- By Frank Gardner
- BBC Security Correspondent
The pretensions are gone, diplomacy is dead – at least for now. Ukraine suffers a large-scale Russian invasion and struggles for survival.
What will happen next?
The main issue for Russia is Kyiv, the capital and seat of President Zelensky’s government, a city where fighting has already taken place.
President Putin has evidently spent months locked away in solitary confinement, studying his defense chiefs’ plans to take control of their west-facing Slavic neighbor and bring it back into Moscow’s orbit.
The invasion plan largely consisted of a three-pronged line of attack from the north, east and south, using artillery and missiles to weaken resistance before continuing with infantry and tanks. Ideally, Putin would like to see the Zelensky government capitulate and surrender quickly, to be replaced by a puppet government close to Moscow.
The aim would be to prevent a prolonged urban campaign of national resistance from gaining momentum.
“In the short term,” says Brigadier Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “a successful capture of Kyiv by the Russians would be a military and political success with strategic impact.
“But it might not destroy the Ukrainian government – as long as it has made plans to establish a new seat of government, probably in the western part of the country.”
The Russian invasion plan was not fully planned – British defense intelligence says hundreds of Russian soldiers have been killed and resistance is strong – but it is making progress. Russian forces are more than three times the size of Ukraine’s, and questions are raised about the quality of the Ukrainian military command and how long its forces can last.
Resistance has already begun, with the national call-up of fighting-age men and the distribution of 18,000 automatic weapons to the citizens of Kyiv, with the uniformed army and reserves already putting up fierce resistance.
Eastern European countries, fearful of being next in Putin’s crosshairs, are nervously watching any Russian movement near their borders. Kusti Salm, permanent secretary of the Estonian Defense Ministry, is one of those campaigning to increase military assistance to Ukraine.
“We must give them weapons like Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, ammunition and protective equipment. All NATO countries must help them,” he said.
The longer Russia takes to subdue this nation of more than 40 million people, the more trouble it is likely to run into.
But President Putin, who has practically crushed all opposition in his own country, must have noticed how his autocratic neighbor Belarus has effectively crushed the protests of the past two years. The police surrounded the protesters and threw them into prison. Many of them were so beaten and mistreated in detention that it had a great frightening effect on any further protests.
“Russia,” says Brigadier Barry, “will use extremely harsh repression, digitally enhanced by a Russian version of the surveillance apparatus used by China in Xinjiang. Russia will also threaten to retaliate against any state that aids an insurgency.”
NATO is deliberately not in Ukraine. Despite Kiev’s desperate pleas for the West to come to its aid, NATO has categorically ruled out sending troops to Ukraine.
Because ? Because Ukraine is not a member of this alliance and NATO does not want to go to war with Russia.
If the Russian invasion turns into a long-term occupation of Ukraine, it is conceivable that Western nations will support a Ukrainian insurgency, just as the United States supported the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. Not without risk, as Putin is likely to retaliate for a their. one way or another.
Meanwhile, NATO focused on strengthening its eastern borders. Ironically, while Moscow demanded that NATO move its forces westward, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine did just the opposite.
“This is a big wake-up call for Europe,” said Tobias Ellwood, MP and chairman of the UK Parliament’s Defense Committee. “Three decades of peace is unfortunately not the norm. To deal with a tyrant, we must step up our planning.”
Can be worse?
For Ukrainians, the situation has never been so bad.
After fighting a Russian-backed separatist insurgency in the east of their country for eight years, they are now witnessing bombings and rocket fire from their nuclear-armed giant neighbor.
Ukrainians, who voted overwhelmingly for independence from Moscow in 1991 – and renounced their own nuclear weapons – face the prospect of a three-decade setback if Russia succeeds in subduing the entire country.
The broader question that worries world leaders is: what does President Putin intend to do after Ukraine?
NATO defense chiefs reviewed their lengthy July 2021 speech and concluded that there was an urgent need to strengthen NATO’s eastern borders to prevent Putin from being tempted to attack countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
would Putin do that?
“I think he has a plan,” said Tobias Ellwood. “It’s about sending troops out of uniform to cause trouble as part of a ‘war without threshold’. I’m afraid this will spill over into the Balkans.”
NATO is certainly not taking any risks and has put more than 100 warplanes on alert. Britain was one of the first countries to send reinforcements – to a grateful Estonia, where Kusti Salm, however, is realistic about what they can achieve.
“No one thinks that the UK-led battle group [en Estonie] could single-handedly stop the world’s second most powerful nuclear country,” he said. “This is a trap that would unleash the power of the entire NATO, including the United States, the United States and France.”
This scenario, of a Russian military incursion into a NATO country, almost unthinkable until recently, is when NATO and Russia could effectively be at war with each other.
But that hasn’t happened – yet – and Western leaders hope that through concerted joint action, along with tough economic sanctions, the message of deterrence will be clear to Moscow.