Combining intimidation with disinformation, Putin’s strategy is to escalate to the point where the West dare not interfere
By Jed Babbin
April 22, 2021
Russian aggression against Ukraine is mounting quickly on Ukraine’s eastern border and in its partial Black Sea blockade. Russian ground and air forces are massing for what the Russians say are training exercises but may be a prelude to a full-scale invasion.
President Biden has assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of our “unwavering support” for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But Mr. Biden’s words are not supported by any serious action. Mr. Biden did institute economic sanctions against Russia earlier this month but they are clearly inadequate to change Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior. Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said there would be “consequences” for Russia if it engages in “aggressive behavior.”
Mr. Biden has made those threats meaningless. He ordered, and then canceled, a planned “freedom of navigation” sailing of two U.S. destroyers into the Black Sea near Ukraine. Later, he said he doesn’t want “a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia,” and has called Mr. Putin to request a diplomatic summit on Ukraine.
What Mr. Biden doesn’t understand is that managing cycles of escalation and conflict, with a little diplomatic fog thrown in, is Mr. Putin’s method of hybrid warfare.
Mr. Putin’s idea of diplomacy regarding Ukraine is exemplified by the “Normandy Four” negotiations between Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine. He has made clear, however, that the next meeting of the “Normandy Four” will only be three because Ukrainian President Zelensky will be excluded. (Mr. Putin refuses to take Mr. Zelensky’s telephone calls.)
On April 9, Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov told reporters that Russia had the right to move forces across “its” territory — meaning Crimea, which was part of Ukraine until Russia seized it in 2014 — because of the “dangerous, explosive region at its borders.” Mr. Peskov added that the situation along the contact line was “extremely unstable,” saying that “… the dynamics … create the danger of a resumption of full-scale hostilities.”
Part of Mr. Putin’s strategy is to escalate the conflict to a point that the West will not dare interfere, combining intimidation with a massive disinformation campaign.
To better understand the Ukrainian viewpoint, I interviewed Petro Poroshenko, who served as Ukrainian president from 2014 to 2019, Oleksiy Danilov, currently secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, and Oleksander Turchynov, who headed the Ukrainian parliament and was interim president in 2014.
Mr. Poroshenko believes it is a “gravely dangerous time.” He said, “Every day new echelons of Russian regular military forces are arriving at Ukrainian borders — troops, tanks, helicopters, artillery systems. The Kremlin is stationing the newest and the most modern military equipment at the Ukrainian front.” Already, there are reportedly 150,000 Russian troops on the border.
Mr. Poroshenko believes Mr. Putin, by escalating the conflict, is attempting to impose peace terms on Ukraine in which it will surrender another major piece of Ukrainian territory. He said, “By this escalation, Putin aims at inspiring the collective West into exerting pressure onto Ukraine with a view to avoiding a large military conflict. Putin wants an appeasement policy from the West and concessions on Ukraine.”
Mr. Turchynov believes Mr. Putin’s blackmail may be a bluff because Mr. Putin doesn’t want to risk thousands of casualties that the Ukrainian military would be able to inflict in a full-scale invasion. He, like Mr. Poroshenko, believes the Kremlin wants a peace agreement in the Donbas region (where Russian-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian troops) on Russian terms requiring Ukrainian capitulation.
Mr. Danilov was emphatic that Ukrainian forces are not guilty of provoking Russian reactions. To the contrary, he said, Russia is constantly provoking Ukrainian forces in the hope that they will respond and give the Russians an excuse to undertake large-scale hostilities.
Russia is seeking to blame Ukraine for Russia’s actions against it. Russia does this by goading Ukrainian forces to attack — often with sniper attacks in the Donbas region — and then engaging in a widespread disinformation campaign to blame Ukraine for Russia’s actions.
Mr. Danilov said that Russia was engaging in “information terrorism to influence our ability to resist Russian aggression [and] create a parallel information reality.” He added that in a 15 April meeting with Mr. Zelensky all options for defense were discussed in secret.
Mr. Poroshenko believes the crisis can best be dealt with by two measures. First, by granting Ukraine’s application for membership in NATO. (That will not happen because France and Germany are too beholden to Russia.)
Second, Mr. Poroshenko believes that Mr. Biden should be outspoken on Russia’s aggression and ask for the creation of a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping operation in the Donbas region that might prevent Russia from capturing further Ukrainian territory.
Mr. Poroshenko added that more military support and supplies of lethal weapons from the U.S. is essential. There is apparently no discussion of such support in the Biden administration. We can, and should, do more.
We should avoid military intervention in Ukraine and we can’t rely on the U.N. to do anything constructive. Instead, Mr. Biden should be outspoken in defense of Ukrainian freedom and should send more U.S. military equipment to bolster Ukraine’s defenses against Russian aggression. There is no political cost or risk in doing either. But those actions would require the kind of strength we haven’t yet seen from Mr. Biden.
Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”