Putin’s resolve hasn’t collapsed. He may be planning his most outrageous gambit yet

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Be prepared for Russia to halt hostilities and exploit European weakness in a brazen attempt to secure many of its objectives 

Russia’s failure to capture Kyiv shortly after its February 24 invasion, kill or overthrow Volodymyr Zelensky, and seize all of Ukraine, will be a landmark case study for future political and military strategists. So will Russia’s subsequent decision to fight a World War I-style offensive, primarily in eastern Ukraine, grinding out a few miles or less in new territorial gains every day. 

And so will the next phase of the war, as summer turns to fall. In all probability, it will depend more on political strategy than military affairs. Unquestionably, the military state of play is a critical variable, but in the coming months of the war, intangible, hard-to-measure, hard-to-predict political variables could have the dispositive role. Accordingly, Nato and other Ukraine supporters must start thinking now (and should have been thinking long before today) about how to prevent Moscow from seizing the diplomatic high ground and bring the conflict to at least a temporary halt on its terms, not Kyiv’s. The next ninety days is a useful time frame, especially in America, with nation-wide congressional elections looming on November 8. 

At present, Russia is still fighting its excruciatingly slow and painful style of offensive operations, almost entirely in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Absent dramatic changes in the next ninety days, there will be no daring Russian armor attacks, no effective use of air power, and no significant, newly-initiated, cross-border incursions. In American football, this ground-game strategy is called “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Moscow’s casualties have been high, debilitating logistical and personnel problems persist, domestic public opinion is mixed and uncertain at best, and international sanctions have strained (albeit not visibly altered) the Kremlin’s war effort. 

Ukraine appears to be readying a “southern strategy”, perhaps aimed to retake Kherson and to punch through the current lines to reach the Black Sea near Mykolaiv, thereby severing direct Russian land access from the Donbas to Crimea and adjacent territories. US, UK, and other Nato deliveries of high-end weapons are finally entering into significant usage on Ukraine’s front lines, although not at levels and in time-lines Kyiv’s military would like. Ukraine has kept a generally effective lid on disclosing its actual military casualties, but these may well be higher than generally understood in the popular Western imagination. And casualties among affected civilian populations, not to mention property and infrastructure destruction in the most contested regions, have been substantial. 

Accordingly, one entirely possible scenario, perhaps even the most likely, is that the war simply grinds on, with no discernible end point, certainly not in the next ninety days. This, however, is where Russia’s political calculations may be dispositive. Before and during the conflict, the West has repeatedly underestimated Russia’s long-term resolve and its cost-benefit analysis about its gains and losses. Eager to personalise “Putin’s war” to show its purported domestic Russian unpopularity, Western leaders have failed to see how widespread – and how deep – is Russian feeling that Ukraine and other former Soviet republics were illegitimately torn away from the rodina, the motherland. People may tire from reading Putin’s 2005 view, but this is his core belief: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” 

Minimizing the loss of “historical Russia”, in turn, leads to underestimating the Kremlin’s willingness to suffer what seem to foreign observers to be disproportionately high casualties for relatively modest territorial gains. It may also help explain why Russia’s war of attrition is acceptable to Moscow where it might not be in the West. In America’s Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was harshly criticised (called a “butcher” by some) for his 1864-65 campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, as was William Tecumseh Sherman for his 1864 “march to the sea” from Atlanta to Savannah. Grant’s war of attrition against Lee and Sherman’s swath of destruction brought the secessionists to final defeat, the Union’s blunt strength crushing the Confederacy. Similarly, in the 1939-1940 “Winter War” with Finland, Moscow also bled profusely, but persevered to victory. 

So, there should be no surprise that Russia’s resolve has not collapsed. Nonetheless, Putin can certainly see the risk that sufficient supplies of sophisticated weapons and other war materiel from Nato in Ukraine’s hands will jeopardise the gains Russian forces have made to date. Putin also knows that support for Ukraine in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, is not what Nato leaders make it out to be, and that President Biden’s actions (as opposed to rhetoric) during the conflict have hardly been consistent with deep resolve. Finally, signs of disagreements within Ukraine’s political leadership are now appearing – not as yet disabling, but increasingly visible nonetheless. 

Russia thus has a difficult political decision to make. Putin will not want to lose opportunities to retake more Ukraine territory, especially since he is far from his initial goals. Even more importantly, however, he does not want to be caught with Russian forces in broad retreat, where any diplomatic effort would be taken as a sign of weakness. Westerners who believe Putin is inadequately aware of the human and material costs suffered by Russia’s military are kidding themselves; he knows all too well he needs a respite if he can get one on his terms. 

In such circumstances, Russia’s best option may be this. In the next ninety days, Putin announces, with a straight face despite its obvious falsity, that the Kremlin has achieved its objectives. Accordingly, he has ordered all offensive military operations halted, demands Ukraine do the same, and calls for immediate ceasefire negotiations to establish an agreed line-of-control between the forces. Putin will have to grit his teeth to do this, but he knows that a cease fire will give Russia time, years perhaps, to rebuild its military, restore its economy, and perhaps reabsorb more pliant, weaker parts of the Russian empire, from Belarus to Central Asia. 

Moscow will be calculating that it can catch Kyiv unaware. Obviously and understandably, Zelensky, left to his own devices, would flatly reject halting the conflict with Russia still holding perhaps 25 per cent of Ukraine’s territory. He knows full well that any purported “cease-fire line” could become the new Russia-Ukraine border. Unfortunately, Zelensky may not be in a position to give a “Snake Island” response. 

Without a prior agreed-upon diplomatic strategy with Nato, optimally from now forward, Zelensky is vulnerable to political weakness in the United States and key European Union members, which Putin knows and is prepared to exploit. Winter is coming, as they say. Germany and much of Europe are deeply concerned about Russia’s considerable leverage over their energy supplies. And, let’s be honest, many Western Europeans are tired of this war. Continuing economic turbulence, whether inflation, recession or both, only reinforces the angst that, in just 6-9 months, this has become an “endless war” that needs ending. Proclaiming the need for humanitarian relief in war-torn Ukraine, they would seize the chance of a “cease fire” to return to pre-February 24 relations with Russia. 

Ukraine and Nato need diplomatic agreement now against this pre-emptive Russian ploy, which may rapidly gain the initiative regardless of battlefield developments. Indeed, in the coming weeks, Russia’s inclination to spring a “cease fire in place” will increase as its prospects for substantial further military gains recede. 

The most important element of a Western counter-strategy will be to make clear at once that all sanctions against Russia will remain in place until the full withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine’s territory. Eliminating the sanctions is central to any Russian expectation of reviving its economy and military, thereby to reinitiate hostilities at some future point. If sanctions looked to be effectively permanent until full Ukrainian sovereignty was restored, Putin’s gambit would fall at the first hurdle. Many other issues, including reparations, prisoners of war and accountability also need resolving, but the key point is to stop Russia from consolidating its territorial gains through a scam, unilateral “ceasefire”. 

Will France and Germany agree to such a counter-strategy? Will Biden be so weak before the November elections that he will jump at the chance for a diplomatic “win” to enhance Democratic prospects on November 8? Achieving real Nato unity on a hardline political stance against Russian efforts to split the West and leave Ukraine in peril will require considerable heavy lifting. Now is the time to start, and underlines why a new government in London, as resolute on Ukraine as Boris Johnson, is so critical.