The invasion of Ukraine: Putin's policy undergoes reality testing


By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi​​ | March, 2022

Vladimir Putin
Photo: | CC BY 4.0

12 days into the invasion to Ukraine, and despite the information gaps and disinformation on the situation on the ground, it seems that the developments in the international arena and the progress of the fighting in the field are inconsistent with President Putin's preliminary assessments and expectations. The strategic distress and operative difficulties seem to have led Putin to issue the publicized directive given to the defense minister and Chief of General Staff to raise the alert level of the nuclear array in an attempt to convey a message to the West with regard to the boundaries of intervention in the crisis on their part in view of the use of Russian military force having been taken to the next level, which lead to destruction and numerous casualties.


The campaign, as it currently emerges, seems to reflect a delay in the implementation of the Russian Army's operational plans, at the heart of which were a rapid replacement of the regime. Yet the battlefield seems to be shrouded in mist, making it difficult to ascertain how deep the gaps between the operative plans and implementation thereof on the ground are.



An underestimation of western cohesion and determination


Just before he invaded Ukraine, it seemed that President Putin found the strategic conditions for escalating the crisis with Ukraine convenient – The West was knee-deep in internal distresses due to the pandemic and soaring inflation; the image of western leadership was in crisis – the U.S. president was perceived as weak, deterred by use of force and focused on domestic issues; the European leadership did not seem any stronger (Scholz – a new, inexperienced chancellor; President Macron on the eve of presidential elections; and Prime Minister Johnson preoccupied with domestic issues); Europe was greatly dependent on Russian imported gas; and the strategic axis with China was tightening. Moreover, the financial situation was better than ever, with foreign exchange reserves estimated at over 630 billion USD, and a crushed Russian opposition.


It seems that Putin was right about his assessment of Biden's unwillingness to use military force, but wrong about his assessment of the U.S. President's determination and ability to form a broad tight-knit front with other western countries, and make Russia pay a heavy toll for its aggression. Biden's slip of the tongue whereby small-scale military action on Russia's part would be met with a similar response may have also strengthened Putin's assessment of a feeble response from the United States.


In practice, probably contrary to Putin's projections, Biden did succeed to form a broad coalition comprised of dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, and Australasia via a leadership concept defined by President Obama a decade ago as "leading from behind". In his State of the Nation Address, Biden said that "Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson – when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos", indicating his determination to make Russia pay a heavy toll for its conduct. Putin also seems to have underestimated the German response. Despite Berlin's dependence on importing gas from Russia, and the deep economic ties between the two countries, Germany has resolved to halt the certification of the strategic Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and has expressed its willingness to send various weapons to the Ukraine.


Moreover, although for many years NATO seemed to have lost its relevance, Biden and the European leaders have now managed to revive the alliance and its importance to provide a mutual-protection umbrella for all member states. The U.S. and UK have even sent forces and weapons to East European countries that are NATO members, declaring their commitment to protect any state within the alliance. Furthermore, Finland and Sweden, who, for many years, have remained adamantly neutral, now express their willingness to cooperate with NATO in an act reflecting the cohesion forged between all western states during the current crisis in view of the threat posed to them by Russia's intentions.



An underestimation of the intensity and scope of the economic sanctions


The economic sanctions imposed by Biden and the other western leaders constitute the harshest punitive measures ever imposed on a country of Russia's caliber. First and foremost, Russian financial institutions have been cut off from the payment processing mechanism; the Russian National Bank was sanctioned, and its ability to tap into a substantial amount of Russia's foreign exchange reserves compromised; many countries, including the United States, have closed off their airspaces to Russian flights; and Putin himself has been personally sanctioned, along with a long line of Russian organizations and oligarchs. Moreover, many international companies have severed their business ties with Russia. These steps have already led the Russian stock exchange and Ruble rate to nosedive, forcing the regime to take drastic preemptive measures to stop the economy from crashing.

An underestimation of the willingness to provide military aid


In addition, the U.S., Canada, Australia and European countries are providing Ukraine with tremendous military aid, including antitank missiles, air defense systems, ammunition, and other weapons. The EU has also announced its willingness to finance the purchase of eastern fighter jets for Ukraine, although the latter is not a member state. Moreover, the U.S. and UK are providing Ukraine with ongoing, real-time intelligence on Russia's strategic-operative intentions, as well as tactical deployment on the ground.

Chinese commitment questioned


In recent years, Putin has actively sough to tighten his country's relations with China in an attempt to form an axis that will counter the weight of American hegemony. However, China's conduct to date makes one wonder about the stability of one of Putin's main sources of support. The most prominent manifestation of this trend was China's decision to abstain from (rather than veto) the vote in the UN Security Council on the demand that Russia withdraw its forces, as well as in the UN General Assembly vote on condemning Russia.


It seems that, despite the deepening of ties between Moscow and Beijing, the invasion to Ukraine, and primarily the intensity of the conflict and western response, have posed a dilemma for China. For although the Chinese principle dictates avoiding interfering with other countries' sovereignty (Taiwan is not perceived by China as a sovereign state), it is nevertheless concerned that the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict would have implications for it too, since Russian failure in this campaign could project onto its status in the international arena, as well as its aspirations in the Asian arena. At the same time, China will strive to avoid a situation whereby Russia will drag it into a large-scale confrontation with the West that will expose it to American and European economic sanctions.



An underestimation of President Zelensky's and the Ukrainian People's determination to fight


It seems that one of the main sources of surprise for Putin in this campaign is the level of the Ukrainian Army's and People's determination to fight the Russians. To a large extent, this is the result of the political and social changes that the Ukraine has undergone in recent years, at the basis of which was the desire to detach itself from Russia, and get closer to the West. In practice, it seems that the Russian leadership had misconstrued that the invasion and cries to oust Zelensky would lead to the Ukrainian citizens' weak objection, making it easier to take over Kiev.


It seems that Putin had also underestimated President Zelensky's leadership and determination. Time after time he has rejected America's suggestion that he will leave the country, and has even made his decision public in the media to demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice his own life for the cause. Zelensky also disseminates selfie videos in which he is shown on the streets of Kiev, urging the masses to close ranks and fight uncompromisingly for the Ukraine's independence. Moreover, Zelensky is engaged in a broad diplomatic campaign with western leaders, with whom he speaks on the phone regularly, and later posts his conversations on social media.

An underestimation of Russian opposition?


Finally, the ongoing campaign, images of destruction from Ukraine, and harsh sanctions are stirring protests and discontentedness in Russia itself. Although, at present, these do not seem to pose an actual threat to Putin's rule, the unprecedented steps taken to block social media and various other media outlets, the severe punitive measures against anyone who shares an anti-invasion opinion (including the prohibition to use words such as "invasion"), as well as the arrest of thousands of oppositionists all attest to the regime being agitated by these voices. The aggravated conflict with the West, and, primarily, the economic damage due to be caused to oligarchs and power elements within the regime, may intensify the challenge posed to Putin in the long-range, not by his adversaries, but by those closest to him.



Recommendations for Israel


Ultimately, the conflict and its developments thus far have proven that, while American and British intelligence had correctly anticipated Putin's intentions to invade Ukraine, the Russian President himself had been wrong in his analysis of the expected responses by the international system, and the Russian Army's capabilities to deliver a rapid decisive blow.


Israel should continue with its policy of balancing the strategic and moral considerations with the security-related ones. Therefore, while condemning the Russian invasion and continuing to provide humanitarian aid, Israel must, due to the crucial role played by the security coordination with Russia in the preservation of the actions taken in Syria as part of the war between wars, and the importance of Israel's ties with Russia in other contexts too, promote a low-key dialogue with the United States and Russia in order to reach quiet understandings on this matter. Prime Minister Bennett's meeting with Putin in Moscow (coordinated in advance with the U.S. administration), and the conversations he subsequently held with Zelensky, are an expression of Israel's cautious policy, and the fact that it is currently perceived as one of the only countries in the West capable of engaging in dialogue with both parties to the conflict.


At the same time, the western response and disinclination to send armed forces to protect Ukraine shows Israel the constraints of the support offered by Washington and Europe, particularly during an armed conflict. It must therefore continue to actively develop its own independent abilities to address the threats it faces, particularly in view of the possibility that a new nuclear deal would intensify the challenges posed to Israel by Tehran and its regional proxies.




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



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