Is Ukraine Putin’s Iraq?
A careful reading of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine speech last week raises two contrarian questions. First, is Ukraine Putin’s Iraq? The parallels are striking.
As the United States was propelled into the second Iraq war 20 years ago over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that did not exist, Putin’s manufactured arguments for invading Ukraine to protect the people of Donbas and Crimea from Kyiv’s “neo-nazi” repression resonated with similarly fraudulent arguments. Most Americans accepted the George W. Bush administration’s reasons for the invasion. So too, many Russians believe or have chosen not to reject Putin’s deceit.
Further, as George W. Bush used the fatuous “mushroom cloud argument,” Putin repeats it for home consumption. He asserts that Western states “have even resorted to nuclear blackmail. I am referring … (to) high ranking representatives of the leading NATO nations on the admissibility of using … nuclear weapons against Russia.” Really?
Putin is also recreating the U.S. “surge” in Iraq, calling up 300,000 reservists. But unlike the U.S. surge, this one may prove a Potemkin village. It takes considerable time to recruit, retrain, equip and deploy these forces, probably longer than the General Staff in Moscow has calculated. Russia cannot provide adequate logistics for its forces in Ukraine. How will it provide basic food, shelter, training, weapons, equipment and other support for this cohort that on paper is 50 percent larger than the number of troops in Ukraine?
Russia also lacks generals with the competence of America’s in Iraq, such as David Petraeus, to execute a surge. And unanswered is whether Russian protests against the call-up and de facto draft will have an impact. The U.S. public initially supported the Iraq War despite the absence of WMD. More likely, Russian security and police forces will quickly contain any riots and major protests.
The second question is that while the speech was interpreted in the West as escalatory, threatening the use of nuclear weapons and an energy embargo to shatter NATO cohesion, is there an alternative explanation? Could that threat have been a form of maskirovka (deception) concealing Putin’s real aim of ending the war through forced negotiations? The “tell” could have been Putin’s previously undisclosed claim of Kyiv’s representatives initially voicing “a positive response to our proposals” for a settlement.
To non-Russians, Putin’s accusations of NATO wielding a nuclear threat are preposterous. NATO is a defensive alliance, possessing a relatively small number of so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Nowhere has any NATO leader even intimated using nuclear weapons: Quite the opposite. And Presidents Biden and Putin have agreed that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.
Other than invention, how could Putin possibly have concluded that NATO was overtly making a nuclear threat? The answer actually makes sense to a Russian, especially a paranoid one. U.S. military strategy since the Obama administration has been “to contain, deter and, if war comes, defeat” potential enemies led by Russia and China.
As a world war almost certainly would be nuclear, Moscow perceives this strategy as a direct nuclear threat to it. And, the U.S. has deployed nuclear capable B-52 bombers in proximity to Russia as a show of force. Moscow has regarded these deployments as a direct nuclear threat. Perhaps Washington and Brussels did not consider this reaction.
How then should the West react to the lines in the speech that were perceived as particularly provocative, such as “In the event of a threat to our territorial integrity and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all means available to us. This is not a bluff.” That threat needs to be taken seriously but not overly dramatized.
One conclusion is that the West may be in a much stronger position than it realizes. To deal with the unlikely but not impossible nuclear scenario, the West must make it absolutely clear that in that circumstance all Russian military forces in Ukraine would be vulnerable to attack. And the West has the ability to cripple Russian forces with precision strikes that would put the Ukrainian army in a dominant position.
There is another conclusion. As recommended last week, a three-pronged strategy must be implemented that combines diplomacy with judicial use of force. If the speech was indeed a long-term Russian commitment to stay the course as the U.S. did in Iraq, we are prepared for that option. But if the speech signaled another course of action, that must not be ignored either.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.