What is Putin’s exit strategy?

How will the war in Ukraine end and what, if anything, can the United States, NATO and perhaps China do to end the conflict and deaths that could be considerable for both combatants and civilians? If reports are correct that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered an increase in the readiness of Russian nuclear forces, obviously that threat is meant to intimidate not only Ukraine but the entire world.

What is Putin’s exit strategy? Beyond that, is there an overarching conclusion to be drawn now that will be relevant no matter how this conflict ends? And, finally, what may be one of the greatest, less visible dangers for President Biden in this crisis? 

Whether any negotiation arises in the short term, as suggested by initial reports from Moscow, or awaits how the war proceeds will be answered in due course. While reference to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse has been made, a better analogy is Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese imperial staff believed that, given the isolationism rampant in America, Washington would quickly capitulate. And as Russia has launched strikes across much of Ukraine, Japan likewise rapidly occupied much of the Far East.

The United States did not capitulate — the sneak attack had precisely the opposite effect. Will something similar happen as the Ukrainian resistance is galvanized and the war becomes a bloody stalemate?  

Clearly, Putin must have an exit strategy. A short, intense strike to intimidate and “shock and awe” Ukraine is possible. (As a side note, as the principal author of “shock and awe,” it was designed to avoid using overwhelming force and maximum damage and casualties to succeed as seems to be the case in Ukraine.)

Even if Russia were to occupy Kyiv and install a puppet government, what is the guarantee that it would last without stationing many hundreds of thousands of troops to protect it? And if street fighting broke out, images of Stalingrad and Hue City in Vietnam in 1968 come to mind. 

Should the conflict persist, global economies would be sensitive to recession or worse as oil prices soared and supply lines were disrupted. Ironically, an economic downturn might prompt China to persuade Russia that a conclusion was in everyone’s, i.e. China’s, best interest. So, negotiation, probably sooner than later, must be Putin’s smartest exit. 

The Ukraine crisis demands that NATO reexamine its purposes, organization and the nature of the security condition it faces. The Cold War demanded deterring the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO went “out of area” so as “not to go out of business.” After 9/11, global extremism became the raison d’etre. 

Today, U.S. focus has fundamentally shifted to Asia. Many, including this columnist, dissented. Ukraine and Russian belligerence demands a re-balancing of interests. A new strategy is also required, in this case one based on a Porcupine Defense to disrupt and halt an initial attack, making the costs too great for any aggressor to consider acceptable.  

Ukraine was the ideal proving ground had it been armed with tens of thousands of sea, air and land unmanned systems; huge numbers of anti-air and anti-armor portable weapons; long range missiles to strike deeply; electronic and other systems to confuse, deceive, misinform, misdirect and confound; means to decapitate and harass command, control and leadership; and improvised devices with up to 20,000 pounds of high explosives to take out access routes, choke points, roads and bridges.

President Biden faces a daunting array of challenges. Surprisingly, one of the greatest dangers Biden faces may be the failure of domestic consensus and support for the war. Some Republicans have already blamed the war on Biden’s failure of leadership, characterizing Putin as strong and our president as weak.

A significant portion of Americans question why Ukraine is important to the U.S. As of last weekend, most Americans disapproved of how the president was handling this crisis. But in fairness, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln would have been hard pressed to cope with the daunting array of concurrent crises confronting this commander in chief.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary 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 that World at Large.”

Tags . Russia-Ukraine conflict Joe Biden NATO Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin
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