Putin’s brutal intentions for Ukraine are clear. Will he succeed?
The course of this deadly conflict is far from certain, but there are lessons to be learnt from recent wars
A day since the start of Russia’s violent military assault on Ukraine, Putin’s intentions are becoming clear. An initial aim has been to dismantle Ukraine’s air defences and claim control of its airspace, thereby allowing Russian ground forces more freedom to occupy any part of the country. Territory has also been claimed in the eastern Donbas region, individual operations have been mounted against the Ukraine Navy, military stores and weapons dumps have been destroyed and Ukraine’s command, control and communications systems have been disrupted.
If this conflict follows a typical pattern of an early 21st-century war, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, there will already have been extensive bomb damage assessment by Russian analysts to determine the impact of the attacks, and this will partly determine Russia’s immediate moves against cities, especially Kyiv. Even more important is Putin’s long-term intention, and his recent extraordinary rhetoric may help in this regard in two senses.
One is that his choice of words, including ‘demilitarising’ and ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine, can be achieved only by a process of regime termination and the installation of a stable and secure client regime. It is therefore essential, in Putin’s mind, for Russia to move fast and remove Ukraine's leadership before beginning its occupation. If it fails to remove the leadership, occupying Russian troops will be more vulnerable to organised local resistance from Ukrainians, especially in urban areas.
Moreover, if the Russian defence system is even half competent it will know that US analysts will have already planned to make life as difficult as it can for the Russian forces from the start. This will include the provision of real-time intelligence on Russian military deployments to any centres of Ukrainian resistance across the country.
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The second aspect is Putin’s very heavy warning against direct NATO military intervention, especially his warning of a response “never seen in history”. This means nuclear weapons. Putin is well aware that NATO’s overall military forces are substantially more powerful than his own in a conventional war, hence the threat of nuclear retaliation.
This also helps explain the recent joint Russia/Belarus nuclear drills, including the test firing of nuclear-capable missiles, timed just before the current assault as a further reminder to NATO not to interfere.
Putin has recently repeated an earlier claim that Ukraine is developing its own nuclear weapons as yet another reason for the current attack. This may well be nonsense, but it is part of a much wider issue, providing further reason for thinking that Putin is planning a full reshaping of European security architecture by making Russia great again.
To be really effective in that, Putin doesn’t just have to go for regime termination in Kyiv, he has to ensure that the new regime is solidly in the Russian camp and secure from the very start. Belarus is already on board with this, with President Lukashenko having said that Belarus is up for hosting Russian nuclear weapons and the Minsk government is holding a referendum on 27 February to alter the constitution to allow just that.
In Putin’s world, when Ukraine is fully controlled it will also have nuclear weapons based there, as during the Cold War. His Russia will thus end up with nuclear weapons deployed in both countries, helping to cement a westward expansion of the newly great Russia. He thus reclaims a key part of what was known back in the Cold War days as Russia’s ‘near abroad’.
That may be the theory, but what about the practice? Last night’s protests in 53 Russian cities show there is opposition to this war in the country, and it is not yet known whether all the Russian armed forces are loyal to this Putin dream world. With at least three million Ukrainian citizens living in Russia, and vast numbers of familial connections between the two countries, that must at least be open to question, especially in the age of social media when there is easy direct communication.
It is not yet known whether all the Russian armed forces are loyal to this Putin dream world
More generally, US and other political and military agencies will already have thought all this through, will have planned their responses and will no doubt be starting to implement these. The sanctions regime now unfolding may have some effect, at least given time, and Putin’s key asset, China, may not be as compliant with his aims as he believes. Beijing is already an economic superpower with an economy ten times the size of Russia’s and is very much the determinant of its own destiny. China may find Putin’s ‘new Russia’ ambitions convenient for now, as they cause problems for NATO and the EU, but that is by no means set in stone.
There are also lessons to learn from recent wars. The Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s may be receding into the military history books but more recent wars tell us a lot. Afghanistan in 2001 was initially seen as a brilliant success for the United States but turned into a two-decade calamity. Within six weeks of the start of the Iraq War in March 2003, President Bush gave his “mission accomplished” speech, but US and UK airstrikes continue even now and the website ‘Iraq Body Count’ tells us that the documented civilian toll there stands at between 186,107 and 209,304 violent deaths, rising to up to 288,000 violent deaths including combatants.
The course of this violent conflict is very far from certain. There is always the risk of untoward escalation, not least from maverick elements. Whatever happens, channels of communications must be kept open with the Kremlin. That is most definitely not appeasement, but straightforward common sense informed by modest wisdom.
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