Putin is holding his cards close to his chest - opinion

It is too early to declare an end to the conflict, and it is possible that Putin will not de-escalate the tensions in the coming months, in an attempt to garner further political gains.

 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing earlier this month.  (photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing earlier this month.
(photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

The tensions between Russia and the United States have reached a pinnacle.

According to detailed intelligence released by the US, Russia has been rapidly finalizing its unprecedented military preparations, threatening Ukraine on multiple sides.

Beyond the mass number of forces that have been mobilized to Ukraine’s borders (over 150,000 troops), along with a wide range of sophisticated military capabilities (advanced fighter jets in Belarus, combat ships in the Black Sea, artillery and rockets, special forces, electronic warfare, and cyber capabilities), the Russians are also putting in place additional forces, which signal the finalizing acts of preparation, such as logistical forces, engineering forces, aerial support, and even field medicine forces as well as blood stores.

Accordingly, the US and the West anticipate that an immediate invasion by Russia into Ukraine is possible, and even likely.

President Putin has five possible options:

  1. Declare victory without invading Ukraine, in the event that several of his demands were conceded to by the West.
  2. Conduct a precision attack, which could include an aerial attack, precision-guided missiles, or cyber capabilities, in order to paralyze Ukraine and ‘decapitate’ its leadership in an attempt to overturn the government while avoiding a costly and dangerous ground operation.
  3. Conduct a confined military operation in the Eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass to ensure its independence from Ukraine, recalling the same strategy it employed with regards to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008.
  4. Conduct a ground operation on Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus targeted at capturing Kiev, and a ground operation on Ukraine’s southern border targeted at cutting off the Ukrainian army in the East as well as connecting Crimea to the rest of Russia via the Sea of Azov.
  5. Run a full ground operation to capture all of Ukraine. It seems unlikely that the 150,000 troops amassed by Russia will suffice for such an operation, and that Russia will find one of the first four options to be adequate.

As a result, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity over the last few days, and European leaders – including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – have been shuttling between Moscow, Kiev and Washington in last-ditch efforts to avoid an all-out war.

President Joe Biden said this past week that “were Russia to attack Ukraine, we’ll impose long-term consequences that will undermine Russia’s ability to compete economically and strategically.”

 US President Biden speaks about situation in Russia and Ukraine, in Washington (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE) US President Biden speaks about situation in Russia and Ukraine, in Washington (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

If all the diplomatic efforts fail, and President Vladimir Putin does indeed invade Ukraine, it is unclear which tactics he may employ. The forces poised along Ukraine’s border grant him much flexibility for a range of options. Biden warned that an invasion could see tens of thousands of casualties in what would be no less than a political and humanitarian crisis.

Only one person knows what will happen, and that person is Putin. Yet he is holding his cards close to his chest. His ambitions in this imminent invasion crisis which he single-handedly created are inseparable from his aim to prove that Russia is a superpower which cannot be ignored.

Putin’s demands include that Ukraine never become a NATO member, nor that the alliance expand any further east toward Russia’s sphere of influence, and that there will be limitations set on strategic arms supplied by the US to Europe. In other words, these demands come to turn back the clock on the current security balance in Europe to the pre-1989 Soviet era, a reality the West will never accept.

There is no doubt that Putin chose the perfect timing: US weakness in the international arena, as displayed in the pullout from Afghanistan, rising energy prices, which continue to skyrocket in light of the conflict, over half a trillion dollars in foreign reserves, which will help Russia in the face of economic sanctions, a modernized military and much determination to mobilize it.

All this indicates that Russian demands cannot go ignored. Even if Putin scores only part of them, he will proclaim this as a tremendous strategic win. The question remains whether his demands will be met to a degree that is satisfactory enough to allow him to retreat from his stance while still being able to save face and declare victory, all without a single shot being fired.

As of February 16, the date that US intelligence pinned as the potential date for an invasion of Ukraine, it still appeared that Putin had yet to decide whether or not to invade.

According to the Russians, the military exercise has finished, and their forces are being relocated eastward. However, according to NATO, not only have the Russians not withdrawn any forces, they are in fact continuing to increase the military buildup on Ukraine’s border.

It looks as though Putin has succeeded in attaining several diplomatic gains that allow him to declare victory over this conflict, even if it is unclear whether he has altogether abandoned plans to invade or not. In his view, the gains that can be attributed to his maneuvers over the last month include:

Russia is once again positioned as a world superpower, alongside China and the United States, a superpower that must be regarded with all due seriousness.

It seems that Russia will receive a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO, likely granted from NATO itself and not from Ukraine.

Russia benefited from a rise in energy prices stemming from the conflict.

The Russians capitalized on the situation to gain recognition for the autonomy, and possibly even the independence, of the pro-Russian Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

Despite all this, it is too early to declare an end to the conflict, and it is possible that Putin will not de-escalate the tensions in the coming months, in an attempt to garner further political gains.

This crisis cannot be examined without the broader anti-West geopolitical context. 

China’s backing of Russia has been unprecedented. In prior conflicts, China was critical of Russian strategy, and was not supportive of Russia’s activity in Georgia nor of its annexation of Crimea. This time however, it appears that the anti-West alliance is aligned in challenging the world order steered by the West. Russia and China are declaring in unison that the post-Cold War era is over, as they seek to prove that their authoritarian style of ruling is legitimate and even preferable to the democratic model which has reigned for the last 30 years.

Russia and China together are challenging the current world order – and are trying to reconfigure the great power competition and the rules established following the Cold Word and even going back to the end of World War Two.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that President Putin chose not to invade during the Beijing Winter Olympics. Additionally, though the Chinese Foreign Minister’s recently stated his support for Russia’s ‘legitimate security demands’ and opposed the further expansion of NATO eastward, he also clearly stated support for Ukraine’s independence and the upholding its sovereignty, while emphasizing the importance of peace and avoidance of war.  

THE SHOCK waves from a Russian attack are likely to reach the Middle East, creating a series of challenges as well as opportunities for Israel.

On the strategic level, the crisis is likely to further detract the US’s attention from the Middle East at a time when Washington has indicated its intention to shift its focus to the Far East in order to face the strategic competition arising from China. Nonetheless, the United States remains the dominant political, economic and military power of influence in the Middle East.

In this context, any further blows to Washington’s position of influence in the Middle East, and certainly any downsizing of its presence and influence, are bad for Israel. Such a reality is likely to have a direct negative impact on the region’s stability as well as the capability to stop Iran and its influence throughout the region, indirectly impacting Israel’s stability and military deterrence.

The greatest matter of strategic concern in the Middle East is undoubtedly Iran’s nuclear threat. The Ukraine crisis may in fact embolden Iran as it tries to draw out negotiations in Vienna in an attempt to extract as many concessions as possible from Washington. Under such circumstances, Moscow might increasingly back Iran’s position given that their relationship serves as a counterbalance to US influence in the region.

On the other hand, the Biden administration, which has already bent to numerous Iranian demands during the negotiations in Vienna, may grant further concessions in an attempt to put Iran back in the box at any price so as to direct its attention to the superpower standoff in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

Another area that could potentially have detrimental consequences for Israel is Syria, were Russia to decide to “send messages” to Washington at the expense of Israel’s national security.

On the flip side, it’s possible that Israel may be able to reap several benefits from the looming crisis.

Israel’s closest ally is the US, while at the same time the last few years have seen a growing closeness between Moscow and Jerusalem in light of Russia’s presence in the region. Israel could potentially serve as an intermediary between the two superpowers’ opposing interests.

An additional opportunity arising from the crisis is on the regional level. If indeed the US military influence continues to wane while Iranian aggression continues to increase, leaders in the region will have to seek new alliances, slowly leading to a reshaping of the region.

The refocusing of superpowers’ attention to Europe may likely bolster this developing trend, and Israel has much to offer in such circumstances – on the technological, economic and security fronts, and especially in the fields of aerial defense and cyber. 

In that context, and given the Iranian threat, new opportunities have presented themselves to further broaden relations with dominant players within the region, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Turkey, as well as further deepening ties with Egypt and Jordan.

AS FOR Europe, the looming Ukraine crisis is the greatest threat the continent has seen in decades. Russia demands that Ukraine never join NATO and that there be no further NATO expansion eastward, something that would be hard for the Europeans to accept.

Europe has significant trade ties with Russia, and economic sanctions would have repercussions for Europeans. Europe has become increasingly dependent on Russian gas, something that Russia is not shy to exploit.

While the crisis reveals the growing capabilities of the US with liquefied natural gas exports, it nonetheless heightens the need for Europe to find additional alternative energy sources.

This can open the door to new opportunities arising from the Middle East and North Africa region. There could be the possibility to open new energy pipelines, and Israel can play a role as an important player in this field in the region.

The writer, an IDF reserve major general, is a former head of Military Intelligence, former director of the Institute for National Security Studies, and a senior security and foreign policy expert. He is also a senior adviser to ELNET and chairman of ELNET’s Forum of Strategic Dialogue.