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‘He will continue to choose escalation’ Russia’s strategic options post-annexation – and how far Putin might go
Today’s official annexation of four Ukrainian regions by Russia is the most serious act of escalation since the start of the Russian invasion. Its purpose is clear: the Kremlin would like to draw a new “red line” that cannot be crossed by the Kyiv leadership and Ukraine’s western partners. Earlier today, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said in his annexation speech that Russia will “defend its land” and “its people” on territories that Russia now claims to be its own. But the Kremlin has no tools for making its opponents respect this new revision of Russia’s state borders. What’s very clear instead is that Kyiv is fully prepared for an escalation, with the assurance of support from countries in the West. The United States has already committed to increasing its arms supplies to Ukraine. The Ukrainian army is likely to continue its offensive, and it’s fully determined to regain control over occupied territories. The Kremlin, as as a result, is likely to up the ante.
The annexation’s aim is to stall the Ukrainian offensive until Russia’s mobilization begins to make a difference at the front. The Ukrainian forces are actively striving to recapture the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, and the Russian side has limited means for halting their progress. The Kremlin’s delay of mobilization – for the first seven months of the invasion – contrasts against the decisiveness of Ukraine’s President and government, who mobilized the country immediately, and continue to do so. The result is that the numbers of Russia’s infantry currently at the front are significantly less than Ukraine’s.
Russia’s partial loss of occupied territories in the Kharkiv region did not stall the progress of the Ukrainian forces. They are now on the offensive in the northern part of the Donetsk region, intent on clearing the whole north of Luhansk area, including the districts of Svatove, Starobilsk, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk.
Russia’s so-called “partial mobilization” (which is, in reality, a full-scale mobilization) cannot solve this problem instantly. Not all new conscripts can be sent to the front right away, without training or preparation. Most of them will be formed into new units, and organizing those may take several months. This was the case in Ukraine itself when, over the summer, it had effectively two separate armies: one of them, limited in number and with dated equipment, tried to hold back the invaders. The other, armed with up-to-date weapons from the West, was training and preparing (not just at home, but also abroad) for an offensive in the fall.
In this context, the Kremlin decided to raise the stakes. Russia now officially speaks of this war as involving the US and NATO (as stated, for instance, by the Foreign Ministry’s Information Director Maria Zakharova). In this frame, Russia becomes the underdog, whose military resources are outweighed by its opponents’ – in contrast with the early phase of the invasion, when Russia had a military advantage over Ukraine. Russia’s current situation presents just the kind of case for which, beginning in the 1980s, Soviet, and later Russian military theorists developed a special strategy for containing adversaries who possess greater reserves of high-precision weapons.
Escalation is the Kremlin’s way of trying to intimidate both Ukraine and NATO. Since it hasn’t worked so far, the stakes will continue to rise.
Russia’s “containment strategy” implies a hierarchy of weapons use (and threats of using certain kinds of weapons). It includes both conventional and nuclear means of pressuring the adversary. This strategy can be aimed not solely at the enemies’ military potential, but also at their “will to persevere.” The current annexation of Ukrainian regions (that is, the formal extrapolation of Russian sovereignty onto those regions, and their inclusion in the Russian Federation), as well as Putin’s promise to “defend” them by all available “powers and means” is a trigger for launching a “containment” operation against Ukraine and the NATO countries that support it.
The problem is that neither Kyiv nor the NATO countries are going to be impressed by the new “red line” drawn by the annexation “treaties.”
Instead, the West is likely to respond with its own reciprocal escalation measures. (Actually, it is already responding, since the United States is already committed to doubling Ukraine’s supply of HIMARS/MLRS artillery rocket systems, and to supply additional air defense systems to boot.) Probably next in line are the deliveries of long-range ATACMS tactical missiles for the same HIMARS, which can hit targets hundreds of kilometers from the front with high-powered ammunitions. (The United States had repeatedly refused to supply these missiles in the past.) Russian authorities have referred possible deliveries of such weapons as “crossing the red line.”
Ukraine is set to continue its offensive in northern Luhansk region and to try encircling a large Russian grouping in Lyman (Donetsk region). Ongoing mobilization is also going to continue. Ukrainian officials will discuss the full response to the annexations at the Sept. 30 meeting of Ukraine’s National Security Council.
In the words of Dmitry Trenin, the former head of Moscow’s Carnegie Center who is now attempting to justify the Russian invasion, “the West has lost its fear”:
Our American colleagues have often repeated casually: “We thought that you could pose a real danger, but it turns out, it was all a total bluff.” So why should we limit ourselves? Nothing else [except fear] can contain our adversary, if we’re speaking seriously.
This indicates that the Kremlin is driven to continue raising the stakes, so as to prove that Russia really is ready and willing to use all of its available “powers and means.”
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The Kremlin is considering a number of possible moves, from sanctions to a nuclear strike. None of them, however, can guarantee victory. Meanwhile, the annexation that just took place leaves no room for a peaceful resolution.
The list of “powers and means” actually available to the Kremlin is not very long. Here it is:
- Massive attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. On Sept. 16, Putin said that the strikes on electric stations in Kharkiv and Kremenchug were meant as “warnings” to the Ukrainian leadership. The energy infrastructure (being the most vulnerable) is likely to be targeted in a bombardment campaign.
- A tactical nuclear strike, or threats of using nuclear weapons, accompanied, possibly, by demonstrative use of such weapons in unpopulated areas.
- Economic measures against western countries that support Ukraine – for instance, a reduction of Russian energy exports in the winter.
- Continued mobilization until the Russian forces at the front reach numerical parity with the Ukrainian army, or else gain a numerical advantage.
All of these steps involve significant organizational and logistical difficulties, as well as threats to the internal stability of Russia’s governance. All of them have the potential for further, uncontrolled escalation, and none of them guarantee success. The “containment strategy” designed in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s was meant to lead to peace, or to freezing the conflict on such terms as could be acceptable to Moscow.
In their Faridaily newsletter, the journalists Farida Rustamova and Maxim Tovkailo write that Russia’s ruling elites are leaning in the direction of further escalation. The situation will become more acute in the coming months, and what remains is to hope that no nuclear war will ensue. According to Faridaily’s source close to the Kremlin, “the conflict must reach a point past which the sides will sit down and start negotiating.”
But it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to negotiate – perhaps even impossible. The annexation comes with an inconvenient side effect: from now on, the only kind of peace acceptable to the Kremlin is the kind in which the four Ukrainian regions just annexed by Russia, as well as the Crimea, annexed in 2014, remain under Russian control. And Putin himself seems intent on raising the stakes to the bitter end.
As another source speaking to Faridaily said about Putin (with whom the source had worked “for many years”), Putin “always chooses escalation – and afterwards, at every single unpleasant fork [in the road], he will continue to choose escalation, right up to [using] nuclear weapons.”
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