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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 15°C
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Tom Clonan Only Putin knows how far he is willing to go to win his futile war in Ukraine
The security analyst assesses Putin’s use of nuclear power as a weapon of war.

PUTIN’S WAR IN Ukraine is in its third major phase. The first phase began on D-Day, 24 February when Russian troops poured across Ukraine’s borders from Russia, Belarus and the annexed Crimean Peninsula.

The Kremlin ordered a very ambitious assault on Donbas in the East and South and on the capital Kyiv and Kharkiv to the north. The war aim was clear – to decapitate President Zelenskyy’s administration and bring all of Ukraine under Russian control.

This phase was a spectacular failure and within a month, Putin pivoted to a second phase – concentrating on Luhansk and Donetsk, confining Russian actions to their oft-cited ‘special military operation’ in Donbas. After three months of attritional warfare, Putin finally seized most of the Luhansk Oblast with the destruction and seizure of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in late July.

This third phase

Phase three of Putin’s war has been underway for three weeks now as his forces concentrate their efforts on what remains of the Donetsk Oblast. It is not going well. Ukrainian forces have managed to stall Russian advances, with battle lines remaining relatively static. Ukraine’s capacity to rob Putin’s forces of momentum in Donetsk has been greatly assisted by long-range artillery and missile systems supplied by NATO and EU member states.

As a consequence, after almost six months of ground combat in Ukraine, Putin has – thus far – been denied a clear and unambiguous victory. At this stage of the war, this is highly problematic for Putin and the Kremlin. It undermines Putin’s reputation as Russia’s ‘strong man’ and has raised serious questions around the Kremlin’s capacity to project force into Europe by conventional means. Hence Putin’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons in an attempt to intimidate European resistance to his ‘imperial’ ambitions in Ukraine.

In the decades to come, students of warfare and military history will regard Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a remarkable act of aggression. It is remarkable on many levels – and for all of the wrong reasons. To begin with, Putin signalled his intention to invade Ukraine very clearly. In December and January, there was no attempt to conceal or camouflage his intention to invade.

There was little or no element of ‘Maskirovka’ or deception plan – for which the Russian military is famous. There was no element of surprise in their ground assault, normally a central component of any invasion plan. US and NATO intelligence agencies issued repeated warnings of an imminent invasion.

Some military analysts, myself included, expressed the view, based on the relatively modest numbers of Russian troops deployed to Ukraine’s borders – fewer than 200,000 soldiers – that Putin’s war aims would be limited to Donbas and perhaps securing a land corridor between the annexed Crimean Peninsula and Russian territory.

Unpredictable Putin

However, on D-Day, when the invasion was launched – Putin sprang a bizarre surprise on observers – not in a cunning or wily battle plan, but in a breathtakingly reckless all-out assault on Ukraine, on several fronts and on multiple axes of advance. It was in contrast to Putin’s previously cautious and calculated actions in other conflicts – most recently in Syria and notably in the annexation of Crimea and Ukrainian territory in 2014. In those military interventions, Putin only acted when assured of positive strategic and political advantage – with limited risk of exposure to his forces, and most especially to his own personal prestige and aura as Russian President.

Putin’s uncharacteristically wild gamble on a swift victory in Ukraine appears to have been based on a combination of failed intelligence estimates and flawed strategic command decision-making. In terms of intelligence, Putin may have been threatened by the growing success – on Russia’s border – of a successful popular democracy which openly rejected the autocratic interference of its former occupier. The Euro-Maidan movement and the message it sent to Moscow clearly provoked Putin and his enablers in the Kremlin.

Many of those close to Putin benefitted from the emergent Russian nationalism that grew after the chaos of the 1990s in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s rise to power coincided with a growing sense of reinstatement of Russia’s prestige, domestically and internationally.

As Putin and his cronies personally enriched themselves during this period, they systematically dismantled effective opposition in Russia and incrementally fostered a nationalist narrative that sees territories like Donbas as parts of ‘Novorossyia’ or Russia proper.

It appears that Putin may have come to believe many of the false narratives that he has carefully constructed. In essence, Putin rejects the notion that Ukraine is a legitimate state and he ultimately seeks its destruction as an independent entity.

Prior to his spectacularly ill-judged invasion, Putin appears to have believed in the inherently illegitimate – and therefore fragile – nature of Ukraine’s democracy. He expected it to collapse and submit to the Kremlin within days of his tanks rolling across the border.

That did not happen. The Russian military failed to emulate the ‘Red Army’ sweeping west across the Dneiper River – as it did during the Battle for Kyiv during the second world war. Nor did Ukraine succumb to the ‘nationalist steamroller’ of Russian propaganda and the hope that the country could be rapidly ‘Russified’.

In intelligence terms, Putin failed to anticipate the capacity and motivation to fight in the Ukrainian military. He failed to anticipate the coherence and unity of NATO and the EU in their opposition to aggression within Europe and their willingness to assist Ukraine in its defence. In a normal, functioning democracy, any one of these intelligence failings – in isolation – would have guaranteed Putin’s immediate sacking as President and de-facto commander in chief of the Russian military.

Putin the autocrat

However, Putin is no ordinary leader. He is an autocrat who has used lethal force – political assassination and extra-judicial killings – to secure his position as President for life of Russia. With regard to strategic command decision making, based on the manner in which he has deployed his troops in Ukraine – in terms of brutality and the deliberate targeting of Ukrainian men, women and children – it is clear as a dictator, he is not listening to any sensible advice. Nor does he appear to care about the international reputation of Russia or indeed the fate of his troops – whether they be depleted regular units or mercenaries.

This war will end at some point. Putin is running out of military options to decisively overwhelm Ukraine’s dogged defence in Donetsk. He is now also confronted with a concerted Ukrainian counter-attack – forcing many of his troops to evacuate back across the Dnieper River on the outskirts of Kherson. Putin is also experiencing attacks deep into Crimean territory – such as those on the Russian ammunition dump at Dzankhoi and their air base at Saky in recent days.

If President Zelenskyy – as suggested – mobilises a large force of combat veterans throughout Ukraine to re-take occupied territory, there will be a grave escalation of the war, with a quantum leap in casualties on all sides. The only meaningful military response open to Putin at that point would be a formal declaration of war against Ukraine and full mobilisation of the Russian military with universal conscription. It is unlikely – though not impossible – that this scenario would unfold.

This type of discussion and analysis would normally fall within ‘hypothetical’ and broadly theoretically predictable parameters. Russia’s economy is one-tenth of that of NATO and the EU’s member states combined. In a war of brutal attrition – where the side that can endure the most prevails – Putin’s position would be clearly untenable.

However, Putin possesses thousands of nuclear weapons, including small ‘tactical’ nuclear warheads that he might be tempted to use as a ‘game changer’ in Ukraine. His reckless military deployment at the Zaporhizhia nuclear power plant and his willingness to use a potential nuclear catastrophe as an instrument of psychological warfare speaks volumes about a man who has previously used nerve agents and radioactive materials to kill and maim his opponents.

As Autumn approaches, the Ukrainian military will do all in its power to hold the Russian advance in Donetsk. It may also seek to liberate areas currently occupied by Putin’s forces. This would represent a humiliating setback for Putin, anxious to avoid any form of defeat before Winter sets in.

In this third phase of the conflict, Ukraine is slowly gaining – however tenuous – the tactical initiative. Strategically, politically and morally, this conflict is a signal failure for Putin.

This war is unlikely to be over by Christmas. Events on the ground will only determine a certain amount. The decisive question over how the war might escalate, and in what form that escalation might take – with the real risk of a nuclear event – lies in the Kremlin. This is a stark assessment and one can only hope that those who have empowered Putin throughout this crisis will come to their senses before it is too late.

Dr Tom Clonan is an independent Senator and former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter.


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