A Ukrainian tank rolls on a road near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, on November 30, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Credit - ANATOLII STEPANOV-AFP
In the first phase of the War, the Russians made it to the outskirts of Kyiv, and Ukraine looked a goner. In phase two just four weeks later, the victim was on a roll, regaining some thousand settlements while decimating an outclassed foe slugging it out far from home. Now act three, which opened with a miraculous Ukrainian victory that drove the Russians from Kherson, a first-rate strategic prize in the south. But the stage may soon darken.
Sure, the Ukrainians continue to dominate the battlefield thanks to superior motivation and massive injections of Western cash and arms. They are fighting for survival whereas Russians are bolting by the hundred-thousands to escape the draft.
Ukraine’s jubilant President Volodymyr Zelensky now faces a threat that was always lurking in the background. It comes from his big-hearted friends in the West. In November, Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, met with his Russian counterpart for a “confidential conversation,” which the administration promptly leaked as a message to Kyiv.
They probably discussed the “compromise” Joe Biden would broach after the fall of Kherson. Of course, the President was “not going to tell [the Ukrainians] what they have to do.” But the hint is hard to miss. Reining in a client is what great powers do to avoid entrapment in a deadly conflict, in this case with a wild-eyed Russian adversary backed by an overkill arsenal.
That Vladimir Putin would unleash nuclear weapons was never credible. Start with a single tactical weapon, and you end up with a catastrophic strategic duel. Even in a pre-nuclear age, fabled Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz warned against taking the “first step without considering what may be the last.” During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy cribbed from Clausewitz: “It isn’t the first step that concerns me, but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth, and we don’t go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so.”
If Putin were serious, U.S. intelligence would know. It would see tactical warheads being hauled out of their tightly guarded bunkers to marry them to delivery vehicles like missiles and planes. These systems would disperse. Coded communications would rise above normal. But it does not end here. Putin would have to take out strategic insurance and place his intercontinental weapons on a war footing. His risk soars because the U.S. would go to DEFCON 2: ICBMS and ballistic submarines ready to go in six hours. At this stage, misperception and miscalculation could trigger strategic war.
Putin has carefully avoided these steps. NATO has warned him, and so have even his so-so allies, the Chinese: “Nuclear wars must not be fought.”
Still, Putin’s threats did rattle the West. Who would want to die for Kyiv? Or freeze while Russia is cutting gas to Europe to a trickle? Paris and Berlin have tried to mediate from day one. Western leaders may be tiring of the war after nine months. In the U.S., Republican opposition to America’s entanglement is rising.
Paradoxically, the angst reflects too much of a good thing. Ukraine’s victories might trigger unbounded Russian revenge, whatever the cost. But the strategic realities may be tilting against Kyiv. In this third act, those brave Ukrainians may not easily duplicate their amazing advances during the second.
Why not? As the Russians pull back into fortified positions, they profit from their short “interior lines,” as Clausewitz had it. To dislodge dug-in troops is harder than to outwit an invader out in the open. As rule of thumb, it takes a 3-to-1 manpower advantage to overcome tank traps, bunkers, and sheltered artillery farther back. President Biden has subtly put his Kyiv counterpart on notice: Time to start talking to Putin. About what—a cease-fire? About accepting Russia’s landgrab in the Southeast prior to its full-scale invasion on 24 February?
Cold-eyed strategists would counsel: “Not so fast, Mr. President!” An armistice always favors the faltering side. A pause would allow the Russians to consolidate with fresh troops and materiel. Why then would Putin match Kyiv’s restraint instead of preparing for a counter-offensive during the lull?
Past Russian behavior is not reassuring. After annexing Crimea and occupying the Donbas region in 2014, Moscow pledged to respect a cease-fire in the southeast and to withdraw heavy weapons. It would honor Ukraine’s sovereignty there and engage in a political process. Instead, Moscow kept Russifying the Donbas and then invaded the rest of Ukraine. Reluctant to arm the victims, the West responded with sanctions after 2014. To Putin, the reticence signaled: Go while the going is good.
What should the West want to accomplish above and beyond serving a compelling moral imperative. It is to save an innocent nation from depredation last seen in World War II when Nazi armies systematically slaughtered civilians. Alas, humanitarian duty is an unreliable guide in statecraft. Self-serving interest comes first.
So, let’s look beyond morality and consider the political imperative. At stake is a 77-years old European order that had at last done away with rape and ruin. The rule was: rivalry and balance yes, imperial conquest no. Putin’s Russia, though, is a revisionist power out to overturn a salutary status quo. He wants a certified sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the revival of the old Soviet empire, as he keeps repeating.
The strategy is opportunistic—push your pawns forward where the risks are calculable, as they were in Georgia, Crimea and in the Donbas. Who will be next if Western resolve falters? Assume, the U.S. and its allies leash Zelensky by tightening the flow of arms. The Kremlin would conclude that it is safe to crush Ukraine with high-flying jets, missiles, and long-range artillery. The prize would be gain without pain.
This is the deadly dilemma for the West. Putin must not win, but Zelensky must not win too much. Right now, while Ukraine is advancing and Russia is flailing, negotiations will not soon bring about a lasting settlement. So how to crack the dilemma?
Only the principle is easy to lay out. The West is not doing the Ukrainians a one-sided favor by helping them to drive back Putin. The beleaguered nation also happens to fight for a precious European system unhinged by Russian expansionism. So, Ukraine is returning the favor big-time by defying him. It is also defending the rest of the West.
The point is not to dethrone Putin, which only his own people can do. It is to sober him up and to deter adventurism over the long haul. Crimea is presumably lost. But conceding his other conquests in this third act, would embolden him. On the global level, other ambitious revisionists like China and Iran are watching.