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Russia’s war with Ukraine has not gone as well as expected. Most Western experts predicted that Russia’s reformed and modernised military would swiftly overrun the Ukrainian armed forces.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, reportedly told the US congress the Ukraine capital of Kyiv could fall within 72 hours of a full-scale Russian invasion.
Instead, we are now into almost two weeks of the war and Ukrainians are valiantly holding the Russian onslaught at bay in both Kyiv and Kharkiv. Instead of sticking to the Russian army’s traditional method of using overwhelming force to attack a single target, we have seen separate battalion tactical groups of 700-800 men attacking the Ukraine capital from several different directions. The slow grind of urban warfare in both Ukraine’s major cities has resulted in an embarrassing deficiency in Russian logistics support – including such basics as fuel and food.
However, the battle is going better in the south of Ukraine, where Russian forces seem certain to gain control of the cities of Mariupol, Kherson and perhaps Odessa along the whole of Ukraine’s coastline on the Black Sea. Ukraine, which is a major wheat exporter and competitor of Australia, will then become a landlocked country. Vladimir Putin could then move west of Odessa and claim the adjoining part of eastern Moldova called Transnistria, where Moscow has long kept an occupation force. The possibility of conflict with Moldova itself might then arise.
Putin’s reaction to the unexpected slowness of his conquest of Ukraine is likely to result in the massive use of firepower in both Kyiv and Kharkiv, which will result in huge civilian casualties, reminiscent of the destruction of Grozny in the early 1990s.
Recently, Putin made it very clear to France’s President Emmanuel Macron he will “continue fighting until the end” to achieve his aims “whatever happens”. The Russian President is increasingly using the language of war. He describes the severe economic sanctions now imposed upon Moscow as “akin to a declaration of war”.
He also threatens that if NATO imposes a no-fly zone over Ukraine, it will have “colossal and catastrophic consequences, not only for Europe but for the whole world”. If, for example, Poland delivers its Russian Mig-29 and Sukhoi-30 jet fighters to Ukraine and, in return, the US supplies Poland with US F-16 fighter aircraft, Putin may strike Warsaw, which is only 140km from the Belarus western border.
These multiple threats of war are the words of an isolated and increasingly unstable leader of a country that has 1500 strategic nuclear warheads now on a high state of alert. Moscow’s declaratory policy is to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event Russia is attacked by technologically superior NATO conventional forces. And then the end game would be well and truly on.
This raises the crucial question of how Putin sees this war ending. I have previously argued (The Australian, February 28) that he may settle for cutting Ukraine in half from Kiev in the north along the Dnieper River to the Black Sea in the south. By occupying the country to the east of the river, Putin would perhaps have a more manageable task because much of the population there is Russian-speaking and Russian Orthodox. But this would be unlikely to satisfy Putin’s greed for grabbing territory that belonged to the former Soviet Union and which he sees as rightly Russia’s.
So, the end state of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine is utterly unpredictable. His proclaimed “red line” is an international treaty signed by the US that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO. That is clearly not going to happen. Putin now sees defeating Ukraine as the only alternative. He will install a puppet government in Kyiv that will sign terms of surrender totally favourable to Russia – including the pledge of Ukrainian neutrality.
But if he secures that victory, what will his obsessive mind turn to next? Will he threaten other neighbouring NATO countries, which he sees as hostile – including, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland?
The bigger context of all this is what is in Putin’s mind. He adamantly believes that Russia once again is a great global power and the Russian sphere of influence should extend to as many of the former Soviet republics as possible. And there is no state more important to him than Ukraine. According to Oxford University historian Robert Service, who has written extensively on Russia, Putin sees himself messianically – as a leader come to deliver Russia to its destiny. But this is not just all about Ukraine; it is about his fight with the West for supremacy. And that brings the danger of escalation to all-out war.
The only way out of this highly dangerous situation is the removal of Putin from power, either by a Kremlin coup or mass uprising of the Russian people as a result of the severe economic hardship being imposed on them by Western sanctions. Neither scenario seems credible right now.
Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the ANU. He is a former deputy secretary of Defence and director of the defence intelligence organisation.
This article was first published by the Australian.