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The United States granted Putin a lifeline
They should yank it back ASAP
Vladimir Putin has escalated the Russia-Ukraine War, in words and substance alike. Important points about that include:
This isn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis Version 2. As per our previous analysis, Putin’s nuclear threats remain largely empty.
Putin’s survival is on the line. If he loses this war, it will be hard for him to remain in power … and perhaps even to stay alive.
The US has gained a chance to reverse one of its greatest Ukraine war mistakes.
The US regrettably promised not to let advanced rockets be used against targets on Russian soil.
As long as that promise holds, Russia can bombard Ukraine with relative impunity, and hence continue its aggression indefinitely.
However, the promise not to help Ukraine effectively attack Russian territory can now safely be revoked.
That revocation is essential to favorable outcomes in Ukraine and Russia alike.
What’s more – when it comes to that policy shift, time is of the essence.
Whether Ukraine can fight effectively on Russian soil will eventually make a drastic difference in helping Ukraine oust its invaders and actually win.
Whether Ukraine can actually win will likely make a lot of eventual difference as to whether Putin can remain in power.
Whether Putin is expected to lose power at the eventual end of the Ukraine war could have a lot to do with how much control he can keep of Russia shorter time frames too.
Thus, the sooner the Ukraine and the United States prove Putin’s defeat is inevitable, the sooner the Putin nightmare may actually end.
NATO’s Ukraine (non)escalation strategy to date
As discussed in previous articles:
The US and Russia reached a quasi-agreement that the US would freely arm Ukraine, with the proviso Ukraine would not use those arms to attack Russian soil.
In a dangerous loophole, it was left unspecified whether that applied to territory claimed by both Russia and Ukraine.
The US later closed that loophole (and is now sticking by that closure, even as Russia tries to tear it open).
But the proviso not to help attack Russia is itself very problematic, as it leaves Russia huge safe-ish havens for various kinds of bombing and shelling, and for logistics as well. Thus – and notwithstanding whatever damage Ukraine can do without Western arms – the don’t-touch-Russia promise makes Ukraine’s defense much more difficult than it really needs to be.
How the US can improve the Ukraine-aiding bargain
In connection with the recent sham annexations of Ukrainian territory, Russia said that an attack on “annexed” Ukrainian territory is just like an attack on Russia. This gives the US an opening to respond “We support Ukraine’s lawful attacks on Ukrainian territory. So, if you insist, we now will support Ukraine’s lawful attacks on Russian territory too.” The US should rush to seize that opportunity.
Less flippantly, messaging could emphasize:
Russia and the USSR have a 60 year history of behaving responsibly in nuclear matters.* The US respects and appreciates that. It would be disastrous for that streak to end.
This war is being fought largely through artillery and other bombardment. The war zone runs 10s of kilometers deep. Ukraine needs to be free to fight in all of this.
Ukraine has shown no inclination to match Russia’s terroristic bombing of civilian targets, and the US wouldn’t support such retaliation if it did.
*Though counter-intuitive, this is true.
Putin’s strategy of perpetual war
Looking ahead, there are three main possibilities:
Putin convinces his people he has won the war in Ukraine. This seems thankfully unlikely to ever happen.
Putin admits to his people he has lost the war in Ukraine. This would not be conducive to his staying in power, nor indeed to his continuing to breathe. But it’s the outcome that’s best for almost everybody else.
Putin keeps the war in Ukraine going indefinitely. Presumably, in the absence of victory, this is the course he will try to take.
Conveniently for Putin, wars of endurance are a very Russian thing.
The “Patriotic War” – Napoleon’s invasion – is seen even in the West as triumph of Russian fortitude and resolve.
The “Great Patriotic War” – World War 2 – is perceived as a similar Soviet triumph, and has been endlessly hyped in Russia under Putin’s regime.
Conceding Cold War defeat after four decades led to dissolving the USSR, which led to a genuinely unpleasant period in Russia, also exaggerated in Putin’s retelling.
Putin has multiple tactics to try to make his enemies quit, such as:
Massive destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure.
Withholding energy exports from Europe.
Withholding food supplies around the world.
Various other kinds of escalatory blackmail.
None has worked so far, for reasons that include:
Ukrainian resolve looks unshakable.
America’s bullhorn bargaining has been active.
Putin’s subordinates can’t be relied on to back his plays.
Unfortunately, there are Western politicians who raise doubt about their countries’ pro-Ukrainian resolve, such as Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy, Silvio Berlusconi, or even Olaf Scholz. So Putin’s strategy of perpetual war might actually succeed in bringing him victory. That’s all the more reason to try to shut it down.
Why striking Russian soil will be so important
Some professionals doubt the Ukrainian armed forces can actually push Russian troops out of their land. Other professionals believe they can. To date, optimistic military views about Ukraine have generally been correct, for reasons that include:
Ukrainians’ morale and commitment far exceed Russians’.
Ukrainians’ leadership and in many cases training far exceeds Russians’.
Russian corruption is yet worse than was generally assumed.
Ukrainians have excelled at using disparate technologies, homegrown and foreign alike.
Ukraine’s military technology advantage over Russia has been much greater than expected.
Those trends can reasonably be expected to continue. So, just as Ukraine has already expelled Russia troops from its Kyiv and Kharkiv oblasts, it has a good chance to kick Russia out of the Donbas as well.
But then what? Unless he runs out of ammunition or equipment, Putin could keep bombarding Ukraine from inside Russia indefinitely. So blowing up Russian ammunition depots, airfields, etc. will be essential to ending Putin’s war in Ukraine, and presumably Putin’s reign as well. And that, in turn, is widely agreed to depend upon NATO (especially American) precision ammunition -- of the kinds the US has so far forbidden Ukraine to launch against Russian soil.
The myth of the boiling frog
So why have American officials been speaking (and acting!) more timidly than Ukraine hawks think they should? Part of the explanation may be doubt about Ukraine’s chances of outright victory, but there are clearly other factors too.
Per a recent New York Times article:
American officials believe they have, so far, succeeded at “boiling the frog” — increasing their military, intelligence and economic assistance to Ukraine step by step, without provoking Moscow into large-scale retaliation with any major single move.
Problems with that reasoning start:
The “boiling frog” metaphor is predicated upon the frog not noticing what you’re doing.
Certainly you shouldn’t brag about your strategy within the frog’s hearing.
It’s a myth anyway; frogs do jump out of hot water.
As an illustration of how well the boiling frog strategy isn’t working – Putin’s announcement of escalation came just days after the NYT article appeared.
Focusing one one man’s emotional responses was the wrong plan anyway
But the biggest failing of the concept is this: Vladimir Putin shouldn’t be the main target of US influence efforts anyway. Instead, we should focus on the rest of Russia’s actual and potential leadership, including senior and junior officers and thought leaders alike. Reasons start:
On average, they are more likely to be influenced by facts, logic, personal interest or national well-being than is Putin himself.
Putin can do nothing without their cooperation.
And that’s why our previous articles have argued that US anti-escalation messaging should focus, not on Putin and his close reports, but broadly on Russia’s military leaders. The US should bullhorn bargain with Russian leaders as a group, while Putin tries to stave off the inevitable for as long as he destructively can – which hopefully won’t be much longer at all.
A companion article support’s this one’s views about decision-making in Russia.
Nothing in this article seems to conflict with Michael Kofman’s detailed explication of Russian nuclear doctrine.
Kamil Galeev explains why Russia doesn’t deliver what its leaders try to command.
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