Russia’s War – the Lessons

Photo: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed an application for Ukraine's membership in the European Union. Credit: Denys Shmyhal via Twitter.
Photo: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed an application for Ukraine's membership in the European Union. Credit: Denys Shmyhal via Twitter.

Vladimir Putin’s reckless and brutal assault on Ukraine has underlined key issues for the future.

A week into Russia’s criminal aggression against Ukraine and there are already numerous lessons learned — many should have been assimilated earlier.

First, it is long since clear that an independent, not to say, pro-Western Ukraine is anathema to both Vladimir Putin and his system. Therefore, from Putin’s perspective, the country must be destroyed. So, it is no surprise that his immediate goal is regime change. That means much more than replacing the Volodymyr Zelenskyy government. It also entails mass incarceration or torture, or assassination of the Ukrainian elite, and a virtual reign of terror. Very likely it will also involve the territorial amputation of Ukraine. Such operations, with their habitual reliance upon brutality against civilians, has been a hallmark of the Russian military dating back to Ivan III’s sacking and destruction of the republican city of Novgorod in 1478. The mounting and likely still greater attacks on civilians (see Kharkiv) are probably, therefore, acts of strategic calculation.

The second lesson pertains to Russian nuclear strategy. Putin’s nuclear threats fully comport with Russian doctrine and strategy, whatever his mental state may be. His war against Ukraine represents a wager on the survival of his regime. Since Russia’s 2014 defense doctrine, “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat,” and the war against Ukraine fulfills that clause, at least in the view of the Kremlin. Since Putin’s regime itself is now under threat domestically and externally due to this aggression and visible mismanagement of this war (see also the likely collapse of the Russian economy) and so this condition for nuclear use has now come into play. As the veteran Estonian-based analyst James Sherr observes, although Russian doctrinal documents equate this threat with the opponent’s use of nuclear or conventional weapons, much emphasis in the 2014 doctrine is also placed on the East-West ideological clash as a “military danger” (one notch below “threat”), and also upon “the establishment of regimes [in contiguous states], whose policies threaten the interests of the Russian Federation.”

Hysterical about Ukraine as he is, Putin could easily conclude that the time for nuclear threats and use has arrived. Here we should also note that the 2014 doctrine states that: “A characteristic feature of military conflicts has become: the integrated employment of military force and political, economic, informational or other non-military measures implemented with a wide use of the protest potential of the population and of special operations forces.” Inasmuch as Ukraine embodies that description of contemporary war, it is entirely possible that Russia will consider nuclear weapons an instrument worth considering.

This is a genuine threat, seeking to deter Western support for Ukraine, and also epitomizing Russia’s intimidation culture (another feature of Putin’s Mafia-like rule.) But in view of the evolving plan to encircle Kyiv and apparently destroy its infrastructure, the possible use of nuclear weapons is also designed to brutalize millions of people into surrender and simultaneously forestall any possibility of a humanitarian operation to relieve the siege. Moreover, since Putin has no viable political retreat (as he has said), the nuclear option or the conversion of Kyiv into another Grozny using conventional weaponry is entirely possible due to his insensate ambition for imperial vindication.

Consequently, both morally and geopolitically, Putin’s obsession with restoring the Russian empire makes his continuing rule and his system incompatible with any concept of European security. Having resurrected the Cold War, Putin has forced the West to fashion an updated version of containment whose ultimate objective must be regime change, albeit by peaceful means as long as possible.

Bearing all this in mind, and understanding what is at stake here, it is essential that NATO and the European Union generate a strategy to wrest escalation dominance from the Russians in all domains. This means, inter alia, reminding the Kremlin of what awaits if it resorts to biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons and making clear that we will not allow a humanitarian disaster in major Ukrainian cities.

Finally, this war and the astounding reaction from European states and societies confirm that European security is truly indivisible. Putin, as Europe now knows, will not stop at Ukraine. Rather it is merely a fulcrum to evict the US from Europe and shatter NATO, thereby plunging the world into perpetual war and giving Putin a lifeline of political survival.  

It is therefore plain that international solidarity in support of Ukraine and for its defense must only continue and grow. This must ultimately also mean bringing Putin and his confederates before the bar of justice to account for their deeds.

Ukraine’s fate is now more truly linked to that of Europe than ever before. Because of this, and because of the extraordinary valor of Ukraine’s heroic people, the country now has a chance to save itself through its own exertions and with Western support. And by saving itself, Ukraine will save Europe by its example.

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute.

March 1, 2022