The war in Ukraine has acquired a deceptive stability. The situation maps look similar from day to day, with the Russians occupying areas to the east and south. In reality, buildings and terrain change hands several times in violent tactical actions.
Generals speak of the “big hand, small map” problem, where scales simplify big problems, foreshorten distances, and reduce obstacles to a two-dimensional plane.
The opportunity for strategic surprises seems to have passed. Satellite and signal intelligence provides comprehensive warning of upcoming operations. Russia’s immediate intentions are clear. But a major strategic shift has taken place. Almost imperceptibly, the Russians ceded escalation dominance to NATO.
Individual members have shown themselves willing to take risks they refused six weeks ago. They do so openly, dismissing the “plausible denial” that characterized previous efforts to help Ukraine. They’re trumpeting what they’re doing, making known to the world their direct support for Ukraine and signaling they’re in it for the long haul.
The shady distinction between defensive and offensive weapons is pushed aside. The British and Czechs are leading the way, but the US is catching up.
She has promised heavy artillery that will boost Ukraine’s ability to counter Russian attacks, but in due course she could “shape” Ukraine’s counterattack. President Biden has shed some of the risk aversion that characterized his initial handling of the crisis. Then he was troubled by the fear of triggering what he called “World War III”; now he is talking about “setting the course for the next phase of the war”).
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has denied his own government’s measures to supply Ukraine are escalating. It is, he said, “Putin’s actions” that are escalating.
Yes they were, but less so now. Putin invoked the threat of nuclear weapons early in the invasion, but has not done so since. Russia may have tested its new Sarmat ICBM last week, but its procurement dates back to before the war. Russia has focused its campaign on more geographically limited targets in Donbass and southern Ukraine.
NATO powers are keeping Ukraine fighting, increasingly at the expense of their own holdings. In doing so, they are incriminating and shaming those allies who maintain the caution of late February, most obviously Germany. By treating Ukraine as an ally rather than a partner, they bring Putin closer to denying the goal he launched this invasion for — keeping Ukraine out of NATO.
Nato’s claim of covertly dominating the escalation has helped the Ukrainians control the Russians and contain the war, at least for now. But even a limited war has consequences. First, it will be tedious. Second, death and destruction are not restricted within the combat zone. Third, geographic containment has not yet translated into limited goals for either side, as both view this war from an existential point of view.
Fighting has made compromise a thing of the past, and without negotiations, war may escalate again. If so, who escalates first? And shouldn’t we realize that escalation doesn’t have to be nuclear or even chemical, but geographical?
Supply lines and logistics are central to both sides’ war effort: if a Ukrainian attack on those in Russia makes militarily sense, so does a Russian attack on Ukraine in Poland. (©Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
Hew Strachan is Fellow Emeritus of All Souls College, Oxford
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/west-has-successfully-called-vladimir-putins-bluff-in-terms-of-most-dangerous-threats-41595081.html West has successfully exposed Vladimir Putin’s bluff regarding the most dangerous threats