Just like a rare combination of adverse meteorological factors can give rise to a “perfect storm,” a rare combination of adverse factors – both historical and current – exist concerning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. They lend themselves to a somewhat different approach toward ending the conflict – one circumventing the Russian leader.
Let us examine the factors at play in this perfect storm of opportunity.
For Russians, the invasion has been a wake-up call. What they envisioned as a 72-hour military operation, ending with a Putin victory lap, has bogged down. Victory has eluded them for internal reasons, poor logistics, and external, a determined Ukrainian opposition. It should cause senior Russian military officials to reflect upon 20th century history lessons.
- In 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan for just the opposite reason, seeking to bolster a communist government. Invasion gave way to quagmire as their occupation lasted a decade before reality showed their objectives were unattainable. In 1992, three years after their withdrawal, Afghanistan’s pro-Russian government collapsed, although it did last longer than the Soviet Union, which folded in December 1991. A factor contributing to the Soviet Union’s collapse was the Russian public’s war opposition. There may well be some senior Russian officers for whom the Afghan failure remains a personal experience of their early careers.
- In 1979 as well, China invaded Vietnam, sparked by Hanoi’s toppling of a pro-China government in Cambodia. Despite China’s military superiority, the Vietnamese fought vigorously. The incursion lasted a month before China withdrew. While both sides claimed victory, the fact China lost almost three times as many soldiers as Vietnam supports Hanoi’s claim. But, for Russian military history students, the lesson here – one now applicable to the Ukraine situation – is never underestimate the fight in the dog when invading his territory.
In addition to historical lessons contributing to the perfect storm, there are current factors as well.
- A sure indicator of the fight in the dog is its ability to launch counterattacks. The goal of the invader is to so overpower domestic forces so as to disable their ability to do so. After China invaded Vietnam, the latter initiated counterattacks, giving the Chinese a measure of their fighting spirit. As a result, China was smart to withdraw after only a month. Similarly, Ukraine is conducting such attacks against Russia, which now has a good measure of the dog in the fight. Similarly, a Russian military withdrawal mindset must be developing.
- Dictator Putin, who has led Russia for over two decades, after successfully transitioning the country from its brief fling as a democracy, is used to a compliant public. However, his invasion decision has released a dormant public ire. Oligarchs, members of the Russian media, artists and thousands of similarly minded average citizens have publicly aired opposition. It has caused Putin, in true dictatorial fashion, to crack down, implementing laws against protests and against publishing anti-government positions.
- Russia’s invasion is costing it dearly, taking an unexpectedly high toll in lost personnel and equipment. Casualties between 6,000-12,000 are estimated. Soldiers were misinformed about the invasion, either told it would be quick or Ukrainians would welcome them. Many Russians have surrendered or reportedly have self-inflicted wounds, using Ukrainian rather than Russian caliber weapons to do so so as not to attract suspicion. Video of ambushed Russian columns reveal little training as their reactions are antithetical to military doctrine. Meanwhile, economic sanctions on Russia are wreaking havoc.
- A noticeable transition in confidence from the invader to the defender is occurring, evidenced by a gradual softening in cease-fire demands by Russia and hardening by Ukraine.
- Russian military leaders understand, much better than Putin, who has never been in combat let alone worn a military uniform, what they are up against. Such experience is undoubtedly playing on their minds as they struggle to achieve goals on the ground demanded by Putin they know they cannot achieve as fighting seems to have come to a stalemate.
All the above factors indicate a foundational crack in what has long appeared to be block support for Putin. Thus, a cease-fire approach must be taken seeking to expand this crack by appealing to Putin’s generals (at least the live ones as Ukrainians have killed at least four already) on another facet of warfare they well understand – war crimes.
As Russia turned Ukraine into a battlefield, cellphone video capability became a “weapon” for Ukrainian citizens who have been recording evidence of war crimes. These range from bombing a childrens’ hospital, maternity ward and civilian bomb shelters to using vacuum bombs and opening “safe” civilian evacuation routes only to lace them with butterfly mines dropped by air. Russia’s blanket bombing of civilian targets in the seaport of Mariupol appears to be nothing but an intentional war crimes initiative. Collected data shows at least 27 attacks launched against health care facilities and hospitals. This criminal activity is the result of undisciplined troops pressured by commanders to subdue Ukrainian resistance.
An effort must be made to ensure senior Russian military officers understand the International Criminal Court (ICC) will prosecute to the fullest those responsible for such war crimes. Since the ICC will only take action if Russia fails to prosecute these crimes – which is a given – Russia’s generals must be convinced the world sees Putin as a madman, content to see thousands on both sides die, simply to recognize his dream of a reconstituted Soviet Union. Thus, the only force capable of stopping him is the Russian military. Senior military officials must be persuaded to take action on their own, in any way possible, to stop the war by a date certain, for which war crime immunity will be granted, or, alternatively, they will be prosecuted to the max. Regardless, there will no immunity for Putin. A pitch also must be made to the Russian people supporting their protests and educating them on Putin’s destruction of their economy.
The international community has already demonstrated it will take whatever time is needed to bring war criminals to trial, as was done with Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic for 66 crimes including genocide. History will also ensure the names of indicted Russian officials will never be forgotten. Meanwhile, all assets of Putin – such as his $700 million yacht seized in Italy – found outside Russia should be sold and used to fund Ukraine’s reconstruction.
While generals convicted as war criminals would be safe from incarceration within Russia, they would be condemning themselves to life in a country ruled by a ruthless dictator whom we already have seen turn on his own citizens for opposing his war. Unable to leave Russia, these criminals never know when Putin might turn on them for their embarrassing military performance in Ukraine. Additionally, they will be left to suffer the consequences of a destroyed Russian economy as well.
The Russian people have demonstrated immense courage in their anti-war, anti-Putin protests. It is time senior Russian military officials demonstrate the same.
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