By Gerard M. Gallucci*
Anyone who thought Putin might accept a peaceful settlement with Ukraine, over his concerns about NATO expansion, was sorely mistaken. That includes me. Putin clearly knows no civilized bounds in achieving his fantasy of a new Russian empire. The Russian military now seems intent on making up for its initial setbacks – due to the fierce and brave resistance of the Ukrainian military and people as personified in the leadership of President Zelensky – by taking the war to the cities and on civilians.
Ironically, given Putin’s parents’ experience in WWII, the Russian military is now tasked with making Kharkiv, Kyiv, and other major Ukrainian cities into 21st Century versions of Leningrad. One must wonder who among Russia’s economic, political, military, and national security elites believe it in their interests to face not only the current wave of unprecedented sanctions but those sure to come when the rest of the world sees the violent lengths Putin is willing to go to subdue the people of Ukraine.
But what to do? The sanctions are the equivalent of economic war and are hurting the Russian economy but by themselves do not appear to be able to change Putin’s behavior. Many thousands of brave Russians have gone into the streets to protest the war. But Putin knows what to do with them. His military may well be able to starve out and turn to rubble the Ukrainian cities. Whether the Ukrainian military and people can carry on the fight and what will happen to President Zelensky are unknowns. But the possibility of continued resistance with the help of military assistance now being sent to Ukraine could create a very dangerous stalemate. Putin may seek to close off all land borders along with his conquest of the sea.
It may be time for the EU – perhaps under its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) – or individual European countries to consider placing military forces in western Ukraine – and Lviv – before the Russians can get there. They would act as a non-NATO tripwire to stop any Russian effort to completely erase the sovereign, democratic Ukraine. Such a rump Ukraine could serve as the continued seat of government of Ukraine should Kyiv fall. It would also allow the EU to admit Ukraine and help rebuild it for the future.
Would Putin’s military stop in the face of European forces invited in by the legitimate government? Putin’s nuclear threat has already been placed on the table. He may well see the threat of nuclear war as a risk worth running – escalate to deescalate is Russian military strategy. But that might be too far to follow for all those Russians sitting far around his table.
*Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He has a PhD in political science, taught at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Arkansas, George Washington University and Drake University and now works as an independent consultant.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.