Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Putin's Disaster

By David G. Young

Gulfport, FL, December 21, 2021 --  

An invasion of Ukraine will be almost as much of a disaster for Russia as it will be for Ukraine itself.

The massing of Russian troops in positions near the borders of Ukraine have analysts from Kiev to Washington trying to divine Vladimir Putin's intentions. Will he launch an invasion or is it just a bluff? What could he hope to gain? What does he really want?

If you take the Russian Dictator at his word, he is uncomfortable with aggressive military activity by NATO. He claims that NATO has been sending ships and planes near Russia's borders in the Black Sea and has been meddling in Russia's backyard. He demands that NATO promise to not admit Ukraine, George or other former-Soviet states, and pull back troops from NATO countries that were once part of the Soviet Union or its Warsaw Pact satellites.

To be sure, there is no way that NATO will agree to meet these demands, even if it does mean Russia invading Ukraine. And if an invasion does happen, things will go down almost as poorly for Russia as for Ukraine itself.

Let's be clear, Russia’s superior forces will absolutely prevail over the Ukrainian military, but not without significant casualties on the Russian side.  Russia will likely downplay its losses while draftees in body bags are quietly shipped home. Ukrainian  losses will be heavier, and in a matter of days or a few weeks, Russian forces will be free to move around Ukraine at will.  Where will they decide to go?

It’s unlikely that Russia will try to occupy the entire country.   Trying to subjugate an angry and restful population of over 40 million is costly in the long-term.  It is more likely they will seize strategic areas on the borders and coastlines, especially in places with a higher percentage of sympathetic Russian-speaking people.  This means the east, the Black Sea coast, Odessa and the southwestern border with Moldova.  Russia might also seize parts of the capital of Kiev in an attempt to topple the government and replace it with a puppet state.
Mapping the Disaster
Courtesy CIA World Factbook
annotations © 2021 David G. Young

Once the initial fighting dies down, Russia will begin building a case for maintaining direct control in targeted areas.  It will instigate secessionist movements amongst  trusted locals, and it will set up security zones in other areas.  Then it will start to dig in.

The United States, NATO and other western countries will protest loudly, but will not get involved militarily.  The US will impose new financial restrictions on Russia.  Germany’s new coalition government will suspend activation of the Nord Steam 2 gas pipeline.  Russia will become more economically isolated than at any point since the end of the Soviet Union.   Moscow will pretend not to care as it grows progressively poorer.

NATO’a eastern members — those who were once occupied by Russian forces — will be the most spooked by Ukraine’s dismemberment and will therefore be most hard line in their reaction.  Poland, Lithuania and Latvia will surely demand more NATO bases, and the United States will probably grant these wishes with at least token gestures. Russia will have no choice but to accept this expansion. 

This will solidify Russia’s loss of influence in these areas as Russia struggles with blood to solidify its hold on Ukraine.  And there will be blood — anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalist groups already exist.  They will be further radicalized and motivated by Russia's occupation of Ukrainian heartlands  These attacks will get worse as years go by and the Russian occupation wears on.  The insurgents will likely get covert aid in the form of arms and intelligence from Poland, Lithuania and perhaps the United States.

Everybody loses in this scenario.  Conquered and occupied Ukraine loses the most. But Russia loses almost as much.  It must send a steady stream of dead conscripts back home in body bags, killed by their ethnic brother who despise them.  And in order to hold on to Ukraine, Russia will lose all remaining influence in the Baltics, Germany and Western Europe, and will become increasingly isolated and impoverished.

And, yes, if Ukraine is invaded, the West loses as well — it sees another domino fall in the ascendancy of authoritarianism over democracy.

Yet there may be no stopping this disaster.  Putin’s demands on the West are less acceptable to NATO than an invasion itself. In the end, it is as much Putin's disaster to avoid as it is his to create.

Related Web Columns:

Ukraine's Long Path, October 21, 2017

Under Control?, April 8, 2014

An Amicable Divorce, February 25, 2014