Putin in a Bind.  U.S. to Follow?

Putin’s decision whether to use tactical nuclear weapons may be closer than we thought. 

Five weeks ago, Russia’s attempt to overrun Kyiv had come to naught, so Putin changed strategy, pulling many of those troops away from the capital city and redirecting them to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, a.k.a. Donbas.  That part of Ukraine is, historically and currently, more Russian in language, culture and politics than the rest of the country.  Next to Crimea that’s been under Russian control since 2014, the Donbas region always looked the most amenable to takeover by Russia.

So, with more combat personnel made available by their withdrawal from Kyiv, the taking of Donbas looked at the time like a Putin slam-dunk.

Now, not so much.  All know what is the first casualty of war, so articles on the subject should be read with skepticism.  That’s particularly true in publications that originate in non-neutral countries, like Russia, Ukraine and the U.S., in which we can count on plenty of pro-“our side” spin. 

Still, if this piece that cites British, American, Ukrainian and pro-Russia sources is any indication, it appears that the Russian offensive in Donbas has stalled and that the momentum of the war may be shifting in favor of Ukraine.  If so, and with the probable influx of $40 billion in U.S. military and other aid, a turning point may be at hand.

As the war entered its 80th day, Russian offensive operations in Donbas remained largely stalled following the failure of Russia’s ambitious attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets river and encircle the metropolitan area of Severodonetsk, the capital of the Ukrainian-administered Luhansk region.

With Western weapons continuing to flow into Ukraine, Ukrainian officials are beginning to say that a pivot in the war might be near, with Kyiv switching from defense to offense to reclaim large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine that remain under Russian rule.

“A strategic break in Ukraine’s favor is under way. This process will take time. But, in the long term, these trends make Russia’s defeat inevitable,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in an address to Ukrainian citizens…

With Russia’s monthlong offensive in Donbas showing only limited results, a bold attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets and encircle Severodonetsk that Russian forces began ahead of Victory Day on May 9 was meant to achieve a breakthrough. Instead, the failed crossing near the village of Bilohorivka has turned into a disaster for Russia, significantly slowing its momentum in Donbas.

The full scale of this Russian setback is emerging only now, with satellite imagery showing more than 70 Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and other armor destroyed after Ukrainian artillery and airstrikes sank three pontoon bridges and shelled the Russian beachhead in Bilohorivka…

While Moscow hasn’t acknowledged the events in Bilohorivka, accounts from Russian military officers and observers on Telegram have described it as one of the Russian military’s most catastrophic defeats in this war, calling for the dismissal and punishment of generals who devised the failed operation…

North of Donbas, a string of Ukrainian military victories in recent days pushed Russian forces outside of field artillery range of the city of Kharkiv, where more than 2,000 residential apartment buildings have been destroyed in more than two months of pounding

“The enemy didn’t conduct active combat actions in the Kharkiv direction,” Ukraine’s General Staff said Saturday. “Its main effort was focused on pulling back troops from the city of Kharkiv, maintaining positions and protecting supply lines.”   

Again, many of those claims should be at least partially discounted, particularly the alleged inevitability of the Russian defeat.  Some of it is Ukrainian propaganda designed to influence U.S. and NATO policy, including the $40 billion aid bill that advanced Monday to a final vote in the Senate later in the week.  But when Ukraine receives that aid, Russian forces will likely find themselves in at best a quagmire and possibly facing outright battlefield defeat.

If so, what will Putin do?  Personally and politically, he can’t afford defeat.  He probably can’t afford a settlement that leaves him with just a small sliver of territory in Donbas, even if it connects Russia to Crimea. 

And yet it begins to look like his options are dwindling, perhaps quickly.  Adding reinforcements appears unlikely.  The invasion began with 140,000 army personnel, about half Russia’s total, plus about 50,000 partisans already in Ukraine.  By the end of March, about a quarter of those were already out of action either killed or wounded.  Today, the total may be twice that.

Without additional combat personnel and with supplies and troop morale on the wane, the one available move that could dramatically alter the status quo, and possibly the outcome of the war, is the nuclear option.  Tactical nuclear weapons would wreak havoc on Ukrainians, their cities and infrastructure that would make what’s happened to date look like child’s play. 

And if the Russian president uses nuclear weapons, as he’s threatened, what will be the response from the U.S. and NATO?  Will we dare return like for like?  Doing so would put us in a shooting war with a country whose principal military power is its nuclear arsenal. 

All of which is to say two things.  First, because the Russian tactical situation appears more fragile than ever, the nuclear precipice may be nearer than we thought just a short time ago.  Second, is there anyone on either side capable of stepping back from it?  At present, all the rhetorical and policy momentum is toward escalation.  Would anyone be prepared to admit that a nuclear response by the West would constitute madness of a kind never before seen and that, however horrific Putin’s behavior, we simply will not further risk the destruction of much of the human race over a country that, three months ago was barely on our radar?

Good questions all.  Answers to come.  But when, and what will they look like?




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