Last chance saloon

| January 28, 2022

It didn’t have to be this way. Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the bloody proxy war waged since then in the Donbas region, there has been no doubt that Vladimir Putin has aggressive intent towards Ukraine.

Across those seven years, the US and its European allies could have made Ukraine a much pricklier and more indigestible target. That would not have required forward-deploying large numbers of troops, just a tougher-minded plan to arm and train Ukrainian forces.

There are, for example, a limited number of routes for ground forces to advance on Kyiv. Why haven’t they been made impassable? Why is it only now that significant shipments of lethal equipment are taking place? Will there be time to get these weapons into the right hands?

Whatever NATO does now looks flustered and gives Putin an opportunity to claim that Russia is being provoked. Moreover, the steps underway are pathetically inadequate. France has offered to send troops to Romania under NATO command; Denmark is deploying F-16 aircraft to Lithuania; the Netherlands is sending two joint strike fighters to Bulgaria; and Spain is sailing a frigate to the Black Sea.

The Biden administration’s revised plans to put 8,500 US troops under ‘heightened preparedness’ to be sent to some NATO countries but not Ukraine may help to reassure Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, but they impose no added cost or risk on Putin and confirm Joe Biden’s long-stated position that the US and NATO will not directly defend Ukraine.

One can only despair at Biden’s handling of the situation. When the president should be signalling caution to Russia and pushing NATO to a more concerted position, Biden persists in telegraphing US weakness, ruling out military action, offering negotiating concessions, accepting that a Russian attack is inevitable and showing that there’s no allied unity on possible sanctions.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin seems to be absent from the field. The US Defence Department’s website records that he spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart on 13 January and ‘discussed risk reduction near Ukraine’s borders’ with the Russian defence minister on 6 January. Explaining the administra­tion’s evolving policy position on Ukraine seems largely to be left to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, forever being forced to correct the president’s remarks, and the Pentagon’s John Kirby.

Leaving the public face of crisis management to media minders doesn’t build confidence. Matters of war and peace can be led only at cabinet level. Biden doesn’t look as though he is giving the issue the time it deserves. His wider national security team looks as if it is playing a solo hand rather than shaping a coordinated effort.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is emerging as being more on top of his brief, but here, too, the State Department is tripping over its own processes. Of course, at this time the embassy in Kyiv should be sending dependants and non-essential staff out of the country, but why on earth announce it? As in Kabul, nothing could more visibly look like the US was packing its bags.

The European response has been just as flaky. This was a moment for the new German administration to stand up. Instead, Germany has baulked at providing Ukraine lethal aid, saying ‘weapons deliveries would not be helpful at the moment’. Berlin’s public offer to send a field hospital is the worst possible signal.

The French focus seems to be to pitch for a European-led response, but the European countries most able to shift the strategic balance in Ukraine have absolutely no intention to do so.

Mired in his own political Chernobyl, Boris Johnson at least was able to strike the right declaratory note in saying a Russian invasion would be a ‘painful, violent and bloody business … I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya’.

The British prime minister is implying that an invasion could lock Russia into a long-term occupation, fighting against a determined insurgency backed with Western support, in the context of a significantly strengthened NATO eastern front.

For all that the US and NATO have fluffed their lines, Putin’s strategic position is more difficult. He has forces at a level of readiness that can’t be sustained indefinitely. A warmer than usual winter means that moving heavy armoured vehicles towards Kyiv on slushy ground will be difficult. Crossing the Dnieper River will be no easier today than during the terrible battles in Ukraine in 1943.

If Putin’s aim is to stage a manufactured coup in Kyiv to install a puppet leader without a ground invasion, there has been sufficient intelligence warning of that risk and therefore an opportunity to harden key buildings and deploy special forces to make that a difficult task.

Beijing has denied as a ‘hoax and provocation’ reports that Xi Jinping has asked Putin to delay an attack on Ukraine until after the Winter Olympics conclude on 20 February, but Putin would feel some pressure not to annoy his authoritarian partner.

Russia’s options are all unpalatable. Push on with an attack and face the risk of a costly long-term occupation; risk a bloody nose with a coup that could be thwarted; annoy a strategic partner in Beijing that could help shield Russia from sanctions; or back down with a risk of embarrassment at home and a stronger NATO abroad.

Biden has perhaps the narrowest window of opportunity to exploit Putin’s dilemma. The chal­lenge is to find a way for Russia to back down from conflict without looking defeated. Is there any scope to explore a pathway to demilitarise the Donbas or a wider area of eastern Ukraine? Could the possibility of Ukraine’s membership of NATO (now extremely unlikely to be agreed) be formally frozen for a decade or more?

What all parties to the dispute need now is time, before the ice hardens and the tanks roll.

The prospects of pushing the dispute into formalised talks may be slim, but it is surely worth Biden calling Putin to explore possibilities. In that call, Biden also could give Putin some understanding of what tougher sanctions might mean for his personal wealth, as well as the holdings of the oligarchs who prop up his regime.

This article was published by The Strategist.