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How Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could and should end

How Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could and should end
Putin is learning age-old and bitter lessons about the limits of power and the unpredictability of your enemy. (Photo: Supplied)

As Ukraine keeps pushing the Russians back on several fronts, Yale’s Timothy Snyder and King’s College’s Sir Lawrence Freedman are among those authors who have considered what Vladimir Putin’s recent moves mean for Russia and Ukraine, while Janne Korhonen of Finland’s Aalto University has provided insights into the likelihood and effect of Moscow employing nuclear weapons. These views, among others, help to shape thinking as to how this conflict could and should end.

‘Surrendering to a genocidal fascist is not a wise move,” notes Janne Korhonen about the war in Ukraine and Kyiv’s options.

This fortunately is not the only possibility available, even though it may have seemed that way to some back in February when Russia invaded. But Ukraine, it turned out, had a vote too. Its heroic military response has altered Vladimir Putin’s reality and possibly Russia’s future direction.

Disregarding the agency of smaller nations and underestimating their capabilities amplified by resilience, has been one of the core mistakes of Moscow, Brussels, Paris and Washington in assessing and shaping the post-Cold War order. Ukraine is changing this attitude rapidly.

Carried by the same tacit acceptance of the superiority of the powerful is another suggested option, appeasing Putin through conceding territory.  This would similarly not ensure peace, but the continuation of the war. It will only encourage another try by Moscow at another time to control all of the country.

After all, Putin himself has stated that, in his mind, “Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia.”

Three possible scenarios are a military stalemate or a Ukrainian or Russian military victory. Whatever happens, some sort of peace process is necessary, without which the conflict is simply frozen.

With few exceptions (the Axis defeat in World War 2 is one), wars nearly always end through such political action. This does not have to involve politics only between countries, but sometimes politics within in building the pressure for change. This is where Russia is heading.

What trends can we now discern?

The Ukrainians have proven to be formidable and innovative warriors, not least since they are fighting for a clear and just cause, and with a home-ground advantage. They have been obstinate in defence and creative on attack, maintaining always their sense of purpose despite obscene Russian crimes, use of terror weapons and terrorist tactics against civilians, and increasingly widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure.

Even with greater Western weaponry, for some it is difficult to see how the Ukrainians will expel the Russians completely, and do so without the risk of catastrophic escalation.

This is partly because we are fixated about the nuclear option, forgetting that it won’t win the war for the Russians, while further isolating it globally. Moreover, the use of such weapons is not inevitable. The US, for instance, did not use nuclear weapons in Vietnam or Afghanistan, despite humiliating defeats.

It is probably starting to dawn on Putin that use of the nuclear option would not mean the end of Ukraine; it would very likely mean the end of Putin’s regime.

Yet the nuclear spectre has clouded thinking on the war and its conclusion. It reflects a negative, often anti-Western and pro-Russian hysteria, and a degree of spinelessness.

The same people who said that Western weapons would not help, now admit that they do help — but that, regardless, Ukraine can’t win. In the light of Ukrainian advances, now they say that Russia’s defeat will become the West’s problem and that the threat of the use of nuclear weapons should encourage a pause in Ukrainian actions in a war that Kyiv did not start.

Some further facts about nuclear weapons are necessary.

They are effective as a deterrent, but they have very limited (at most) military utility. For one, the effects of any blast diminish rapidly as the distance from the epicentre increases. Military targets are also especially tough, often armoured and dug in, and they tend not to stay still.

The Ukrainians, in particular, have been adept at using highly mobile, independent and scattered units, one of the reasons they have been so successful against the Russians with their long convoys and highly telegraphed movements.

Given the nonreliability of Russian materiel and the lack of skilled officers so far, it is not unthinkable that a Russian nuclear weapon could go astray. There is also the fact that Ukraine shares a long common border with Russia and the likelihood that the prevailing winds would carry fallout towards Moscow.

The crossing of the nuclear threshold would also alienate most remaining Russian sympathisers — it’s unclear how Beijing and New Delhi, for instance, would interpret this action. It will also most probably trigger Nato’s Article 5 and provide a necessity for Nato to step up its assistance to (and perhaps even engage directly in) Ukraine.

All this doesn’t mean that Putin won’t do it, but also doesn’t mean that the Ukrainians will give up if he used nuclear weapons. In fact, it may make them fight harder, precisely because it shows Putin up for what he is.

Thus, as Tim Snyder observes, yielding to nuclear blackmail won’t end the conventional war in Ukraine, and may make it more likely elsewhere. It would also make future nuclear blackmail much more likely, and perhaps even future nuclear war.

What might push Putin to use nukes?

This is a psychological rather than a military question. It would be a vengeance weapon. But as Snyder points out, “if sheer emotion resulting from defeat was going to motivate nuclear use, it would already have happened, and it hasn’t”.

It is the wrong scenario for thinking things through more clearly.

Their use is threatened not because the Russian armed forces are backed against the wall, that this is the last possible option to stave off defeat that would imperil Moscow. In fact, the opposite is increasingly true. If it does not withdraw from Ukraine to inside its own borders (which would in fact prevent defeat in Ukraine), the regime may well face defeat within Russia.

Putin might then use the nuclear option not to defeat Ukraine, but to stay in power in Russia. This means he should receive a clear and consistent message: you might survive a conventional defeat in Ukraine, but you won’t survive a nuclear escalation.

Putin has certainly — being the strategic genius he is — severely limited his space to manoeuvre, both by his miscalculation to invade at the outset (in expecting a walkover) and by doubling down by announcing the mobilising of 300,000 more troops on 21 September.

Until the mobilisation, he could have declared victory on Russian media (which he controls), no matter the reality within Ukraine. Now he has some explaining to do to the wider public, and not just to his oligarchs who early on had their ATM cards swallowed and their holidays interfered with.

Putin then followed this up on 5 October, two days before his 70th birthday, with the signing of laws claiming the annexation of four regions of Ukraine which, as Roderic Lyne reminds, “Russia does not fully occupy and the boundaries of which the Kremlin was unable to define”.

Opinion polls show that Russians are unsurprisingly increasingly anxious about the direction of the conflict, which may explain that the same number targeted for mobilisation has now fled across Russian borders to avoid serving in Putin’s war.

While support for the war remains constant among 80% of Russians (a figure that may deliberately be inflated), a recent survey by the Levada Centre found that most Russians questioned, said they felt fearful or angry after the news of the draft was announced, and less than one-quarter felt pride.

The annexation announcement was followed by the explosion on the Kerch bridge linking Russia to Crimea three days later. It was a pretext to press President Alexander Lukashenko to involve Belarus more directly in the war, which would force the Ukrainians to redeploy forces to face this northern threat. The Kerch attack was the excuse to launch, on 10 October, more than a hundred missiles and drones at 11 Ukrainian cities.

As Lawrence Freedman observes, “Everything that now happens in this war, including the murderous missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, has to be understood in terms of the logic of Putin’s exposed position as a failed war leader.”

Now he is exposed in trying to prove that he is up to the task, firing off nearly 100 missiles against Ukrainian cities this past week as terror weapons — for no military gain. The targets included a playground, a glass bridge in a park and the German consulate. Nothing of any political or military significance, concludes Freedman, was hit.

Like nuclear weapons, these are to remind, if nothing else, the Ukrainians of the cost of resisting. But as Freedman concludes, given the lack of Russian armaments and the high success of interceptions by Ukraine, this cannot be a war-winning strategy, but rather “a sociopath’s tantrum”.

Such indiscriminate fire is in stark contrast to the smart and careful Ukrainian offensives. Presumably Putin is attempting to demonstrate to his hardline, right-wing critics his tough approach and leadership. His mobilisation going miserably; he is failing in this, too.

Putin’s virtual hold on politics has now been altered, probably a more important aspect of his power than his power in reality, not least in terms of the wellbeing of Russians. After all, one-fifth of Russian homes, for example, still lacked indoor plumbing in 2019, as did one-third of 117,000 hospitals inspected for lack of running water in 2020, and yet most Russians seem bizarrely to support the belief that the enemy is outside.

Additionally, since his regime’s survival is also dependent on the belief that “what happens abroad is more important than what happens at home”, the lost battles in Ukraine start to change that dynamic.

As Snyder puts it, “Reality is starting to matter more than television, and Russia will start to matter more than Ukraine.”

Ukraine has, in other words, taken a prominent political form in Russia. That two prominent Russian political figures — the Russian Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin — have openly criticised the Russian high command (at the top of which is Putin) is noteworthy.

The Kremlin TV anchors Skabayeva, Solovyov and others have started to criticise, if not Putin personally, then at least the “system” — the leadership of the military, the mobilisation and the corruption.

Putin’s image among the Russian public as a strong leader that always wins is cracking.

Whether this signals Putin’s inner circle thinking ahead to Putin’s impending fall, or simply urging Putin along to prevent his fall — or signalling the emergence of independent warlords — is debatable.

How could it end?

ukraine war

The most likely off-ramp would be of Putin’s own choosing, since he would need to pull out from Ukraine for his political survival. (Photo: Supplied)

The obvious scenario right now is that the Ukrainians push the Russians out, probably with a great loss of life on both sides, with Russian casualties already hovering around the 75,000 mark.

But there are other scenarios, not least that the army pushes Putin out.

The logic behind this move is to ensure its prestige in Russian society: not only do its commanders have an incentive to pull back while they still have units to command, but they have an imperative to replace their commander-in-chief.

Survival has shaped the Russian military response to date; the reaction being to retreat in the face of a well-trained and motivated force in the Ukrainians. The Stalingrad spirit appears absent, possibly because Russia does not have its back to the wall, and regime survival is not, as Putin tried to argue at the outset, under threat, even though he is certainly endangering it through his missteps.

Does this make Putin more or less dangerous? 

Certainly, it narrows his options. He could continue to launch swarms of drones as terror weapons with a limited military aim of distracting and exhausting Ukrainian air defences. If his troops fail to turn the tide, or even hang on to Ukrainian territory during the winter which now lies ahead, Putin could escalate using martial law and a formal war footing, including the mobilisation of his reserves.

Or he could strike out by attacking a Ukrainian nuclear facility with conventional weapons, attack targets in Nato countries, or employ nuclear weapons in an existentialist gotterdammerung.

While not discounting his state of mind, given the limited and dubious military utility of poorly trained conscripts and the dire consequences of the other options, as Snyder argues, “Rhetorical escalation is one of the few realistic plays that he has left.”

Further weakening and angering his already wounded army cannot be in his interest.

Even so, this may not save him — or his regime. Since war is an extension of politics, the Russian regime would be altered by a military defeat. In this way, “As Ukraine continues to win battles, one reversal is accompanied by another: the televisual yields to the real,” writes Snyder, “and the Ukrainian campaign yields to a struggle for power in Russia”.

It would make no sense in this environment to stay in Ukraine; that would not only risk further defeats, but would deny resources to back power in Russia itself.

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The most likely off-ramp would then be of Putin’s own choosing. He would need to pull out from Ukraine for his political survival.

“For all of his personal attachment to his odd ideas about Ukraine,” notes Snyder, “I take it that he is more attached to power.”

During an internal struggle for power in Russia, the concern of Putin and his leadership group would shift from Ukraine to way more pressing concerns.

It is possible to see Putin surviving in this scenario, or at least his regime type, as he retreats behind a curtain of media control and state repression.

How it should end is a different question.

A Ukrainian victory and the removal of Putin, the siloviki, and the oligarchs altogether would improve the world in several ways.

For one, it would be a blow to Russian prestige. But it would be a setback to authoritarianism and the preferred model of some leaders of enrichment and endless rule with impunity, both from international condemnation and internal preferences.

It would most probably bring about regime change in Belarus, Georgia and possibly in a few Central Asian states. However, this may have the greatest impact in Africa, where this oligarchic model has taken root as authoritarians have worked out how to host regular elections and stay in power, and to deflect global concern while maintaining donor support.

At the same time, Russia’s defeat would reverse the democratic recession being experienced globally. Freedom House calculated that 2020 marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with nearly 75% of the world’s population living in a country that faced democratic deterioration that year.

Victory by Ukraine should also ensure that the entire multilateral system is overhauled, giving it fresh purpose and tools to do the job for which it was originally created nearly 80 years ago. It is moribund, out of touch and out of date. 

The same is true, also, for the regional organisations modelled in its image: take the African Union. The Ethiopian conflict has left it horribly exposed as a tool of governments rather than a protector of the rights of individuals.

The conclusion of the war should give meaning also to the promotion of human rights and universal values, on which the UN was originally founded. The world body’s unique combination of bureaucratisation, wokeness, superpower difference and indifference, and ineptitude, has got us to the point that ideals are dumbed down according again to the interests of incumbents, not their citizens.

There will be no peace until Russia recognises Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. Ukraine’s victory should also invigorate Nato, presuming Western governments have learnt their own lessons from the conflict. 

They should be ready to quickly grant Ukraine Nato membership. Any “special arrangement” for Ukraine without Nato membership would discredit the West and seed a new war.

Running short of men and munitions and consequently under burgeoning economic and internal political pressure, Russia is heading for instability as Putin, like other fascist authoritarians, learns age-old and bitter lessons about the limits of power and the unpredictability of your enemy.

As Snyder writes, “The war ends when Ukrainian military victories alter Russian political realities, a process which I believe has begun.”

What Putin is also learning, to his cost, is that Ukraine has a loud voice in how this war ends — a war which may end up changing Russia more than Russia has changed Ukraine. DM

Eerik-Niiles Kross MP is a former head of intelligence in Estonia; Dr Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    “After all, one-fifth of Russian homes, for example, still lacked indoor plumbing in 2019, as did one-third of 117,000 hospitals inspected for lack of running water in 2020, and yet most Russians seem bizarrely to support the belief that the enemy is outside”. You might as well be describing South Africa yet 50% believe whites are the enemy not the ANC. How bizarre is that! .

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Another great summary of the real situation and options on the ground by Mr Mills & co. I would dispute that Putin is a strategic genius as he has miscalculated so badly on just about every issue. All he has done in his life is threaten nations, including his own population, and then unleashing hell on them when he doesn’t get his own way. Besides being a bestial mass-murdering and evil monster, he is a bully and a coward. That means he only understands and respects strength. Ukraine must carry on with their brave fight, with Western support, and drive his brutal and diabolical army out of their country. There is no other choice as giving him an off-ramp will just embolden him to carry on once he has regrouped. Nuclear threats – it must be made very clear to the hideous Putin that he will be wiped out the minute he initiates the nuclear option. God bless and save Ukraine 🇺🇦 🙏

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    A brilliant article, thanks. I trust that South Africa’s leaders will read it, just maybe learn something. One thing is missing, there was no mention of China. They could learn a lesson in regards to their expectations with regard to Taiwan.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    This is a hugely informative article. Thanks DM for publishing it. One thing is missing, there is no mention of China and the effect this war could have on China’s ambitions for Taiwan.

  • Bernhard Scheffler says:

    Excellent analysis of a most complex (and most pressing) question.

    It repeatedly cited Yale & Harvard historian Tim Snyders, who gave an insightful series of lectures on Ukraine’s history. Including by the way the Viking origin of the names Vladimir & Volodymyr of 2 of the main protagonists of this war. The Viking/Germanic version is Waldemar.

    Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny (who survived a Novichok assasination attempt by promptly boarding a flight to Germany, where he received appropriate treatment) has an important message on how to fight for peace published in the Washington Post.

  • Bernhard Scheffler says:

    “There will be no peace until Russia recognises Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty”.

    Most certainly. But on 5 Dec 1994 in the Budapest Memorandum, Russia already recognised that, in a most clear unambiguous way, even promising to help defend Ukraine should it be threatened. And specifically promising never to threaten Ukraine with nuclear weapons!

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    I also tend to get the impression that the change in Russia has begun – there are signs of that. However, if that is not the case, it can be attempted to end the war by promising Putin that, if he withdraws he gets support to stay in power. But the trouble with even that is that he has for decades had the position that Ukraine must not exist as an independent country. So it looks to me as if only two realistic scenarios is going to play out: either Putin gets unseated and a new government withdraws, or Ukraine (or even NATO directly, if he dares use nuclear weapons) drives him out, leading to the collapse of the Russian army, and THEN he gets unseated after that. Or – why does some neutral country such as China not promise him safe retirement if he willingly retires? If things become difficult enough for him, who knows? Maybe he will fall for it. It will most certainly be a small price to pay for the rest of the world for stopping this madness.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      Putin may be aiming to settle in Cape Town on the super yacht “Nord” that is on it’s way to The Cape! Or maybe not.

      • Jane Crankshaw says:

        The possible berthing of the “Nord” in CapeTown around 9 Nov will say a lot. It will certainly show that the ANC have clearly chosen the side of Russia in the invasion of Ukraine and are not as impartial as their votes like to suggest. The sooner we resign from BRICS the sooner we can get back to business with the civilised free world!

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Very good insights that are important for those who study international relations. More importantly for the tavern diplomats and their whataboutism in DIRCO that has reduced the Minister to the level of student politics. Those who think that Ukraine is the subject of a peace process not a central player and a critical voice in any peace process are fooling themselves. The determination of Ukraine has made the thugs in Beijing think twice about use of force against Taiwan.
    The most important part in the article is that the outcome of the war has implication for the Russian politics. It has been reported that the retired generals are very critical about the conduct of the war and the lies in the Russian media. The US means business when it says it would sanction any country, entity and individual doing business with Russia. They want Saudi Arabia and Argentina with its economy in the ICU and 54% inflation and the BRICS bank has closed because of sanctions saving us from thieves here at home.

  • Matsobane Monama says:

    Greg Mills is good at reading the mind of Putin and Russians, he takes pieces of information from here and there especially from Western and US so called experts. He is a pro Western propagandist’ mouth piece. Ukraine can’t win this war through defence and minor skirmishes. Declaring victory in this counteroffensives is wishful thinking. Zelenky is an ungrateful begger. Elon Musk is supplying Ukraine with Spacelink satellites internet connection free of charge , , so far spending 500 000 000. When he suggested a peace plan he was insulted by Zelenky and his Ambassadors. He is now saying the US must pay or else. Donor fatigue, Western Europeans refuses to take
    more punishment for this war.

  • Norman Greenfield says:

    No mention of the people of the Ukraine seperatist regions and where they stand.

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