A former NATO Supreme Commander on what Putin is about to do in Ukraine

For months, Ukraine and its Western partners have watched Russia methodically build a force of more than 100,000 troops on their shared border. While he stated that he did not intend to invade, President Vladimir Putin did some goals. He wanted to appear strong and decisive with his domestic base; share United States and NATO about the reaction to a potential strike; impress allies, especially President Xi Jinping of China; prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU, binding them to Russia’s sphere of influence; and leave the Biden administration weak and indecisive in the run-up to the 2021 midterms — especially after the United States failed to support its former ally. Afghanistan.
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For the United States, NATO and the world’s democracies, this is a challenging time. Above all, the Biden Administration wants to show that it can be relied upon to support an allied democracy. Ukraine, although not an official NATO member, is already a staunch NATO partner and has sent troops to NATO missions – and it is keen to join the Alliance. Putin insists that Russia has the capacity to veto any NATO expansion, and also wants to remove the military from former Cold War-era Warsaw Pact members – including many current allies. such as Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and other countries. NATO cannot afford to let him waver like that.

This is an important confrontation and the stakes are high. How should we think about the challenges on the edge of Europe, and above all, what is Putin going to do next?

As Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, I spent a fair amount of time considering Russian military options around the European periphery. I led NATO military operations after Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, which resulted in the conquest of two provinces of that small, Western-aligned democracy. It was a straight-forward assault on the tiny nation of less than four million people — Russian tank, army, bomb, fighter, infantry, and artillery attacks that struck a punch. heavy.

A few years later, Putin decided to invade a much larger neighbor, Ukraine. In that case, he decided to use what has come to be known as “mixed warfare”, a witch’s craft of uniformed soldiers (also known as “green men”. small tree”), high-level special forces, sophisticated cyberattacks against command centers and power grids, social media disinformation, and amphibious operations. These relatively unconventional tactics have been combined with more traditional elements – hence the “hybrid” sobriquet – that went into effect in 2014.

Here, eight years later, we wonder what approach Putin would take if he decided to invade Ukraine in the new year, perhaps as early as late January when the frozen ground could hardly support his armor. and heavy vehicles.

Putin and his generals are tactically creative and have many options ahead of them. They are a bloody army with commanders experienced in many combat situations, most recently in the ongoing civil war in Syria and of course in their skirmishes in Ukraine itself. The war in Ukraine continued both openly (in occupied Crimea) and covertly (supporting a malicious separatist movement in the Ukraine). Donbass Region in the southeastern part of the country, where 15,000 people have been killed in the past decade).

In 2022, the first option they will consider will be simple: a traditional blitzkrieg game, like the one used against Georgia. This will require not only 100,000 existing troops at the border, but also 75,000 more who will “fall into” the pre-prepared equipment that the US has shown the world in the intelligence photos around. Christmas.

This approach would include heavy air strikes against Ukrainian command and control, artillery fire, attacks from naval ships in the Black Sea, and surface-to-surface missiles. All of this will be accompanied by military cyberattacks against Ukraine’s defensive weapons systems, communications capabilities, and possibly against parts of the national power grid.

Helicopters will move the shock troops forward quickly, possibly behind the Ukrainian front lines. They will confuse and destabilize Ukraine’s logistics and higher command bodies. Heavy infantry units would then cross the weakened border, and advance into Ukraine, possibly as far as the Dnieper River. The ethnic Russian regions of southeastern Ukraine (especially Donetsk, Luhansk, and Mariupol) will be united, creating a “land bridge” linking Russia to Crimea, and embracing another important test of the shore. Black Sea Sea.

At that point, Putin will pause, assess the situation, and decide whether to proceed to Kiev to effect regime change before withdrawing his troops again. He will likely continue to actually annex the southeastern part of the country, support the puppet regime in Kiev and wait for a western response. This is the most risky but also the most profitable for the Kremlin, and perhaps 20% probability – unlikely, but uncomfortable to ponder.

Gather in Kiev
Anadolu Agency-Getty’s photoA “Say No to Putin” rally is held in Kiev, Ukraine on January 9, 2021. Ukrainian nationalists are unhappy with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interference in domestic affairs. Ministry of Kazakhstan. Russia has sent about 3,000 troops to Kazakhstan to quell the protests.

The second option for the Kremlin is to try to create a layer of denial using a completely unconventional approach. This would be similar to what he did in 2014 in Ukraine, and would include a massive cyber attack on Ukrainian society, knocking down everything from gas stations and ATMs to the rail and cargo system. Are not. Using secret Russian forces deployed in the Donbass region, he was able to launch attacks across Ukraine – car bombs, mysterious criminal activities, assassination of military leaders and civil. Social media will be the focus, discrediting the current government, documenting fictitious “massacres” against ethnic Russians in areas dominated by Ukraine, and undermining public sentiment. trust of the whole society.

When Western critics criticize his actions, he will call it “fake news” and the Ukrainian version of the “big lie”, saying that Russia’s involvement is key to maintaining the country’s political stability. stability on the common border. This is an exaggerated version of what he is doing, and increasing these tactics will make it difficult for NATO to consider Ukraine a member, one of his main goals. It would also generate public support within Russia for his actions (protecting “Russian patriots” living in Ukraine) without the cost of a full-blown invasion. This seems to be a more likely approach than an all-out invasion and poses less of a risk to Moscow. This is an approximate 40% probability, and it is more likely that Putin will adopt the approach if the mid-January negotiations fail to achieve his goals.

Ultimately, he hopes he can get what he wants through negotiations that will take place this week – US-Russia on January 10, Russia-NATO on January 12 and at the UN Security Council. Security and Cooperation in Europe on January 13. Putin wants guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO; that the NATO countries along the long Russia/NATO border will never be allowed to have substantial NATO military forces; and the sanctions imposed on him during the 2014 invasion, the Skirpal nerve agent attack in the UK and the plot to assassinate his political opponents Alexander Navalny will be removed.

Although the chances of achieving those far-reaching goals on the negotiating table seem low to impossible, he may be willing to settle for something less than everything he is asking for. His bare minimum is perhaps a federalist structure in Ukraine that grants real autonomy to Russian-speaking people in the southeastern part of the country; at least tacit acceptance of the annexation of Crimea; a tacit recognition that Ukraine (and Georgia) will not join NATO; and some sanctions will increase over time.

If the West gives him some of what he’s looking for, Putin may be willing to pause both major aggression and an enhanced hybrid approach, at least for now. He also has his eye on the US elections, both this fall and, more importantly, in 2024. The idea of ​​showing the weakness of part of the Biden team appeals to him and he can hit the ball. price that he should hold off until that part. his strategy can be maximally effective — thus improving the changes he will accept some sort of negotiated outcome in this round. Therefore, this option also accounts for about 40%, which is equivalent to the chance of the hybrid method.

The US and NATO should do all we can using diplomacy to defuse the situation and avoid giving Putin an easy and clear victory. That means ensuring the West in general and NATO in particular in general have a say on the extent and lethality of economic sanctions that will be applied if Putin crosses another sovereign border in the Middle East. temper. We should also use the next month or two to deliver lethal but defensive weapons to Ukraine, which will serve as a further deterrent. Nord Stream 2 demonstrates real leverage at this point and considers some possible sanctions – but not while Russia effectively has a dagger in Ukraine’s throat.

As negotiations progress, the Biden administration is signaling a willingness to offer some strategic flexibility. This may include reducing the capabilities of NATO anti-ballistic missile systems in Poland and Romania; discuss the balance of troops between Russia and the West in the NATO countries on the border with Russia; and reduced military exercises by both sides. But there is a lot of animosity between the parties.

Putin and his generals prefer to maintain the imbalance in the west, which they have done to good effect over the past decade. One thing I learned from researching their approach to war at SACEUR was how much they wanted to preserve optionality. Believing the Russian President threatens a major attack, let’s see what he can get at the table in January that can go into his pocket, but come back to a hybrid approach as the year goes by. via. Unfortunately, this is a long-simmering crisis and will come closer and closer to full-blown outbreaks at various times as the year begins. A former NATO Supreme Commander on what Putin is about to do in Ukraine

Aila Slisco

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