'Cruel' Vladimir Putin gets smart, ready to use this weapon against Ukraine?

Bloomberg |
Dec 14, 2022 11:42 AM IST

Russia-Ukraine War: Vladimir Putin’s best strategy right now is a characteristically cruel one: the weaponization of winter .

The Ukrainian winter will be brutal, but it won’t bring the war to a freezing halt. Ukraine and Russia both face key decisions that could reshape the conflict diplomatically and militarily. Perhaps the most worrying possibility for Ukraine, and for the US, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will finally start showing the strategic smarts he has demonstrated in the past.

Russia-Ukraine War: Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen. (AFP)
Russia-Ukraine War: Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen. (AFP)

US officials believe Putin is belatedly realizing something that has been blindingly obvious those outside the cocoon of sycophancy in the Kremlin: Russia lacks the military means to accomplish its political ends in Ukraine.

Russia is blowing through missiles and munitions faster than its heavily sanctioned defense industry can replenish them. Its troops are struggling to hang on to their early gains, let alone seize all the territory that Putin has illegally and somewhat farcically claimed for Russia.

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Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation have failed to deter Ukraine from walking over red line after Russian red line — most recently, via drone attacks on air bases deep inside Russia proper.

And for all of Russia’s supposedly endless manpower, Putin can’t mobilize additional troops, beyond the roughly 300,000 he earlier called up, without antagonizing a heretofore apathetic population.

The problems aren’t new, but Putin’s willingness to acknowledge them (even obliquely) is: He publicly admitted last week that victory is a long way off.

So Putin’s best strategy right now is a characteristically cruel one: the weaponization of winter .

Russia is using missiles, drones and artillery against the Ukrainian electrical grid and other key infrastructure to make an exposed population suffer. Following their withdrawal from Kherson, Russian forces have mostly assumed the defensive, trying to shore up their lines , integrate recently mobilized personnel, and buy time until the spring. (The exception is a grinding, costly offensive around Bakhmut, meant to give Putin a symbolic victory.)

If Russia can protract the conflict through winter — while making things as unpleasant as possible for a battered Ukraine, an energy-poor Europe and an increasingly distracted Washington — perhaps Kyiv and the West will crack.

The strategy will be hard to execute for the Russians: A country that is famous for thriving in winter reportedly lacks the warm clothing and even food that some of its troops will need to survive the coming months. But it isn’t crazy, given Putin’s lack of better options and some scattered signs of aid fatigue in the West. One reason US President Joe Biden is seeking a major Ukraine assistance package now is uncertainty about how much aid a Republican-majority House will be willing to provide in 2023.

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Winter brings hard choices for Ukraine as well. Its forces are fatigued from heavy fighting; from a purely military perspective, an operational pause makes sense. But from a political and diplomatic viewpoint, waiting may be riskier.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy surely worries that even the appearance of a winter stalemate might amplify Western ambivalence. The signals from Washington aren’t entirely reassuring: Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that the US priority is helping Ukraine reclaim the territory it held on Feb. 24, the day of the invasion, with decisions about Crimea and other land lost since 2014 deferred to a later date.

America’s top military official, General Mark Milley, has argued that Ukraine should start negotiations before it ends up in a World War I-style quagmire. Zelenskiy may fear domestic political peril, too, if Ukrainian forces rest while the population is further punished.

Winter is actually a good time to strike — when the ground freezes, tanks and trucks can travel off road — and Zelenskiy may try another offensive. One option would be a thrust into the Zaporizhzhia region in the southeast to sever Russia’s land bridge to Crimea, trap another pocket of Putin’s forces, and prove that more Western aid will enable more Ukrainian victories.

It’s a tricky decision, because Kyiv has to balance the dangers of inaction with the dangers of a failed offensive. And Ukraine’s dilemma will become sharper if Putin seizes the diplomatic initiative by proposing a cease-fire before spring.

Nothing about Putin is sincere. A cease-fire would simply ease pressure on Russia’s military, allow the country’s arms industry to catch up with the war’s demands, and position Moscow to renew hostilities when convenient. Ukraine would rightly reject an offer that freezes Russian gains in place.

But US officials fear that such a gambit could change the diplomatic game, by setting off a global PR battle over who is responsible for prolonging the fighting. It could also give occasional advocates of a diplomatic settlement, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, something they have previously lacked: any semblance of cooperation from the Kremlin.

Strange as it may sound, Ukraine and the US have been fortunate in their adversary. A deluded, out-of-touch Putin who hasn’t understood the gap between his objectives and his resources, or made the diplomatic moves that would put his rivals on the wrong foot. If that dynamic changes, it will be a very different war.

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