So the balloon has finally gone up, and Vladimir Putin has launched a large-scale attack on Ukraine. The prolonged lead-up to this invasion has allowed the United States and NATO plenty of time to prepare a long list of sanctions against Moscow, and I fervently hope that the most extreme of them, like kicking Russia out of the SWIFT system, will be imposed.
I and the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford have been running leadership programs for young mid-career Ukrainians for several years now. We have perhaps 150 alumni of these programs back in their home country now, many of whom are leading reformers, journalists, democracy advocates, and anti-corruption campaigners. They are all in physical danger today, and will be targets if a pro-Russian regime ever comes to power. Their personal safety is one of my immediate concerns.
At this point it is, of course, a fool’s errand to try to predict how this war will unfold. Wars never go the way that their planners anticipate, and the current one will be no exception. We need to keep focused, however, on what Putin’s strategic objectives are likely to be, and plan militarily right now to counter them.
Putin’s goal, it seems to me, is to bring about the collapse of the current democratic regime in Kyiv, and to install a puppet government there. Before the actual invasion, there was a lively debate over whether he would go big for Kyiv and the country as a whole, or slice off more of Donbas and the Black Sea coast. Many Ukrainians felt that his real objective was to slowly strangle the Ukrainian economy.
The scale of the initial onslaught suggests that he intends to occupy the whole country, since he has attacked Ukraine from north, south, and east. It seems to me very unlikely, however, that this is his ultimate plan. As many experienced military professionals have observed, even the 190,000 troops that he has amassed are not nearly enough to occupy a country of nearly 40 million, or a city like Kyiv with 2.8 million inhabitants. An occupation would be unbelievably costly in terms of casualties and duration.
The economic strangulation objective, however, seems ever more plausible. It could be that these initial attacks are designed to destroy as much of Ukraine’s military infrastructure as possible, humiliating the government and causing it to fall. The isolation of the country that has become an active war zone will of course do long-lasting economic damage.
I think that we need to pay more attention, however, to the Black Sea coast as a Russian objective. I think it is significant that Russian forces have moved in on Odesa early on. Ukraine is a major exporter of agricultural commodities, and relies on ports like Mariupol, Kherson, and Odesa. They have already been able to squeeze Mariupol because it exits into the Sea of Azov, which Russia effectively controls (ships leaving Azov have to pass through the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia). This leaves Odesa as the big target. If Russia destroys much of the Ukrainian military, occupies Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, and then effectively closes Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, it will put Kyiv in a completely unsustainable position.
NATO and the West therefore need to figure out how to keep a lifeline open to Ukraine through the Black Sea. The Russians have effectively imposed a blockade already, and we need to think about how to break it. In this respect, we should pay close attention to Turkey. Turkey recently signed a bilateral trade agreement with Ukraine, and has been cooperating with Kyiv on things like drone production. Turkey’s control over the Bosporus gives them considerable leverage against Moscow. Much as President Erdogan has been himself part of the global move toward authoritarianism, he clearly sees Russia as a threat and has been trying to bolster Ukraine as a counterweight. Elementary political realism would suggest that the enemy of an enemy is a friend, at least temporarily. There are other political opportunities as well—China buys a lot of Ukrainian grain, and will not be happy to have the Russians cut off that supply.
Any American who has shown sympathy or made excuses for Russia in the previous weeks and months, including those who called Putin a “genius,” or those who voted to acquit former President Donald Trump in his first impeachment, will have a lot to answer for. But that’s the subject of a later discussion.
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