With the NATO nations starting to consider ever more powerful weapon donations to Ukraine, has Putin cried wolf?
The war in Ukraine is just about to have its terrible ten-month anniversary with no immediate end in sight. But even though it is not going to end in the coming weeks (absent a “black swan” event of Putin dying suddenly), there is still no chance of the Russian leader eking out a win.
There is a saying among teachers: If school starts in September, you shouldn’t shout until Easter. Shout at your class in the first month of the school year and you’ve reached your peak too early. You have nowhere else to go. And the school year in teaching is a very long time.
Shouting, though not a particularly good form of behavior management, is most effective if used sparingly and with people who are not used to you raising your voice. When you do raise your voice, the audience takes notice, and it becomes far more effective.
Teaching, in this way, is very much like war. To shout is to go nuclear.
Putin has already saber-rattled the use of nuclear. There is no military fate worse than a nuclear armageddon.
Putin has already shouted at the class, and it didn’t work.
This week, we learned that the US has agreed to provide Ukraine with some Patriot surface-to-air missile defense systems. Previously, the military administration had not wanted to do this for fear of escalation. The same had been said about NATO and the west providing fighter jets and main battle tanks. And now Slovakia is looking to send MiG-29 jets to Ukraine, Germany the much-lauded Leopard 2 tank, and the UK might possibly send Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
Essentially, several things have happened. First, Putin shouted at the class rather early in the year. Second, the class realized that it was mainly hot air.
There has been an evolving NATO/West risk-reward or cost-benefit analysis of the conflict. And, now, Ukraine’s allies seem to be willing to push the envelope a lot more.
The calculation has changed. Russia has used a great deal of its stocks, its armaments, its soldiers, and what pitiful supply of guile that it had. Russia was perceived as a very dangerous threat, but this is a perception that has been rapidly deteriorating over the course of the war.
The risk-reward calculation has changed to the point that Ukraine’s allies no longer see Russia as “the second greatest army in the world.” After all, they seem to be the second greatest arm in Ukraine.
There are two main factors that have helped to bring this renewed evaluation about.
1) The massive underperformance of the Russian army has removed much of the fear the world has traditionally had of this bellicose bear. This evaporation of fear can be understood in terms of looking at the performance of the Russian military hardware, the leadership of the military command, the training and efficacy of their troops, and the lack of cohesion and joined-up thinking between the different aspects of the armed forces (known as combined arms). All of these components of the Russian military machine have been severely lacking.
Thus, any consideration that involves how dangerous Russia might be in terms of conventional warfare will look different now from what it would have done 11 months ago.
2) The depletion of the Russian missile stocks is cause for a rethink. This idea has three further components to analyze.
First, the interception rate of Russian missiles and drones is high and only improving, meaning Russia needs to launch multiple missiles to hit one target. This is why we see saturation missile attacks to overwhelm the Ukrainian air defenses so that at least some get through.
Second, the remaining missile stockpiles are very low for Russia now. With sanctions active and the Russian military-industrial complex struggling to make ordnance at the rates they are being used, the Russians are waiting sometimes several weeks to gather the resources to send over fresh waves of cruise missiles.
These first two elements combined mean that Russia does not have the capacity to hit multiple targets with missiles if a war with NATO were to start. This is hugely important and deserves dwelling on. Russia has been preparing for a war with NATO for decade upon decade. Their armaments and ammunition stockpiles, training, planning, and global geopolitical strategizing have been leading to this.
But Russia barely has the equipment to fight with Ukraine, let alone the almost 30 nations of NATO. They no longer have the strategic reserves of missiles required to go to war with half of the rest of the world.
This leads to the final part of the calculation: the escalation ladder. By taking their conventional missile stocks out of the equation, the Russians have removed rungs from the escalation ladder. This then leaves them with two options when considering what to do in light of an escalation in NATO weapons donations: Does Putin do nothing or go nuclear?
Would Russia really start the destruction of the world because Ukraine received some air defense systems from NATO nations? What about Ukraine receiving some main battle tanks? Is that worth full escalation? The West has already pushed the envelope with older tanks, HIMARS rocket systems, and a host of other weapons that Russia begrudgingly “allowed” to be provided.
How about long-range missiles (weapons that many analysts are crying out for Ukraine to receive), more than three 84km range of HIMARS? Russia actually took away one rung from the escalation ladder with their missile campaign. They can’t retaliate with cruise missiles because they are doing that anyway, and have effectively run out of rungs. They can climb to only their last rung, or stay where they are and threaten repeatedly with climbing to the final level.
NATO now has the high reward of Russia no longer being a threat to Europe, with a lower risk of escalation due to the rungs of the ladder being removed.
In this way, we can fully expect NATO to be bolder with the equipment they deliver, and for Russia to respond with more vague nuclear threats.
We heard that kind of shouting at the beginning of the year, and we weren’t scared then. I suggest, with some caveats, now is not the time to suddenly get scared. This kind of geopolitical brinkmanship is no doubt fraught with danger, but it’s easier to take calculated risks when you know you have a good hand and the other player has a bad one, and they’re not very good at hiding that fact.
This is not being hawkish about war, but recognizing the utmost importance of putting an aggressor in their place, and sending a very firm message to other would-be aggressors.