28 Feb 22. Before moving on to provide a personal view and perspective on the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, I would caution against anyone taking any view that Russia has as yet failed in its objective. Struggling it certainly is and having probably seriously underplayed the potential difficulties of the task, particularly in regard of logistics such as fuel, strength of Ukrainian defence and opposition plus other obvious shortcomings, Russia isn’t about to throw in the towel and withdraw. That what was supposed to be a short – maybe week long – task that Putin appeared to hope would bring Ukraine to its knees has failed is however already without doubt. But never underestimate Putin and remember too that tyrants don’t give up easily.
Even so, that Ukraine is standing its ground firmly against Russian military aggression and the attack on its sovereignty. As an aside to that I would have to say that if there is any such award as ‘man of the decade’, then my vote would go by a country mile to the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelensky.
That the Kremlin got its initial strategy badly wrong is now a comm9n view that I share and I would add that by his subsequent behaviour – the placing his nuclear deterrent on alert (a not untypical move in the history of Russian (soviet) leadership psyche) and the dropping of all pre-conditions for talks, the message to the outside world is that he knows it.
Perhaps the most serious damage inflicted on Putin is not the sight of abandoned hardware on Ukrainian roads (again I caution that we must take care not to be taken in by films of what those who are defending Ukraine may wish us to see) but that the Western European alliance such that it is has on this issue been unified as one. Putin could have never imagined that members of Nato, members of the EU, none members of either together with Canada and the USA would stand as one.
Do not be under any illusion either that the vast range of sanctions imposed on Russia will hurt. They will hurt us too and maybe for the next ten years. Is that a price worth paying? It has to be. Will these along with the bruising that, so far if press reports and media are to be believed, Russia has suffered, bring Putin to heel in his desire to create an enlarged Russian Federation? I doubt it.
But they will impact on ordinary Russians, on Russian businesses and the Oligarch’s. Will that impact on forcing change in Russia and maybe bringing Putin down? Possibly but not yet – there is a long way to go before that might happen and neither can we yet rule out the possibility of Russian victory.
The bottom line for me is that what we have seen emerging as a possibility for weeks past in Ukraine and the subsequent illegal invasion by Russia marks the beginnings of what could well be a very long war. That presupposes that Putin survives unchallenged but even if he does not survive and we see a rising of his own people we should perhaps not imagine that Russia might suddenly be about to find itself being run by a dove. So, be prepared for a long drawn out war and one that even if Putin fails in this direct challenge to Ukrainian sovereignty will in my view, even if he survives politically, could potentially turn into a long war of attrition and terrorism just as was the case during the two long wars in Chechnya.
The speed at which Russia has been made into a pariah state, the extent of agreement in regard of the imposition of wide ranging sanctions- closing of air space across Europe and even Canada, suspension of Russia’s route to use most aspects of the SWIFT global payment system on Russian assets and those of its Oligarchs, the stepping up to the plate on all these aspects by Germany and the decision of Berlin to raise spending on defence to 2% of GDP – a massive increase by any standards if it occurs, the courage and leadership displayed by many European leaders, including Boris Johnson, has been truly amazing just as it was, I suspect, unimaginable by the Kremlin.
I have no idea whether the various reported tones that we are told have been heard in and around the Kremlin suggesting that there has and remains considerable internal opposition to Putin’s war are true or not but some part of it at least must be true. Why else, other than perhaps buying time, would Putin drop all conditions for talks to occur – most likely in Turkey or Azerbaijan now that Ukraine’s Foreign minister has ruled out meeting Russian diplomats close to the Belarus border with Ukraine.
Buying time for the Russians would also mean buying time for the Ukrainian president and allow for the western allies to match the promises of material support of weapons supply to occur.
Elliot Cohen who was a counsellor in the US Department of State under Condoleezza Rice suggested yesterday that western commentators and analysts had “become mesmerised by Russian hardware, impressed by Russian doctrine, inclined to pessimism about western democracy” have been caught wanting.
Cohen may well be right and that this may even court renewed confidence in free institutions. Let us hope that might be a possibility but let us not forget that what has transpired over the past week his about the bravery of Ukrainian people and those prepared to die to protect the sovereignty of their nation. Their resistance in the face of Russian attack and their personal determination and resolve with less powerful weapons has been simply remarkable.
But even if they have stood their ground and achieved so much more than many external opinion formers anticipated, the main thrust of this onslaught by Russia is yet to come. As with the Battle for Britain, the key will remain control of the air rather than the land.
Details are sparse but so far in that crucial domain, it appears that even with far greater air power potential, Russia has failed in that objective and with, as far as I know, important air bases such as Vasylkiv and despite reports of heavy fighting at the civilian Zhuliany airport. But Russia has had many successes too hitting crucial infrastructure including major oil, gas and electricity installations and cutting off coastal supply lines from the south.
Just how long the Ukrainian people can hold out cannot be known but with NATO strengthening its resolve to support countries around Ukraine, vital supply routes for equipment and other humanitarian support are assured. I make no predictions as to the potential outcome of such talks – neither will I speculate on what may be about to occur militarily. But I do caution against believing this will now be a short war even if Russia was to announce it was withdrawing tomorrow – something we can at this stage be pretty certain that it isn’t about to do!
The West has in my view been absolutely right in not deploying troops into Ukraine. Just as there was no military retaliation from the West when Hungary was invaded by the former Soviet Union in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Vladimir Putin’s war with Georgia in 2008 or his annexation of the Crimean Peninsula almost eight years ago, there will rightly be none now.
I will not speculate as to the prospect or otherwise of Russia winning its military war against Ukraine but one thing is certain – morally and politically Russia, and by that, I mean Vladimir Putin, will be the ultimate loser.
Western sanctions will quickly hurt and even though Russia could avoid some potential damage by making greater use of its relationship with China, in the great scheme of things, it is the moral and political battle that the Russian leader will lose and that will ultimately hurt the most.
But as I have said many times past, ignore the Russian psyche at your peril. Russia may be our pre-supposed enemy but our failure to understand what makes Russia as it is and its politicians to act on perceived fear makes a bad situation worse.
True, Putin’s popularity rose following the annexing of Crimea but that will not be the same this time. But he cannot hide from the air attacks and rocket fire poured down on innocent Ukrainian people this past week, the destruction, killing, injuring and maiming of innocent people.
His display of power as the tanks marched into Ukraine did not bring cheers from the Russian people – it bought tears and fear.
As to ‘Western’ cries that we stand by Ukraine and its people, such statements cannot be heard enough. This time they are real and they come with the most united bite ever launched on Russia or the former Soviet Union. Above all and with most to lose, the stand taken by the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz is to be greatly admired.
Ukraine is not our war and we can, over and above what the UK has done in driving forward western unity on sanctions and providing material and equipment support to Ukrainian, we can have no military part in it.
But, if Putin does win and if he does survive politically and bring Ukraine to heel alongside his other ally Belarus, the UK and all Nato allies will need to rethink strategy for we are bound to wonder what will his next ambitions be?
What has also become certain as the invasion by Russian forces on Ukraine has unfolded is that modern day America is no longer interested in the wars of other people. Past interventionism be it militarily or politically by the US has generally failed – look no further than Korea, a war that may be classified as never having been won or lost, Vietnam, Iran where the US imposed a democracy that was eventually overturned or Afghanistan for proof of that.
Just as Putin will find to his cost, if you fail to have your own people on-side it is you rather than your would-be enemy that will always be the loser. It may take time but in the 21st century the product of fear will bever endear the people to a dictator such as Vladimir Putin. The Russian people will now hold little respect for Putin just as he has so dramatically shown that he holds only contempt for ordinary people living or fleeing Ukraine, the country that he alone has chosen to attack.
Putin may have rebuilt Russia’s military might to an extent but he has consistently failed to build the trust of his people. He has in my view placed himself on a pedestal from which there is only one way – and that is to fall even if his battle in Ukraine might still be won. Eventually all dictators fall – it is the nature of the game but it also comes at a very high price as democracy is not always the best way forward nor is it necessarily desirable.
Should the West do more? My answer to that is probably no. Leave aside that Ukraine is not a member of Nato nor will it probably ever be. Leave aside that it is not a member of the EU, nor I suspect will it ever be. For the West to go to war with Vladimir Putin’s Russia would play into the hands of Putin as our principle adversary. Nothing better could bring the Russian people on-side with Putin than his being able to claim that he was fighting to save Russia from western aggression. It won’t happen and thus the West is left only to place sanctions on Russia until the West itself begins to feel the economic pain of those itself.
So, another long period of huge indifference between West and East begins – not perhaps a ‘cold war’ as we knew it before but a ‘21st century war of realism’ – one in which perhaps now the ‘West’ will not be perceived by quite so many as being weak because of its failure to agree a united stance on Ukraine and to act so quickly in defiance of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as it has over the past week.
That the West can be accused of complacency since the so-called ‘peace dividend’ arrived is certainly warranted. We have been naïve in our understanding of Putin’s Russia, we have as I have already said, failed to understand Russian ‘psyche’ and why Russia lives in fear of the West and we have allowed ourselves to believe, having been the power behind Russia for twenty years, that Vladimir Putin would not seek to create a new ‘Russian Alliance’ equal in stature to that of the former Soviet Union, is a price we and particularly the people of Ukraine are paying for now.
The world is a sad place and what has occurred this week in Ukraine has been wretched to watch. But apart from wider sanctions and breaking off all forms of business, trade and diplomatic relations and perhaps closure of Russian embassies and removal of all Russian diplomats and staff, there is little else we can do.
In doing so and whether or not Putin succeeds in Ukraine, we must not ignore the danger of Russia attempting to forge even greater relationships with China – a nation that has been unusually quiet on the subject of Ukraine.
A stronger and more unified Russia/China approach is one that we must fear most if Putin is cornered and yet not broken internally. That he is a tyrant is surely undeniable by any decent man or woman and we must never forget that tyrants act in despicable ways when they are cornered. The implications of that to Japan, Australia and New Zealand and to other allies is too awful to contemplate.
CHW (London – 28th February 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785