Russian tanks may invade Ukraine before the ink is dry on this article, as part of maneuvers to undermine the independence of Ukraine. International negotiations are underway but nobody believes they will be effective. Everyone is fearful that a shooting war in Ukraine may escalate to war between nuclear superpowers. Such conflict will have serious repercussions on politics, economies, technology, and most importantly the lives of people around the globe. As an armchair strategist, I only see one narrow and rocky path that could avoid the unnecessary bloodshed and suffering while preserving the ability of Ukraine to determine its own future and prosperity.
I believe Russia, under the deliberate hands of Putin, is following a specific plan of action concerning Ukraine. That plan will be executed, regardless of almost anything that the West may do or say. The political negotiations and rhetoric we are seeing unfold is pure theatre, for political purposes, and likely to give the necessary time for Russian military forces to maximize their preparedness and positions.
Whatever master plan Putin crafted for his forces a year ago or more, will likely come to fruition. The final outcome is unknown.
Over the past several months, Russia has amassed a massive combined military force along Ukraine’s lengthy border with Russia and Belarus. Belarus has stated they will assist Russia in any action against Ukraine. The West raised alarms of this build-up some time ago but was assured by Russia it was not preparation for military action. Those were lies. The crisis has escalated significantly and could be an end to the “Long Peace”, the period of time after World War II when no direct wars have occurred by countries with the largest economies.
Russia has the advantage. They will determine if war begins in Ukraine, will possess tactical surprise, and have a vastly superior force. The West has been successfully maneuvered into a poor position, where Ukraine will have little chance to remain independent under the weight of Russian forces. Ukraine lacks the necessary military might to defend its borders or protect its democracy. The citizens have lived under threat and fear of a Russian invasion for years and it looks like it may occur in just a few days.
In 2014 Russia took over a strategic southern part of Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, and annexed it. Ukraine has sought aid from the West for years and even participated in NATO training maneuvers, while Russia has clearly stated that if Ukraine joined NATO they would invade. Now it appears they will invade anyways.
The most likely scenario is that Russia will attack in stages, hoping for submission by the Ukraine central government, moving to the next stage until successful. Their goal is suspected to supplant the central leadership with a puppet government, thereby bringing Ukraine back into satellite orbit of Russian control or to force autonomy for each of the regions of Ukraine, thereby undermining any central control. These independent regions will then be easy to manipulate and control by Russia, thereby resulting in the same desired outcome.
At this point, any defensive military positioning by NATO can be politicized as a provocative move by Russia and therefore a pretext to attack. Without military activation and positioning, Ukraine can expect little direct support from NATO. There is an additional risk that is making nearby NATO countries concerned. The over one hundred thousand Russian troops with modern equipment and supporting forces would have a distinct advantage if they choose to move against an adjacent NATO country after invading Ukraine. But activating large numbers of troops or moving NATO forces eastward could escalate the situation and advance the timeframe of invasion which is politically hazardous for western nations whose populations do not want war. The biggest forces, those of the United States, are largely missing from the European theatre. Many US citizens didn’t even know where Ukraine was on a map several weeks ago, much less want to get into a war that will further impact their economy and way of life. There is never a good time for war.
Therefore, Russia has hobbled NATO’s military preparedness and force projection abilities to aid Ukraine. Putin is masterfully taking advantage of political apprehensions and using potential global economic impacts as a shield. If NATO did want to join the fight to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine or establish equitable forces on the bordering NATO countries, it would find it difficult to accomplish and probably a very delayed result. All the while, Russian forces continue to amass more troops and equipment in staging areas around Ukraine.
Are Effective Sanctions Possible?
Other than direct military intervention, the only true influence the West has is economic and political. But Putin, with autonomous control, will not directly be swayed or have his master plan return a failure. Like a worthy chess opponent, he has already considered the likely moves of the West and is prepared to accept a good measure of sanctions. It would not be the first time. Such tactical sacrifices are acceptable for strategic gains.
However, Putin is not an island entirely unto himself. There are many rich and powerful people in Russia that carry significant influence, which are often referred to by the West as the ‘oligarchs’. Making an attack on Ukraine severely impactful to them may create a strong counterforce against Putin’s plans for military aggression. But it must be truly significant to the oligarchs. Well beyond what Putin had accounted for.
To stave off war in Ukraine and potentially other countries that Russia may target with similar practices, the long-term economic, political, and social impacts must be readily understood and resonate deeply to a personal level of the Russian leadership and oligarchs. Sanctions must also work to indirectly undermine the political power that Putin has within Russia, by raising awareness to citizens that numerous countries across many continents have banded together to resist Putin’s expansionistic pursuits. Something that the world has not witnessed in Europe since the military expansion of a superpower that was attempted in WWII. Current reports indicate that the Russian populace within the country is largely unaware that Putin has been positioning troops along the border and is probably planning to attack Ukraine. The Russian public may be shocked they have been kept unaware and therefore somewhat unhappy with their leader.
Forming an Alliance is Key
Those countries that are willing to openly oppose Russia using military force to overtake, force, or undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine or any other nation, must form an Alliance. These Allies can be any country across the globe and do not need to participate or commit to any military action, but will commit to financial and political sanctions as dictated below. Optimally, this will include but not be limited to, members of the Group of Seven (G7), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the European Union (EU), with aspirations of including most of the Group of Twenty (G20).
Really Sharp Sanctions
Allies across the G20, NATO, and the EU will agree to implement the following:
- Immediately recommend all Allied nationals in Russia to prepare to leave and notify all Allied companies to prepare to remove their people, operations, and assets from Russian federation states. Set an expectation that any assets left in Russia or accessible by Russian influence, may likely be seized by Russia
- Allies to create and share a list of Russian federated states, that includes all countries under the control of Russia, and a comprehensive list of Russian federation oligarchs that include government officials, business leaders, political heads, and military elite, including their families and known close associates. This list will grow over time.
- Prepare financial institutions doing business in Allied countries to identify assets of Russian federation state-run companies and oligarchs. Institutions must be ready to freeze or seize assets these assets.
- In a joint Allied statement, publicly advise the Russian federation that if military action is conducted by Russian forces against Ukraine, the following will immediately be implemented by all Allied nations:
- Russia’s trade status will be listed as an Embargoed nation and all commercial trade must immediately cease
- All remaining Allied citizens will be ordered to leave Russian federated states
- All Russian financial assets tied to the oligarch list, held by Allied financial institutions, will be seized
- All persons on the oligarch list will permanently be banned from travel to any Allied country, unless as part of an official purely diplomatic mission, under the oversight of the Allied country
- All communications, including Internet services, will be severed, except for government communications between Allied and Russian governments
- All physical property and assets held or owned by Russian oligarchs and government officials, in Allied nations, will be seized
- Transportation, including shipping, rail, and air travel will immediately cease to Russian federated states
- All Russian federation flagged ships must immediately leave Allied ports and into international waters
- Allied airports will not accept any flights, of commercial or private aircraft, originating or passing through Russian federation countries
- All transfer of intellectual property agreements will cease
- All Russian citizens, with visiting, student, or working visas, will be immediately ejected from Allied nations to return to Russia or non-Allied nations. A process will be established for Russian citizens wishing to relinquish Russian citizenship to be evaluated for permanent citizenship in their host country, based upon host country criteria
- In the event Ukraine applies to the EU and/or NATO, it will be immediately evaluated for tentative approval
5. NATO to reaffirm that:
- The use of chemical or nuclear weapons constitutes attacks of weapons-of-mass-destruction and retaliation in kind would be expected
- Violation of NATO airspace or national waters by Russian forces, after warfare against Ukraine is initiated, is an act of war against all NATO countries
6. Allies will establish mutually-supporting trade, economic aid, and critical infrastructure support for fellow NATO and EU countries affected by sanctions against the Russian federation to strengthen ties, increase defense, foster innovation, and reinforce long-lasting prosperity
Sanctions Not War
These sanctions threaten financial, social, cultural, technological, and political isolationism for Russia. This is not a bright future for Russia and the Russian federation would find itself quickly struggling while long-term, the rest of the world would likely be prospering. It would force Russia to rely upon countries that they have not deeply trusted in the past. Conversely, it would bring closer together the Allies and greatly reduce global dependencies on the Russian federation.
There will be explaining to do by Putin’s regime domestically as well. Those returning visa holders from Allied countries will have much to share upon return to Russia, including the news of what the world sees, and the war Putin has orchestrated in Eastern Europe. Currently, Putin has full control of all media and news narratives to the public. Unsurprisingly there is little information on what is happening in Ukraine. The news of specific sanctions should be concerning to the population.
The people of Russia did not like the economic depravity of the cold war and have enjoyed the inroads of being part of a thriving global economy. The oligarchs, who prospered the most as the USSR transformed into a more open and capitalistic trading nation, will not want isolation. It will undermine their value and put them at risk. History has shown, when the people of Eastern Europe are suffering terribly and see great disparity with an elite class, they tend to change the system. Often violently. Those that are overthrown tend not to fare very well. The oligarchs understand and fear this, more than anything.
The sanctions, if they come to pass, will also adversely impact the West. But with early insights, the businesses, supply issues, and economic effects can be managed. The West is great at adapting to challenges, especially when the limitations are clearly defined early on. The reality is, overcoming these issues is far easier than dealing with the alternatives of war or ambiguously increasing economic sanctions akin to those that failed after the annexation of Crimea. The best scenario is that the threat of sufficient sanctions is enough to divert the course of the Russian plans so neither war nor sanctions will ever come to fruition.
These actions are not militarily provocative but will establish a clear set of powerful sanctions that represent the best possible chance for sustained peace in Europe and with all the countries that Russia may desire in the future to become satellites.
Don’t Play the Adversary’s Game
Putin is counting on the West to be passive, fractured, and disorganized. Proactively maintaining peace will only be achieved through clear and collaborated actions that target non-military pressure points with the gravest of financial, political, and social consequences — not by being passive. Deterrence must be achieved with consequences greater than the strategic benefits of Russia attacking Ukraine.
Preserving peace will take strength, commitment, and forethought. It is through clear global partnership, communication, and resolute determination that sovereign nations can remain untrampled by military superpowers. Actions must be taken.