In the Shadow of Escalation

Germany’s reversal on its decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, and the Biden administration’s follow up announcement that the US will also ship a contingent of M-1 Abrams tanks has raised eyebrows and caused concern across the globe. NATO sending armor to the Ukraine has been considered a red line since the start of the war in Ukraine almost a year ago. The fear was that such a move is almost certain to bring with it a substantial risk of escalation. That concern proved to be a  main reason Berlin was initially reluctant to make its Leopard 2 tanks available to Kiev.  But in the face of allied pressure and a changing dynamic on the ground in Ukraine, Germany decided providing Leopard 2s was worth the perceived risk. Great Britain drew the same conclusion a few days earlier and the United States has followed suit. The events going on over the last thirty-six hours make it clear NATO’s strategy for Ukraine is shifting to an ‘escalate to deescalate’ track. The problem with this is that Russia appears to be doing much of the same.

With winter having transformed the fighting in Ukraine into a stalemate, Russia is digging in and making preparations for a spring offensive. Which means that between now and spring, Russia and NATO will be racing to make their respective arrangements. For NATO this means getting Ukrainian tank crews trained to proficiency and the new armor integrated into Ukrainian units in time to help blunt the coming Russian offensive. Russia, on the other hand, will be rushing to get its dispositions and resupply efforts complete in time to launch the offensive on its terms and seize the initiative.

Between now and spring, the conflict will enter the shadow of escalation. Essentially, this is a critical stage where perception and misperception of the opposing side’s intentions and strategic objectives will determine the next direction the war will take. As we’ve seen many times over the past eleven months, the behavior of Russia has not been as centralized, coordinated or planned as the West anticipated. The imposing of heavy economic sanctions failed to deter Putin from pressing forward with the invasion. Even larger batches of Western military and economic aid earmarked for Kiev also did not convince him that war was a bad idea. Putin and Russia have not responded as anticipated. The West misperceived Putin and the effect its actions would have.

In turn, Putin’s misperceptions of the West, predominantly of NATO and the United States, contributed greatly to the less-than-attractive position the Russians are presently in. The overall unity NATO has demonstrated in the face of Soviet aggression has transcended all pre-war predictions. Ukraine’s performance on the battlefield helped to keep the alliance from writing off Kiev as a lost cause. Putin and Russian military leaders also grossly underestimated how well the military would fight, a near fatal misperception of Russian power and one which continues to haunt Russia on a regular basis.

In the shadow of escalation phase watch for the West and Russia to try and reassess their perceptions of the other’s intentions and behavior. For Russia, NATO’s commitment to send armor to Ukraine has served to fulfill Putin’s argument that NATO is an active combatant in the war. This could give him some relief on the domestic front with a resurgence of popular support, rendering the burgeoning anti-Putin faction in the Russian government stillborn. The West, in turn, needs to prioritize determining Putin’s most probable courses of action in the event the offensive comes up short of its objectives. More to the point, how might Putin respond if the newly arrived armor from Germany, the United States and Great Britain plays a key role in blunting his spring offensive?

Brief Update 21 January, 2023: Still No German Decision On Leopard 2s For Ukraine

Another NFL playoff weekend here in the United States. My NY Giants will kickoff at 8 PM so I will make this entry short and try to catch up on Monday.

Germany remains under considerable pressure concerning the potential delivery of Leopard 2 MBTs to Ukraine. The Kiev government is at the point of almost publicly criticizing Germany for dragging its feet on reaching a decision. Berlin’s NATO allies are equally as impatient, but Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his government appear to be in no hurry on reaching a decision. The Germans are greatly worried about escalating the war by handing over a large number of first-rate main battle tanks to the Ukrainians. This fear is not unfounded. A future Ukrainian offensive spearheaded by forces equipped with modern German, US and British weapon systems could provoke Russia to widen the war and draw in NATO fully. Whereas Washington and Paris have been handing over billions of dollars and endless caches of weaponry since the start of the war, Berlin has developed a habit of prudently weighing the pros and cons before every weapon-related decision.

The Germans are hoping not to go it alone either. A US commitment including M-1 Abrams battle tanks would easily sway the Germans to contribute Leopard battle tanks, as the two tanks are deemed to be almost equal in their capabilities. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t seem ready to include M-1s in any future military aid packages to Ukraine for a number of reasons ranging from the amount of time it will take Ukrainian crews to be trained on M-1s to the chances of an Abrams falling into enemy hands.

One way or another, the matter is coming to a head and Germany looks ready to make a final decision next week. I hope everyone has an enjoyable weekend and we’ll jump back into things on Monday. Go Giants! 😊

Referendums Begin In Russian-Controlled Areas of Ukraine

Staged voting in referendums across Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine began on Friday as international condemnation of the referendums increased considerably. The results of these referendums will assuredly be in Russia’s favor. When all is said and done, and the vote totals counted up, Moscow will move to annex the areas of Ukraine now under its control, as well as a swath of territory under Ukrainian control at the moment. This is not a new tactic. Vladimir Putin’s government used it in 2014 after Russian troops entered and took control of Crimea. In that instance, the referendum and subsequent annexation exerted Russia’s will and intentions. The ballots now being handed out in the Russian occupied areas asks a single question: Do you wish to secede from Ukraine and create an independent state that will enter the Russian Federation?

The referendums are being held over four days in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizka. There have been significant made by Russia to ‘Russify’ these regions over recent weeks. Access to Ukrainian cellphone networks and internet services was severed. The ruble has replaced Ukrainian currency and schools now teach a Russia-based curriculum. One fear of residents in the occupied areas is that annexation will lead to conscription into the Russian armed forces. The prospect of Ukrainian forced to fight fellow Ukrainians is not appealing to many of the residents who still remain in the occupied areas.

What comes in the aftermath of the votes being tallied and the eventual annexation has the power of potentially setting this war on a new and inherently more dangerous path. On 27 September, we’ll look closer at what the referendum and subsequent annexations could have in store for Russia, Ukraine, Europe and the world.

Ukraine Update 21 Sept. 2022: Putin Ups The Ante

Vladimir Putin has upped the ante in Ukraine and made it clear that he is determined to end the war on terms favorable to Russia. In an address to his nation Putin announced the call-up of approximately 300,000 reservists. The Russian leader cited Western material support for Ukraine as the primary reason for the mobilization. He labeled the move ‘necessary and urgent’ in light of the advanced weapons that the United States and European nations have been pouring into Ukraine since February. Russia’s standoff with the West has not dissipated. Putin accused the West of ‘nuclear blackmail’ and warned that Russia has nuclear weapons of its own. Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in the northeast has alarmed the Russian government. This was made apparent by Putin’s support for referendums being hastily set up in territories occupied by Russian forces. Annexation of these areas will make them part of Russia. After that, any potential Ukrainian attacks against them can be considered aggressive action against Russia itself. Putin has declared he is prepared to use every weapon in Russia’s arsenal to defend ‘Russian territory.’ 

 “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said in the address. “This is not a bluff.”

As for the partial mobilization, 300,000 is a significant number of reservists. It will be some time before these citizens-turned-soldier are ready for duty. How useful they will be on the frontlines in Ukraine remains to be seen. Some will inevitably end up there, but not all. Most likely, not even the majority. The move also runs the risk of sewing domestic dissent inside of Russia. Protests broke out across the country in response to the callup. Russian police and security forces detained over 1,300 demonstrators. Although unsanctioned protests can result in prison terms for those found guilty of organizing or attending them, a significant number of Russians chose to take part. The prospect of reservists being called up hits close to home for many Russians. Suddenly the war in Ukraine, which has seemed far away and of little consequence for the average Russian citizen, is now standing at the front door.

Lavrov’s Warning

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned the world against underestimating the chances of a nuclear conflict emerging from Russia’s war in Ukraine. “The risks now are considerable,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russia’s state television. “I would not want to elevate those risks artificially. Many would like that. The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.” Lavrov’s warning comes as the West increases its material support for Ukraine as the war shifts to the Donbas region. Heavy weapons are now being shipped from NATO nations into Ukraine, including self-propelled artillery and self-propelled anti-aircraft gun systems. Russia’s previous warnings that NATO equipment could be considered a legitimate target of war once it enters Ukrainian territory. In Washington, Moscow’s ambassador to Russia has told the United States to stop weapons shipments to Ukraine, warning that Western weapons are inflaming the conflict. Lavrov extended the argument in his comments. “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.”

While Lavrov’s warnings could be nothing except for bluster, his words should not be dismissed entirely. The risks of a potential nuclear escalation are at least present at this stage. We’re at a point now where the United States and her allies need to consider the viewpoint of Russian leadership. It would help to view the situation from the perspective of Russia and not make decisions largely based on interpretations stemming from a prism of Western views and opinion. The stakes for Russia in this conflict are enormous, to say the least. If Vladimir Putin concludes there is no chance of a victory on the battlefield through only conventional means, all bets are off.

The West should not be intimidated from supporting Ukraine. However, at the same time, some government officials in Europe and the US might want to consider how their recent remarks are being interpreted by the Kremlin. For example, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin admitted a US goal now is to see Russian military capabilities significantly weakened to the point where it cannot conduct military operations abroad in the aftermath of this conflict. Austin’s words run the risk of  being interpreted as the US posing an existential threat to Russia and provoking Moscow into expanding the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Escalation is not in the best interests of anyone.