Russia and Ukraine: Time to Think Without the Box

As William Faulkner intoned in Requiem for a Nun, “The Past is never dead. It’s not even past.” With Russia annexing the Crimea and the war in Dombas and Lukhansk, Ukraine has been hurrying to join NATO. Since it does not yet fulfill all membership requirements, a possible membership seems still a matter of many years to come. Notwithstanding that, Russia has been amalgamating approximately 130,000 troops near Ukrainian borders in the last months. Although until recently most of it has been about prepositioning hardware, recent movements indicate more troops and equipment are being deployed and being connected to the system of military logistics. Although it could mean an attack is coming soon, escalation aims to force Ukraine and the West to negotiate a settlement favorable to Russia. More precisely, to stop NATO’s expansion to the East. It is not clear how a conventional attack at this moment would achieve it.

A conventional invasion is only one option and military capabilities may be used in several manners, including to achieve non-military objectives. To understand Russian warfare, thinking outside the box is not enough. It is necessary to think without the box. Russian actions appear to be following a textbook example of the concept of escalating to de-escalate. Although it was developed within the scope of nuclear warfare, its principles are applicable to non-nuclear situations. They are simple. An impasse is created to force the opponent to negotiate a solution acceptable to, in this case, Russia. In other words, to de-escalate on Russia’s terms. Depending on the outcome of the negotiations, the de-escalation process takes place or further escalation happens. The process is not linear. One of the problems is that for the United States and NATO military escalation is a linear process. This can result in faster escalation.

Following Russian doctrine and examples from the operations in Ukraine and Syria, some possible actions in Ukraine might include launching high precision non-nuclear missiles targeting important Ukrainian infrastructure objects such as power plants, water sewage and cleaning facilities, transport hubs, and other with the objective of disturbing the normality of people’s quotidian lives, resulting in political leverage for reaching a settlement and even government change to de-escalate the situation; recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Lukhansk; increasing the intensity of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, including by creating and supporting new separatist movements in Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odessa with the support of the troops already deployed near the Ukrainian border; using moles and other agents of influence to incite mass protests against the current government, just to cite few. 

To put pressure on NATO countries, some possible actions include deploying missiles in the Far East that could target Alaska; escalating in the Arctic region, for example, by blocking transit  in Russian exclusive areas or posturing near other countries’ areas of interest; conducting exercises in the Baltic Sea which include electronic warfare to disrupt telecommunications in the region’s countries and posturing to create panic within local populations; covert operations to make provocations and other possibilities; instigating protests against the Ukrainian or any other country government; cyber warfare in many forms, including to disrupt energy, water, finance, transit, and other basic services; submarines appearing very close NATO countries’ territorial waters; naval and air exercises, including missile range practice near other countries’ territorial waters and/or air space. These are only some possibilities. Some of them might be more effective and less risky than the conventional attack some believe might happen in the near future.

Russia will not stop to pursue its strategic interests. As a result, further escalation including demonstrative military activities and other actions that might include posturing near NATO and EU countries are to be expected.

This is of special importance, since the United States has been announcing an imminent conventional attack by Russia since December. More recently, the White House divulged that the attack to be on February 16, 2022. The risk is high and this possibility is real. However, taking into consideration the many options available for Russia discussed above, there is also a chance that the troops along the Ukrainian border are a diversion for something else. To know the concrete date of the possible attack American intelligence agencies must have a mole inside the Kremlin, one very near Putin. If this intelligence is real, the Russians are aware and this agent will soon be neutralized. There is another possibility, though. It is possible that the Russians are feeding the US with fake intelligence in what could be a textbook case of reflexive control. As a result, Moscow may and probably will act in an unpredictable way. A very probable scenario is the one creating “color revolutions” in Eastern Ukraine to break the country in two. One part stays with the West, another with Russia. It might include hybrid operations in the Baltic States, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Western Europe, the Arctic, and other regions to take NATO and the United States’ attention out of Ukraine.

The West has been trying to understand Russia in its own strategic terms. This is a mistake. The Russian strategic tradition is still based on dialectics, as Clausewitz. It considers all possible variables and outcomes. The West have a postmodern approach which is often looking inwards ignoring the specificities of each theater. It must be ready, united, and resolved, at the same time pragmatically evaluating the threat. It may be where we are not looking.


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