Putin’s Ukrainian Gamble Blows Up

Commentary On the morning of Feb. 24, central European time, Russian military forces attacked Ukraine across four separate axes—from the north, east, and south. For the first time in 75 years, air raid sirens once again blared across one of Europe’s ancient capitals. The expectation among Western military analysts, and most certainly within the Kremlin, was that Ukrainian military forces would quickly collapse, the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy would abandon Kyiv and flee for safety, and Russia would take advantage of the resulting power vacuum to announce a new “unity government,” no doubt already prepared and in waiting, that would immediately plead for a ceasefire with Russia. The Kremlin gambled that the Russo-Ukrainian war would be over in a few days, the United States and its NATO allies would impose toothless sanctions, and the rest of the world would quickly return to normal. This sequence of events might still happen, but it is growing increasingly unlikely. Instead, Ukrainian military forces rose to the occasion, mounting a tenacious defense of their native soil and significantly slowing the pace of the Russian advance. The determination of Ukrainian resistance was underscored by the bitter fight over the Antonov Airport in Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv, some 25 miles from the city center of Kyiv. After seizing the airport, Russian elite special forces were surrounded by Ukrainian troops and, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, were annihilated. Russian forces counterattacked the next day, on Feb. 25, with some 200 helicopters and airborne troops and now claim to control the airport. The airport is key to establishing an air bridge to allow rapid deployment of Russian military forces to reinforce the troops attacking Kyiv. The Ukrainian government did not flee, at least not yet, and vowed to defend Kyiv. Responding to a U.S. offer to evacuate him to safety, Zelenskyy famously replied “I need ammunition not a ride.” In the meantime, the Ukrainian government was arming thousands of civilians to resist Russian troops should they successfully penetrate Kyiv’s outer defenses. Ukrainian servicemen ride on tanks towards the front line with Russian forces in the Lugansk region of Ukraine on Feb. 25, 2022. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images) After announcing a rather tepid set of sanctions that, significantly, did not target Russia’s energy industry or expel Russian banks from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) system, Western leaders found, in the wake of overwhelming public condemnation of the Russian attack, new resolve to stiffen the sanctions and expand them to include Russian expulsion from SWIFT and levying sanctions against Putin personally. SWIFT is the messaging system used by thousands of banks and financial systems worldwide to communicate amongst themselves. The network is heavily used by Russia to finance its trade with international partners. In the meantime, NATO found new resolve and displayed a rare degree of unanimity in both condemning the Russian attack, resolving to issue punitive sanctions and rushing military supplies to Ukraine. In response to several Article 4 declarations by NATO members bordering Russia and Ukraine, NATO activated and deployed its Rapid Response Force. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine extended into the fourth day, the Kremlin had little to show for its attack. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that events are rapidly moving against Moscow. The Ukrainian people have shown a remarkable degree of unanimity and defiance in the face of the Russian attack. Regardless of what happens to the Zelenskyy government, it is hard to imagine that a pro-Russian Ukrainian government will have any public support and, more importantly, the commitment of Ukrainian military and police forces to defend or uphold its commands. There is little chance of a pro-Russian government taking power without Russian boots remaining on the ground to defend it. A long, drawn-out Ukrainian insurgency is not what Putin was counting on, but it is likely that is what he is going to end up with. The likelihood of a quick war leading to a change to a pro-Russian government and a return to normalcy has all but vanished. NATO’s new resolve and restored unanimity will likely lead to a significant strengthening of NATO forces along the frontier with Russia and Belarus. Rather than fanning NATO’s internal divisions, the Russian attack has replaced them with a consensus that Putin’s ambitions to restore the Soviet empire must be contained. Western leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, are openly speaking about the need for a new, second containment of Russia like the one imposed by the United States against the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War. More importantly, after tacitly accepting a growing reliance on Russian energy, the European Union has found new resolve to wean itself off its dependence on Russian natural gas and p

Putin’s Ukrainian Gamble Blows Up

Commentary

On the morning of Feb. 24, central European time, Russian military forces attacked Ukraine across four separate axes—from the north, east, and south. For the first time in 75 years, air raid sirens once again blared across one of Europe’s ancient capitals.

The expectation among Western military analysts, and most certainly within the Kremlin, was that Ukrainian military forces would quickly collapse, the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy would abandon Kyiv and flee for safety, and Russia would take advantage of the resulting power vacuum to announce a new “unity government,” no doubt already prepared and in waiting, that would immediately plead for a ceasefire with Russia.

The Kremlin gambled that the Russo-Ukrainian war would be over in a few days, the United States and its NATO allies would impose toothless sanctions, and the rest of the world would quickly return to normal. This sequence of events might still happen, but it is growing increasingly unlikely.

Instead, Ukrainian military forces rose to the occasion, mounting a tenacious defense of their native soil and significantly slowing the pace of the Russian advance. The determination of Ukrainian resistance was underscored by the bitter fight over the Antonov Airport in Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv, some 25 miles from the city center of Kyiv.

After seizing the airport, Russian elite special forces were surrounded by Ukrainian troops and, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, were annihilated. Russian forces counterattacked the next day, on Feb. 25, with some 200 helicopters and airborne troops and now claim to control the airport. The airport is key to establishing an air bridge to allow rapid deployment of Russian military forces to reinforce the troops attacking Kyiv.

The Ukrainian government did not flee, at least not yet, and vowed to defend Kyiv. Responding to a U.S. offer to evacuate him to safety, Zelenskyy famously replied “I need ammunition not a ride.” In the meantime, the Ukrainian government was arming thousands of civilians to resist Russian troops should they successfully penetrate Kyiv’s outer defenses.

Epoch Times Photo
Ukrainian servicemen ride on tanks towards the front line with Russian forces in the Lugansk region of Ukraine on Feb. 25, 2022. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

After announcing a rather tepid set of sanctions that, significantly, did not target Russia’s energy industry or expel Russian banks from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) system, Western leaders found, in the wake of overwhelming public condemnation of the Russian attack, new resolve to stiffen the sanctions and expand them to include Russian expulsion from SWIFT and levying sanctions against Putin personally.

SWIFT is the messaging system used by thousands of banks and financial systems worldwide to communicate amongst themselves. The network is heavily used by Russia to finance its trade with international partners.

In the meantime, NATO found new resolve and displayed a rare degree of unanimity in both condemning the Russian attack, resolving to issue punitive sanctions and rushing military supplies to Ukraine. In response to several Article 4 declarations by NATO members bordering Russia and Ukraine, NATO activated and deployed its Rapid Response Force.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine extended into the fourth day, the Kremlin had little to show for its attack. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that events are rapidly moving against Moscow.

The Ukrainian people have shown a remarkable degree of unanimity and defiance in the face of the Russian attack. Regardless of what happens to the Zelenskyy government, it is hard to imagine that a pro-Russian Ukrainian government will have any public support and, more importantly, the commitment of Ukrainian military and police forces to defend or uphold its commands.

There is little chance of a pro-Russian government taking power without Russian boots remaining on the ground to defend it. A long, drawn-out Ukrainian insurgency is not what Putin was counting on, but it is likely that is what he is going to end up with. The likelihood of a quick war leading to a change to a pro-Russian government and a return to normalcy has all but vanished.

NATO’s new resolve and restored unanimity will likely lead to a significant strengthening of NATO forces along the frontier with Russia and Belarus. Rather than fanning NATO’s internal divisions, the Russian attack has replaced them with a consensus that Putin’s ambitions to restore the Soviet empire must be contained. Western leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, are openly speaking about the need for a new, second containment of Russia like the one imposed by the United States against the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War.

More importantly, after tacitly accepting a growing reliance on Russian energy, the European Union has found new resolve to wean itself off its dependence on Russian natural gas and petroleum. This will necessitate policy changes not only in the EU but in the United States, which will likely result in balancing climate goals against the imperative of energy security.

European and American leaders may have been willing to soft peddle their response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it is clear that their voters will not let them.

The situation in Ukraine is posing a significant dilemma for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He desperately needs to end the conflict in Ukraine, find a face-saving solution, and withdraw his troops. He has floated talks in Minsk with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, but his offer was turned down—unless the meeting was held in a neutral venue.

For now, Russian forces are continuing their advance, mostly because the Kremlin sees no other options but to continue along its current path. Increasingly, however, the Kremlin’s options are boiling down to either an extended occupation of Ukraine or a humiliating withdrawal. Neither prospect has much appeal to Moscow.

Putin, the consummate bluffer, has had his bluff called by the Ukrainians. Russia’s would-be Tsar is looking increasingly vulnerable and, judging from his public pronouncements, dangerously unhinged.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Joseph V. Micallef is a historian, bestselling author, syndicated columnist, war correspondent, and private equity investor. He holds a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a Fulbright fellow at the Italian Institute of International Affairs. He has been a commentator for several broadcast venues and media outlets and has also written several books on military history and world affairs. His latest book, "Leadership in an Opaque Future," is forthcoming. Micallef is also a noted judge of wines and spirits and authored a bestselling book on Scotch whisky.