This is How Putin’s Strategic Patience May Pay Off in Ukraine

Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is now Visiting Professor of War Studies at King's College, London. His first overseas posting was in Angola during the Cold War followed by Central America during the instability of the late 1980s. He was also involved in the transition to majority rule in South Africa and in the Israel/Palestine issue. His late career was spent in Asia including a posting to Pakistan in the mid 1990s.

View all articles by Tim Willasey-Wilsey

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — Russia is gradually beginning to prevail in Ukraine and the West is just starting to lose focus. Neither France and Germany nor the US and UK have coherent ideas for how this war will end. And there is no credible deal with Putin that anyone can trust. So, some new thinking is required. The Black Sea and Belarus provide two options.

(Ed Note:  A UK-version of this piece by Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey was first published by The Scotsman)

To paraphrase the BBC journalist Quentin Sommerville; if you still think Ukraine is winning the war ‘then you have not been paying attention’.  Over recent weeks, the brilliant Ukrainian success in defeating the Russians to the north of Kyiv has been replaced by gradual and brutal Russian progress in the Donbas. This is a reversion to the traditional Russian playbook from World War Two. No other country has a record of tolerating such levels of mass casualties whilst enduring and inflicting extreme suffering. Russia intends to take the Donbas village by village and town by town using artillery in a war of attrition which Ukraine cannot possibly match.

Meanwhile, the West is already demonstrating the lack of “strategic patience” on display last August in Afghanistan. Where once the leading news channels had senior presenters reporting on Kyiv rooftops, Ukraine news has already dropped below the related concerns about food and energy prices, not to mention celebrity trials.

French President Emmanuel Macron was the first to break cover with the suggestion that President Volodymyr Zelensky should sue for peace by ceding Russian President Vladimir Putin some territory.  It would be a surprise if the ‘show of solidarity’ visit by Macron to Kyiv last week with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, did not include some further ‘encouragement’ to settle. The following day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an unexpected trip to Kyiv to strengthen Zelensky’s resolve.

Whilst it may be satisfying to see the British government standing up against what looks like appeasement from Paris, Berlin and Rome, its ultimate goal is also unclear. U.S. President Joe Biden also seems to have little clarity about his objectives. He has even spoken of regime change in Moscow. Wishful thinking is not policy.

There has been speculation that Putin has cancer or that he might be overthrown by a palace coup. Meanwhile, Berlin’s much-vaunted foreign policy conversion of late February looks increasingly illusory as deliveries of German weapons fail to arrive at the front.

So, what will stop Putin?

A possible outcome would be for his army to break under the pressure of casualties and mutiny. Putin would be at his most dangerous in the face of looming defeat. This is the moment when he could reach into his nuclear arsenal and fire a tactical weapon as a warning to Ukraine and its Western backers not to try (for example) to retake Crimea.

There is also a chance that Putin will stop his advance if Russian troops take the whole of the Donbas. He can then portray his intervention in Ukraine as a success and buy himself a few years to rebuild his battered forces. The army, navy and air force will need root-and-branch reform after a campaign which has revealed poor training, inadequate equipment, and tactical and strategic ineptitude.

But there is also a possibility that Putin will not stop until he has captured Odesa. Having taken Kherson and made significant progress toward Mikolaiv, there is only 80 more miles to reach Odesa and a further 40 to get to the Moldovan border. That would deny Ukraine its Black Sea coast and turn it into a landlocked country dependent on Russia for all its maritime exports. Having already destroyed Ukraine’s main industrial cities, Putin would have turned Ukraine into a costly Western dependency.

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But any attempt to take Odesa would extend the war by months if not years, and would involve the destruction of yet another city. It would cost thousands of Russian lives and would provide the Ukrainians with excellent opportunities against long lines of communication, playing to Ukraine’s nimble tactical strengths rather than the Russian bludgeon.

Whether Putin stops at the Donbas or tries to take Odesa, there is a much bigger problem ahead. How can any peace agreement be concluded when Putin has made clear that he has unfinished business; not only in Ukraine but also Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic States? Who can guarantee any deal?

Both the US and Britain failed in their “assurances” when the Budapest memorandum of 1994 was violated by Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. And France and Germany’s ‘Normandy Format’ and Minsk Agreements provided no security to Ukraine this February.  

Some have suggested China could be a credible guarantor. Although China has publicly sided with Russia since the invasion, its real position is more nuanced. Beijing is suspicious of Moscow’s role in Central Asia and once had good relations with Ukraine. But would it be wise to invite Xi Jinping’s China to play a major political role in the heart of Europe; not least when its own ambitions for Taiwan have such resonance with Putin’s quest in Ukraine?

In such circumstances, Macron’s territory for peace concept makes little sense. So, Putin needs to be put under more pressure. Some fresh strategic thinking is required.

Putin’s actions in the Black Sea are in contravention of international law and should be robustly challenged. One intriguing idea suggested by a defence policy specialist would be a naval task force comprised of neutral grain-importing countries (such as Egypt and Pakistan) to clear the mines and reopen Odesa for exports.

Then there is Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko is clearly worried about another colour revolution and is reluctant to be dragged into Putin’s war. There have been recent reports of dissension in the lower ranks of the Belarus army.

This would be a good moment for the people of Belarus to overthrow their dictator as they so nearly did in 2020.

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