5 min read
A Catch .22: Why Putin Should Settle for Peace in Ukraine

Yeshaya Gedzelman

On February 24th, 2022, Vladimir Putin finally gave the order to invade Ukraine, announcing the attack as a "special operation" to "de-nazify" neighboring Ukraine. Although the original Russian rationale given was that the Russian troops were being sent to act as "peacekeepers" between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Russian offensive has entered into mainland Ukraine, with heavy fighting being reported around Kyiv and around the country. 

It's no secret that Ukraine was and is outnumbered and outgunned compared to the size of Russia's military (although not its invasion force in Ukraine). While estimates of Ukraine and Russia's military capabilities (at the start of the invasion) differ depending on the media source, all estimates agree Ukraine’s air force is well under 200 combat aircraft and many estimates place that number at around 120. In contrast Russian air force strength is estimated to vastly exceed those numbers, exceeding 1,000 aircraft. Additionally Russia has around six times as many tanks and artillery, four times as many active military personnel and around twice as many reserve troops. On paper, these numbers painted a bleak picture of the Ukrainian chances for success in repelling Russian troops and safeguarding their sovereignty and democratic values. However, outcomes in military conflicts aren't only decided by looking at which side has the biggest army and the Ukrainians have some strong advantages that suggest they will succeed and be able to effectively defend themselves. 

The first major advantage for Ukraine's military is that of morale. Even before the strength of Ukrainian resistance became apparent in the first week of the invasion, the Russians were already at a strong disadvantage in this area. Reports have surfaced of Russian troops being unaware they were going to enter Ukraine until the night before or expecting to be welcomed as heroes, only to find themselves in the midst of a bloody conflict. On the other hand, the Ukrainians have not only been aware of the dangers they've been facing, they have ironclad motivations for facing them- a desire to defend their homeland and protect their homeland, their fellow countrymen and families. 

Additionally, Ukrainian morale has received a strong boost from President Vlodmyr Zelensky’s leadership. Zelensky’s rejection of President Biden’s offer to evacuate and his purported response “I need ammunition, not a ride”, was an important paragon of Ukrainian defiance that showed Zelensky’s belief in Ukraine’s ability to hold off Russian advances around Kyiv. Ukraine’s president responded to rumors that he was hiding (following three attempts on his life), by posting a video message to Russia giving the address of his offices and saying he was not hiding or afraid. He has also consistently, urgently and dramatically pleaded and at times demanded Western aid and has successfully advocated to the West that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not only a Ukrainian problem but a Western one as well and his pleas in Western capitals have been an important factor in helping to expedite and increase Western military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Another major advantage the Ukrainians have had in this conflict is the support of the West. Since the start of the Russian invasion, the EU, US, UK, South Korea, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and Australia are some, but not all, of the countries that have all leveled a series of sanctions against Russia. Dozens of large multinational corporations such as Samsung, Coca Cola, Disney, H&M, Netflix and Spotify, have paused sales or closed their branches in Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Russia was also stripped of its privilege to host the 2022 champions league final in May and the US, EU and UK (along with some other countries) have closed their airspace to Russian air traffic. These are a list of a few of the extensive economic measures taken by the US and its allies to penalize Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. 

In addition to the severe economic penalties the West has used to target the Russian economy, it has also sent large shipments of military aid to Ukraine. The UK has sent over thousands of NLAW anti-tank weapons and starstreak anti-aircraft missiles. Germany has sent over hundreds of Stinger and Strela anti-aircraft missiles, along with thousands of anti-tank missiles. The US also announced on March 16th that it would be giving Ukraine an additional 800 million in military aid, in addition to the 1.2 billion dollars the US has already given Ukraine since the start of the Biden administration. These 3 countries are only some of the Western nations that have sent large shipments of military aid to Ukraine since the conflict started. 

It’s still an open question what Putin’s goals are regarding Ukraine. Does he hope to annex the entire Ukraine and replace the current Ukrainian government with officials that are more sympathetic to Russian interests? Any regime change and puppet government installed by Russia would likely face a heavy insurgency and prove unstable and likely unsustainable long-term. Furthermore, if Putin wanted to get rid of Zelensky, invading Ukraine was an extremely foolish attempt to do so, given the fact that before the invasion Zelensky’s approval ratings were regressing, in a way, the Russian invasion saved President Zelensky’s political career. While Putin himself has denied he is seeking regime change he also was saying this during the numerous attempts on Zelesnky’s life. 

Perhaps he hopes to annex just the Donbas (the Donetsk and Luhansk regions)? If so, one has to consider that he invaded the entirety of Ukraine, not just the Donbas. One could attempt to argue that dealing a knockout blow to Ukraine’s military by attacking Kyiv and decapitating its political and military leadership would effectively reduce the Ukrainian military’s will to fight for the Donbas, but if this were Putin’s motivation behind invading the entire Ukraine, then he miscalculated badly. Or perhaps he simply can’t afford to allow Ukraine to join NATO and hopes to send a strong message to the West that Russia will never tolerate this happening? After all, it is said Putin has strong feelings of resentment about Western and NATO encroachment into neighboring states that have traditionally fallen under Russia’s sphere of influence. However, it is hard to view Ukraine’s application to join NATO as the sole cause driving Putin to order Russian troops into Ukraine, because Zelensky has reportedly agreed during (recent ongoing peace negotiations with Russia) to drop Ukraine’s request to gain NATO membership, a request that had been around for years but had yet to be accepted. 

Regardless of Putin’s motivations, after over a month of conflict, Russia has experienced a number of setbacks in Ukraine. 4 of its major generals have been reported as killed in action and thousands of its troops are dead, with NATO estimates being between 7-15,000 Russian combat deaths. As its military losses continue to rise and western sanctions continue to wreck damage on its economy, it will find that is has less troops, equipment and less money to fight an enemy that has been receiving larger and larger amounts of external military aid from the West and has been growing increasingly confident of their ability to defeat Russia’s invading force. Putin should take Zelensky’s gracious offer to withdraw his country’s NATO application as a chance to save face and portray his decision to invade as necessary and intelligent. Instead, the war continues as his country continues its slide into an economic abyss, with Russia heading for its worst economic crisis since the end of the Cold War in 1991.

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