EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — Putin has been sucked into the conquest and occupation of a hostile Ukraine; the very circumstance he has sought to avoid over the past two decades. The West too must avoid ‘mission creep’ in spite of Ukraine’s ordeal. 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 fallen foul of the very mission creep that he carefully observed in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All his actions since the initial phase of the Chechen war of 1999-2000 have pointed to his learning from Western mistakes. Wherever possible he has employed hybrid warfare; such as using proxies and ‘frozen conflicts’ in the Donbass and Georgia, cyber attacks and disinformation, and mercenaries (the Wagner Group) in Africa. Even when he has used conventional forces he has planned for quick and relatively light interventions with clear goals, such as annexing Crimea and saving Syria’s President Assad.
In planning the current Ukraine campaign, he seems to have envisaged a two-stage operation. The massing of troops along the borders of Ukraine might (he may have calculated) have had two effects. Ukrainians could have been sufficiently intimidated to sue for peace or overthrow the Zelensky government. Additionally, the West might have agreed to exclude Ukraine from both the EU and NATO in perpetuity. On the other hand, some of Putin’s demands (such as the roll-back to a pre-1997 NATO) seemed calculated to be rejected.
So, invasion must always have been his preferred outcome. However, he clearly expected a very different sort of invasion to the one which transpired; maybe not a triumphant drive to Kyiv with a cheering population lining the streets (like the Anschluss in 1938) but more reminiscent of the 3-day invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 which was not greeted with flowers but at least was largely uncontested. Thus, he saw no need for heavy bombing or shelling of Kyiv prior to arriving in the city and establishing a puppet government.
In an ideal world the Russian troops would then have withdrawn from Ukraine, or at least from public visibility, as they did after the brief and successful operation to shore up the Tokayev government in Kazakhstan in January. Ukraine would then have become a second Belarus ruled by a compliant government dependent on Russia’s support but at arm’s length from Moscow.
French officials warned this week, the worst is 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 the Ukrainian opposition to the invasion and the speed and unity of the Western reaction must have come as an enormous shock to Putin. And here comes the critical moment of mission creep. He could not bring himself to abandon the invasion but instead doubled-down with the sort of coercive operation which worked for him in Chechnya in 1999, but in very different and far less visible circumstances.
The power and might of the Russian army will surely conquer the much of Ukraine in the next few weeks but it will be brutal and ugly. The Russian army and security services will then be drawn into overseeing an occupation. Even assuming that anti-Lukashenko protests do not restart in Belarus (and anti-Putin demonstrations do not get out of control in Moscow) the subjugation of Ukraine will be a massive task. With a faltering economy at home and with body bags returning to Russia Putin will be at greater risk than at any time during his 22-year reign.
But the situation is replete with danger for the West too. The perils of mission creep will be considerable as popular and human right pressures grow for more active solidarity with the people of Ukraine. If British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s comments can prompt Putin to alert his nuclear forces how much more so would a ‘no-fly zone’. As Putin becomes more and more vulnerable we can expect more nuclear threats and we may also be reminded of his chemical and biological warfare capabilities. Even equipment and ammunition resupply for Ukrainian fighters across the Polish border could be presented by Putin as a casus belli.
A cornered and reviled Putin might also strike out at NATO in the hope of provoking a response. In this context the position of the three Baltic States is particularly exposed; especially Lithuania with its proximity to the Kaliningrad enclave and Estonia with its vulnerable town of Narva.
Read The Facts that Putin Cannot Change by Cipher Brief Expert and former Sr. Member of the British Foreign Office Nick Fishwick only in The Cipher Brief
It is hard not to conclude that this saga could be the end of Putin. But his final years could be protracted and dangerous. Analysts were predicting the fall of Robert Mugabe for nearly two decades and his successor is little better. Those with the power to challenge Putin are no better than him; Igor Sechin of Rosneft or one of the other Siloviki (ex security personnel) or perhaps the current leadership of the FSB which stands to lose financially from the collapsing economy. Even the courageous Alexei Navalny is a long way from being a democratic leader in the Zelensky mould.
Finally, the most alarming aspect of this whole affair is Putin’s psychological isolation. His public humiliation of his Head of Foreign Intelligence (SVR) on television was a chilling moment, showing that his contempt is not just reserved for weak Western leaders but also for his own advisors. His departure from the world stage could be one of the most hazardous periods in world history.
Read With the World Turning Against Him, Putin’s Going to Need a Way Out from Former National Security Advisor to the Canadian Prime Minister, Richard B. Fadden only in The Cipher Brief