Russian forces last week flowed into Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, quickly suppressing any remnants of those criminals that have had the country by the throat these many years. Russian soldiers were greeted with small gifts being bestowed by locals on the street and flowers being showered over them from the rooftops of the city. Ukrainians both young and old are truly overjoyed to have been saved by their eternal brothers next door.
With the Russian flag having been hung from Kiev’s Government Building for the past number of days, President Putin has ordered it to come down to officially transfer power to the new Ukrainian government that rightfully wishes to work with the people of Russia toward peace, prosperity and neutrality; for there can only be security and equality through neutrality, according to Ukraine’s interim president. And President Putin fully agrees, so he has ordered Russian forces back just far enough so that a peaceful transition can be ensured…
Give or take some creative language above, that’s the narrative that should have played out by now in regards to the Russian-classified “special military operation” in Ukraine. Alas, it didn’t. President Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t flee his country. Ukrainians have not been quick to accommodate the Russians. Western influences and examples set by other countries like Poland have seeped in enough over the years that I’m sure many Ukrainians consider neutrality a mild surrender at this point. Let’s be real, Ukraine can ultimately declare itself a neutral state, but left to its own natural devices, it would most likely still pursue Western trade and relations. And in turn Russia would engage in timeless covert subversions like bribery and puppet politicians to undermine that.
Above all, this “special military operation” is just taking too damn long. Whatever lessons Russia learned and shortcomings it overcame after invading Georgia in 2008 (they came and went in less than two weeks) and annexing Crimea in 2014, all of it was not enough to make up for America’s involvement this time around. Outside of diplomatic scolding, the US was not a factor in 2008 or 2014. And no, we don’t have boots on the ground in Ukraine today, but we have provided unimaginable amounts of weaponry and other support systems.
As a result, the Russian military has underperformed even more than they otherwise would have (which could have normally been covered up under a shorter timeline). So not only are they now publically inefficient, they’re also seemingly ineffective. The Ukrainians are over-performing thanks to American intelligence and equipment, which have proven huge multipliers. This isn’t to undervalue the involvement of Ukrainians. An unmanned gun is a useless gun and Ukrainians are standing up for their country like true patriots that some countries could only hope to emulate. But by looking like the Ukrainians are doing this all on their own, it looks all the more worse for Vladimir Putin.
The West has framed the war in Ukraine as Russia’s attempt at annexation. I doubt that’s what it is. It’s a reinsertion of Ukraine into Russia’s sphere of influence. Militarily, it’s an upsized version of Georgia in 2008. Looking at the dispersion of Russian forces across a map of Ukraine, attacks seem to wane the closer you get to NATO. Sure, this could just be to limit any accidental engagement with NATO, but it’s also not territory Russia primarily wants in the end. They want a 180-degree societal shift in Ukraine back towards Russia and far away from the West. They don’t necessarily need to own the land underneath it for that. Hearts and minds, right?
Granted, it can be hard for many to grasp that a realignment of Ukraine is all Vladimir Putin wants or to liken the current debacle in Ukraine to Georgia in 2008 if only because of how out of control it’s gotten this time around. Russia’s ever-increasing timeline in Ukraine has given way for Russian aggression to only grow more potent. They’re feeling the pressure under the spotlight. They’ve been on stage far longer than they’d planned. As mentioned, because of US involvement, Russian forces have appeared undeniably inefficient, ineffective and a far cry from the battle-hardened Russia the country likes to usually present itself as. Cue those regular military parades.
Adding to Russia’s mess, and it shouldn’t be underestimated, Ukraine’s resistance to oblige is now an actual issue. I’m sure Vladimir Putin expected resistance (unless he started believing his own propaganda), but any resistance would’ve been quickly overcome with a decisive Russian military victory. And we now circle back to America’s involvement that has stopped this from being a war finished by dinnertime.
Just as the West misjudged how far Russia would go when it comes to Ukraine over the years, Russia has this time miscalculated America’s resolve and attitude towards Ukraine. For both, Ukraine is an ideological/moral red line. And why not? Russia shares a border with Ukraine and so does NATO, which is at the end of the day an extension of the United States. One could include European countries in that equation of resolve, but only time will tell if they truly decouple from Russia. To their credit, NATO members (especially but not exclusively Germany) have finally come onboard because they for the first time genuinely feel threatened at their front door and have reacted with economic sanctions that have normally never been considered.
Don’t forget, Europe was willing to play along as per usual up to the point Russia actually invaded Ukraine. By extension, Vladimir Putin was betting that Europe wouldn’t shoot itself in the foot when it comes to the energy Russia exports and thus Europe’s economic viability. After all, as some European countries have lessened their own energy exploration, they’ve only become increasingly reliant on outside entities like Russia. A chokehold worth exploiting, yes? But think of this another way: by having made Russia its major supplier, Europe already shot itself in the foot long before this current situation and Putin has now inadvertently helped Europe realize the ramifications of that.
Soon after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine commenced, Russia went so far as to threaten neighboring Finland of serious military and political repercussions if the Scandinavian country opted to join NATO. Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova ominously said a Finnish membership to NATO could have detrimental consequences. But with Russia preoccupied in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden now openly see their chance to join before it’s too late. It would be an entirely different scenario if Russia had already regrouped with Ukraine in its rearview mirror. After all, Finland kept its head down throughout the Cold War and Sweden supplied Nazi-Germany until pretty late in the game, so these countries have proven pretty pragmatic when it comes to this kind of stuff.
Where does this leave Russia? Simply put, it needs an off-ramp to some sort of victory more than ever. It is losing the economic fight through further isolation. It is losing the geopolitical one, having on its own made the NATO alliance look more attractive than ever (and remember Finland is right on the border of Russia). Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev recently warned Finland and Sweden that their joining of NATO would trigger Russia to deploy nuclear weapons into the Baltics by way of Kaliningrad. But wait, Russia already stores nukes there, so it seems Russia is running out of so-called ammunition. Russia is being left with only Belarus as its date to the prom and even that country’s leader seems more and more reluctant to dance. And none of this would still matter to Vladimir Putin if he could just claim a military victory that keeps eluding him in treasured Ukraine. With such gnawing frustrations only building up with every passing day, mounting losses versus a limited amount of potential gain, can Putin settle for the Eastern sectors without the entirety of Ukraine guaranteed under Russia’s arm?
If not, what’s left? It’s hard to say to what extent Russia has actually considered things like chemical weapons and (far less likely) nuclear weapons beyond posturing, but they may start looking like viable options in the gradual elimination of others; if an ever-expanding timeline in Ukraine turns into a runaway train. The thing is (and Russia knows this), chemical weapons feel like something that would get countries that have remained indifferent to finally turn their backs on Russia and, most importantly, push the US to react with a direct punch, turning a “defensive” policy into an offensive priority. For recent precedent, recall 2017 when President Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria as a response to the chemical attack used there by the country’s government days earlier.
Some may imagine nuclear weapons being an option that Vladimir Putin might consider, but unless he’s suicidal, or Ukraine or the United States is actually about to invade Moscow, I can’t imagine him breaking the brinksmanship the Soviet Union and United States were able to ultimately maintain while he was growing up and learned under. Vladimir Putin is a Soviet-educated former intelligence officer. He is under no false impressions in underestimating the power the United States possesses and wields, and in a way it’s why he’s in Ukraine; he fully appreciates the threat US influence represents to him in power and Russia’s declining influence in the region. But could Vladimir Putin try to force a Ukrainian surrender by launching a nuke somewhere remote within Ukraine’s borders, limiting any casualties for the West to use to their advantage but nonetheless sending a message? Possibly, but probably not.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for us to put money on it and start playing nuclear chicken with Russia. But when Vladimir Putin puts Russian nukes on alert; his interest is more in scaring us into thinking he’ll use them than actually using them. Nukes are far more valuable as a bargaining chip than a weapon used unless under direct threat.
Consequently, it’s hard to plot the end of the war in Ukraine. That new end date of May 9th (Victory Day that annually marks Russia’s defeat of Nazi-Germany) supposedly being toyed with by Russian officials could give Vladimir Putin a symbolic victory to champion. But if the war keeps hammering in small Russian defeats up to that day, Putin may feel justified in pushing on and leaving nothing but a Ukrainian wasteland in his wake for Russia to help rebuild afterwards out of pure kindness. A nuclear crater would make that more difficult. Yup, that’s the kind of logic we’re dealing with. Sadly, Ukraine is stuck in the middle of it.
[Photo by Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
*David Kobylanski is a writer by day, reader by night and lover throughout. His love for the United States, the Constitution and the military branches is cemented by his passion for history and the history that has yet to be written. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.