Russia and Ukraine -what next?

Today there is war in Europe.  We cannot underestimate the size of this conflict. Ukraine has a population of around 41.46 million, a little smaller than the United Kingdom, Russia is a permanent member of the UN security council with a population of 146 million and one of the largest nuclear powers.  The conflict is likely to be intense with heavy loss of life. As I’ve mentioned before, the consequences will be wider spread with a potentially huge refugee crisis that could dwarf what we’ve seen in recent years and significant economic impact, particularly considering Russia’s position as a major energy supplier to Europe.

Followers of this blog will know that my view is that full scale invasion made the least sense if Russia was seeking to meet its long term stated aims of rebuilding her wider regional influence and reducing or even removing Western/NATO influence in the region.  Just the other day I wrote that if Putin’s intention was to achieve these goals then:

It probably isn’t in its interests to launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine. Instead, he will want to keep tensions high and find ways to destabilise Ukraine and other countries too.

I was hopeful, even at that late stage that Putin would not escalate things further. However, I also observed that:

It is possible however, that he might decide that this is impossible, that Eastern Europe is pretty much lost and that he should cut his losses and take what he can. He might then conclude that a full grab of the whole of Ukraine is possible or might consider that an overreach now and settle for those eastern provinces.

As we now know, it is this scenario that has begun to play out and Putin does feel strong enough to launch a full-scale invasion. Whether at this stage we should expect full annexation, the setting up of a puppet regime or even a pullback following military action to consolidate the eastern provinces remains uncertain.

Now, this is where the questions I raised about possible silver linings come into play.  It is still my view that Putin’s tactics point both to Russian strength and to both Russian and personal weakness. He has needed to seek a pretext. He has needed to play games, even with his military might and even in the face bluntly of a weakened and divided NATO he couldn’t simply go straight into Ukraine.

I argued in my previous article that the question then was where Russian weakness is.  The evidence this morning is that it isn’t regarding confidence in their ability to launch and sustain a military invasion.  I suspect that it is primarily economic weakness.  That’s why getting economic sanctions right is important. From that perspective, I believe that a strategy of ramping up sanctions is correct. I also believe that the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 contract may turn out to have been a mistake.  The secret to sanctions is first to hit hard enough for a country to feel it immediately and secondly to have enough sanctions in reserve to act as a deterrent against further incursions. I suspect that the response in Russia of cancellation of Nord Stream 2 was that the cost from this would come down the line and could be factored in. So in effect the oligarchs will have said to Putin “you’d better make that worth it.”  Further, cancellation of future contracts don’t indicate the level of pain that countries are willing to sustain in imposing sanctions. The cost is hypothetical and can be quickly reversed.

In my last article I argued that Putin’s bluff needed to be called. How could NATO have done this? Well, there were a few options open to them, some of which are now closed.  The first would have been to quickly ratify Ukraine as a member of NATO.  Alongside this, NATO could then have brought in air and naval power to provide firepower for Ukraine in the event of conflict. The aim of such a move would have been to deter Russian invasion because an attack on Ukraine would have been an attack on all NATO members.  It is too late for that now because NATO does not want to get drawn into an actual hot conflict with Russia leading to potential nuclear conflict.

So, what can NATO do now? Well, rather than calling Putin’s bluff, they need to recognise that it is their bluff that has been called and respond accordingly.  The only way to respond at this stage is to ensure that Putin’s actions achieve the exact opposite of his strategic objectives.  This is important because whilst he may have decided to give up on the long game and seize what he can, this may not be what everyone in the Kremlin wants. There may still be significant people around him who want to see NATO power curtailed and Russia’s regional reach extended beyond Ukraine and into eastern Europe.

So, I think the response has to be as follows.

  1. Economic sanctions need to be stepped up significantly now.
  2. Negotiations should be opened for Finland to join NATO
  3. There should be a significant ramping up of NATO deployments in Eastern Europe and particularly into Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

The other consequence of this is that it begins to feel to Putin’s regime like they are fighting battles on multiple fronts. Russia should not be allowed to focus all of her attention on Ukraine.  Putin needs to be distracted.

There may be other things that NATO can do by moving back to a Cold war footing which disrupt Russian military logistics. Finally though, there is one final front that somehow needs to be opened up.  Russia are currently enjoying good relations with China. So, somehow China needs to be brought onside. I suspect that China are happy for Russia to be an irritant to the West but wouldn’t want Putin to become too strong and confident.  So, there’s room for carrot and stick here.  Are there ways of encouraging China to see better economic opportunities through good relations with the West? Are there ways of hurting China economically if she continues to support Russia?

Finally, there is another front that needs to be opened up and that is internally within Russia. Think about how over the past few weeks we’ve read newspaper articles and tweets effectively passing on Putin’s propaganda, that he is the aggrieved party, that the West are at fault. Well, it is clear that NATO, the EU and the UK are not without fault or failing but we need to be clear that there is never an excuse for the type of aggression we have seen in Ukraine.  My point here though is that the tables need to be turned. Rather than Putin being defended and supported amongst western populations, the need is for the Russian population to be hearing the truth about their leader and government.

This message is being shared on social media from the Ukrainian President.  It is a heart felt plea to the Russian people. It’s important that messages like this are heard in Russia.

Max Fras on Twitter: “Zelensky’s live address to the Russian people is as amazing as it is heartbreaking (Translation by @antontroian)” / Twitter

These are my current thoughts on the situation. Things are changing rapidly and if there’s one thing we should have learnt, it is to expect the unexpected. I’ve written here in human terms about how nations might respond.  As a Christian I keep coming back to the most important thing which is that it is only God who can change Putin’s heart. He is the one who is Lord over history.  Our response must be to pray.

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