Guarding against Russia’s October surprise
As the fighting grinds on in Ukraine, the United States should be preparing diplomatic strategies to prevent Russia from unexpectedly ending the war on its own terms. Russian President Vladimir Putin could engineer such an outcome in various ways, but each would involve declaring unilaterally that Moscow had achieved its objectives and was therefore halting further offensive military action and insisting that Kyiv accept a cease fire.
How would Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO respond? If Russia times its initiative correctly, and the West is unprepared, Russia could well conclude the current phase of reabsorbing its former empire controlling over 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory, with little immediate prospect of Kyiv reversing the then-existing military reality.
Such a Kremlin diplomatic coup rests on several variables. First, Putin must find a way to say with a straight face, whether true or not, that Russia has achieved its objectives in this “special military operation.” Moscow wants to turn the page on the profound military and political humiliations it has suffered since its unprovoked February aggression, but it requires at least a patina of tangible accomplishments its propagandists can emphasize.
The fall of Luhansk province is one such readily identifiable success, and the fall of Donetsk province (as of today, still problematic) would be another. Whatever the pretext, it must be sufficiently salable, at least in Putin’s mind, to camouflage Russia’s enormous human and material losses.
Second, Moscow’s lines of control inside Ukraine must be militarily defensible, utilizing favorable topography, geographic compactness and transportation and communications lines to its best advantage. Such lines of control can be drawn in innumerable ways, some more favorable than others. We can be certain Russian defense and economic planners are urgently considering the various alternatives.
Third, Putin is counting on expanding and exploiting internal NATO divisions to his advantage, and will judge the moods of European leaders, particularly French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, accordingly. The historical record unfortunately gives him cause to be optimistic that NATO unity is far more fragile than it appears publicly.
One can easily imagine the Kremlin spinning about how long the war has dragged on, how important it is to allow Europe’s economies to recover and how central a diplomatic resolution will be. Among those already eager to move on, this will, entirely predictably, significantly amplify Russia’s view in NATO capitals. Putin knows this well.
Fourth, the Kremlin must get its timing right. For now, Russia’s World War I-style offensive is still making slow progress in eastern Ukraine. In this attritional conflict, both sides have suffered significant casualties. Publicly available evidence of Russian military losses, supplied by Ukraine and NATO, shows they are substantial. We know less about Ukrainian military casualties, but the collateral civilian toll is certainly grim. As in the 1939-40 Soviet-Finnish “winter war,” both sides may be near exhaustion.
For now, Russia’s superior firepower is eroding Ukraine’s defenses, despite the massive quantities of intelligence NATO has supplied during the conflict, and the increasing levels of weapons and other war materiel. Even more advanced weapons await delivery to the front lines and training for Ukrainian forces to use them effectively. Volodomyr Zelensky’s government is counting on the increasing mass of this support to begin making a battlefield difference in the coming months, as Zelensky himself just asserted, after Lysychansk’s fall.
These estimates and conjectures are matters more of military art than science, and the pressure on the Kremlin to make the right judgment is enormous. While no Clausewitzian “culminating point of victory” is clearly evident, Putin certainly doesn’t want to halt hostilities prematurely.
On the other hand, he does not want to see the current battlefield momentum reversed; for Moscow, the worst moment to announce a cease fire is while Russian forces are retreating. We cannot now predict Russia’s precise judgment on timing, but that it lies unilaterally in Putin’s hands is a significant concern. October may be as good a time as any from Russia’s perspective, given the potential military balance of forces, and the impending U.S. congressional elections. With Democrats in palpable political jeopardy in current polling, President Biden may be very reluctant to argue that hostilities should continue.
This discouraging scenario can be prevented, but only if Washington and Kyiv start now to lay the necessary groundwork, which will require significant diplomatic efforts. NATO must immediately and unanimously make clear that no Russian “October surprise” is acceptable, whenever it might occur. Ukraine and its allies should state unequivocally that Russian aggressions, not only this year but also the 2014 version, remain unacceptable.
Accordingly, no ceasefire is possible until Russian forces are leaving Ukraine, and Moscow accepts that the return of full Ukrainian sovereignty throughout its territory, including Crimea, is non-negotiable. Anything less would give Russia a significant political victory.
NATO must also stress that no sanctions will be eased or eliminated until after full withdrawal. In fact, sanctions should continue to escalate, more comprehensively drawn and more rigorously enforced than they have been to date. Lifting sanctions is plainly one of Moscow’s objectives, one unfortunately shared by many Europeans; it is critical to take the issue off the bargaining table as promptly as possible.
While establishing these political red lines, NATO must also accelerate its shipments of weapons and materiel to Ukraine, thereby making clear that Moscow’s pretense of seeking an equitable cessation of hostilities will fail. This will become especially important if it comes to pass that Russia’s significant territorial gains in eastern Ukraine are reversible, which is not now the case. NATO should be dictating any ceasefire terms, not Russia, and further military support for Ukraine is the alliance’s plainest evidence that it is ready for protracted conflict.
Moscow waited eight years after its 2014 invasion to renew military aggression this February. Its forces now need considerable time to recover before being able to strike again. How the West performs diplomatically and militarily in the next few months may well determine whether there is a third Ukraine war in our future, or whether we can establish sustainable deterrence.
John Bolton was national security adviser to President Trump from 2018 to 2019, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006 and held senior State Department posts in 2001-2005 and 1985-1989. His most recent book is “The Room Where It Happened” (2020). He is the founder of John Bolton Super PAC, a political action committee supporting candidates who believe in a strong U.S. foreign policy.