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Putin Underestimated Ukraine Militarily and Politically

The problem with Putin is that his bets are sometimes coldly rational and sometimes not. The case of Ukraine remains to be seen

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Putin invaded Ukraine betting that the West would limit itself to economic sanctions while Russian military forces captured Kyiv in a blitzkrieg that would crumble the Ukrainian government. He timed the moment well on the international chessboard, but underestimated Ukraine.

In June 2021 I warned that:

“Beijing is willing to support Putin’s authoritarian and corrupt (…) stay in power (…) the cost (…) will be to transform the Russian federation into a Chinese satellite. And the “patriot” Putin is more than willing to pay it.”

In early January I noted how: 

 “What is now at stake is that:

1. Beijing and Moscow perceive weak leadership in Washington.

2. In Kazakhstan, Moscow succeeded in demonstrating to Beijing that the stability of Central Asia (…) still depends in first instance on Moscow through the CSTO.

3. Central Asia is vital in Beijing’s imperial geopolitics in the medium and long term, but the stability of the region depends, in the short term, more on Moscow than on Beijing.

4. Putin, after stabilizing Kazakhstan, is betting in the short term on threatening Ukraine and increasing his influence in Central Europe.”

Because “Putin is taking risks today by betting everything on the short term while he can, while Xi will gamble everything on the medium and long term.”

And closing January I mentioned that: 

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“Crimea was (…) the best moment to strengthen Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia. The annexation raised Putin’s popularity to 85% and divorced the Russian Federation from the West (…) And what Moscow learned in that conflict was that:

The West will respond to limited Russian military action against Ukraine, not with a military response but with economic and political sanctions that Western Europe’s – especially Germany‘s – dependence on Russian gas will eventually soften.”

So “Putin simply now saw a favorable scenario in which he could repeat his great success of annexing Crimea.”

As the invasion began in late February I recalled that: 

“In 1994, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum, on security guarantees for Ukraine’s accession to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear  Weapons Treaty (…) Russia agreed to ‘respect (…) Ukraine’s existing borders’, and the Budapest Memorandum should be held by  Washington. But I fear that the Biden administration evaluates the conflict through the lens of the Helsinki Accords, while Moscow clings to the philosophy of the Yalta Agreement.”

And that in its invasion “it has not limited itself to the invasion of Donbas, but its operations would not appear to be sufficient to successfully complete the military takeover of all of Ukraine. Although that could change quickly and Putin’s stated goals, including the demilitarization of Ukraine, could only be achieved by occupying the entire territory, or by having the Ukrainians themselves establish a Kremlin puppet government. The latter looks impossible for now, and the former will depend on the cost to Moscow.”

The key now is logistics: on the Russian side the blitzkrieg operation failed to achieve its military and political objectives and Russian shelling has visibly relied on surface-to-surface missiles. Despite these shortcomings, the Russian military forces are huge and have tactical and strategic nuclear weaponry. But the Ukrainian resistance shows that even if the Kremlin were to place sufficient forces on the ground to take the cities and routes at all costs, if the West maintains some military support for the Ukrainian resistance, Moscow would face a cruel, costly and protracted guerrilla war.

I estimate that Putin still hopes to wear down a Ukraine with great logistical dependence on the West. And that it would be a victory for him to bury the Budapest Memorandum by getting Kyiv to accept at the negotiating table the divestment of territory that Moscow imposed on it in 2014 along with the one it would impose on it now and a commitment to neutrality. But a demilitarization of Ukraine would only be obtained by Moscow from a puppet government at the price of a guerrilla war between Ukrainian nationalists and a permanent Russian occupation force. The problem with Putin is that his bets are sometimes coldly rational and sometimes not.

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