Commentary: The Choice of War or Peace Between Russia and Ukraine Rests on the Ability of Parties to View Each Other Differently

A unit of “buttoned up” Russian Federation Army BMP-3s rolls forward  while multiple launch rocket systems, obscured by smoke, fire in the background during Zapad-2021 Exercise (above).According to what is being reported publicly, positions on both sides during the Ukraine crisis are becoming more rigid. The convictions of both are most profound. Each day, the parties move closer to catastrophe. Still, the “game-clock” is not ticking in the red yet, and it is too early for parties to have run out of ideas. In support of the diplomatic process on Ukraine, and help ignite new ideas for successfully resolving the crisis, the intent here is to throw up at least some of the shutters to shed light on what may lie ahead, and to allow interested policymakers, decisionmakers, and analysts to extrapolate ways to encourage new thinking on available solutions from those scenarios during talks. Information that comes in on Putin and his actions, in particular, is seemingly judged via something akin to stare decisis. Whatever Putin has done before, and however the US and its allies have responded, is set as precedent for current conclusions and actions. The turn of events in recent times appear to have been missed. Old approaches may not be viable for new problems as they differ in far more than nuance with those of the past.

When considering the Ukraine crisis, those in Western governments and regional organizations with an interest in understanding the actual state of the matter cannot help but meditate on Putin’s current fixation on NATO. The general impression is that nothing was done by the US, United Kingdom, the EU countries, Ukraine, or NATO to threaten or provoke the Russian leader. NATO has indeed expanded eastward as Putin has decried. Yet, no one in the West would agree that its expansion could reasonably be perceived as threatening. As admirably explained, in brief, on January 26, 2022 by the BBC, only 6% of Russia’s borders touch NATO countries. Russia has good relations with some NATO members, like Italy and Hungary. Russia has even sold weapons systems to NATO member Turkey. Additionally, the presence of NATO on Russia’s border is nothing new. NATO, described as being in the shape of Norway, has been on Russia’s border for more than 70 years. Further, there is no sign that Ukraine, Georgia or other former Soviet republics will be joining NATO any time soon. Beyond the usual, go-to conclusion that Putin’s actions are meant for domestic consumption, hoping to unite the Russian people against a foreign foe, it has been suggested Putin may have made his move now because enough elements, that he has judged as favorable, have aligned to make it the right time to reshape the European security order in a way to benefit Moscow. Purportedly,  Putin hopes to re-establish Russia’s sphere of influence in a way resembling that of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Another popular view is that he is trying to rewrite the results of the Cold War.

Semper in fide quid senseris, non quid dixeris, cogitandum. (In an honorable dealings you should consider what you intended, not what you said or thought.) Rather than attempting to rewrite history, Putin would say that he is interested in getting Western governments to adhere to agreements he insists were reached in the period immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Over a decade ago, it was rather popular in foreign policy circles in the US to label Putin as a revanchist, hoping to regain territory in the former Eastern Bloc lost to the US and NATO. Putin, unconcerned with Western labels for him, has stood fast, not retreating one jot from his beliefs on the matter. According to Putin, the agreements he refers to included guarantees that NATO would not expand toward the borders of the then new Russian Federation. The US, United Kingdom, EU countries, and NATO stand fast, too, remaining confident in current circumstances. According to what is being reported publicly, positions on both sides during the Ukraine crisis are becoming more rigid. The convictions of both are most profound. Each day, the parties move closer to catastrophe. The chance of creating harmony and balance feels more distant. A scenario in which Ukraine would be divided East and West much as post-war Germany, following some furious Russian military action is becoming an all too real prospect. That is a hard saying. If that happened, Ukraine would surely reunite once again in the future, but after countless people, two or three generations of Ukrainians will have been torn to pieces and destroyed, an immense amount of human energy will have been tragically squandered in the business of killing, and the enormous potential of so many of its young people will have been lost forever. In the future, it will all be much harder to understand and to reconcile. 

Still, the “game-clock” is not ticking in the red yet, and it is too early for parties to have run out of ideas. In support of the diplomatic process on Ukraine, and help ignite new ideas for successfully resolving the crisis, the intent here is to throw up at least some of the shutters to shed light on what may lie ahead, and to allow interested policymakers, decisionmakers, and analysts to extrapolate ways to encourage new thinking on available solutions from those scenarios during talks. Information that comes in on Putin and his actions, in particular, is seemingly judged via something akin to stare decisis. Whatever Putin has done before and however the US and its allies have responded is set as precedent for current conclusions and actions. The turn of events in recent times appear to have been missed. Old ways of doing things may not be viable for new problems as they differ in far more than nuance with those of the past. Perhaps after thoroughly reflecting on the aggregate information and perspectives old and new, as a collective in the West and in Russia, top officials could become more flexible, discover ways to see things within their values and interests, and advance talks with those new ideas. Consilia res magis dant hominibus quam homines rebus. (Men’s [People’s] plans should be regulated by the circumstances, not circumstances by the plans.)

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above) speaking at a press conference following talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban on February 1, 2022. The higher that one makes the risk out of proportion to the gain, there is less chance a proposition will be ignored. Such appears to be the approach Putin has taken with regard to halting NATO expansion and NATO Membership, and pushing it back with regard to Ukraine and Georgia. With regard to his military build up across from Ukraine in Russia, and Belarus, he most likely believes it will encourage the world to take him seriously. A Russian invasion would surely be adverse to the geostrategic interests, wants and wishes of the US and its Western allies. Perchance Putin believes his plan is working but very slowly. In the West, it would perhaps be said that he is well-off the mark.

Putin’s Threat of Military Action

The higher that one makes the risk out of proportion to the gain, there is less chance a proposition will be ignored. Such appears to be the approach Putin has taken with regard to halting NATO expansion and NATO Membership, and pushing it back with regard to Ukraine and Georgia. With regard to his military build up across from Ukraine in Russia, and Belarus, he most likely believes it will encourage the world to take him seriously. A Russian invasion would surely be adverse to the geostrategic interests, wants and wishes of the US and its Western allies. (The tricky bit for Putin is that if he decided to actually invade Ukraine, in order to look credible or just sane, he would need to declare some plausible cause or have the ability to create a pretext, some artifice, to green-light Russia’s invasion. Intervention on behalf of ethnic-Russia was used previously.) Perchance Putin believes his plan is working but very slowly. 

He has seemingly taken the tack of a spider, attempting to draw Western policymakers and decisionmakers into his web. Perchance Putin believes it is working but very slowly. Four years back in a February 28, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response”–in which greatcharlie was terribly prolix, it was explained that Putin manifests ambush predation in his approach to victims–for lack of a more adequate description of those acts against. In animals and humans, ambush predation is characterized by an animal scanning the environment from a concealed position and then rapidly executing a surprise attack. Animal ambush predators usually remain motionless,  sometimes concealed, and wait for prey to come within ambush distance before pouncing. Ambush predators are often camouflaged, and may be solitary animals. This mode of predation may be less risky for the predator because lying-in-wait reduces exposure to its own predators. If the prey can move faster than the predator, it has a bit of an advantage over the ambush predator; however, if the active predator’s velocity increases, its advantage increases sharply.

Surely, Putin would enjoy aggravating any gap between what the US and its allies are doing on Ukraine and what the Ukrainians would prefer for them to be doing. Putin likely feels that moving against Ukraine would be as difficult as the “Western information blitz” would lead the Ukrainians and the world to believe. He would enjoy demonstrating to Europe and the world that in 2022, US promises to provide support for allies and partners is nothing to signify. What would lead Putin to believe he would have a chance to roll into Ukraine with relative ease would be his assessment of how inauthentic US assistance for Ukraine’s defense has actually been. To that extent, Putin might project his sense of how Russia was betrayed by the US and EU countries recommended mesmerising ideas for reforms from experts to the government of his predecessor, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin, that unmistakably negatively impacted Russia’s economy. Putin would explain that the solutions those Western experts enthusiastically prescribed and euphemistically called the “shock treatment” were experiments. Russia was their guinea pig.

 A unit of Russian Federation T-90M tanks with their long barreled 125-mm main cannon (above). As was discussed in the January 25, 2022 greatcharlie post entitled, “Resolving the Ukraine Crisis: How Better Understanding Putin and the Subtle and Profound Undercurrent Influencing His Thinking on the West Might Help,” the US Intelligence Community had initially concluded that the Kremlin could be planning a multifront offensive involving up to 175,000 troops. Yet, there have not been large additions to the estimated 100,000 Russian troops already deployed near the Russia-Ukraine border. Satellite imagery has revealed a buildup of Russian tanks and artillery as well as other gear near the border. However, they are mostly kept in depots in echelon. Imaginably, the deployment of Russian forces is being executed in a cost effective manner. Nevertheless, the expense for all the petroleum and oil lubricants being used by the armor and mechanized heavy force must be enormous. If Putin wanted to completely terrorize his Ukrainian neighbors, he would be positioning a force of overwhelming superiority with additional forces.

Commitment of the US and Its Allies to Ukraine’s Defense

In The Histories (439 BC), thought by many scholars to be the founding work of history in Western literature, the renowned Hellenic author, Herotodus (484 BC-c. 420 BC), wrote: “No one is so senseless as to choose of his own will war rather than peace, since in peace the sons bury their fathers, but in war the fathers bury their sons.” Truth be told, it seems that even outside of Moscow–especially in Kyiv lately–many believe that the sense of imminent threat of invasion felt in Western capitals and NATO is incommensurate with the rather deliberate speed in which Putin has deployed Russian troops into their present positions. 

As was discussed in the January 25, 2022 greatcharlie post entitled, “Resolving the Ukraine Crisis: How Better Understanding Putin and the Subtle and Profound Undercurrent Influencing His Thinking on the West Might Help,” the US Intelligence Community had initially concluded that the Kremlin could be planning a multifront offensive involving up to 175,000 troops. Yet, there have not been large additions to the estimated 100,000 Russian troops already deployed near the Russia-Ukraine border. Satellite imagery has revealed a buildup of Russian tanks and artillery as well as other gear near the border. However, they are mostly kept in depots in echelon. Imaginably, the deployment of Russian forces is being executed in a cost effective manner. Nevertheless, the expense for all the petroleum and oil lubricants being used by the armor and mechanized heavy force must be enormous. If Putin wanted to completely terrorize his Ukrainian neighbors, he would be positioning a force of overwhelming superiority with additional forces in the mix, likely to include elements of Morskaya Pekhota Rossii (Russian Naval Infantry) or MPR, which has a force of around 12,000 personnel, including 800 frogmen, and Generalnogo Shtaba Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) or Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (Main Intelligence Directorate) or GRU, which maintains a force of about 12,000–15,000 Spetznaz, special operations forces, primarily of contract soldiers. Added to that might be some of the well-trained paramilitary units of other bureaucracies such as the Ministerstvo Rossiyskoy Federatsii po delam grazhdanskoy oborony, chrezvychaynym situatsiyam i likvidatsii posledstviy stikhiynykh bedstviy (Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defence, Emergency Situations and Liquidation of Consequences of Natural Disasters) or EMERCOM, with its 71,000 employees, including paramilitary units, on the alert for emergencies. Of course, the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) or FSB, would likely be involved with post-invasion population control in captured areas. Urban contingencies are the strong suit of its troops. FSB is generally understood to employ about 66,200 uniformed staff, including about 4,000 Spetsnaz troops. It also employs Border Service personnel of about 160,000–200,000 border guards. Putin would organize a force that left no doubt that its purpose was to conquer and hold ground.

French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying: “War must be made as intense and awful as possible in order to make it short, and thus to diminish its horrors.” As the military situation is typically evaluated from the lens of Kyiv and Russian forces are compared with Ukrainian military capabilities, left out of the mix is the influence the Russian Air Force will have on the battlefield. It would be devastating. If the Ukrainians decide to rely on fixed defenses, they seem to be preparing defensive lines near their border, the worse the impact of airpower will be. The Russians will be able to attack in depth repeatedly with airpower. Various warplanes would become force multipliers. Additionally from the air, Ukrainians could expect missions to hold territory in-depth in Ukraine by Vozdushno Desantnye Voyska (Russian Airborne Forces) or VDV.

Ukrainian civilians being trained to use small weapons in preparation for war (above). Ukrainian civilians continue to make very brave declarations that in the event of Russian invasion, they will rush to the defense of their towns and cities, create an insurgency, and engage in guerilla warfare. Again, the higher that one makes the risk out of proportion to the gain, there is less chance a proposition will be ignored. There is surely a political warfare aspect to all that talk. Deterrence is not limited to bean counting military strength and capabilities and matching them up for both sides. The Ukrainians are making it clear that the war will be far more costly in terms of casualties and strain on resources than might be worth the risk. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying: “An army’s effectiveness depends on its size, training, experience, and morale, and morale is worth more than any of the other factors combined.” Perhaps it would be hoped that talk of an insurgency would conjure up thoughts and memories of the dreadful experience of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, in which Ukrainian veterans, then Soviet soldiers, shared with their then Russian comrades, and the meat-grinder that was Chechnya in which Russian soldiers endured alone.

Ukrainian civilians continue to make very brave declarations that in the event of Russian invasion, they will rush to the defense of their towns and cities, create an insurgency, and engage in guerilla warfare. Again, the higher that one makes the risk out of proportion to the gain, there is less chance a proposition will be ignored. There is surely a political warfare aspect to all that talk. Deterrence is not limited to bean counting military strength and capabilities and matching them up for both sides. The Ukrainians are making it clear that the war will be far more costly in terms of casualties and strain on resources than might be worth the risk. “Le Petit Caporal“, Napoleon, has also been quoted as saying: “An army’s effectiveness depends on its size, training, experience, and morale, and morale is worth more than any of the other factors combined.” Perhaps it would be hoped that talk of an insurgency would conjure up thoughts and memories of the dreadful experience of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, in which Ukrainian veterans, then Soviet soldiers, shared with their then Russian comrades, and the meat-grinder that was Chechnya in which Russian soldiers endured alone.

Certainly, Russian Federation Army commanders are more convinced by what they see than what they hear in the international newsmedia. Kyiv must also recall that while Putin was Russian Federation President, the civil war in Chechnya was fought to its conclusion. Lessons learned from that experience, and some appear to have been applied here and there in Syria. One obvious tack applied was using more airpower, less ground troops. Urban areas were practically obliterated by high altitude bombing. No pilots were flying on the deck with the Russian government’s property to eyeball targets and check for civilians in the vicinity. Russian ground troops were not invested so much in urban battles. There were no close quarters battles fought by large Russian units. As long as bold declarations to create an insurgency against Russian troops continue, the less chance care will be given to avoiding civilians during a Russian invasion.

Justum bellum quibus necessarium, et pia arma quibus nulla nisi in armis relinquitur spes. (War is just to those for whom it is necessary, and to take up arms is a sacred duty with those who have no other hope left.) In the aftermath of an invasion, Ukrainians civilians, thereby any insurgents mixed among them, might be hemmed into zones by Russian forces. In a horrific twist, the more difficult zones would be better defined as killing zones, in which “cooperative Ukrainians would be separated from more difficult ones. Insurgents in those zones would be required to punch above their weight, likely against the FSB as well as the VDV and other well-suited Russian Federation Army units. They would perhaps need to do that long past the point when reasonably the towel might be thrown. Russian forces could be best informed of how to effectively use such a method by its allies in Beijing. Paramilitary police units of the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Public Security have developed an expertise in this sort of thing. To that extent, an arrangement might be made with Beijing to provide “a sufficient number of advisers” to assist in the prospective zones. (Putin would likely love to have the Chinese involved in some fashion. He would prefer to share claim to such villainy with China.) It all may seem fanciful, too imaginative, but one must consider the absolute madness of the current circumstance itself, and judge this possibility in that context.

Troops of the VDV on the move, mounted on a BTR-82A. Those mounted in the foreground are providing overwatch to the left (above). On the face of it, in the aftermath of an invasion, Ukrainians civilians, thereby any insurgents mixed among them, might be hemmed into zones by Russian forces. In a horrific twist, the more difficult zones would be better defined as killing zones, in which “cooperative Ukrainians would be separated from more difficult ones. Insurgents in those zones would be required to punch above their weight, likely against the FSB as well as the VDV and other Russian Federation Army units. Russian forces could be best informed of how to effectively use such a method by its allies in Beijing who have developed an expertise in this sort of thing. To that extent, an arrangement might be made with Beijing to provide “a sufficient number of advisers” to assist in the prospective zones. It all may seem fanciful, too imaginative, but one must consider the absolute madness of the current circumstance itself, and judge this possibility in that context.

Despite what is being patriotically exclaimed before any unwanted hostilities begin, Ukrainians might consider that political will might not exist in Western capitals after a Russian invasion to arm an insurgency against the Russian Federation Army which would be fought just across its own border in 2022. They only need to look at how Crimea has turned out. For greatcharlie, that is a hard saying. Further, Putin may have a plan for such the contingency of an insurgency supported by Western countries. Putin may choose to up the ante by repositioning several intermediate range missiles westward placing NATO Members at immediate risk of nuclear attack. Reasonable national leaders might believe Putin was being pushed over the edge and insist, out of concern for the well-being of their own countries’ security, that assistance to the insurgency be halted. 

Memores acti prudentes futuri. (Mindful of what has been done, aware of what will be.) Putin likely found the “come hell or high water” decision to withdraw from Afghanistan despite conditions on the ground most instructive. The manner in which the US scrambled out of the country higgledy-piggledy was unexpected. When the decision was made to evacuate, policymakers and decisionmakers seemed to give insufficient care as to the lasting impression it would leave on thinking about the current administration in most national capitals, to include Moscow. He could have made the assumption that the US would behave in the same way if Russian forces, in some robust, noisy fashion, charged into Ukraine. In a high stakes game of chicken, until the last moment, one can hope the other guy will flinch.

Ukrainian Military Capabilities 

Truth be told, waiting for Russian forces to get deep enough into Ukraine to face ground units with javelin and stingers would be very polite, but self-defeating. It should be acknowledged that once those systems are fired, Russian commanders would know the positions of those units with the weapons, deduce their comrades similarly armed and their resupply were both nearby. (If they did not already have that information as a product of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, in a process of elimination in the truest sense of the term,, Russian commanders would sufficiently pummel those positions with firepower making the survival of those troops and their equipment unlikely. They would be far more amenable to expending large stockpiles of artillery rounds and rockets than to losing soldiers.

In brief, to really assist Ukraine, to give it a chance to break up and knock back any aggressive move by Russian forces, an abundance, hundreds, of deep strike assets could be provided to Ukraine in order to allow its ground forces to rapidly put direct and indirect fires on Russian armor and mechanized forces inside Russia at their lines of departure, assembly areas, and follow-on units in marshaling yards, and even transport hubs as soon as Russian forces cross the border. They could target equipment and facilities. Artillery units would need to act before superior Russian air assets and rockets and artillery can direct fire on available firing positions. Ukraine would need to operate a sufficient number of artillery pieces and rocket launchers so that enough batteries could potentially survive a blazing opening Russian bombardment. As was true when Russia engaged its troops in the fighting in Syria, the world will doubtlessly see some new, powerful weapons employed for the first time.

Acquiring massive amounts of heavy artillery and rockets and attempting to absorb the system in formations as quickly as possible at this stage would be a challenge. However, Ukrainian forces could rapidly establish highly mobile hybrid task forces of artillery, engineer, transportation, and special forces units which could operate the new weapons. Trained to mass fires on targets, remain highly-mobile, and to survive against an adversary with considerable counter-battery capabilities, the hybrid units could be placed under a new command dedicated to striking at Russian forces in depth to attrit their numbers and in doing so have a decisive impact in the battlefield. Command and control could be managed through rudimentary communications (e.g., Morse code and mirrors, even a relay system, could be used to synchronize attacks on preset coordinates along the likely line of advance, lines of communication, etcetera.). If there is no intention to try to act decisively on day one, it might be better to just let Russian forces move in, with albeit kamikaze-like attacks upon their armored and mechanized formations by small units to delay, disrupt and divert them, and pray for decisive outcome through a long and hard-fought insurgency. 

To ensure Ukrainian firepower has a chance to be decisive would require that Ukrainian forces receive real-time intelligence from the US, and the assistance of military advisers, intelligence officers, or other contracted technical advisers to ensure that information is exploited to the fullest. Antiaircraft assets must be provided in order to possibly extend survival of artillery units in the field. Ukraine could be provided with financial assistance to purchase weapons systems, and hire contracting firms to provide technical assistance. If by chance, Ukrainian forces achieve endsieg, emerging victorious despite all odds, using a defensive plan that relies on javelins and stingers against the Russian Federation Army, it would surely be an act of God’s mercy. (Perhaps as an alternative, Western governments might support the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s purchase of heavy artillery, long-range rockets, and anti-aircraft systems and assist in the delivery of those weapons and attendant gear to the prospective, hybrid Ukrainian military units conceptualized here. Those hybrid units, themselves, could be organized by Western military contractors, hired by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. Those contractors would provide training, as well as the physical resources required to train, on the use of the weapons purchased either in Ukraine or a friendly country. The highly-mobile, heavy artillery, long-range rockets, and anti-aircraft systems that they would potentially use, could be prepositioned in sufficient quantities in arsenals in a friendly country, perhaps nearby Ukraine. They would be maintained by Western military contractors. At the time that a Russian invasion might be determined to be truly imminent–Western intelligence services would be able to accurately detect that–the contractors would transport those weapons in the moonlight into Ukraine and issue them directly to the highly-mobile, hybrid Ukrainian units ready to move out smartly with them and execute their mission. This mildly creative tack, however, would most likely be considered too provocative, too destabilizing, and not politically feasible in Washington.)

“Sitzkrieg!” Ukrainian Army small unit enjoys living a bit longer while “waiting for war” atop a BTR-4 “Bucephalus” (above). Truth be told, waiting for Russian forces to get deep enough into Ukraine to face ground units with javelin and stingers would be very polite, but self-defeating. It should be acknowledged that once those systems are fired, Russian commanders would know the positions of those units with the weapons, deduce their comrades similarly armed and their resupply were both nearby. If they did not already have that information as a product of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, in a process of elimination in the truest sense of the term, Russian commanders would sufficiently pummel those positions with firepower making the survival of those troops and their equipment unlikely. They would be far more amenable to expending large stockpiles of artillery rounds and rockets than to losing soldiers.

In terms of the influence of politics on the conduct of the prospective war, it would be a monumental mistake for Ukrainian political leaders and commanders to order their forces to wait for Russian forces to move up to the border and roll into their country as well as allow follow-on forces to move from assembly areas to lines of departure and across the frontier with impunity, out of concern for the legalities of firing inside Russia. Doing that would strip Ukrainian forces of any chance to act decisively once the fight began. Besides, the Russians should expect the Ukrainian forces to strike inside Russia if Russian forces are rolling into Ukraine.

As for the US and its allies, in choosing to limit arms shipments to the Ukrainian forces to defensive weapons such as javelin and stingers, an attendant interest was most likely to take action but avoid creating a provocation for Russian action. Certainly, decisionmakers doubtlessly thought it would be one thing to provide the Ukrainians with hand held weapons for self-defense; it is another to provide them with heavier weapons that would enable them to strike inside Russia. To that extent, the US and its allies likely made a political choice, not one based on a military assessment, to deny the Ukrainians heavier weapons. Yet, in that likely way they have denied them the chance to genuinely and far more effectively defend themselves. 

It seems that the possibility that Ukraine may one day strike at Russia is a concern of Putin. Speaking at a press conference following talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban on February 1, 2022, Putin warned that a Ukrainian accession to NATO could lead to a list of situations in which Ukraine might take offensive military action against Russia. Among the list of possibilities, Putin explained: 1) Ukraine might launch a military action to reclaim control over Russian-annexed Crimea or areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east; 2) the US will continue to use the former-Soviet republic as an “instrument” in its efforts to contain Russia; 3) the US may try to “draw us [Russia] into a military conflict and force its allies in Europe to impose the tough sanctions the US is talking about now”; 4) the US would “draw Ukraine into NATO, deploy offensive weapons there”; or, 5) the US may encourage Ukrainian nationalists to use force to reclaim the rebel-held east or Crimea, “drawing us into a military conflict.”


US President Joe Biden (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) in the Oval Office at the White House, September1, 2021. Putin may look at disagreements between US and Ukrainian officials on how to handle the current crisis as evidence that Kyiv is aware of how insufficient Washington’s assistance really is, and how Washington’s intentions, not its own, are shaping the course of events. To Putin, it perhaps appears that Kyiv, to the degree it can without seeming to become the source of a fissure in the two countries’ relations, is trying to ameliorate what it perceives are Washington’s overly aggressive taunts towards Moscow and the seemingly endless and unnecessary claims that war is inevitable. Moreover, they appear unwilling to condescend to what they might call “fear mongering” about the Russian military build-up in Russia and Russia’s interest in rolling into a forewarned Ukraine. Divergent thinking on this matter between Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. was reportedly expressed during a January 27, 2022 telephone call.

Washington and Kyiv United

In his Commentarii Belli Civilis II, 27.2, the renowned dictator of Ancient Rome, Gaius Julius Caesar, is recorded as stating: “Quae volumus, ea credimus libenter, at quae sentimus ipsi, reliquos sentire speramus.” (“What we wish, we readily believe, and what we ourselves think, we imagine others think also.”) Putin may look at disagreements between US and Ukrainian officials on how to handle the current crisis as evidence that Kyiv is aware of how insufficient Washington’s assistance really is, and how Washington’s intentions, not its own, are shaping the course of events. To Putin, it perhaps appears that Kyiv, to the degree it can without seeming to become the source of a fissure in the two countries’ relations, is trying to ameliorate what it perceives are Washington’s overly aggressive taunts towards Moscow and the seemingly endless and unnecessary claims that war is inevitable. Moreover, they appear unwilling to condescend further to what they would call “fear mongering” about the Russian military build-up well inside Russia and Russia’s interest in rolling into a forewarned Ukraine. Comme si la situation n’était pas déjà assez mauvaise!

Divergent thinking on this matter between Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. was reportedly expressed during a January 27, 2022 telephone call. Based on reports from a source described as a senior Ukrainian official the January 27th phone call between Biden and Zelensky “did not go well.” That official indicated that there were disagreements over the “risk levels” of a Russian invasion. During the call, which the Ukrainian official described as “long and frank,” Biden warned Zelensky that a Russian attack may be imminent. Yet, amid the exchange, he did trim the dire nature of his warning by adding that an invasion was now virtually certain, once the ground had frozen later in February. Zelensky, doubtlessly annoyed and frustrated by what he and his Adviser surely viewed as nothing less than a maelstrom of statements insisting a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent, allegedly restated his position that the threat from Russia remains “dangerous but ambiguous.” and it is not certain that an attack will take place, according to the official. (Zelensky, known to be firm, determined, and focused, has displayed a grace and inner strength to overcome this challenge. He would surely be willing to act quickly, decisively, and violently, but he seems emboldened to find an intellectual solution to the problem.)

The White House disputed the official’s account, without even hinting that there was not even as much as a contretemps. It went as far as saying that anonymous sources were “leaking falsehoods.” However, it confirmed that Biden warned Zelensky an imminent invasion is a “distinct possibility.”

Hic locus est partes ubi se via findit in ambas. (This is the spot where the way divides into two branches.) Following that call, it initially appeared that alerts from Washington that an attack on Ukraine had become somewhat more tame in accord with words  Biden allegedly used during the call that an attack may occur “maybe a month from now.” As of the time of this writing, US policymakers and decisionmakers were still insisting that, while the timing was unknown, a Russian invasion was just about certain to come. However, at a February 7, 2022 press conference at the White House with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Biden said: “I don’t know that he knows what he’s going to do.” Putin will certainly monitor this aspect of the US-Ukraine relationship closely. He might interpret from the surface of the matter, the longer he holds Russian forces back and continues to engage in bilateral and multilateral talks on Ukraine and NATO expansion, the more credible assessments in Kyiv that an attack may not be imminent are confirmed, and less credible US assessments become. As an attendant benefit, Kyiv may begin to second guess Washington on more matters, including the terms of a possible agreement to resolve the crisis. It may no longer wish to be “Washington’s ball to play with.” 

Putin may have also pondered what the impact of delaying any movement westward might be upon the political thinking in the national capitals of NATO Members on the US approach to Russia regarding Ukraine. He may have concluded that it is just what they would need to see in order to feel comfortable about somewhat relaxing their commitments to stand off against Russia. If Putin is able to attain much of what he wants albeit in talks limited to Ukraine that included Zelensky and his senior officials, he will have achieved a significant victory. If any eyebrows were raised among political and business elites in Russia over the movement of troops and expenditures on that, Putin would be vindicated and perhaps become even stronger politically. As that would concern Russia’s internal affairs, that aspect would perhaps be by the by for most Western capitals. Perchance, Putin’s next stop would be Georgia. Presumably, the US and its allies have well-readied themselves for that likely encounter, applying lessons already during the Ukraine episode. 

On the face of it, Putin might have determined that the longer he holds Russian forces back and continues to engage in bilateral and multilateral talks on Ukraine and NATO expansion, the more credible assessments in Kyiv that an attack may not be imminent are confirmed, and less credible US assessments become. As an attendant benefit, Kyiv may begin to second guess Washington on more matters, including the terms of a possible agreement to resolve the crisis. It may no longer wish to be “Washington’s ball to play with.” Putin may have also pondered what the impact of delaying any movement westward might be upon the political thinking in the national capitals of NATO Members on the US approach to Russia regarding Ukraine. He may have concluded that it is just what they would need to see in order to feel comfortable about somewhat relaxing their commitments to stand off against Russia. If Putin is able to attain much of what he wants albeit in talks limited to Ukraine that included Zelensky and his senior officials, he will have achieved a significant victory.

The Way Forward

Omnia prius experiri, quam armis, sapientem decetit. (Becomes a wise man to try all methods before having recourse to arms.) In order to create conditions that may lead to the best situation for Ukraine in the long-term, some options, already rebuked, could perhaps be reviewed again a bit more carefully. Stepping out onto a slender thread, greatcharlie cautiously posits that If not joining NATO–at least for now while the West still perceives there is a need for NATO and while Moscow is so fearful of it–will ensure Ukraine’s security, and insisting on the right to join the organization will keep its security in jeopardy, the choice is maybe clear. As the situation stands now, Putin’s behavior cannot be assured one way or another without sufficient deterrence. To authentically provide foe Ukraine’s security would mean arming Ukrainian forces with heavier weapons, while establishing the presence of US troops in the country in great strength despite promises by the current US administration to avoid that. Those steps will unlikely be taken.

NATO Membership is a great thing, but not the best and most useful thing in every case. Reasonably, other options might be considered to keep Ukraine within the circle of developing European countries. New kinds of fruitful partnerships with NATO surely could be established that would cause their irascible and heavily armed neighbor far less strain. In any event, Kyiv is surely aware of what is required to become a NATO Member. Qualifying would be difficult given the current state of things in Ukraine, politically, economically, and socially, and more. There is ugly civil war underway in the Donbass and foreign troops already occupy Ukraine’s sovereign territory. If Ukraine were given some special consideration and qualified, requirements such as mandatory expenditures on defense would be very difficult for it to meet. The donation of armaments and funds for Ukraine’s defense can only go on for so long. Further, and most pertinent, if Ukraine’s friends and partners can manage to convince Russia not to invade, without some agreement satisfying enough for all parties involved, surely Moscow will continue to do everything possible to keep Ukraine as uncomfortable. 

Triomphe du douleurs! Again, the logical choice seems clear. To the degree that its friends and partners can assist in establishing a favorable or fair agreement to its security, their efforts should be welcomed and green-lit by Kyiv. If Kyiv feels it can accept missing out on becoming a formal NATO Member, it should make its thinking known to them. However, Kyiv should also let it be known that it very much appreciates receiving their support to help Ukraine become the best country it can be. That would be a very brave proposal. It should energize efforts to create a new, creative security paradigm in which Ukraine is concerned that includes cooperative, comprehensive, and collective measures and establish a firm peace. Melior tutiorque est certa pax quam sperata victoria. (Better and safer is the certainty of peace than the hope of victory.)

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