There's one way to counter Putin's strategy
Give Ukraine the best conventional weapons, and do so at maximum speed
Vladimir Putin has decided on – or stumbled into – a rather coherent strategy, which may be summarized as:
Reestablish the Russian Empire …
… by means of overwhelming brutality and destruction.
A great strength of that strategy is that it seems sustainable.
A dictator can keep a country on a war footing for a long time.
Russia’s nuclear deterrent protects it from the most crushing kinds of defeat.
So common sense suggests that the West needs to stymie Putin’s strategy, and should do so without delay. But the case for speed goes far beyond mere common sense, or generalities about deterrence, credibility and “standing up to bullies”, or even the humanitarian and financial costs incurred by each additional week of devastation. The West’s options for stopping Putin are much stronger now than they will be later on, and carry much less risk of inciting global nuclear war. The US and NATO should immediately commit to giving Ukraine high-quality Western weapons, including airplanes and the like, and getting them into action as soon as practically possible..
The argument for this view has three main parts.
Weapon superiority is the only way to push Russia out of Ukraine, or to stop Russian advances in general.
It’s safe from a nuclear escalation standpoint to use these weapons, but only on non-Russian territory.
Thus, if there ever is a cessation or ceasefire long enough for Russia to “annex” more Ukrainian territory, using Western weapons to drive Russia out will be much riskier than it is now. So those territories would probably stay Russia’s forever – with all the brutal genocide that such conquest entails, and all the expectations for future Russian aggression.
Thus, Russia can only be stopped by arming Ukraine well enough that it can decisively counterattack soon.
Let’s dig in.
Putin can only be stopped by superior military force
The main vulnerability of Putin’s strategy, as he and his propagandists openly admit, is that the West has superior military technology. After all, Russia controls substantial swathes of Ukrainian territory, and there are only two ways to take it back:
A conventional military counteroffensive.
An insurgency akin to those in Algeria, Afghanistan, or Vietnam.
The latter idea entails horrific costs and suffering, especially given Russia’s propensity for genocide. But the numbers don’t work for the former unless Ukraine has superior arms. Similar calculus would apply if Russia later conquered, for example, Georgia or Moldova as well.
Putin’s hope and plan is that the West will refrain from bringing that technology to bear.
Russian nuclear threats should not get in th way.
There are concerns that arming Ukraine increases the risk of global nuclear war. These concerns are much overstated. There is a very clear and credible US-Russia public agreement regarding acceptable levels of arms supply, which permits any conventional arms to be given to Ukraine, albeit only for use within Ukrainian (or actively disputed) territory. While Russia emits quite a bit of nuclear bluster, most Russian nuclear threats are nonsense.
Russia lost most of the escalation negotiation, did gain one nasty booby-trap.
The West was always going to win the escalation negotiation that culminated the week of Biden’s New York Times essay. But negotiated victories are rarely total. Russia salvaged one rule, namely that the best NATO-supplied weapons couldn’t be used to attack Russian territory. That seems reasonable, given that Russia isn’t allowed to attack, for example, massive weapons-staging sites in Poland.
But what if Russia claims annexation of more Ukrainian territory, such as the Donetsk, Luhansk and/or Kherson oblasts? It clearly intends to do so, albeit only after fighting dies down. If and when it does, recapturing those areas with Western weapons would become much, much riskier, because of that don’t-attack-Russia rule. It seems much safer to never let the fighting die down, until Russia is forced to withdraw from all the territory Ukraine plans to win back.
Fast and decisive aid to Ukraine is now of paramount importance.