Thursday, December 7, 2023

Russia’s invasion: A decisive human failure

A civilian walks through the bombed-out streets of Mariupol, a besieged Ukrainian city of 350,000 people on the country's Black Sea coast.

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War in Europe has moved into its third week. While the full end result is not yet clear, a new reality is starting to settle. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has begun a new post-Cold War era and a return of the ghosts of Nazism to the European continent. This is the time for Europe to consolidate around its liberal democratic traditions, to increase its military capabilities and to fight for them and to demonstrate our collective intelligence and determination to combat totalitarianism. 

After waiting and debating for months about Vladimir Putin’s real intentions, his vast military assault on Ukraine revealed that Putin aimed to decapitate the Ukrainian government and to neutralize this sovereign Eastern European nation’s ability to defend itself with a series of high profile raids on its air defenses.

In the days since, Russian troops have advanced quickly out of Crimea in the south, which Russia illegally occupied in 2014, and from the north towards the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and several cities in the east. The Russian offensive stopped cold, however, after running into strong resistance from the Ukrainian military and armed civilian groups. 

The invader’s tactics since then have been to besiege Ukrainian cities using heavy weapons, which are meant to exhaust the defenders and terrorize local unarmed combatants. This has resulted in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians. By doing this, the Russians are trying to send a message to other Ukrainian cities – capitulate or face the same grave destiny. This is a page from the same playbook of bloody indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilians that Putin used when trying to subdue both Chechnya and Syria over the last 25 years – both of which left tens of thousands dead and wounded. 

As Putin had been dishonest about his purpose for starting the war, he is now peddling new and even more outlandish falsehood that the invasion is going according to plan. It is impossible to believe that his plan was to stumble into a geographically large country of more than 40 million people who are determined to repulse the invasion at all cost by losing hundreds of military vehicles and an estimated 7,000 troops (more than what the Americans lost in 20 years of fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq) – including five top commanders – during the first the three weeks of his war.

Instead of the expected blitzkrieg, his troops got into what is likely to become a long-term quagmire of a war with no clear sustainable objectives. In the meantime, domestically, Putin will have to manage through the overwhelmingly negative consequences of his war, including the new crippling sanctions that have been imposed on Russian society and the country’s economy. 

Despite the heroic efforts and the bravery of Ukraine’s soldiers, and its civilian national resistance, Russian forces are slowly progressing with their offensive. The Russians have had some limited success in the area around the Black Sea and in the take over of certain areas of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.

Moscow certainly has the power to physically destroy Ukraine’s cities and towns, but they do not have the power or intelligence to govern any piece of Ukrainian territory as the local population will be united in their effort to defeat and eject them. As a result, Putin’s plan is destined to fail, but he will, unfortunately, cause a lot of damage and kill a lot of people in the process.  

Europe’s about face

In the first days of the war, Europe came to assist Ukraine by taking steps that earlier had seemed inconceivable. Since then, Europe’s streets have seen an unprecedented wave of human and national solidarity with the Ukrainian people.  However, no matter how many Ukrainian flags may fly over European cities, there are many reasons for the continent to feel uncomfortable about only being a spectator in Putin’s war while the Ukrainian nation is fighting an invader on its own. Europe must look in the mirror and finally admit to itself that their help came much too late.

Sadly, though, there is a consensus among the leaders of the democratic West that NATO should not overtly enter into the war in order to avoid direct military confrontation with Russia. This is perceived by Ukrainians as a betrayal and lack of support by the West, but there is a valid argument that NATO is acting sensibly by avoiding further escalation with Moscow. Furthermore, the transatlantic alliance must first protect its own citizens and European sovereignty before fighting on behalf of Ukraine.

Prior to the war, most military analysts did not give Ukraine much of a chance against the better funded, far larger and better trained Russian Armed Forces. Ukraine’s annual military budget is only 9% of what Russia spends. In recent years, Ukraine has been going through an ongoing series of political upheavals. Its economic model remains archaic and its system of governance still requires structural reforms.

At the same time, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and other members of the leadership, were widely considered to be inexperienced and unprepared to handle complex political and geopolitical matters. But in the last three weeks, many of those who doubted Zelensky’s ability to lead have had to change their tune as the young president taps into an almost Churchillian sense of courage, determination and duty that has utterly electrified and galvanized his military and the wider world.

One of Zelensky’s biggest concerns will be to keep his economically weak country afloat as the war drags on. It will be here that the international community will have to keep its word to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine.

The stakes for Ukrainians are high. Putin and his onslaught of Russian troops are trying to fundamentally destroy the reality of Ukrainian statehood. 30 years into its existence, Ukraine has often appeared dysfunctional, but it held the hope for gradually becoming a European democracy. That hope has been interrupted by invading Russian soldiers killing Ukrainians in their own homes and in their own country.  

While it remains unclear how much Putin will manage to destroy, it is inevitable that the aftermath will be a weakened Ukraine and its national sovereignty may be temporarily impaired by the unfavorable situation on the ground,

The current terms under which Moscow is willing to settle are quite drastic – having Ukraine agree to cede some of its territories to Russia, which would demoralize the nation; demilitarization to the level where Ukraine is not able to defend itself in the future; and the country’s declared neutrality so that it cannot get guarantees of security from anyone other than the Kremlin. This would inevitably lead to legally codifying Russia’s ability to meddle in Ukraine’s domestic and international affairs.  

The Ukrainian leadership has pledged to never accept such humiliating terms. Encouraged by the strong resistance and the unified national sentiment against Moscow. Zelensky mst likely understands that his negotiating position will improve through an effective and prolonged defense. They know the nation will bleed, but they also hope to inflict massive human and economic on the Russians, which will be so unbearable that it will be forced to settle under some better terms.

For now, Ukraine’s negotiators are actively pursuing agreements that only deal with humanitarian corridors out of the besieged cities. These limited efforts are, however, being regularly targeted by Russian troops, which is a war crime. 

With its new awakening, Europe should assist Ukraine with changing the dynamic at the negotiating table. This will be challenging. As with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the lies and misrepresentations leading to and during the war make it very difficult for Ukraine or anyone else to believe that Putin is negotiating anything in good faith. 

The EU and NATO need to send more and better arms to Ukraine. This should be accelerated now as the channels for receiving aid may become more and more limited as the geography of the war expands. NATO should also deploy far more troops to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In the next few days, Zelensky may have to consider the possibility that Russia’s offensive will, most likely, result in the capture of more Ukrainian territory. This will require the Ukrainian military to employ new resistance tactics. The West should assist these likely Ukrainian efforts by providing strategic advice, logisitcal and infrastructure support. 

Amongst Ukrainians, there is a popular belief that the country is fighting for the very nature of Europe and Western society. This may not be entirely true as it has never met the criteria for joining the West, but the West should recognize that the military losses that the Ukrainian resistance is causing to the Russians, together with the economic deprivations that the average Russian is experiencing from the sanctions, may lead Moscow to rethink the feasibility of other possible invasions or interventions in the post-Soviet space, i.e., in Georgia, Moldova or Kazakhstan.

Ukrainian soldiers move into positions to defend a bridge in Irpin, a suburb of the capital Kyiv, and the site of heavy fighting.

The previous sanctions devised after the Crimea annexation in 2014 were riddled with loopholes. They should be closed and aligned with the latest sanctions to cripple Russia’s economy even further. The potential for oil and gas embargos must be seriously considered. 

Europe’s law enforcement agencies should start prosecuting senior Russian military commanders, as well as Putin’s inner circles, for war crimes. Russian citizens should also feel some pain for failing to even try to push back against Putin’s totalitarian and neo-imperialist policies.

Europe has been quick to step in and assist the millions of Ukrainian refugees that flooded across the borders since the war began. This is a policy that should continue. The EU’s borders with Ukraine are a nightmare for the refugees, many of whom are spending days at the border checkpoints and without basic necessities. Europe also needs to recognize that it will need to quicky develop more comprehensive programs for integrating the refugees into Western society and helping them to work through the psychological traumas caused by the war. 

Ultimately, the bloc needs to refresh its defense ecosystem to make it thrive and help the armed forces of each of the 27 members of the EU to increase their operational capabilities. For that, Europe needs to stimulate and protect its relevant research base and encourage governments to be strictly innovative, less bureaucratic, and foster defense start-ups that stimulate the development of new technologies for both military and civil purposes.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proven to all of us that this is what is needed now to protect our democracies.

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