Should Ukraine take the war to Russia?
In recent days, it seems that Ukraine is deciding whether to start a war with the Russians in its own country. Is it good idea?
This week, paramilitary forces moved from Ukraine to Russia and made a lot of noise. The Russians, as usual, immediately accused “Ukrainian terrorists” and “fascists” of the invasion. These assessments can be ignored, as can anything that comes from the Kremlin, which specializes in lies.
In fact, the groups that claim responsibility for the invasion of Russia are made up of Russians who defected from the army of their president Vladimir Putin and are now fighting against him and for Ukraine. one group it is called the “Legion” Freedom of Russia “. The second is the ultra-nationalist Russian Volunteer Corps.
Little is known about these Russian anti-Putin paramilitary organizations, in particular whether they follow orders from Kiev or act autonomously. But they certainly have very little or no connection to Ukraine’s “International Legion,” a unit of foreign volunteers that compare with the “international brigades” that fought in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco’s nationalists.
Kiev denies any involvement in the cross-border attacks. But let’s put that aside and ask a more important question: Will attacks on Russia – bigger than skirmishes in border regions – make strategic sense for Ukraine?
Some of history’s greatest military minds have won defensive wars this way. The idea is to force the invader to withdraw in whole or in part from the original front line in order to protect the rear.
This is exactly what the Roman general Scipio Africanus did between 210 and 202 BC. Hannibal, the most feared enemy the Romans ever faced, terrorized Italy with his Carthaginian invasion force for eight years. And Scipio led the Roman army into Iberia to capture Hannibal’s bases there. A few years later, Scipio entered northern Africa to threaten Carthage itself. It was only at this point that Hannibal left Italy to defend his homeland. Scipio defeated him and Rome won the war.
Similarly, Ukraine could open new fronts in Russia. And then Putin will have to withdraw part of his invasion force from Ukraine and send it to Russia. This would weaken Russia’s position in Ukraine and help Ukrainians regain their territories. Putin will also start to look weak at home and will become vulnerable – politically or physically – to coups.
But Ukraine is not ancient Rome, Russia is not Carthage, and Putin is certainly not Hannibal, one of history’s greatest military geniuses (although he was ultimately defeated). The strategic situation is completely different.
The first difference is that Putin, unlike Hannibal, has nuclear weapons, and many times over he threatened to use it if cornered. So far, the world, including purported ally China, has convinced Putin that nuclear escalation is unacceptable. But Russian doctrine provides for the use of nuclear weapons when the Russian state is in danger. Since Putin equates a threat to the state with a threat to himself, he may decide he has nothing to lose and deploy a nuclear force.
Another difference is that Ukraine, while currently having the most battle-hardened army in the world, relies on the continued support of the West. It defends its skies with American air defense systems, plans a counterattack German battle tanks and expects air supremacy with F-16 fighters.
But all the help so far has been based on the fact that Ukraine is only defending its own territory. The greatest fear of the West is that NATO could be drawn into a conflict with Russia that could escalate into World War III. Some Western countries – maybe even the US after the 2024 elections, they may stop supporting Ukraine if it adopts an offensive tactic. The so-called Global South, which is already on the threshold, most likely, in this case it will turn against Kiev.
A more sophisticated version of Scipio’s strategy would be an attack on the Crimea.
In the light of international law, it is the territory of Ukraine. From a psychological point of view, Putin and the Russians consider Crimea part of their country, but the world does not. So it’s fair game.
The occupation of Crimea will cost a lot of Ukrainian blood. Kiev has no long-range missiles, planes or air force to flank Russian forces in Ukraine’s two other occupied regions, Kherson and Zaporizhia. So the army will have to pass through these areas, cross the Dnieper and attack the Russians head-on.
A better approach might be to simply cut off Crimea from Russian supply lines. To do this, the Ukrainians can use their new Western tanks and other weapons to make their way through Zaporozhye to the Sea of Azov, crossing the “land bridge” that the Russians have built for themselves between Lugansk and Crimea. If this offensive is successful, the Ukrainians could make Russian positions in Kherson and on the Crimean peninsula indefensible in the long run.
With any luck, Putin will then decide he’s had enough and reluctantly enter the peace talks, somehow turning his “special military operation” into a national success. But if Putin were subjected to military pressure in Russia itself, he could not pretend to win something – on the contrary, he would have to reinforce the narrative that he was protecting the country from outsiders.
Therefore, Ukrainians should not attack Russia as such or encourage proxies such as Russian anti-Putin paramilitaries to do it for them.
The world better know they’re just protecting their country. The one withthe strategy must continue to provide the country with global support and regain as much of Ukraine as possible.
Translation of a Bloomberg publication.