Time for West to take off the gloves

Time for West to take off the gloves

Originally published in The Australian.

In his vainglorious march to conquest, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to bomb Ukraine back to the Stone Age. He is deliberately and criminally targeting civilians with vacuum, cluster and phosphorus munitions to break Ukrainian morale in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.

Chemical and biological weapons may be next. They are weapons of mass destruction.

Putin’s war of liberation is turning into a war of obliteration. It must be stopped to save lives, maintain Ukraine’s sovereignty, uphold democracy, and prevent eastern Europe and the Baltic States from disappearing behind another iron curtain.

This is a moral and geopolitical imperative. And the West has the means to do it. NATO must declare and enforce a humanitarian no-fly zone over western Ukraine; ramp up the supply of arms to the embattled Ukrainian forces; embargo all Russian oil and gas; and prevent any further movement of goods into Russia across the Belarus border.

This is the message Scott Morrison must convey to a vacillating US President Joe Biden and European leaders who share responsibility with Putin for the crisis.

The failure to deter Putin by arming Ukraine and taking a NATO military response off the table was a serious miscalculation. The Russian dictator would never have invaded Ukraine if he thought the US and Europe would unite in its defence.

The West is in danger now of an even graver mistake – allowing Putin to bluff his way to victory by threatening escalation if NATO intervenes.

Biden has convinced himself that a NATO confrontation with Russia would mean a third world war. He is wrong. The best way to prevent a global war is a measured Western military response to seize the initiative back from Putin and present him with some hard choices of his own.

Putin knows escalation would be fatal to his rule. His economy is crumbling and his military is dangerously stretched. Taking on superior NATO forces is the last thing he wants as he battles to achieve his objectives in the face of dogged Ukrainian resistance.

As Eliot Cohen, a leading American strategist, writes in The Atlantic magazine: “NATO (and above all, American) air power could sweep the skies over Ukraine clear of Russian aircraft, and after a week or two of smashing Russian air defences, devastate its ground forces. The Russian army is not advancing implacably; it is plagued by incompetence, poor supplies, corruption, terrible morale, bad tactics and a cause in which its soldiers do not believe.”

Many experienced British commanders agree. Retired joint forces commander Chris Deverell recently said a no-fly zone was necessary and achievable. Former British defence force chief David Richards said NATO should intervene if Russian and Ukrainian negotiators failed to reach a settlement: “We’ve got to come off the fence and get ahead of the game.”

Biden and European leaders worry that Putin may resort to nuclear weapons if cornered. But this misreads the man and ignores the deterrent effect of NATO’s own nuclear arsenal. Putin may have delusions of grandeur but he is not mad. He and his inner circle know that squeezing the nuclear trigger would threaten Russia’s and Putin’s own survival.

Sanctions alone won’t bring Putin to his knees. But a tightening of the economic screws underpinned by resolute military action is the only way of getting Putin to negotiate an end to this increasingly brutal and dangerous war.

European leaders must find the political courage to embargo all oil and gas from Russia. Before the invasion, Moscow earned $US350m a day from its oil exports and $US200m from gas, totalling more than $US16bn ($22.2bn) a month. With the spike in oil and gas prices, Putin is enjoying a war bonus of an additional $US4bn a month in precious hard currency.

Cutting off this revenue would severely degrade Putin’s capacity to prosecute the war in Ukraine.

None of this will be pain-free, particularly for Europe, which remains heavily reliant on Russian gas. But if Ukrainians are prepared to defend their democracy with their lives, then surely it is not too much to ask Europeans to support Ukrainians with their wallets. Shortening the war is the best way of bringing down energy and food prices, alleviating the risk of global stagflation and food shortages.

We know Russia is hurting. Why else would Putin ask fellow autocrat Xi Jinping to provide economic and military support, and enlist Syrian “volunteers” to supplement his combat power?

Wars of attrition are extremely costly and Russia is singularly unprepared for a drawn-out conflict in Ukraine. The longer it runs, the greater the pressure on Putin to negotiate a face-saving deal.

The West’s strategy must be to bleed Russia dry – militarily, financially and economically. Half measures will result only in a prolongation of the war and more human suffering.

Providing an off-ramp for Putin will be critical to ending the Ukraine crisis. But saving Putin’s face can’t be at the expense of Ukraine’s sovereignty. The idea that the Donbas region, Crimea and a connecting southern landbridge should be ceded to Russia is morally and politically untenable.

Putin must not be rewarded for bad behaviour after the destruction he has reaped on his neighbour. No Ukrainian government would countenance a sell-out deal.

Putin will have to be satisfied with a Ukrainian promise not to join NATO, giving him the buffer state he wants, a concession the Zelensky government already has signalled it is willing to make. Sanctions should be lifted only after a peace agreement is reached.

When this war is over the world will be a very different place. Russia will be a much-diminished player on the international stage. And Putin will remain a pariah for the rest of his political life, which may be shorter than he thinks.

Areas of expertise: Political and strategic developments in East Asia; transnational security issues; intelligence; Australian national security and defence