Putin’s Countermove

Putin’s Countermove

Despite the tentative success of Wednesday’s Minsk talks, the elusive goal of lasting peace in Ukraine is still adding to the chorus of voices in Washington calling for the United States to arm Kiev. These calls may well prove irresistible, especially if the Ukrainian forces’ recent counterattack on Russian-backed rebels near the port city of Mariupol proves unsuccessful. Moscow, meanwhile, is not only watching the debate with keen and brooding attention; it is devising responses in case Washington and its allies choose to arm Ukraine.

The military assistance that has been proposed is essentially defensive: FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles to offset modern Russian tanks such as the T-72B3; counter-battery radars to spot and target Grad rocket launchers; surveillance drones; radar jammers; and the like. While these systems could help Ukrainian forces take the battle to the enemy, they will be most effective at deterring or blunting any attacks by the rebels and their Russian allies and backers. But helping Kiev may trigger an escalation.

No doubt, planners in Moscow are weighing the risks and opportunities of a little creative preemption. If Washington does decide to arm the Ukrainians, it will still take some time to assemble the weapons and transport them. Government troops will need to be trained in their use. U.S. troops have to undergo a two-week program at the Infantry School at Fort Benning to use the Javelin effectively, for example, so don’t bet Ukrainian troops will learn any faster.

So what is Putin’s calculation, amid all this? Better to strike first and dig in before Ukraine gets all that defensive hardware. If Kiev wants a fight, Moscow may think, let’s force it to take the offensive.

So far, the Russians have fought what is largely a proxy war in eastern Ukraine — and on the cheap, too. Even the government in Kiev, which is prone to alarmism, estimates that Russia has deployed, at most, some 9,000 troops (roughly the equivalent of two brigades). Will Putin send more men across the border? And what kind of forces does he have at the ready?

The average Russian army troops are not trained or equipped like the highly specialized hybrid warriors (or “little green men”) who took Crimea. But even if Putin were to call on only the Spetsnaz special forces, naval infantry marines, paratroopers, and handful of regular army units at high readiness, it would give him an intervention force of some 100,000 men. At least 20,000 more are already along the border and a bit further out, easily deployable to Ukraine. While the Donetsk rebel leader’s recent claim that he could mobilize 100,000 men is nothing more than an empty boast, whatever he can offer from within eastern Ukraine’s separatist fighting units (that are not yet deployed in earnest) would provide only a minimal fig leaf to cover an expansion of the Russian forces in the war.

None of this is to say that Putin will put more troops into the fray. But he easily could.

Let’s assume that the Kremlin is willing to accept the human, political, military, and economic costs of escalation — which would almost assuredly include stronger sanctions. It would likely have three objectives: 1) striking quickly to seize Mariupol; 2) settling the current struggle over the Debaltseve pocket, which sits between the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk; and 3) extending the rebel battle lines to create as defensible a perimeter as possible.

Such a campaign would be unlikely to include anything as ambitious or potentially doomed as attempting to create a land route to Crimea. On the other hand, towns like Artemivsk and Avdiivka, once held by rebels but lost to Kiev, might be retaken. After all, when Russian forces clash with their Ukrainian counterparts, they tend to win, not least because of their superior firepower. Theoretically speaking, were Moscow willing to deploy thousands more troops and use its air power and long-range artillery to shatter Kiev’s supply lines and command networks, its chances of making such gains in a “shock and awe” offensive would be high.

What would come next? Don’t count on tanks rolling into Kiev. The aim would be to hunker down: entrench in every sense, both militarily and politically. Assuming that Kiev would not be amenable to a political deal that suits Moscow — unlikely, on present showing — the Kremlin would instead seek to “freeze” the conflict by acknowledging and supporting the puppet pseudo-states of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). That the equally fictitious “Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic” has survived since 1990 thanks to a mix of heavy industry, smuggling, and Russian aid demonstrates that it is possible for Moscow to create and sustain such entities if it really wants. Of course, propping up the much larger DNR/LNR would be a vast expense. But weighed against the devastating political blow that admitting defeat would mean for Putin, he might be willing to commit to such a move.

By freezing the conflict, Putin would not only avoid defeat, but he would reserve the opportunity to make a future deal. This would also allow the Kremlin to cast aside that fig leaf and acknowledge the presence of Russian troops — or “peacekeepers,” as Putin will no doubt call them — in the region. While these forces would have no international mandate as such, their declared presence would deter Kiev and, more importantly, the West. The prospect of U.S.-supplied weapons openly being used to kill Russian soldiers would certainly galvanize those already worried about the risks inherent in arming Kiev.

A brief pulse of Russian military action would also help make the LNR and, especially, the DNR more economically viable as pseudo-states, and less of a drain on the Russian treasury at a time when funds are already running low. Mariupol offers both a working airport and a port on the Black Sea; Avdiivka boasts Ukraine’s largest coke plant.

This forecast is, of course, something of a high-risk, maximalist approach. Even without escalating, Moscow can find some comfort if Washington decides to arm Kiev. Ukraine is swarming with Russian spies and saboteurs. The GRU — Russia’s resurgent military intelligence agency — and the SVR Foreign Intelligence Service’s Directorate X, responsible for scientific and technical espionage, must be salivating at the opportunity to inspect modern U.S. weapons, steal or copy parts and manuals, or maybe even seize entire weapon systems on the battlefield.

In any case, the news of U.S. weapons in Ukraine will be spun by Russia’s compliant media at home, and its “information warriors” abroad. This will also be used abroad to try to drive wedges between Washington and Europe and divide national consensuses about what to do about the crisis. The sight of U.S. weapons in the hands of Ukrainian troops, especially ones in the ultranationalist units — Nazis, according to Moscow — such as the Azov battalion, will only be grist for the Russian propaganda mill.

None of this, of course, represents a decisive counterargument against arming Ukraine. After all, not arming Ukrainian forces surely hasn’t worked thus far. And the longer the war drags on, the greater the human cost: Most figures suggest more than 5,000 have died in total so far, but according to German intelligence it may be as high as 50,000. What all this does mean, though, is that while Washington can send missiles and radars to Kiev, there are no silver bullets. Moscow will assuredly respond one way or the other. And it behooves everyone to consider in advance not only the full range of options at Vladimir Putin’s disposal, but what to do when the Kremlin makes its countermove.

Alexander Nemenov / Staff