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Halloween tricks (but no treats) for Vladimir Putin

Ukrainian soldiers fire at Russian positions
Associated Press/LIBKOS
Ukrainian soldiers fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region on Oct. 23. Associated Press/LIBKOS

Halloween is a fitting day to address Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy for the war in Ukraine in terms of tricks, not treats. The advice of the great Chinese military philosopher and general Sun Tzu is relevant. If you cannot win without war, the next best course of action is to attack the enemy’s strategy. It is not clear that the Biden administration fully appreciates Putin’s current strategy. And its own response, perhaps purposely, is ambiguous, with no obvious way of ending the war on favorable terms for Ukraine and the West.

Putin expected his initial invasion to emulate Hitler’s blitzkrieg into France, the Lowlands and, in 1941, Russia. Russian forces would have captured Kyiv; installed a puppet government; and, as in Syria with minimal forces, allowed the new government to take charge. Instead, Putin got a “reverse Desert Storm” in terms of Ukrainian resistance and competence.

Estimates of Russian casualties and material losses are huge: possibly 100,000 or more dead or wounded and vast amounts of equipment and weapons stocks destroyed, captured or expended. This  type of war is not immaculate. Ukraine too has suffered substantial military losses. And the civilian population has been unjustly targeted with heavy losses in life and property.

Putin’s current strategy is based on his version of history. It is to win by not losing, inflicting enough pain on Ukraine and its Western allies to force a negotiation. This is how winning by not losing allowed North Vietnam and the Afghan Taliban to defeat the U.S. and the Afghan Mujahideen to prevail over the USSR.

Given a Ukrainian battlefield that is about 650 miles long from north to south, Putin’s minimum military objective is to force a stalemate, giving up ground where he must. But the strategic center of gravity is the will of the Ukrainian public and its allies. By destroying much of Ukraine’s power grid and energy infrastructure, Putin’s ally will be “General Winter.”  

Harsh weather will impose great hardships both on civilians and on soldiers conducting offensive operations. Putin can regroup. And he is targeting Europe and the U.S. with energy shortages and information warfare operations aimed at breaking alliance cohesion.

Putin, to the degree it was reflected in his annual Valdai address last week, is well aware of political discord in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and potential weak points in Europe for continued support  of Ukraine. Energy shortages and spikes in the price of gasoline play to his advantage. 

Putin is also taking seriously comments from MAGA Republicans about cutting aid to Ukraine in favor of applying that money at home and seeking negotiations to end the war. He also may hope that a President Trump in 2024 will be more pliable than President Biden.

In sum, Putin is playing the long game. The question is: Are we? What is Biden’s strategy?

Biden has promised to support Ukraine with “whatever it takes,” implying the long term. In essence, this is a 21st century “lend lease” strategy to ensure Ukraine can defend itself. But it took American entry into World War II for the allies to prevail. And killing one’s way to victory did not work in Vietnam. No matter how competent the Ukrainian military may be, that does not seem to be a viable strategy.

If Biden were to take Sun Tzu’s advice, how would he defeat Putin’s strategy? First, he must take away the energy weapon. That means temporarily making national security a higher priority than reversing the potentially existential effects of climate change and maximizing petroleum and natural gas production.

Increases will not have an immediate effect. It is the psychological impact that will count, particularly in Europe, enabling it to survive energy shortages for the short term. And that will reverse the negative perceptions of seeking greater energy production from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

Second, he must increase the flow and pace of support to Ukraine, giving it the full kit it needs to retake more territory in a surprise winter offensive to convince Putin that winning by not losing is a failed strategy. Third, his administration must  ultimately determine what it is prepared to accept as concessions from all sides to end the war.

Finally, after the election, Biden needs to give the speech of his life on his strategy for Ukraine. It must be full of tricks and bare of treats even though, at some stage, treats may be needed.

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

Tags Biden Biden foreign policy Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Sun Tzu Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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