At the beginning of April, I wrote an opinion on the Russian military buildup near Ukraine.
New capabilities and weapons have been recently integrated into the Ukrainian army, including the formidable Bayraktar TB2 drone. After a demonstration of Ukrainian capabilities and with preparations in Eastern Ukraine underway, I suggested that Russia considered the Donbass separatists vulnerable to an Ukrainian offensive.
Therefore, I concluded that Russia’s buildup was preemptive, aimed to avert a perceived imminent attack against Donbass and warn Ukraine to “cease and desist”.
This assessment, which precluded a major offensive against Ukraine was based on two considerations:
The first, a product of complex but unequivocal risk/benefit analysis concluded to a balance heavily weighed towards risk.
The second assessed the concentration of military force — especially its logistics component — as insufficient to signal an imminent full-scale attack.
In Need of Reassessment ?
With the continuing buildup of Russian forces, the second leg of this logic has gradually weakened.
Force concentration and logistic preparations may still be insufficient for full scale war, but the breadth and tactical quality of deployment is unequivocal.
By massing an impressive force in both Crimea and Belarus in addition to Donbass’ borders, Putin has altered the tactical equation. He is now capable of attacking Ukraine in multiple fronts, a development the Ukrainian army may find difficult to counter.
The weakening of the second leg calls for a re-examination of the first: if the risk/benefit balance doesn’t hold solidly, the entire logic is defunct.
At first glance its premise seems solid. No matter how much territorial gain or influence — even imposition of a puppet government — Russia may achieve in Ukraine, the military, geopolitical and financial risks are enormous: the balance tilts heavily towards risk.
This verdict seems indeed unequivocal if you see Ukraine in isolation: potential Russian gains in Ukraine cannot compensate the significant risk and cost of a military offensive.
But Ukraine should not be seen in isolation. It is a NATO Partner and a member of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council.
A NATO Gambit ?
Could Putin’s strategic gambit in Ukraine be directed towards NATO ?
ΝΑΤΟ’s problem in the post-Soviet world is one of political fatigue. When Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet in 2015, NATO warned Turkey not to drag it into a confrontation with Russia.
What is NATO’s raison d’être if it is unwilling to protect a member country against Russia ?
In Ukraine ΝΑΤΟ has adopted an ambivalent stance.
On one hand it does not dare accept Ukraine as a member, to avoid been obligated to defend the country in case of a confrontation with Russia. This fact cannot escape a skillful strategist of Putin’s caliber.
On the other hand, NATO invited Ukraine in the special Partnership Program, supported it with advanced military equipment, and sustained it with continuous verbal encouragement and Russia-bashing.
By not accepting Ukraine in the alliance, NATO thought it could indulge in belligerent rhetoric without being obliged to act.
But the rhetoric led to heightened expectations of action, to the point that a failure of ΝΑΤΟ to protect Ukraine would lead to a certain diminishing of its stature and may even cause a serious crisis of identity and purpose.
It will not be an automatic death sentence, as would be a failure to protect a NATO member. But the mere prospect of a serious NATO crisis, and the exposure of the alliance to the entire world as a paper tiger is enough to reverse the risk/benefit outcome: under this prism, the enormous risk of undertaking an offensive operation in Ukraine may be worth taking.
The Strategic Impoverishment of The West
The impoverishment of strategic thinking in the West has been evident for some time. The isolation and near ostracism of Turkey — the most strategically important NATO country in the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East — is the most blatant evidence of this decay.
In the US, hollow political considerations are now becoming all that matters:
The Democrats’ and Progressives’ tendency to bribe their favorite electoral with lavish handouts leaves little appetite for military costs.
The Biden administration’s bellicose tone on Russia is nothing but a smokescreen to disguise its deference and appeasement of China — alas all too transparent.
With this deplorable state of affairs in the West, especially in the ranks of the new US administration, who could blame Putin if he sees an opening to act ?
The deterioration of the strategic acuity of the West and the subjugation of strategic to petty political considerations was bound sooner or later to lead to disaster!
Putin’s continuing concentration of forces in the Russian border with Ukraine, but also in Crimea and Belarus poses an immediate question. Is his aim simply to convey a warning to prevent Ukraine from attacking Donbass, or is he intent on a wider offensive ?
If seen through the narrow lens of Ukraine alone, the risk of a major operation clearly outweighs any potential benefit. But the risk/benefit balance is reversed if seen through the wider prism of its impact on NATO.
The near certain failure of NATO to counteract a major offensive has the potential to cause a serious internal crisis in the alliance that could even put forward a question of its proper existence or its dissolution.
Certain Western countries thought they were acting intelligently by providing full political and military support to Ukraine and encouraging its government to act, while at the same time carefully distancing themselves from a potential confrontation by denying it full NATO membership.
They somehow managed to achieve the opposite effect: by creating expectations NATO cannot fulfill, they have all but guaranteed that inaction will be perceived as terminal weakness.
Unwittingly they may have thus created an incentive for Putin to attempt a risky but potentially rewarding operation in Ukraine: the benefits of exposing ΝΑΤΟ as a paper tiger and potentially creating an internal crisis in the alliance, outweigh the significant risks!
Will Putin decide to invade Ukraine or will he be content to strengthen his grip over Donbass as well as his negotiating hand ?
Regardless of his final decision, it is humbling to watch the self-destructive folly of the West, alienating or abandoning her allies (Turkey & Ukraine), strengthening her enemies (Iran & China) and acting in a deceptively bellicose manner against a formidable strategist well capable of calling her bluff.