By Hon. Richard Holwill, JHCGA's Ambassador in Residence
Putin’s War has triggered a rethinking of the world in which we live. He has taken us back to the ethos of the early part of the last Century. In doing so, he has created a moment in which statesmen have an almost impossible challenge. They must stand up to barbarity and avert an escalation that could end in an exchange of nuclear weapons.
For the past week, I’ve been reading military and diplomatic journals and blogs as they try to game out an end to this conflict. The authors have more information than is available to me. There appears to be a consensus that the worst outcome would be for the Russian Army to encircle and annihilate Ukrainian forces inside a perimeter east of the Dnieper River. The Russians could then push through to Lviv and attempt to dominate every inch of Ukrainian territory. Respecting the Polish border and a conflict with NATO will require discipline and forbearance – two qualities that the Russian Army appears to lack. Were that Army to strike into Poland, it would trigger a NATO response.
Some commentators suggest that a cease fire might be possible if enough Ukrainian forces escape west of the Dnieper River where they could establish a series of defensive positions. In this scenario Ukrainians would play for a stalemate while the West demanded a cease fire. Russia would likely accept a cease-fire line only if Western powers agree to accept Eastern Ukraine as a de facto Russian protectorate.
This could happen only if accepting such an arrangement would not require the United States or European Union to treat Eastern Ukraine as a legal entity. This kind of ambiguity is common in diplomacy, particularly when it could save civilian lives. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy might accept such a division, if only to allow his forces to regroup and then launch guerrilla operations against the Russian occupiers.
This is a problematic option for two reasons. Russia would likely demand an easing of sanctions and a ban on lethal aid to western Ukraine. Given Russian barbarism in Ukraine, granting any relief to Putin would be a difficult pill to swallow and, in the United States, could be a political problem for President Biden.
Even without a formal cease fire, if a significant number of Ukrainian forces survive fighting in the East, they could try to stop a Russian advance through the middle of the country. They would then mount a guerrilla operation behind Russian lines. Resupply from Ukraine’s neighbors – Poland, Hungary and Slovenia – would be less of a challenge that was resupply to the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. Then, the Western nations that supported the Mujahadeen faced logistic problems getting supplies through the notoriously difficult politics of the Pakistani intelligence services.
Putin is a student of history who has described the fall of the Soviet Union as a “catastrophe.” He no doubt knows that food shortages, the collapse of the internal market within the Soviet Union and the return of dead boys from the protracted war in Afghanistan contributed to the fall of the Soviet Empire. He is not likely to allow that to happen again. Hence, some of those writing in military and diplomatic journals fear that, at some point, Putin might use nuclear weapons as a final warning to the West to abandon Ukraine to Russia. This could be a tactical weapon against western Ukraine or a high-altitude explosion to send an electromagnetic pulse that could knock-out critical communications nodes.
Based on the fear that Putin might use nukes, a new cottage industry has developed in Washington and other western capitals in which analysts are asking: “How crazy is Putin?” But for the moment, let’s say that he is perfectly sane. In that case, keeping physical distance from his staff, projecting an image of being alone and out of touch may well be just an act to sell the idea that he is indeed crazy – crazy enough to use nuclear weapons. So far, it is working and some very smart people are expecting the worst.
March 14, 2022