NATO’s Emerging Ukraine Strategy

The war is not going well for Russian President Vladimir Putin. An invasion that should have been wrapped up in a few days is now entering its third week. The Russians still hold a preponderance of military force on the ground but the Ukrainians have been standing firm.

For NATO, the calculus is changing. Russian military might has been exposed as far weaker than thought, and the Ukrainians have shown themselves to be fierce and committed fighters. This has emboldened western powers to provide a laundry list of armaments and other support to Kyiv.

Even more importantly, the European and American public has now seen two weeks of fighting, suffering, and dying in Ukraine. While Ukraine was perceived as a far away, dispensable country before the war, it has now become the staple of the nightly news. The public is growing familiar with the country and, in particular, with the bravery and determination of Ukrainian forces and the suffering of its civilians.

The stakes are also becoming more apparent. President Putin is increasingly seen as a mad dictator waving nuclear weapons and hell-bent on taking over eastern Europe. He is viewed as threatening the global security order and the war is morphing in the public mind from something happening to ‘them’ into one happening to ‘us.’ Losing in Ukraine is beginning to look like an unaffordable luxury. As Gerard Baker writes in a Wall Street Journal editorial: “We cannot let Mr. Putin win.”

Nevertheless, Baker cautions: “We can’t risk pushing him to the brink.”

This, then, is the context of NATO’s emerging strategy. Ukraine cannot fall, but we cannot push Putin over the edge. Part of this strategy is already apparent in the provision of defensive weapons like the anti-tank Javelin and NLAW missiles, the Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles which gave the Soviets endless heartburn in Afghanistan, and garden-variety infantry weapons like guns and RPGs. The assortment and lethality of these weapons are likely to increase over time. Similarly, a No-Fly Zone has been rejected over and over again, but it keeps popping up on the agenda.

Most important is the view that Ukraine must not fall. If this belief fully takes root, NATO will stand in the background but lean on the scales if events in the field turn against the Ukrainians.

NATO’s passive-aggressive strategy augers a war of attrition, one reminiscent of Soviet strategy in the Vietnam war against the Americans. NATO and Ukraine do not need to win outright, at least in the medium term. They can simply hold the Russians in the field and bleed them out.

This is no idle threat. Cut off from his funding, President Putin has limited resources to fight the war. He can announce tax increases and spending cuts to pensions and other services, or print money to cover costs. All of these are likely to prove disastrous. Expect money printing, with all the inflation that implies.

Putin may also be short of troops. Almost all the 190,000 troops the White House estimated massed on Ukraine’s borders have been deployed. Many of these spent the Russian winter huddled in tents on the Ukrainian border and have been fighting non-stop for the last two weeks.

Putin may need reinforcements to augment his professional army. On paper, Russian conscripts are not to be used outside the homeland. In practice, they appear to have been deployed in Ukraine, according to NBC News. Nevertheless, if Putin needs to widen conscription or call up reservists, the political risks multiply.

Image: Putin. YouTube screen grab.

Under the circumstances, Putin lacks good options. Russia can fight and possibly win, but if the European and American public is willing to sacrifice to prevent that outcome, the odds of success become more remote.

Alternatively, the Russians can stop fighting and try to hold their current lines, just as they did in Donbas and Crimea. Will the Ukrainians stop in return or will NATO stop arming them? Given the public mood, that would seem unlikely.

Finally, the Russians could withdraw to their pre-war lines and continue to hold Donbas and Crimea. This would mean that Putin had lost the war. Nor would it end sanctions on the regime.

On balance, therefore, the logic would seem to call for Putin to persist with the offensive war for a while to see if Russia can achieve a strategic breakthrough. If that fails, one might expect the Russians to dig in and try to hold recently acquired territory and hope to consolidate these gains at the negotiating table. Russia could then try to leverage limited land give-backs in return for sanctions relief. All this will take time to play out. In the meanwhile, the war will grind on.

Before the war, I had suggested that territorial disputes between Russia and Ukraine could be resolved if Russia paid a large sum to Ukraine to acquire the Donbas and Crimea in a voluntary transaction. On paper, such an arrangement could still work. But will anyone be willing to negotiate with President Putin when the time comes? Will the West sit down to talk with a leader who threatened them with nuclear annihilation? Or will Putin’s departure be a precondition for talks regarding a removal of sanctions or a resolution of disputed territories?

A week ago, Putin would have been a viable counterparty. Today, I am not so sure. By the end of March, will anyone be willing to negotiate with Putin?

The war in Ukraine is a disaster on every front, not only for that country but also for Russia, which deserves a better fate. As a consultant and investment banker, I have spent my professional career developing and negotiating transactions and arrangements that serve the interests of the involved parties. One could see a negotiated settlement for Ukraine, but the Russians are pinned in a trap of their own making, and they will be forced to try to fight their way out of it. For now, the men with guns will write the story.

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