Putin’s risky options in Ukraine

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE “It is still more likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use military force in the coming weeks. He is not going to seek sufficient diplomatic concessions from the US and NATO. He can’t keep his massive army mobilized in the middle of winter indefinitely, and he might want to take advantage of the moment the West looks weak and divided after the Afghan debacle. And with Europe’s energy crisis, Putin may calculate that European appetite for tough sanctions against Moscow will dwindle as the implications for gas supplies become clear.

It appears that the main goal of the Russian president is to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence or, failing that, reduce its viability as a threat to Russia.

The version of Putin’s dream would be a variation of the recent events in Kazakhstan. Local unrest in Kyiv may lead to the appeal of “patriotic forces” for help to Russia. In the absence of Tokayev’s figure, the Russians would have had to convince some high-ranking person in Kyiv to submit a request; a trade union leader, an oligarch or even a cabinet minister. This should not go beyond the capabilities of local residents of the GRU and SVR. In his dreams, Putin’s troops would peacefully enter under the brand name of the “peacekeepers” of the CSTO. In fact, he must know that they will have to fight their way in.

Northern variant

Thanks to “joint exercises” with Belarus, Russia now has forces just 240 miles north of Kyiv. This provides an opportunity for a quick rush to the Ukrainian capital to overthrow the Zelensky government and install a pro-Kremlin candidate. Such an operation would be reminiscent of the successful invasion of Afghanistan at Christmas 1979, when Soviet troops took Kabul in 3 days and installed Babrak Kamal as president. The operation involved 25 thousand military personnel and 280 transport aircraft, and it went like clockwork.

Such a breakthrough to Kyiv is quite possible. Most of Ukraine’s hardened troops are stationed in the east of the country. The Russians soon established complete air supremacy. However, Kyiv is not Kabul. This is a large modern city, and Ukrainians could well fight for it street by street. The Zelenskiy government is less popular than it once was, but it is unlikely to collapse. Even if a puppet regime can be established, what then?

Russia could pacify much of the territory east of the Dnieper, but in Kyiv itself and to the west there is a high likelihood of popular resistance. Ukraine could be split in two, and any short-term Russian success could turn into a long-term nightmare.

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Less opportunities for Putin

Along Ukraine’s eastern border, there are numerous smaller scale options. Russia could easily have invaded to retake additional tracts of territory. One option could be the industrial city of Kharkiv. The problem is that gains will be too small for all the political risk Putin has taken in recent weeks. This will not fundamentally change Ukraine’s economic or political viability as a country and may actually increase its resolve to join the European Union and NATO.

However, the capture of Odessa could change the rules of the game. It is the third largest city in Ukraine with a population of over a million and is home to a vital seaport. The port handles the vast majority of Ukraine’s maritime cargo and serves as the headquarters for the Ukrainian Navy. Most of its population is Russian-speaking. However, this will be a complex ground operation using forces concentrated in Rostov-on-Don and in the Crimea, as well as using aviation, naval and landing forces.

From Rostov-on-Don to Odessa 500 km. It could take several days of fighting and come with some risk, but once Russia establishes air superiority, it can be dealt with. Just a hundred miles from Odessa, Russia will have an overland route to Moldova, which Putin also considers part of his sphere of influence.

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The loss of ports on the Azov and Black Seas would be a devastating blow to Ukraine and would seriously affect the viability of a country that is already in a difficult economic situation. This would give Russia an additional land route to Crimea, far more substantial than the Kerch Strait Bridge, which was completed in 2019, five years after Crimea was annexed. But the long stretch of occupied territory from Rostov to Moldova will not be easy to defend against future Ukrainian counterattacks.

Putin’s politically risky options

Finally, Putin has two options that are politically much more risky because they would directly challenge NATO territory and, in the first case, could result in the death of NATO troops. One of them would be the capture of the Suwalki corridor between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. This would mean annexing a small piece of Poland or Lithuania. Another option is to carve out a city from one of the three Baltic countries. An obvious contender would be Narva in Estonia, which has a Russian-speaking majority. From a Western point of view, this would be an unnecessary provocation, but Putin can be brought in for this very reason. It will also test whether the West is really ready to fight for a small piece of territory belonging to one of its members. And Putin will not want to withdraw his troops without some tangible benefit.

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