Keep the pressure on Putin
Despite setbacks on the field, Vladimir Putin has hardened his goal of making Ukraine a Russian vassal. Negotiating an end to the fighting in Ukraine now would reward Putin’s aggression, diminish the gravity of his war crimes, and erode the international principle of non-intervention. Sadly, especially for the Ukraine people, fighting will go on through the winter — and likely beyond — until the pressure on Putin is such that he recognizes defeat on his horizon.
As recently as Oct. 27 at the Valdai Discussion Club, Putin reiterated his position that Ukraine has no sovereignty separate from Russia. The vice speaker of the Russian Federation Council, Konstantin Kosachev, supports Putin saying that a normal relationship with Ukraine can be had only through its capitulation. Putin is experiencing some pushback from his citizenry, former Kremlin oligarchs, and a few others. But so far, this has not softened his resolve.
He has doubled down on failure. Failing to subjugate Ukraine via a quick victory, he is now failing in his Plan B to partition Ukraine and strangle it economically. So, he’s on Plan C: destroy Ukraine’s civil infrastructure to break the population’s will to go on — adding more war crimes to the many already committed. Plan C will likely fail, too. History shows that a nation’s will to fight often increases under savage attacks on its civil population. Soviet will did not diminish when the Nazis attacked Stalingrad or Moscow. Nor did Britain’s will decline during the Blitz, or German will under the allied bombing campaign.
Putin has switched to Plan C because he has no alternative. He continues his desultory attacks in Donetsk and attempts to rebuild his ground and air forces — both unlikely to succeed. But he continues to try because he has not given up on his goal of subjugating Ukraine. He won’t back away from this objective unless forced to do so. Force and allied support spoiled Plan A. Similar resolve is foiling Plan B. And it will defeat Plan C. Further, continued force will widen fissures within Russia and among Putin’s allies.
We can wish the situation were otherwise, but the reality of the Ukraine war is that fighting will continue, necessitating continued allied support and sanctions. Right now, Ukraine and its allies have three critical, interrelated tasks:
Military: Ukraine’s offensive must continue at least until Putin’s forces are forcibly ejected from the territories they gained following the February 2022 invasion and Russian forces in the areas occupied in 2014 are under significant threat. Winter fighting is hard. Extreme cold affects people, weapons and machines — even if all are properly winterized. It is hardest, however, on units that are poorly led and ill equipped, have weak cohesion, and whose supply lines are tenuous — i.e., the Russian military. Cold slows things down but won’t stop the fighting.
That means that allied support must be complete. It must produce, finally, an anticipatory flow of arms, ammunition and supplies, rather than the current ebb-and-flow/just-in-time support. A comprehensive air and missile defense system should have been delivered already to Ukraine, for example. And the allies should have created in-theater stockpiles necessary to facilitate continued Ukrainian offensive operations. The allies also must turn up their industrial bases — not only to support Ukraine requirements for winter fighting and continued operations, but also to fill shortages created by what has been transferred to Ukraine already and to sustain NATO’s eastern flank’s defense.
Additionally, the allies must plan and execute a comprehensive energy strategy to support Europe through the winter. Cohesion within NATO matters, and that requires a stalwart European population. Military operations don’t support themselves — they require industrial and popular support.
Diplomatic: Now is not the time to negotiate with Putin, but now is the time for Ukraine and allied leaders to agree among themselves — in secret — on what conditions any war-ending proposal should meet. Those conditions might be akin to the following three: (1) A self-determining, sovereign Ukraine with sufficient territory to ensure its economic prosperity and sufficient security guarantees to prevent future aggression. (2) The international principle of non-aggression upheld, and war crimes adequately addressed. (3) The war was prevented from widening beyond Ukraine’s borders or escalating to the nuclear level. Any proposed resolution to the war meeting the criteria finally adopted by Ukraine and allied leaders should be counted as a potential option to end the war.
Further, allied leaders should redouble their diplomatic focus on Russia’s supporters. Sanctions have isolated Russia economically; well-aimed diplomacy can isolate Putin even more. China has warned Putin not to use nuclear weapons. India has sharpened its criticism of the war. Some of Putin’s allies may be willing to weaken their support as Putin’s chances of success diminish. Fighting alone does not win a war. Securing a just peace results from good military strategies and well-executed diplomatic campaigns.
Economic: When the war does end, Ukraine will face enormous reconstruction and recovery tasks, the costs of which they cannot bear alone. Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest’s pledge to a global Ukraine investment fund, as well as commitments made by individual nations and financial institutions and ongoing humanitarian aid, are huge steps forward. But reconstruction and recovery efforts must be coordinated and comprehensive. It will require a Ukraine/allied economic strategy that stimulates Ukraine’s long-term economic growth and self-sufficiency.
Such a fund may work best, reducing the probability of corruption, if administered by some kind of public commission that meets the needs of investors as well as the Ukraine people. This plan will not arise sua sponte. It will be birthed through a deliberate, post-fighting economic strategy. If identifying such a strategy hasn’t started already, it should begin immediately.
Too many view war as just fighting, but that’s a myopic and ahistorical view. Wars have to be fought and waged. Waging the Ukraine war successfully requires Ukraine and allied leaders to focus on common aims; align military, industrial, economic and diplomatic strategies, policies and campaigns with those aims; adapt as the war unfolds; sustain public support; and bring the war to a close by attaining the agreed upon aims.
Looking at media headlines and leads or listening to leaders speak, one hears a lot about how the Ukraine war is being or should be fought, but not as much about how it should be waged. A successfully fought and waged war puts Putin in a diminished position at the negotiating table.
James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. He served in military command and operational roles in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq, and helped train forces in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Honduras, and many NATO countries.