GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Tactical Impasse, Strategic Escalation

The past week has been very tense and the war has escalated. The week included a range of planned activities and (Most likely) unplanned rhetoric and escalation making the situation more dangerous. Earlier this week, amid pledges to increase arms deliveries from NATO and its allies to Ukraine, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted that an objective of states States to support Ukraine would be a “weakened Russia”, after meeting with President Zelensky.

Then the next day, Britain’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, remarked on the Russian attack being a “legitimate” use of UK-supplied weapons. Both remarks were quickly clarified or “backed down by officials”, but demonstrate the need for politicians on both sides to be very careful in their rhetoric.

In Russia, the comments hit home as Putin hurt the Russian people, using these statements as evidence to inflame the Russians and demonstrate that he was right, that the war in Ukraine is a war against NATO and the US. United. A war for survival. Later in the week we had nuclear rhetoric and threats from Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavarov. The Pentagon has also reported that the Russians are secretly preparing for a full mobilization of their military, a major step essentially taking the war from a military expedition to all-out war.

This week Putin also tried to blackmail NATO by cutting off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria and stepped up his rhetoric, including talk of expanding the war to other countries. Combined with attacks on fuel infrastructure in Transitria and Russia, the week was full of tension.

NATO follows a fine diplomatic line, it must oppose Putin’s aggression, whatever the potential consequences. The simple fact is that history has shown, again and again, that autocrats and tyrants must be fought with force; and if not, they only increase their demands. At 18and and 19and centuries Europe united to oppose Napoleon, in the 20and Hitler. Putin is the next in a gallery of rogue tyrants who believe “might is truth”. History shows that the only way to oppose these people is through collective security, or for nations that value human rights, national sovereignty and the “rule of international law” to work together using their collective strength to oppose them. This is why alliances like NATO exist.

The difference today is that Putin has a large nuclear arsenal. To oppose Putin is to accept this threat of global nuclear war. Strategically, mitigating this threat is about ensuring that NATO’s dialogue is unemotional, that it is bound by the principles of international law. This means that the discussion focuses on Putin’s actions, rather than confusing his actions with Russians in general. This is an important distinction because it gives opportunity to any opposition within Putin’s military or political circle to reasonably argue against nuclear escalation based on an existential threat to Russia. People may be able to sacrifice themselves, their children, and their children’s children for their country, but they are less likely to make that sacrifice for one person. It is therefore important that NATO leaders choose their words carefully to ensure; that if they choose too, the Russians can distance themselves from Putin.

At the moment, the war is in a critical phase. Tactically, the Russians are struggling to gain ground. In the East, they are making very limited progress. However, bad weather, heavy casualties and low morale meant that Russia’s probing attacks made no significant headway. It is likely that a “second echelon” is preparing to be engaged either south of Izyum to take Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, or west of Luhansk through the towns of Rubizhne, Kreminna and Popasna to attack Severodonetsk. However, at this point where this attack will fall is uncertain and Russian activity over the past week has failed to find Ukrainian weakness. Likewise, in the south, the Russians are still unable to advance further than Kherson.

Ukraine, on the other hand, receives huge amounts of military equipment and supplies from a global coalition. NATO reports indicate that Russia is struggling to maintain air superiority even over eastern Ukraine. NATO flooding Ukraine with anti-aircraft missiles has driven Russian planes out of most of Ukraine’s airspace. Every day Ukraine is getting stronger.

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The war hangs in the balance tactically, Russia must win quickly, escalate or negotiate. The chances of Russia winning with its current forces are slim. The Russians just don’t have the numbers they need. All the artillery in the world can’t seize and hold the ground, hers needs infantry and Russia lacks infantry.

This means that Russia now faces a number of options;

  • Nuclear escalation.
  • Mobilize and intensify conventional operations.
  • Negotiate.

The first option, nuclear escalation “on the table”, is unlikely. The use of tactical nuclear weapons would turn more nations against Russia and, based on NATO’s current resolve, could result in a significant NATO escalation. The use of tactical nukes may convince NATO to impose a “no-fly” zone or even to further step up and attack Russian tactical nukes supporting infrastructure (i.e. their bases, maintenance and supply areas) to prevent further use in the conflict. The use of strategic nuclear weapons is unlikely because their use creates a dead end result.

The second option, conventional climbing is very likely. Pentagon intelligence to date has been very specific and if it signals that Russia is preparing for a general mobilization, it is likely to be underway. A declaration of war against Ukraine and a massive mobilization would deploy all of Russia’s military might against Ukraine. This could provide the means to quickly win in the East and then negotiate. The risks for Russia are that the Ukrainians could still beat them and further diminish Russia’s prestige and military resources. Moreover, if the Ukrainians can hold out for long, they might even force the Russian economy to collapse.

Another question is whether Russia would risk a conventional escalation beyond Ukraine’s borders, into a NATO state. Would Russia follow through on its threats against Britain or Poland? This option is highly unlikely as NATO maintains its resolve, rather than backing down from Russian threats, the alliance is stepping up and demonstrating that it is ready to fight. NATO and its allies are vastly outnumbered and dominate Russia. An escalation into a war with NATO would destroy Putin, so it is unlikely.

The last option is negotiation. I noted with interest that this morning Sergei Lavrov was backtracking on his recent nuclear rhetoric and also that evacuations of civilians from Mariupol were being discussed. Perhaps NATO’s determination is bearing fruit and we are approaching a realization in the Kremlin that negotiation might be a better option than continuing the war? The evidence for this is not good, it seems more likely based on recent history that Putin is stalling as he plots his next move.

Last week it was reported that Russian Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov was in Ukraine to assess the situation. This visit will likely set policy for the next phase of the war. This trusted general will find out what is happening on the ground and report back to Putin and there will likely be some quick changes next week ahead of VE Day on the 9th.and May. Most likely, based on Russian behavior to date, an engagement of the remaining forces on an axis of advance either northeast or south towards Odessa, followed by a general mobilization to replace casualties and continue the war .

Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.