Putin’s Myriad Goals to Nowhere

Daily World, April 24, 2023

Starting a war is serious business; conventional wisdom’s 3:1 rule says that the attacker needs three times the strength required for defence. Attacking another country requires an assessment of the opponent’s allies and sustainability of their support. Defending the homeland is a morale booster by itself; the attacker has to convince its citizens and forces of the necessity and morality of starting the war. Further, a war of aggression requires a clearly identified goal and un-distracted focus on it. There should be a fallback strategy for the scenario where the goal drifts into the territory of impossibility. What happens if the aggressor had sufficient strength initially for launching an attack but none of the remaining requirements? Such an attacker lands in the predicament where Putin is today. His forces are depleted making him dependent on drafting the convicts and the unwilling. Naturally, their morale is low. The Ukrainians and their allies are still firmly behind Zelensky; he is getting better weapons by the day and even foreign volunteers to fight for his country. Putin has no strategy to stop the war. He is dependent on the likes of undependable Iran and even North Korea to give him weapons and ammunition and on China to give him diplomatic, economic and technological support. He is looking for a surreptitious deal with the soldier masquerading as the civilian head of government in Egypt. He is dependent on the mercenary group Wagner and its  head Prigozhin who is now emboldened  enough to slam the Russian army with impunity even as Putin’s laws make such utterances a criminal offence.

Yet, it is the absence of a single, clearly defined objective that has been the undoing of Russia since the initial days of this war. First it was regime change to “de-Nazify” Ukraine to prevent that country from joining NATO. The all-out invasion from Belarus to capture Kiev fizzled out due to the utterly incompetent strategy of sending a 64-kilometre-long armoured convoy through narrow mountain roads without adequate provision of fuel and food. The presumption was that the Ukrainians were so keen to get rid of the allegedly “Nazi” regime (ironically led by Zelensky, a Jew), that they would happily provision the invading force. It is thus that in  the initial days of the war, Russian soldiers were seen requesting Ukrainian farmers for fuel for their stalled armoured vehicles and tanks. They were disappointed by a less than enthusiastic response and simply walked away abandoning the hardware. The farmers towed away the tanks and the National Agency for Protection against Corruption issued a formal order that there was “no need to declare the captured Russian tanks and other equipment” as assets for computing income tax! It would have been comical but for the fact that in the last one year, more than 200,000 Russians and Ukrainians have been killed or maimed and tens of thousands of Ukrainian homes, hospitals, schools and factories have been destroyed.

Thus, the first goal of Putin to capture Kiev and install a puppet regime, as was earlier done in Belarus by winning over a beleaguered Lukashenko, has so completely failed that it seems to have been abandoned in favour of a lesser goal of keeping the territories that, by Russian law, are now part of Russia. Even that limited objective is now futile as even the rogue allies of Putin have not extended recognition to the annexation. The goal of preventing expansion of NATO is now in the dustbin and, in fact, the expansion has been speeded up. With Finland having become part of the alliance, Russian borders with NATO countries are twice as long as these were before the invasion of Ukraine. Finland, that has a long history of aggression from Russia and its territorial ambitions, now enjoys protection of Article 5 of the Charter that obliges all the members to defend a member under attack. Sweden’s membership is almost there with only Turkey and Hungary holding it up. Georgia and Bosnia, victims of Russia’s aggression and territorial ambitions, are among the hopefuls. Moldova, a part of which is occupied by Russia as Transnistria, is constitutionally neutral but has tilted heavily towards NATO. As if that was not enough, on April 21, 2023, NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg travelled to Kiev and declared, “Let me be clear, Ukraine’s rightful place is in the Euro-Atlantic family; Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO.” Next day he declared that Ukraine will join NATO once the war is over.  As Sweden, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine inch towards NATO membership, the encirclement of Russia that Putin dreads so much will be almost complete, thanks and no thanks to his invasion of Ukraine.

The world had de facto reconciled to the snatching by Russia of Transnistria from Moldova in 1992, Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008 and Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Now, in an ironical turn of fortunes, the same world is watching with bated breath as Ukraine prepares for a major offensive to cut-off the land bridge between Donbas and Crimea, the singular achievement of Putin in this war. If this link is breached, Putin will have nothing to show for the lives lost, depletion of his military hardware and the immense loss of goodwill where even old time friends like India had to say that “This is not an era of war”. The same has been the fate of the other goal of Putin to show the Europeans their place in geopolitics by highlighting their dependence on Russian oil and gas. They quickly adjusted to the serious damage to Nordstream I and II, located alternative sources and created facilities for liquefaction. As the US became a major supplier of gas for Europe, the widening chasm between the EU and the US also narrowed down. The world is more creative than is presumed by dimly advised, cloistered dictators like Putin.

Another goal of Putin appeared to be to warn the world about its prowess in cyber warfare. The might of Russian hackers and their control of the Dark Web were widely recognised. Yet, Zelensky has so successfully outwitted Putin on this front that, on April 17, 2023, the Economist carried an article by the Prime Minister of Estonia under the title, “Kaja Kallas says Ukraine is giving the free world a masterclass on cyber-defence.” She gave an ominous warning that Russia’s goal is not limited to Ukraine and it wants to recast the world in its own image where might makes right. Speaking for democracies she said that their job is to prevent technology from being turned into a tool of oppression and a means to destabilise free societies.

Another goal of Putin appeared to be to starve the world of Ukrainian grain by blocking its exports. It had to soon relent and agree to an arrangement brokered by Turkey for export of Ukraine’s food production because the blockade was undercutting whatever little support Russia had in the UN from poorer nations. The futility of the Russian blockade became apparent when earlier this month the FAO said that the world food prices have declined continuously during the last twelve months. All these goals set up by Putin while invading Ukraine have not only failed to materialise but the scenario has become worse for Russia than it was before the war. Sun Tzu, says in Art of War, “No ruler should put troops into the field to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.” Putin is beyond redemption but if Xi Jinping, watching the plight of Putin, follows the words of the ancient Chinese military general and philosopher, that would be one redeeming feature of this war.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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