Ukraine-Russia: Averting the threat of a Third World War

Analysis: Moscow's attack on Ukraine stokes fears Vladimir Putin is moving to build a 'Greater Russia'

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Russia's opening salvoes and its force posture around Ukraine suggests its military planners have the objective of seizing the Ukraine capital for the installation of a pro-Moscow administration.

Briefings by senior Western officials suggest it is likely President Vladimir Putin’s troops will now attempt to take a number of key Ukrainian cities and ports including Odessa, Mariupol and the eastern city of Kharkiv.

There is an “immediate objective to seize and control large chunks of Ukraine”, the Western officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It is clear there is a desire to change regime in Kiev and install an alternate regime which will be favourable to Russia,” the officials said. “This will be a regime imposed on Ukraine by Russia to drive relations closer between the territories.”

Analysts believe that the West was not strong enough in deterring Mr Putin by stationing troops in Ukraine and by clearly stating he would not face military retaliation.

“The moment you say to Putin that you are not going to fight whatever happens, he has got the upper hand. He was content to take that (sanctions) risk because to him that risk looked calculable,” said Jonathan Eyal of the RUSI think-tank in London. “The only problem was that we were not prepared to take the ultimate risk.”

Putin is an old-school, old-fashioned, unreconstructed 19th-century imperialist hankering after the lost territories of the Russian Empire
Russia expert Keir Giles

The views reflect that of Russia expert Keir Giles who told The National that Mr Putin’s intent was for a “decapitation strike” on the Ukraine’s command centres “to render Ukraine's military unable to fight” and causing such human misery that the government capitulates.

“It is still too early to tell at this stage what direction Russia's campaign against Ukraine is going to take but there are multiple options,” said the Chatham House Russia expert.

“This also needs to be put in the broader context of Russia's strategic aims. There is no doubt that Ukraine is just one step in President Putin’s ambition to reassert Russia’s dominance over the territories. Putin is an old-school, old-fashioned, unreconstructed 19th-century imperialist hankering after the lost territories of the Russian Empire."

Russia has been “intensely practising the current version of warfare” with the widespread use of standoff strikes, by missile or cyber to achieve its goals “without actually entering into close contact by ground forces,” Mr Giles said.

“We don't know precisely what Russia's plan is or how effective Ukraine's forces may be in disrupting those plans. Both of those are wide open.”

The Western officials believe that Russia’s forces are now “battle-hardened” following urban fighting in Syria, as well as Ukraine since 2014.

“It’s not how many people in armed forces it’s about how you bring force to bear in particular time,” a military official said. The war experiences had “given the Russians opportunities so they are battle-hardened” and could “take out military around the city”.

Key to achieving its objectives was to secure Kiev, the Western officials said. It is understood that Russian agents or so-called “green men” are already in the capital ready to disrupt and destabilise the city. If that failed Moscow might have to undertake the dangerous and costly urban warfare campaign using tanks and infantry. “With Ukrainian resistance it may well be that Russia has to put troops into the city to take the city,” the Western officials added.

Intelligence sources have also told The National that once Mr Putin had begun operations in Ukraine “there is now reason to see why he will now stop”.

“It’s our assessment that when someone like Putin gets a feel for this kind of course of action he finds it very hard to stop,” a Western intelligence source said.

With a raft of former Soviet and eastern bloc states in Nato, the alliance must now assume different risks in the relationship with Moscow.

“After Ukraine, the next direct threats are against territories that were formerly part of the Russian Empire and are now sovereign, independent countries,” said Mr Giles, author of Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. “It is time for Europe to realise that Russia has been at war with it for several years and that war is now moving into the active phase. Europe needs to wake up and take an interest in defending itself.”

From the European perspective a reset in thinking is sorely needed. The Western states will need to take a long, hard look at the defence cuts that have reduced its armoured force to a mere 200 tanks. By contrast, Russia has at least 16,000 main battle tanks.

Over the past decade Mr Putin has transformed his military into a modern fighting force fit for a 21st- century battlefield.

In the same period, Nato countries became fixated on counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and elsewhere. As their tank forces shrank, Mr Putin’s confidence in using heavy metal to project Moscow's might grew.

Updated: February 24, 2022, 3:32 PM