Syed Ata Hasnain | Wars need wisdom: How far is Putin likely to go?

The mistake was made not in 2021-22 but way back in 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up

India’s Defence Services Staff College, in the picturesque hill town of Wellington, has as its credo the Sanskrit phrase “Yuddham Pragya”, which can be translated as “To War with Wisdom”. The credo comes to mind as one examines the situation in Central and Eastern Europe where Russian President Vladmir Putin has sent the Russian Army in pursuit of war to punish Ukraine and to ensure that it does not step out of line with Russian interests. To go to war isn’t the easiest of decisions. It means destruction and casualties, collateral and bad blood, in order to attain laid down objectives. Mr Putin must surely have weighed all this to decide in favour of war to achieve his intent; his perceived wisdom could probably justify all that. The option of war thus needs some analysis.

I admit I went wrong in assessing President Putin would not go to war and believing he would achieve everything he intended to by threatening to go to war; the classic strategy of brinkmanship. The West thought the same, too, but perceived that it could wriggle out of the situation it had created and continue to pursue its objective to see Russia pushed back.

The mistake was made not in 2021-22 but way back in 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up. The United States and Nato forgot some lessons of history. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) was but 70 years old. It was through it, and the utter lack of understanding of the human psyche, that the victorious Allies pushed vanquished Germany into a resurgence of extreme nationalism that ultimately led to the rise of Nazism. The victors must not exploit victory but manage it. That is the supreme wisdom which comes from an understanding of the term “conflict termination”. It’s not as if everyone goes home taking the spoils of victory, but rather it must be ensured that victory does not sow the seeds of another war.

When Nato began seeking its eastwards march by absorbing some of the former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact nations, it was sowing those very seeds. No doubt Nato claimed that it was catering to the possibility of Russia’s return in a stronger avatar. That is exactly what has happened but more as a response to what Nato was seeking than anything else.

President Putin probably realised that it was now or never; opportunities do not always come sailing. Brinkmanship was an experiment to see if Nato would bite. US Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has said President Biden could end this by simply acknowledging Russia’s legitimate security concerns regarding Ukraine becoming a member of Nato. Ms Gabbard was right, but probably didn’t take into consideration a simple factor. This was the fact that after his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden would think many times before doing something that showed the US as weak, accepting a Russian perception. With low approval ratings, no US President could afford to do this.

The US never provided the leadership Nato deserved when its identified interests were hit, although how far is the Nato push on Ukraine a legitimate core interest is still debatable. The US and Nato fell back on economic sanctions, which Russia has weathered effectively over the last eight years. Even if the sanctions are to be intense and personal, Russia is banking on the immediacy of its action and subsequent return to diplomacy. Mr Putin, therefore, exploited the post-Afghanistan window of weakness which seems to have afflicted the US and Nato. He probably also knew all along that brinkmanship would not work as it actually enabled Nato to look strong while resisting Russian aggressiveness.

With war, Nato, the US and Europe as a whole are being seen to be hollow and dithering. Mr Putin also probably sensed that a military victory at this stage of the post-Covid pandemic drafting of the new world order would fetch Russia a much greater dividend and a position higher in the pecking order than being a mere supplicant of China.

How far does President Putin intend to go? Remember, war is not just a unidimensional entity to decide victors and losers. It has hundreds of shades of grey within the spectrum, and its results can be perceived in a hundred different ways, too. Given the asymmetry, Russia can simply smother Ukraine; that is if it were to choose old-world Soviet ways. The Soviets did it to the Chinese PLA in May 1969 at Damansky island on the Ussuri River. However, in 2022, calibration of coercion and intimidation is a far better tactic. Mr Putin is already advising the Ukraine Army to seize power so that negotiations can be simpler; it is not easy perceiving that but a defeated and surrendered Army may initially be much more pliant. However, from all indicators, calibration is not being judiciously applied.

Although information warfare is being played out to bring the horrors of war to the public eye in Ukraine and much of the world, there is reality, too, in the number of casualties. Ukraine’s President Vladmir Zelensky has made this a life-and-death issue, advising people to fight back. Even Mr Putin would not want an Iraq-type fightback, which could mire the Russian Army in a morass in Europe and prevent any resolution that he is seeking. For him, the political aim is simply regime change; to a more Russia-friendly one; one which will keep Ukraine outside Nato’s ambit. His military aim seems to be the suppression of Ukraine’s military forces and a paralysis of the public mind with huge doses of information warfare, conveying the impossibility of resistance against Russia. Yet, in doing so, Mr Putin also knows that there are limits of international acceptance. A “shock and awe” campaign, of the kind America waged in the Second Gulf War, may not be taken kindly today, two decades later. He is attempting a limited shaping of the battlefield through the use of cyber warfare, missiles and rocket artillery targeting command and control centres and airfields. There are images of residential blocks destroyed and civilian casualties, which won’t do much good but could be an early strategy of psychological warfare. Ground incursions were made from different directions but do not seem to have been involved in major contact battles. This could change overnight if the Ukrainians push back militarily. Mr Putin should hope that they should not because an interminable asymmetric war in the heart of Europe 25 years after Bosnia got resolved isn’t something anyone is looking to. Wars, too, have to be fought with wisdom.

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