhile, Berlin’s much-vaunted conversion of late February foreign policy seems increasingly illusory as German arms deliveries don’t make it to the front.
So what will stop Putin?
One possible result would be for his army to break up under the pressure of victims and mutiny. Putin would be in his most dangerous form in the face of looming defeat. This is the time when he could reach his nuclear arsenal and fire a tactical weapon as a warning to Ukraine and its Western supporters not to attempt (for example) to recapture Crimea.
There is also the possibility that Putin will stop his advance if Russian troops take over the entire Donbas. He can then describe his intervention in Ukraine as a success and earn a few years to rebuild his battered forces. The military, navy and air force will need radical reform after a campaign that revealed poor training, inadequate equipment, and tactical and strategic ineptitude.
But there is also the possibility that Putin will not stop until he captures Odesa. After taking Kherson and making significant progress towards Mikolaiv, there are only another 80 miles to reach Odesa and another 40 miles to reach the Moldovan border. This would deny Ukraine its Black Sea coast and turn it into a landlocked country dependent on Russia for all its sea exports. Having already destroyed Ukraine’s major industrial cities, Putin allegedly turned Ukraine into an expensive Western dependency.
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But any attempt to take Odesa would extend the war by months, if not years, and result in the destruction of another city. It would cost thousands of Russian lives and provide Ukrainians with excellent opportunities against long lines of communication, playing with Ukraine’s nimble tactical strengths rather than the Russian club.
Whether Putin stops at the Donbas or tries to take Odesa, there is a much bigger problem ahead. How can a peace agreement be concluded when Putin has made it clear that he has some unfinished business; not only in Ukraine, but also in Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic states? Who can guarantee any deal?
Both the United States and Britain failed in their “assurances” when the 1994 Budapest memorandum was breached by Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. And the “Normandy Format” of France and Germany and the agreements Minsk failed to provide security for Ukraine this February.
Some have suggested that China could be a credible guarantor. Although China has publicly sided with Russia after the invasion, its real position is more nuanced. Beijing is suspicious of Moscow’s role in Central Asia and once had good relations with Ukraine. But it would be wise to invite Xi Jinping’s China to play a leading political role in the heart of Europe; not least when his own ambitions for Taiwan resonate with Putin’s research in Ukraine?
In such circumstances, Macron’s concept of a territory for peace makes little sense. Hence, Putin needs to be put under more pressure. New strategic thinking is needed.
Putin’s actions in the Black Sea are at odds with international law and should be strongly contested. An intriguing idea suggested by a defense policy specialist would be a naval task force made up of neutral grain-importing countries (such as Egypt and Pakistan) to clean up the mines and reopen Odesa for exports.
Then there is Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko is clearly worried about another color revolution and is reluctant to get drawn into Putin’s war. There have been recent reports of dissent in the lower ranks of the Belarusian army.
This would be a good time for the Belarusian people to overthrow their dictator, as they did almost in 2020.
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