Friday, April 15, 2022
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As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine enters its eighth week and the Russian onslaught appears to be stalling, analysts are wondering what’s next. Like many other observers, I thought Putin’s objective was a coup de main, a quick takeover of kyiv and the installation of a puppet government. This is the model the Soviets followed in Afghanistan in 1978.
But for a number of reasons related to Russian military shortcomings, including poor Russian military morale, command and control failures, and serious logistical problems, that effort failed. So what options does he have now?
Russia has publicly reduced its military targets in Ukraine. On March 25, Russian General Staff Chief of Military Operations Sergei Rudskoi said: “Our forces and equipment will focus on the most important thing, the complete liberation of Donbass.” He went on to say that this had always been the purpose of war. But even achieving this goal is fraught with problems. On the one hand, according to the current assessment of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the reconstitution of combat power within the units redeployed in the Donbass region is problematic, given the heavy losses in the combat and the poor morale of the Russian troops.
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One possibility is that Putin is happy with his territorial gains so far and offers a ceasefire in place. Such an agreement would likely resemble the Minsk Accords of 2014-2015, under which Russia would presumably insist on its control of Donbass and Lugansk with a promise that Ukraine would not join NATO.
Some observers believe that Russia has an incentive to accept this result since the continuation of the war will seriously damage the Russian economy. On the other hand, Ukraine may believe that, despite the costs of war, it is not in its interest to agree to such terms. Indeed, many observers believe that such an agreement would be a trap for Ukraine.
But it seems very likely that Putin will redouble his efforts against Ukraine. This likelihood is suggested by his appointment of a new overall military commander in Ukraine.
While this appointment signals an attempt to establish unity of command, the absence of which has undermined the Russian effort so far, it also suggests a more sinister goal: in the words of David Goldman of the Asia Times, “ruining and depopulating the Ukraine, the way Richelieu reduced large parts of Germany to cannibalism during the Thirty Years’ War. READ MORE
The new commander, General Aleksandr Dvornikov, is known for his brutal tactics during Russia’s 2015 campaign in Syria, particularly the reduction of Aleppo. But Dvornikov is only the latest follower of the Russian mode of warfare. Just look at the destruction of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya in 1994-95 for an example. The situation then was similar to that of Ukraine today: the Russians were blocked in their assault, suffering many casualties. They responded with a massive bombardment of the city, reducing it to rubble. If the Russians resorted to long-range bombing of Ukrainian cities, the anti-tank weapons that NATO supplies to Ukraine would make little difference.
One thing we can say with certainty about Russia’s execution of the war in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Ukraine is that the Russian military does not seem at all concerned about the limits to the conduct of war with which the United States seeks to conform: the laws of land warfare stemming from the Just War tradition, including discrimination – distinguishing combatants from non-combatants – and proportionality – applying only the level of force consistent with military necessity. Americans take this seriously when American soldiers are accused of war crimes and atrocities. For Russia, inflicting civilian casualties seems like a feature, not a bug.
Putin also alluded to the use of nuclear weapons, both against Ukraine and NATO. Although such a move is possible, it seems unlikely. First of all, the use of nuclear weapons would constitute a veritable “red line” that the United States and NATO could not ignore. Second, there are conventional weapons capable of generating explosions and overpressures similar to those of a small nuclear weapon, minus the radiation: thermobaric weapons and munitions such as the Massive Ordnance Air-burst Bomb (MOAB). The latter contains approximately 18,000 pounds of a gelled suspension of powdered ammonium nitrate/aluminum detonated by an explosive booster. It was used against an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan in 2017. Presumably if the United States has such weapons, Russia also has them.
We do not yet know the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian war. However, history teaches some general lessons about war. First, those like Putin who have “thrown the iron dice” are emboldened by the appearance of weakness or confusion, a staple of US and NATO actions of late. Second, a corollary to the first, bluffing is dangerous. Establishing “red lines” but not enforcing them is a recipe for disaster. The main danger now is miscalculation. Getting out of the current cul-de-sac will require a lot of diplomatic skill.
Mackubin Owens is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was previously editor of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs (2008-2020). From 2015 to March 2018 he was Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. From 1987 to 2014 he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
He is also a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, where as an infantry platoon and company commander in 1968-69 he was twice wounded and awarded the Silver Star Medal. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a colonel in 1994.
Owens is the author of the FPRI monograph Abraham Lincoln: Leadership and Democratic Statesmanship in Wartime (2009) and US Civil-Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain (Continuum Press, January 2011) and co-author of US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Rise of an Incidental Superpower (Georgetown University Press, Spring 2015). He is also completing a book on the theory and practice of American civil-military relations for Lynne-Rienner. He was co-editor of the textbook Strategy and Force Planning, for which he also wrote several chapters, including “The Political Economy of National Security”, “Thinking About Strategy” and “The Logic of Strategy and Force Planning”.
Owens’ articles on national security issues and US politics have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, International Security, Orbis, Joint Force Quarterly, The Public Interest, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Examiner, Defense Analysis, US Naval Institute Proceedings, Marine Corps Gazette, Comparative Strategy, National Review, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor; The Los Angeles Times, The Jerusalem Post, The Washington Times and The New York Post. And, he once wrote for the Providence Journal.
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