“Talk softly and carry a big stick” – latest thoughts on the Russian- Ukrainian War

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine I argued that such a move did not fit with Vladimir Putin’s known and declared ambitions.   It was not that I believed such an invasion could never happen, certainly not that I claimed the ability to predict the future. It’s just that Putin’s ambitions were understood to be the re-establishment of Russia as a significant power including resumed wider regional influence pushing back Western/American/NATO influence.

My belief at the time was that if Russia attempted to invade Ukraine then it would be disastrous for Putin’s aims. It would galvanise a European and NATO response including encouraging previously neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden to consider joining NATO. It would lead to significant economic sanctions that would prove costly to Russia and especially to Putin’s main allies and financial backers. Most importantly, I thought it likely that Russia would find itself involved in a long war of attrition similar to the USSR’s experience in Afghanistan (or come to think of it, the West’s similar experience there and in Iraq). So, it made more sense for Putin to keep playing psychological games whilst perhaps increasing activity in Donbas to essentially secure the full partition of  Ukraine.

I thought that if Putin did invade, it would be a serious miscalculation on his part and so it has proven.  Much of what I’ve said above came about.  The Russian military has been exposed as poorly equipped and motivated and has experienced high losses in terms of personnel, leadership and equipment.  Former Soviet countries such as Poland have been emboldened to look increasingly westward and further reduce their dependency on Russia for fuel.  NATO is beginning to re-deploy in Eastern Europe.  Ukraine remains unconquered. 

However, this doesn’t mean that the West have got everything right. There have been ongoing divisions and a sense of competition between countries and too often we’ve seen people see the crisis as an opportunity to replay past arguments over Brexit.

That competitive desire to out virtue signal one another has in my opinion led to one of the gravest miscalculations.  Economic Sanctions are complex and controversial.  There are a lot of question marks about their effectiveness.  If the hope is that by punishing a people and inflicting hardship on them you’ll turn them against their rulers then I think it mistaken and naïve. A besieged people are more likely to unite against their oppressors. 

Targeted measures to deprive Putin’s regime of resources to invest in the military and to cause the oligarchs to reconsider the benefits of siding with him might just have a significant effect. However, the rush to withdraw all other western goods, to break cultural links and to send Russian expats home seems to me a foolish miscalculation.  We want the Russian people to have a sense of connection with the wider world not isolation from it.  I’d have encouraged Apple, Nike, Cocoa Cola and MacDonalds to stay put, let Putin do the evicting.  

Those hasty, well-intentioned decisions may prove costly in the longer run. They make it more likely that we will enter a longer-term Cold War. They increase the possibility that Putin will be succeeded by people more hard line not less than him.

One anxiety at the moment is that Putin may be provoked into using nuclear weapons. This fear is currently being talked up by him, his government ministers and supportive media.  I suspect that the louder Putin’s allies are in their nuclear threats that the less worried we should be.  The old diplomatic adage is that you should “carry a big stick and talk softly.” That Putin is talking loudly and harshly raises questions about the actual size and effectiveness of his stick.  There must be at least a serious possibility that the same problems with his conventional forces apply to his nuclear ones. It may well be that his nuclear arsenal has rusted away in its silos and that his hypersonic missiles are about as close to being available for use as fusion power is in the West.

Of course, it is easier for me to make predictions about nuclear conflict than other predictions. If I get this one wrong, then no-ones likely to be pointing out I was wrong after the event. However, I remain confident that we are not about to enter into World War 3.

I suspect that this conflict will drift eventually into stalemate.  Ukraine will struggle to hold or recapture positions in the east of the country. Russia will not be able to push westwards.  Putin will at some point have to decide to pull back and de-escalate and he will want to find a way to do so without loss of face. He will want to be able to declare the mission a success, at least back home.

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