What’s Putin’s next move?
With the fall of Severdonetsk last week, what might Russian President Vladimir Putin be thinking about the war in Ukraine, the consequences of his policies regarding the U.S., NATO and the European Union and his next steps? As the West never fully comprehended the depth of Putin’s resentment and animosity towards it until it was too late, are the U.S. and NATO overestimating Ukraine’s ability to resist and underestimating Moscow’s determination to persist and prevail in this war? Suppose Putin believes he has the advantage over not only Ukraine but also the U.S., NATO and EU?
What are some of these possible strategic, economic, tactical and military advantages as Putin may see them? First, Putin has size and quantity on his side in the war against Ukraine. No matter how heroic Ukrainian resistance has been, it is not infinite, especially as casualties rise and weapons and logistics stocks are depleted.
Second, Putin no doubt sees, rightly or wrongly, the weaknesses and flaws in the Western alliance that, over time, will not be contained and can be exploited. In that context, energy and food will be exploited to divide the alliance. Europe is dependent on Russian gas and oil. And the cost of gasoline in America, assuming it will remain high, is a huge problem for President Biden and his domestic support, exacerbated by swelling inflation that may constrain a longer term consensus to allocate many billions of dollars to support Ukraine.
About food, as Putin learned in his engagement in Syria, migration can be a powerful weapon. With an outbreak of massive global starvation and food shortages, the implications for migration are self-evident. With 5 million displaced Ukrainians and substantial numbers seeking refuge in Poland, Romania and elsewhere, starvation will drive orders of magnitude more people to find safety and sustenance in Europe and the U.S. The West may not be able to handle this.
Third, Putin sees that the U.S. has been forced into planning for a two-front war directed against Russia and China. Putin fully appreciates the folly of such a strategy. Napoleon and Hitler ultimately were defeated by embarking on two-front wars, invading Russia in 1812 and the USSR in 1941, respectively. China then is a strategic asset as well as a market for Russian energy to circumvent the sanctions and force the U.S. to dilute its resources in having to cope with two major adversaries half a world away.
Fourth, Putin probably sees the divisions in America over virtually every issue as further constraints on its power and ability to influence events. While he may not be following the two Supreme Court decisions from last week, one kicking the abortion issue back to the states and the other enabling Americans the right of concealed carry of firearms, the U.S. political system seems in gridlock and incapable of working.
Fifth, Putin has other leverage. The brouhaha over Lithuania imposing EU sanctions on Russia by blocking certain goods and services to Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave in the Baltic separated from the homeland, is one. The EU may resolve this. But implicit military threats by Russia have already led to strong reactions in the Baltics.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas declared that NATO’s strategy to defend her country could see it being “wiped from the map.” Putin will flex Russia’s main and only military advantage over NATO – numerical superiority in short-range nuclear weapons – possibly to announce publicly stationing more in Kaliningrad as a Damoclean sword to threaten and divide NATO.
The NATO Summit in Madrid takes place this week. NATO will announce its new Strategic Concept that began a major overhaul the day after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Forward defense, mainly stationing more NATO forces in the Baltics and the Northern and Southern flanks as deterrents to Russian aggression, will be featured. But will this concept counter what Putin believes are his advantages?
Fortunately, Putin’s advantages are not necessarily as strong or as valid as he believes. Yet, unless the West understands why Putin believes time is on his side and acts to reverse that perception, it is hard to be optimistic about the chances for a viable counter strategy.
And, given current flash points, memories of June 28 and the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914 in Sarajevo loom.
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.