EXPERT PERSPECTIVE – Putin is drawn into the conquest and occupation of a hostile Ukraine; the very circumstance that he had sought to avoid for the past two decades. The West, too, must avoid “mission sprawl” despite the trials that have befallen Ukraine. Putin’s fate may be sealed, but his departure could be one of the most dangerous periods in world history.
One of the many ironies of President Putin’s current campaign in Ukraine is that he has found himself at odds with the very mission he closely oversaw during the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All his actions since the initial stage of the Chechen war of 1999-2000 indicated that he was learning from the mistakes of the West. Wherever possible, he used hybrid warfare; such as the use of proxies and “frozen conflicts” in the Donbass and Georgia, cyber attacks and disinformation, mercenaries (Wagner Group) in Africa. Even when he used conventional forces, he planned quick and relatively light interventions with clear goals, such as the annexation of Crimea and the rescue of Syrian President Assad.
In planning the current Ukrainian campaign, he seems to have envisaged a two-stage operation. The concentration of troops along the borders of Ukraine could (perhaps he counted) have two consequences. Ukrainians could be intimidated enough to sue for peace or topple the Zelenskiy government. In addition, the West could agree to permanently exclude Ukraine from both the EU and NATO. On the other hand, some of Putin’s demands (for example, a rollback to NATO before 1997) seemed calculated for failure.
Thus, invasion must always have been his preferred outcome. However, he clearly expected a very different kind of invasion than that which occurred; perhaps not the triumphant invasion of Kyiv with cheering populations lining the streets (like the Anschluss in 1938), but more like the three-day invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which was not greeted with flowers, but at least almost unopposed. Thus, he did not see the need for heavy bombing or shelling of Kyiv before arriving in the city and establishing a puppet government.
In an ideal world, Russian troops would have to withdraw from Ukraine, or at least hide from the public, as they did after a brief and successful operation to support the Tokayev government in Kazakhstan in January. Then Ukraine would become a second Belarus, ruled by an obedient government dependent on Russian support, but at arm’s length from Moscow.
This week, French officials warned that the worst was yet to come in Ukraine after a phone call between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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The strength of Ukrainian opposition to the invasion, and the speed and unity of the Western response, must have come as a huge shock to Putin. And here comes the critical moment of the spread of the mission. He could not bring himself to abandon the invasion, and instead redoubled his efforts with a sort of coercive operation that worked for him in Chechnya in 1999but under very different and much less conspicuous circumstances.
The strength and power of the Russian army will undoubtedly take over most of Ukraine in the next few weeks, but it will be cruel and ugly. Then the Russian army and special services will be involved in the control of the occupation. Even assuming that anti-Lukashenko protests in Belarus do not resume (and anti-Putin demonstrations do not spin out of control in Moscow), subduing Ukraine would be a massive task. With a faltering economy at home and the return of body bags to Russia, Putin will be at greater risk than at any time during his 22-year rule.
But the situation is full of dangers for the West as well. The dangers of mission creep will be significant as the people and human rights mount pressure for greater solidarity with the people of Ukraine. If the comments of British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss can spur Putin to put his nuclear forces on alert, all the more “no-fly zone”. As Putin becomes more and more vulnerable, we may expect new nuclear threats and we may also be reminded of his chemical and biological warfare capabilities. Even replenishing equipment and ammunition for Ukrainian fighters across the Polish border, Putin could imagine as casus belli.
A cornered and scolded Putin could also strike at NATO in the hope of provoking a backlash. In this context, the position of the three Baltic states is especially vulnerable; especially Lithuania, with its proximity to the Kaliningrad enclave, and Estonia, with its vulnerable city of Narva.
Read “The Facts Putin Can’t Change” from Cipher Brief expert and former senior member of the British Foreign Office Nick Fishwick only in The Cipher Brief
It’s hard not to conclude that this saga could be the end of Putin. But his last years could be long and dangerous. Analysts have predicted the fall of Robert Mugabe for almost two decades. his successor a little better. Those who can challenge Putin are no better than him; Igor Sechin from Rosneft or one of the “siloviki” (a former security officer) or perhaps the current leadership of the FSB, which may suffer financial losses from the collapse of the economy. Even the bold Alexei Navalny is far from being a democratic leader along the lines of Zelensky.
Finally, the most disturbing aspect of the whole story is Putin’s psychological isolation. The public humiliation of his head of foreign intelligence (SVR) on television was a chilling moment, showing that his contempt applies not only to weak Western leaders, but also to his own advisers. His departure from the world stage could be one of the most dangerous periods in world history.
Read “While the world is against him, Putin needs a way out” from Former National Security Adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Richard B. Fadden only in The Cipher Brief