Putin loses. Now what? – POLITICS

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A losing Vladimir Putin goes after increasingly venomous schemes and forces Western capitals to play war with his deadly scenarios.

The Russian president is terrorizing Ukrainians in towns far from the front lines of the war. He is suspected of having ordered the sabotage of gas pipelines to Europe. And, most terrifyingly, it threatens nuclear war.

All this in the space of a few weeks.

Western leaders are now scrambling to plan whatever the increasingly unpredictable ruler might do next. They fear even more exaggerated versions of what has already happened: more terror campaigns to destroy Ukraine’s energy facilities before winter; more disruption to the infrastructure that powers European society; no more nuclear rattling.

The goal, analysts and officials say, is to bleed the West’s patience and resources — essentially playing the long game in hopes of fomenting Western cracks before defeat on the battlefield.

« Russian forces are going to be defeated on the battlefield, » former US Army Europe commander Ben Hodges said, adding, « The Ukrainians have achieved irreversible momentum. »

While officials can’t fully defend themselves against all of Putin’s latest tactics, they discuss what new weapons Ukraine might need to fight, how to better monitor Europe’s critical infrastructure and how to deter Putin from launching a nuclear strike.

« As allies, » Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said in an email last week, « we must keep our composure and not let his unacceptable rhetoric dictate our response. »

« NATO », she said, « is ready for any scenario ».

Here is an overview of several situations that could arise and how Western allies are preparing for them.

Terrorizing Ukrainian civilians

On Monday morning, in a highly symbolic move, Russian missiles struck central Kyiv during rush hour – the first time the capital had been targeted since June.

The missile attacks, a senior Central European diplomat said, were « revenge for the bridge » – a reference to an attack on the bridge linking Crimea with Russia.

But some experts fear a wider campaign is underway. Monday’s bombardment also slammed into a number of other Ukrainian towns, many of which had been left alone for months, and the assault continued on Tuesday.

The target, according to Ukrainian officials, appears to be energy facilities. As winter approaches, these utilities are vital. Russia’s goal, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted, is to create « unbearable conditions for civilians ».

Analysts worry about what might happen next.

Heinrich Brauss, a former deputy secretary general of NATO who previously served as a lieutenant general in the German military, said he feared Russia’s new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, would be seen as « absolutely brutal and don’t care about civilians ». civilian populations and infrastructure.

Possible responses range from more calls for new sanctions – Polish Ambassador to the EU Andrzej Sadoś called for sanctions “as soon as possible” – to giving Ukraine new types of defense systems Aerial.

Germany announced Monday that it will accelerate delivery of IRIS-T advanced air defense systems to Kyiv, and Ukraine is set to receive two US-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS, from here November. US President Joe Biden renewed his own promise to give the country « advanced air defense systems » without providing details.

But while Kyiv is expected to receive more US systems down the line, it remains unclear what other air defenses it can access in the short term – and who would supply them.

« The whole of Europe lacks this capability, » said Brauss, the former German and NATO official, citing the continent’s relatively low investments in post-Cold War air defense.

Ukraine, he said, needs systems capable of covering an entire region against cruise missile and ballistic missile attacks – but this capability is militarily « difficult » and « very expensive ». And even when it has more systems, Ukrainian leaders will have to prioritize which cities, areas and facilities to protect.

From a technical point of view, Brauss said, it is almost « impossible to protect the whole » of Ukraine.

Sabotaging European life

Russia is unlikely to directly challenge a NATO ally, but the Kremlin seems increasingly willing to covertly eliminate the systems that underpin the societies of NATO countries.

First, there were explosions on the Nord Stream undersea gas pipelines linking Russia and Europe – a sabotage plot with alleged Kremlin fingerprints.

Then, over the weekend, someone cut the cables that kept German trains running, raising the specter of another possible Kremlin plot.

Other possible sabotage scenarios are disturbingly countless.

“We have many pipelines, oil and gas, we have data cables,” Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš said.

Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš says EU must recognize where it is vulnerable | Martin Divisek/EPA-EFE

« We just need to increase our own awareness of what might be vulnerable, » he said in a phone interview, « and then build up the defense of our potentially vulnerable infrastructure. »

NATO acknowledged earlier this year in an updated strategy document that such « hybrid attacks » could become serious enough to trigger the military alliance’s Article 5 clause, which states that a military attack against an ally is an attack against all.

Speaking on Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that following the Nord Stream incidents the alliance had « doubled » its presence in the Baltic and North Seas and that the allies « strengthen security around key installations ».

Yet despite efforts in recent years to build « resilience » within NATO, experts and officials recognize that Europe’s infrastructure networks are so vast – and often owned by private companies – that the options governments are limited.

National authorities can increase patrols, on land and at sea – thereby increasing deterrence – but even then, not everything can be monitored. There’s also the cyber threat, which adds yet another unwieldy dimension.

“It is very difficult” to assess in advance where and how an attack could occur, and to adopt protective measures, Brauss said.

« In general, » he added, « we are all vulnerable. »

Win time

As Putin appears to be raising the stakes, experts said he was also likely trying to buy time, hoping the cold weather will change the dynamics of the conflict and the West will eventually tire of arming and funding the Ukraine.

« Putin went from ‘how can I win this?’ to ‘how can I avoid losing this?’ approach,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior research associate at the Royal United Services Institute, calling the Russian leader’s approach “strategic patience.”

Putin’s decision to recruit several hundred thousand new Russians into the fight is part of that scheme, experts said.

« The goal is to trade bodies for time, » said Hodges, the former US commander.

Western leaders are well aware that Putin is betting on war fatigue and high energy prices to reduce public interest in supporting Ukraine. In response, Western capitals feel that Ukraine’s allies must develop their own long-term strategy and still view Putin – despite setbacks – as a vital threat.

“The problem,” according to a senior Western European diplomat, “is that he is still strong, or has strong capabilities at his disposal. Our response to unpredictability can only be predictability. This is what we have ensured over the past few months.

Russia watchers have also warned that Moscow’s long game – whether under Putin or a possible future regime – may go far beyond Ukraine. Russia has a long history of unrest abroad, with a particular focus on former Soviet countries on the EU’s eastern border.

« I think we have to be prepared for further escalations, » said Daniel S. Hamilton, a former US official who is now a senior fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute. Western governments, he argued at a recent panel, must be « prepared for a volatile situation as far east as you want in Europe. »

Threat of apocalypse

Then there’s the prospect of nuclear war – a concept that until recently seemed unthinkable.

Experts warn that nuclear weapons remain the least likely option for Moscow, whether it be a tactical nuclear weapon with more limited power, a nuclear bomb exploded over water as a of a show of force or an all-out nuclear assault.

“Obviously, we naturally focus on nuclear use indices,” Galeotti said. « I think we’re a long way from that, if ever. »

Instead, the nuclear rhetoric, officials and experts say, offers a bullying tactic meant to scare both Ukrainians and NATO countries backing Kyiv.

Western leaders have taken a two-pronged approach: not to let nuclear rhetoric dictate Ukraine’s policy and simultaneously warn Moscow of the disastrous consequences that would follow from any nuclear action.

« If Russia can threaten to use nuclear weapons in order to secure a territory it has temporarily conquered, then all of us – each one of us – are subject to blackmail, » said Kariņš, the Latvian Prime Minister. “And then, Putin, Russian troops come into Moldova and threaten a nuclear attack if anyone does anything about it? And then it can probably go further and further.

The consensus is that Washington must take the initiative to dissuade Putin from breaking the nuclear taboo, indicating exactly how he would react.

Big countries like China and India, which help keep the Russian economy afloat, could also play a role. A nuclear attack would inevitably shock an already shaky international system and global economy, something even Russia’s allies would like to avoid.

So far, US officials have remained deliberately vague about their response plan, indicating that Washington has communicated its thinking privately to Russian officials. The US reaction is expected not to involve its own nuclear arsenal, but it will certainly be harsh.

“They will become more of an outcast in the world than they ever have been,” Biden promised in September, without giving details.

« I’m not sure we would respond in kind, » Hamilton of SAIS said.

But there are « many answers », he said, which « would be consequential ».


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