The options Putin faces and the implications for Israel


By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi​​ | April, 2022

Vladimir Putin
Photo: | CC BY 4.0


The images of atrocitier in Ukraine about the brutal murders committed by Russian soldiers have deepen Russia's isolation and has reinforced allegations of war crimes. These developments have the potential to affect the continued fighting and the willingness of each side to reach a settlement, despite reports of some progress being made in the positions of the parties.


The aim of the present paper is therefore to explore the main options President Putin faces, particularly in view of what appears to be a withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kyiv region and a concentration of efforts in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine.



The possibility of reaching an agreement ?


The Russian perspective – despite the operative difficulties and western punitive measures, Putin still seems to be pursuing most of the strategic goals he had set before the war: Ensuring that Ukraine will not join NATO; having recognized the annexation of Crimea to Russia, as well as the independence of the two pro-Russian districts in Eastern Ukraine; and changing the security arrangements formed in Europe in recent decades, with special emphasis on the deployment of U.S. forces in Eastern Europe.


However, in view of the military reality on the ground, Putin seems to have foregone – at least at present – his ambition to replace the Ukrainian regime, as reflected in the Russian Ministry of Defense's statement whereby the first phase of the military operation has been successfully completed, and that Russia now intends to substantially scale down its activity around Kiev, and focus instead on the Donbas region.


The Ukrainian perspective – Few days ago, it looks like President Zelensky had the willingness to become more flexible in his position, stating that he would be willing to forego his ambition to join NATO, and remain neutral. However, in light of the atrocities images it seems that he has hardened his stance and demands that Russia be treated as committing war crimes against the Ukrainian people. Furthermore, he continues to strongly oppose the demilitarization of Ukraine, and refuses to give up any piece of land for Russia, while steadfastly demanding to receive security guarantees.


The American perception to date remains intact; if anything, President Biden seems to be using even harsher rhetoric against President Putin, calling him a "war criminal" and "butcher", reportedly saying (probably a slip of the tongue) that President Putin "could not remain in power", and actively seeking to broaden the scope of military assistance provided to Ukraine, as well as the economic punitive measures.


At the bottom line, due to the huge gaps and In light of the disinclination of Asian powers China and India to condemn Russia and apply pressure to end the fighting, coupled with Putin's realization that the outcomes of the campaign might have an impact on his own personal status and prestige, perhaps even his ability to remain in power, it is doubtful that the parties will reach a sustainable arrangement in the near future.


Therefore, it seems that the main options available to Putin at present are to continue, and even escalate, the campaign to try and maximize military accomplishments on the ground, which, he may believe, would allow him to enter into future negotiations with the West from a position of power, while holding on to significant chips.



Focusing efforts in Eastern and Southern Ukraine


In view of the operative heel-dragging, logistic difficulties, heavy loss of lives (according to various assessment, more than 10000 Russian troops have been killed, including several generals and senior commanders) and equipment, it seems that the Russian Army is actively seeking to delineate and focusing in key fighting zones in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, while attempting to besiege the Ukrainian forces in Donbas, complete the occupation of Mariupol, and maintain control of Kherson.


On the strategic level, this operative perception leaves a wide range of possibilities available to Putin – from willingness to declare a ceasefire, through continuing to crush the Ukrainian army and civilian population, to turning the heat and fire even higher. On the operative level, this perception is designed to enable the Russian Army to obtain territorial contiguity from the Donbas region to Kherson, at least (and, under a more optimistic scenario, all the way up to Mykolaiv and Odessa), in a way that would lead, de facto, to Ukraine splitting up into two states. Should these be accomplished, Putin would have the victory image he longs for as having successfully liberated the pro-Russian districts, and connected Crimea to Russia.



The non-conventional option


Ever since the crisis began, President Putin seems to have been flashing Russia's non-conventional and nuclear capabilities card - conducting an exercise with ballistic missiles capable of being equipped with a nuclear warhead on the eve of the invasion; putting the nuclear forces on high alert mere days into the invasion; using hypersonic missiles capable of being equipped with nuclear warheads during the fighting. All those measures were part of the information warfare in an effort to deter the West from engaging in direct military involvement in the fighting (Escalate to de-Escalate).


Furthermore, the Russians have recently claimed that the United States, together with Ukraine, have developed biological weapons. In response, U.S. officials, headed by President Biden, have warned that Russia is looking for an excuse to use chemical warfare, using the same "false flag" logic that it had employed prior to its invasion.


Therefore, as the Russian Army continues to struggle to establish control in the eastern and southern regions, and in an effort to crack what could be seen as stagnation, or even withdrawal in military achievement terms, Putin may decide to make limited use of chemical weapons in particular as a decisive measure in key points. It seems that Putin believes that the fear of having the campaign escalate and spill over to non-Ukrainian territory would keep the United States from using military force, much as it had done when addressing the crisis with Syria back in 2013, despite the red lines drawn, at the time, by President Obama.


It is noteworthy that, to date, the western leaders have indeed warned of a harsh response in the event that Russia should use chemical warfare; however, they avoid specifying the nature of that response. Moreover, President Biden and Chancellor Scholz have reiterated in recent days that they have no intention of sending forces into Ukraine, or even declaring it a "no fly zone". Even after exposing the evidence of brutal murders, the West is careful of expressing willingness to send troops to Ukraine.



Implications and recommendations for Israel


Ongoing belligerence and poignant statements by all, especially regarding war crimes and possible use of chemical weapons, increase the risk of miscalculation and the broadening of fighting in a way that would further hone the dilemma that Israel is currently facing.


Thus far, Israel has been able to successfully navigate between preserving its strategic alliance with the United States and adhering to its moral-based considerations, and maintaining its crucial interests vis-à-vis Russia, particularly with regard to the security coordination with it in Syria. However, as the fighting continues, alongside with accusations that Russia has committed war crimes, Israel would find it hard to remain cautious for long.


In an attempt to minimize the harshness of western, and especially American, criticism, Israel should play the cards it is holding, and continue to offer high intensity humanitarian aid wherever it is required, including unrestricted comprehensive care for the refugees coming to Israel, while being careful not to be viewed as a safe haven for Russian oligarchs. At the same time, Israel should refrain from getting dragged into public quarrels with the U.S. administration on issues that form bones of contention, particularly the Iranian one, while treading carefully in its conduct with the Palestinians so as not to enrage the American government. In concurrence, Israel should continue to prove its valuableness to the U.S. administration, inter alia by promoting regional partnerships with Sunni countries.





Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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