Analysis: As Russia’s Ukraine Campaign Struggles, the West Must Neuter Putin’s Nuclear Threat

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    Vladimir Putin has placed Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert, raising tensions to levels not seen since the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. The Russian leader is at this point irrational and frustrated that his plan to waltz into Ukraine has gone awry. He is becoming desperate to convince the West to get out of the way and let him have his prize.

    This is madness. Ukraine is not worth destroying the planet over. Not to anyone. Mr. Putin has committed a terrible blunder, not only to the world, but to his own country, by taking everyone down this path of aggression.

    Putin was counting on a docile West, and a perception of US leadership weakness following our debacle in Afghanistan, as a solid given in his calculus. The assumption was simply never true. That’s not how the world works. Crossing the line of acceptable behavior still has consequences.

    Instead, Mr. Putin transformed the West into a unified opponent now drawing in even neutral nations like Switzerland. Defying Putin’s nuclear threat, military and humanitarian aid continue to pour into Ukraine.

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    On Monday, February 28th, Ukraine’s leader, Mr. Zelenskyy, signed his country’s application to join the European Union on an expedited basis; something that the Europeans will most likely act on that will again raise the stakes in the battle of wills between Mr. Putin and his neighbors. Indeed, by late Monday, the EU’s energy commission announced that the integration of Ukraine’s power grid with Western Europe’s instead of the Russian power grid would begin.

    These stakes are now so high that I believe the world has reached the point where it now boils down to the Russians themselves to ponder if the time has come to say enough is enough and begin the process of ending Mr. Putin’s reign before he plunges everyone into darkness.

    Annexing Ukraine Is Not Quite Working out as Planned

    The ground battle in Ukraine intensified over the weekend as both sides prepared to send delegations to Belarus to begin talks. As Russian units continued to pour into the country and their infrastructure improved, the internet exploded with real and fake news about attacks erupting in more Ukrainian cities. Stories of successes of bravery and sacrifice by Ukrainian defenders juxtaposed with reports that Russian units were completing encirclements of population centers.

    Through this fog of war, the calculus of warfare is revealing that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assumption that Ukraine would be an easy takeover target was wrong. The Ukrainian military are proving to be capable and tenacious defenders. Just as important, the military theory that modern anti-tank weapons are an effective counter to mechanized tank armies is proving to be true in Ukraine. This has led to increased shelling by Russian units seeking to soften defenses, reports of which have appeared on the internet in droves.

    The reality is that, barring the unconditional surrender by the Ukrainian delegation in Belarus, the Russians are beginning to face the prospect that they are looking at a siege craft scenario if the Ukrainians continue to put up a fight. To win this type of battle typically means a methodical destruction of entire cities. Latest reports being broadcast show that there is a forty-mile-long column of Russian military vehicles staging outside the capital city of Kyiv. Ukraine’s cities, formerly thriving urban centers, will be reduced to rubble and look more like Aleppo, Syria today, or Berlin, Germany in 1945.

    Putin is counting on the capture of the capital to break Ukrainian resolve. It may. Or it may not.

    Either Bad Math or Ignoring the Facts

    The apparent tenacity of Ukraine changes the force element requirements for Russia to win. Modern sieges are combinations of artillery duels and urban small arms battles. The classic force ratio requirement is that the attacker must have between a three-to-one to five-to-one strength advantage versus a determined defender. The Russian general staff, who are masters at the art of calculating what’s called the “correlation of forces,” know this all too well.

    The Russian military contingent that was sitting on the border of Ukraine numbered around 130,000 troops out of Putin’s estimated total potential of around 900,000 troops in the entire Russian military. The Ukrainian military is estimated to have around 196,800 active personnel with a pool of military-aged males of around 7 million to draw from if things turn into a protracted war.

    To win his campaign in Ukraine with certainty and meet the three-to-one force ratio mathematics, Putin always had to be prepared to mobilize and commit at least 600,000 troops if the Ukrainians fought back. If Ukraine began to draw on its population to sustain resistance, Putin would have to commit his entire armed forces.

    This would expose all of Russia’s flank to vulnerability not only from obvious border foes like China, but to loss of influence over Russia’s many satellite states who would begin to see opportunities to also try for a breakaway from Moscow.

    Personally, I would have advised Vladimir Putin that the correlation calculation of the many potential outcome options for initiating a conflict in Ukraine were more likely to turn into a morass; that an easy win was the long shot, and that it wasn’t worth the gamble.

    I’m at a loss to interpret why such an obvious COF calculation did not prevail when it certainly had to have come up during deliberations. Somewhere along the way, Mr. Putin had to have overruled the basic mathematics of war. It’s now costing him more than he bargained for.

    Mad Hatter Behavior

    Mr. Putin’s invocation of the threat of preemptive use of nuclear weapons as a ploy to keep Western powers away from Ukraine and his gamble that the Zelenskyy government would go quietly into the night are irrational pillars upon which to build a house of cards.

    Even if he does succeed in eventually taking Ukraine in the short run, he has already proven to every satellite of Russia that his power has limits. The fragility of the dream of restoring the USSR is exposed. A unified alliance against such an eventuality is the only thing Mr. Putin has achieved. This adventure by Putin is just as likely to begin the process of questioning his leadership for the future of Russia.

    It didn’t have to go this way. Russia was moving towards becoming part of the global economy up to only a few days ago. All that has now been thrown into the trash for the foreseeable future as a range of sanctions devastates the Russian economy in a way that will be felt by all Russians, who are also victims caught in the whirlwind of Putin’s brashness.

    Putin’s seeming lunacy has also clearly descended to his dark terminology for his imaginary enemies. He speaks of Europeans as Nazis. He speaks of the United States as the “empire of lies.” His speeches are laced with strong animus using severe terms denoting the kind of deep hatred that can only be satisfied by the utter conquest of his foes.

    By his own words, Putin has revealed to the world that, whether we like it or not, we are squarely in his gunsights, and by his actions, he is no longer posturing diplomatically, but acting deliberately. He has become an illegitimate poacher out for the kill. This is about as disturbingly despotic as it gets.

    I don’t know what caused Vladimir Putin to change from his prior calculating persona to the unrestrained dangerous animal he looks to have become. I’ve heard the observations that he became very isolated over the last two years of COVID-19. Isolation can make one very irrational. For most people, the most they can do is hurt themselves when it happens. But Vladimir Putin is a man with the ability to turn his untoward feelings into suffering on a large scale, which he has done — and he’s capable of creating more pain.

    Mr. Putin has decided to risk everything with this unnecessary adventure into Ukraine. It won’t turn out well. In the aftermath of pariah sanctions and, by the time Russian military bodies are counted and questions are asked, a drained of moral purpose military machine, Mr. Putin’s Russia could suffer a collapse even more devastating than the one that beset his country after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

    Others I’ve discussed the matter with go beyond questions of whether Russia can hold onto the allegiance of its satellite partners to conjecture about whether the Russian Federation itself can survive. A common question is: Will Siberia become part of China? Fanciful thinking on the part of analytical minds? I would have said so two weeks ago. But something has changed about life on planet Earth. No scenario can be ruled out at this moment. And the Chinese are holding their own self-interests close to the vest refusing to discourage Russia.

    There’s so little morality to be found in Mr. Putin’s actions. It’s like looking into a void. In my time as a military analyst, I’ve been through countless theoretical scenarios that explored many aspects of “means justifying ends” options as part of doing analytics. The moral filter has always been something that maintained the barrier between sensible and infeasible options by all sides when it came to US and USSR relations — particularly when it came to the subject of nuclear weapons.

    This barrier seems to have broken down inside Mr. Putin’s calculus and his most recent speeches clearly show that his head is in a different space from everyone else’s world reality. Quite honestly, Russia and its people deserve better than this.

    Neutering the Bomb

    It is vitally important to end Mr. Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. Yes, he is seeing his conventional war plan for Ukraine falter. Yes, he may lose this campaign. It is not justification to escalate action to theater nuclear warfare. Then, it’s no longer a squabble over control of a buffer state. It becomes a fight for the right of humanity to survive.

    Many European countries have taken the attitude that they’ve already been directly threatened. They are heeding Mr. Putin’s words in his speeches about thinking and acting preemptively. And they are deciding to look the threat in the eye and openly supply Ukraine with arms. They’ve committed themselves to being targets. Or, noting that they’ve probably always been targets in Mr. Putin’s view, even in the years he acted with more constraint. It’s put up or shut up time. They have made a moral choice. At significant risk, these countries have decided to put up.

    I do highly recommend that President Biden take the next step and cease ghosting President Putin. Positional bargaining by forcing Putin into a corner is part of what may have unhinged the Russian. I believe it would be derelict for Mr. Biden not to pick up the direct line and insist on a marathon discussion of the nuclear question until it is resolved.

    The US position should be that all parties need to come to an understanding that no party will contemplate first use of nuclear weapons over the issue of Ukraine. Tensions and emotions aside, Ukraine is not a good reason to start World War III. The simple fact of the matter is that everyone needs to step back from the brink or escalation will happen. And the only way to do that is to start an open line dialog.

    Neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Putin should shirk this moment. I understand that many Americans disagree with Biden being the man to do this, but world events are a come-as-you-are thing. The Office of the President of the United States doesn’t care who sits in it. The job of the nation just needs to be done. Now is the time for whoever sits in the Oval Office to rise to the task of becoming another Kennedy.

    Finding a Way Out

    Pride can be a dangerous thing and Mr. Putin is a prideful man. It is important that Mr. Putin, and more importantly all Russians, realize that the world doesn’t end if this misadventure in Ukraine doesn’t work. Russia will go on. Even starting anew as an economic pariah nation, Russia and its people will resume a walk back to becoming part of what will hopefully be a more peaceful Eurasia.

    In this regard, the world leadership of the United States will either prove itself vital or useless. We are, for better or worse, the only player on the world stage who can create a constructive way out of this mess for Russia.

    We have cautiously begun to apply the stick of sanctions. We have let the Europeans lead in ramping up these sanctions, testing the water at each step. The crescendo is growing. The Russian ruble is now cratering. Mr. Putin’s patience grows thinner, less due to sanctions than to the Ukrainians still resisting.

    Simultaneously, this is not a moment for the US to be prideful either.

    President Biden needs to also be figuring out how to create a carrot to de-escalation. He needs to put this option into play sooner rather than later. We are presently an America whom the world questions whether it can still be relevant. We have declined our cohesion after many years of domestic acrimony. Recent setbacks in the tenacity of our foreign policy haven’t helped either.

    But the bottom line is that someone must step up to craft a path back to global stability. To do so successfully, we need to prove Mr. Putin wrong. We need to prove that we are not the “empire of lies” who must one day be destroyed, as Mr. Putin coldly asserts, but that we are still capable of being a beacon of hope for people who want to pursue freedom and self-determination in open societies. We must remember who we are as a symbol to the planet, even if we are flawed and forget who we are for a little while.

    It’s important that the United States take the high road and use every means available to tell the Russian people that, if this crisis can be resolved, it is possible to get past the damage done by this episode and integrate Russia back into the global economy.

    We should be talking about how we would do that as part of our foreign policy narrative. How can Russia not only rejoin the community of nations but thrive in it? We should act like the leader that sets this stage with our allies, and even our adversaries, to sign on to this vision of a better outcome when Mr. Putin and Russia can find the bravery to step back from the brink.

    And we should be prepared to act substantively on whatever we say so that our promises will not be hollow like the last time Russia hoped trusting the West would result in a peace dividend.

    Such a promise isn’t so hard particularly when you factor in other lofty ideas for mankind like transforming the world into a mineral-intensive economy, whether you believe in this version of climate change strategy or not. It creates a carrot pointing to a pathway of hope for Russia in the future.

    Russian Dilemma

    If Mr. Putin’s thirst for confrontation cannot be averted, the reality is that only his own people can stop him from plunging the world into chaos. It’s a difficult dilemma.

    Like him or not, Mr. Putin has led his country back from the disastrous end of the Soviet Union where the economy collapsed and many Russians perished. He did his country great service pulling things back together from those dark times. Russians rightly respect him for it. That makes his moment where he has led Russia down a wrong path a watershed event for his nation.

    Events have shocked ordinary Russians as much as they have shocked everyone else on the planet. I don’t believe for an instant that most Russians want to be the people who destroyed planet earth in a nuclear holocaust because an attack on a brother former republic went wrong. It doesn’t make any sense.

    It begs the difficult question, is it time for the Russian people to question Mr. Putin’s fitness to lead? He is the one who made this mistake to attack Ukraine. His speeches describe his decisions with the word “I.” From a leadership acumen perspective, his thinking that the world would let him get away with taking Ukraine cheaply is clearly flawed and has only served to doom the near future of his county’s position in the world. I cannot imagine any circumstance where anyone on this planet would ever trust him again. It’s just too rogue.

    It’s also important to remember that Ukraine and Russia really are brothers. Extended families span across the border of both countries. Mr. Putin has pitted people with close ties to each other against one another in a way that, in US terms, is not unlike how families fought kin during the US Civil War. One must ask what kind of a leader of any society could sanely condone such a thing, much less toy with people’s lives so callously. Sadly, events are showing that Mr. Putin no longer respects the people he swore to serve so long ago.

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