HOW THIS ENDS
Photo (c) Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock / CNN
On February 24th, Russia mounted an unprovoked and unwarranted invasion of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin’s announced reasons for this were, at various times:
To “denazify” the country;
To demilitarize the country;
To protect citizens / residents in Donbass.
None of these objectives is warranted by fact or reality. None is upheld by the military strategy that Russia has adapted. None of these is warranted by international law.
By launching this invasion, President Putin has managed to unify the west against him, with countries as diverse as Sweden, Greece and Finland providing Ukraine with military assistance, and with Monaco and Switzerland joining the European Union in passing heavy sanctions on Russia and Russian asset owners.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Monaco and Switzerland sanctioning Russians. Sweden and Finland providing military assistance.
These sanctions also have a strong and terrible impact on the ordinary citizens and population of Russia, who were certainly not consulted by Vladimir Putin in his choice to invade Ukraine.
Another side effect of this is German re-militarisation. Last week, Germany announced a one-time investment of € 100 billion on equipment, and raising its military spending to 2% of GDP. The one thing that Russia theoretically feared has now come to pass, by its own actions.
As of today, 2 March, Kharkhiv is under very heavy artillery, airborne rocket, and ballistic missile fire, as well as street-to-street fighting. Kyiv has seen numerous attacks but it still in government hands. Kherson and Mariupol may have fallen: the situation remains unclear.
The lessons I take from the first week of combat are that:
The Russian attack strategy was clearly premised on no resistance. It was unprepared for heavy resistance and has not yet fully adjusted to that fact.
Russian troops appear demoralized, ill-prepared and in many cases without the morale to fight. An American friend described this accurately: “It’s as if we were ordered to invade Canada.”
The Russian strategy has made a number of critical errors. I don’t want to say the main one here, but it should be obvious, and the Russian general staff don’t seem to be in a position to recognize it or change it.
The failure to achieve air superiority in the first 48 hours, and to a certain extent today, remains baffling. As were other decisions, such as those to use paratroopers unsupported by follow-on armor or air support to seize and hold ground.
Russia does not have enough troops to take and hold territory given the present levels of opposition. In my opinion, they have barely enough troops to take and hold Kyiv plus its suburbs and guard a 200+ km supply line back to Belarus.
So how does this end? There are at least three main scenarios.
Scenario 1: Ukraine Surrenders and becomes a Partitioned, Puppet State
This was apparently the original campaign plan. A rapid, unopposed series of battle groups would strike Kyiv and other cities. With the help of paratroopers, intelligence agents and others, they would decapitate the government, leading to a rapid surrender. In that case, Ukraine probably would have been partitioned into various regions and would become a puppet state similar to Belarus, but with a heavy Russian military occupation.
Incidentally, a core demand from the Russian side in the initial negotiations was that the annexation of Crimea would be recognized (and accepted) by Ukraine.
I can’t see this scenario materialising today, unless the one military tactic left open by the Russian military hinted at in Point 3 takes place. Alternatively, unless the unrestricted use of heavy weapons and hunger tactics in civilian areas forces President Zelensky to surrender.
Perhaps the most common euphemism for this might be “Finlandisation”. The real meaning of this is a brutal foreign dictatorship over Ukraine, similar to what the Warsaw Pact countries suffered during the Cold War: deportations, executions, re-writing history, economic occupation, and more.
Scenario 2: Ukraine becomes Afghanistan
This scenario is the permanent guerilla war strategy against a Russian occupation. In this scenario, there is no surrender. Even assuming a state decapitation, Ukrainian resistance fighters keep the struggle going with western assistance. Together with western continued sanctions, eventually Russia withdraws its troops after a massive loss of life on both sides and major economic damage.
Scenario 3: Russia Retreats
In this scenario, Russian troops are defeated outside Kyiv and in other areas, leading to a planned or unplanned withdrawal. I see this as a real possibility given the record of combat so far. I believe that Russian front-line troops in some areas are close to their breaking point, and absent a change of tactics or the fortunes of war, they may be in a withdrawal mode in less than a week.
However, prior to this happening, Russia will no doubt intensify the use of heavy weapons in their arsenal, because they simply cannot afford to retreat.
There are two other scenarios which are possible:
Scenario 4: Partition
Russia gains a Pyrrhic victory on the battlefield but negotiates certain battlefield gains – notably a land corridor from Mykolaiv (or thereabouts) to the Line of Contact, enabling a land bridge and security corridor from Crimea to the Line of Contact. Alternatively, if Russia can break the Line of Contact, it can push forward to the historical borders of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast, and possible connect with Kharkiv in the north.
This scenario might be possible, pending Russian battlefield performance in the south and north, and then pending deployment of massive ballistic, artillery and airborne ordinance on the Ukrainian fortifications on the Line of Contact. This would cause of a collapse of the heavy Ukrainian forces located there, and potentially a retreat from fortified positions over open ground, where Russian control of the air might make a strategic difference.
Such a collapse would be similar to the collapse of the French Army once the Maginot Line was outflanked in World War II, and where the technological superiority of the Germany Army was clearly established.
Scenario 5: Nuclear War / Madman Strategy
In this scenario, Russia launches a tactical nuclear strike on Ukraine, silencing all foreign and domestic critics, at least momentarily.
But how does this end for Russia?
In a standard situation, a leader who has caused this much damage and has unified so much opposition against him is typically “retired” from service. Either by his own volition (as per Adolph Hitler) or by the volition of others (as per Benito Mussolini).
Assuming this happens, one would expect free elections to take place in the short term as well as offering some level of reparations to Ukraine in exchange for lifting international sanctions against Russia and the normalization of relations with the West.
The problem is, given the construct Vladimir Putin has built with the acquiescence of a very large number of Russia citizens and companies, it is impossible to see any such scenario unfolding. Not a single person I have spoken to can see an end to this situation where Russia becomes a “normal” state, marked by:
Independent regulatory institutions and justice;
A non-monopolistic / non-oligarchic economic system;
A single-ruler political system not based on massive repressive force;
Corruption within a limited range.
Interestingly enough, few of the countries currently arrayed against Russia have any aspirations to Russia becoming a “normal” state. This is not even on the agenda. The only thing on the agenda is a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal.
This will leave us with an embittered, resource-rich, militaristic nation of some 150 million fully immersed in their present political system. Any military defeat will be followed by a “stab in the back” explanation for the defeat. Russian fears of conspiracies from the west will be magnified.
But the Russian middle classes and elites will, at some point, be able to resume their vacations in Cannes, Monaco and Cyprus.
And yet, it is vital that the western response to this aggression be maintained and even expanded. Despite all the failures of western democracies (and there are many), the system built up over centuries of enlightenment and struggle remains the most appropriate one for ensuring the balanced equity and development of the large majority of its citizens.
The system chosen by the so-called “illiberal” democracies—surrender your civil liberties in exchange for the illusion of economic progress and safety—is clearly failing. And it has been shown to fail throughout history. The failure is not so much that the bottom 90% don’t get their miniscule pensions or that the electricity stays on or that the train run on time.
The failure is that the top 2% and their acolytes loot the country and impoverish the population, keeping them on a diet of “bread and circuses” – or international paranoia.
So, yes: In the west, we will need to re-arm. We will need to coordinate our military forces so that they are inter-operable and can be deployed in strength. We will need to fight against disinformation and propaganda. And we are going to have to take difficult decisions about our energy and economic policies.
We will need to make decisions that are good for the whole in certain circumstances, and accept that the unlimited hedonism of the last thirty years may no longer be warranted.
There will be no shortage of future challenges.