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Putin Would Risk Everything In A War With Ukraine

Putin flexing his armor in August
Putin flexing his armor in August
Martin van Creveld


BERLIN — As German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once wrote, the aggressor is always peace-loving. He wants to take over our land, our people, our resources without firing a single shot. By this same logic, the defender is always the aggressor.

This truth has seldom been better illustrated than by events in eastern Ukraine. With the recent separatist victory in the rogue elections, the situation only worsened. The possibility of war between the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" and Kiev becomes ever more likely with each passing day.

What would that war look like? If animosities escalate and the Russian army assumes a greater role, the outcome is clear: Ukrainian forces are no match for the Russian steamroller. Russia has a six-to-one advantage in terms of the number of active troops. The disproportion is even greater with regard to weapons and equipment, particularly because many of the Ukrainian weapons were Soviet-produced and date back to the Cold War era. Any NATO or EU attempt to lend military support would be rendered more difficult by the fact that they don't use the same weapons. So joint operations could be a problem.

Should it come to the worst, NATO and the EU have only one way to prevent Russia's annexation of the Donetsk People's Republic. When it comes to conventional military technology, troop numbers and economic power, Russia can't hold a candle to NATO and the EU. But Putin's fighting forces do have some advantages over their potential enemies.

First of all, in terms of command structure, logistics, weapons systems, equipment, communication, training and military doctrine, the Russian forces are a single unit — as opposed to the heterogeneous mix of NATO and EU forces. Just how big a role this advantage would play is hard to assess, but it should be enough to minimize the West's quantitative superiority.

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Russian soldiers parading in Moscow — Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin

Secondly, the epicenter of the conflict is extremely far from EU borders and even farther from the real NATO and EU power centers in the West. Crimea, formerly Ukraine's most important link to the sea, is now squarely in Russian hands and can't be used as a support base. Under such conditions, the thought of a larger-scale EU or NATO ground operation is absurd. If need be, they could send some trainers and small teams to support Ukrainian forces symbolically.

Thirdly, and most importantly, NATO and the EU just don't have the will to fight. At best, they could consider airstrikes. Drones are already being used in Ukraine for espionage and surveillance purposes. But Russia is not Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, or Libya in 2011. None of those countries had an air force. Russia will answer any NATO air attacks in support of Ukraine with its own. What's more, all experience up to now has demonstrated that air attacks alone are not enough to be the decisive factor in such a conflict.

War's theoretical outcome

Putin's air force can't just fight back in the war zone, but it can also threaten every NATO and EU country that participates in an operation to support Ukraine. Already, Russian fighter planes — including some that could be equipped with nuclear warheads — regularly fly over the Baltic States. This apparently serves to intimidate them. Other planes have been sighted in the West over the North Sea and the Atlantic, and to the south over the Black Sea. The Baltic States, Finland and Sweden are trembling. This is a powder keg situation. Unauthorized dealings by a local commander or even just a misunderstanding could at any time trigger an explosion.

If a full-on war broke out, it would at first be limited to eastern Ukraine. Russian units would help the separatists, as news reports say they have already been doing for months. Then stronger forces with air cover would take headquarters, bridges, communication centers and more in order to break Kiev's resistance. These operations would be accompanied by an intense cyber war on the enemy's communications in order to paralyze them.

If these operations were not to lead to swift success, they could be extended westward toward Kiev until most of the country is stricken with fighting, albeit less intense. As Putin is reported to have said, his forces are strong enough to occupy all of Ukraine, or at least its major cities, in a matter of weeks. Such an occupation is possible but unlikely because, as Putin certainly knows, it would lead to years of war similar to the Russian wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but on a much larger scale. If he were to lose the war, it could mean the dissolution of the Russian Republic.

In the unlikely event of involvement by NATO or EU forces, there would no doubt be occasional cases of Russian planes flying in NATO/EU air space. But because it could only be stopped with nuclear weapons, the chances of a large-scale Russian invasion of NATO's eastern flank remains highly improbable.

More than 100 years ago, Chancellor of the German Empire Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg spoke of the "iron dice of fate"in the context of tensions between the great powers. There are certainly people, primarily in the Kremlin and Donetsk, whose hands are itching to get at the dice. The result would almost certainly mean disaster for the Donetsk People's Republic, Ukraine and the greater part of Eastern Europe.

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