GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – Tactical impasse, strategic escalation

Last week was very tense and the war escalated.  The week included a range of planned and (probably) un-planned rhetoric and escalation making the situation more dangerous.  Early in the week, amid commitments to increase arms supplies from NATO and its allies to Ukraine, the United States Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin remarked that a United States objective of supporting Ukraine would be a ‘weakened Russia’, after his meeting with President Zelensky. 

Then the next day the United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, James Heappey made a remark about attacking Russia, being a ‘legitimate’ use for weapons supplied by the United Kingdom.  Both remarks were quickly clarified or ‘walked back by officials’ but demonstrate the need for politicians on both sides to be very careful about their speech.  

In Russia, the comments hit home as Putin wound the Russian people up, using these statements as evidence to inflame Russians and demonstrate that he was correct, that the war in Ukraine is a war against NATO and the United States. A war for survival.  Later, in the week we had nuclear rhetoric and threats from both Putin and his foreign Minister Sergei Lavarov.   The Pentagon also reported that the Russians are secretly preparing for a full mobilisation of their military, a significant step essentially moving the war from a military expedition to total war.  

This week, Putin also attempted to blackmail NATO by cutting of natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria and escalated his rhetoric including talking about expanding the war into other countries.  Combined with attacks on fuel infra-structure in Transitria and Russia the week was full of tension.

NATO is walking a fine diplomatic line, it must oppose Putin’s aggression, whatever the potential consequences. The simple fact is that the history has shown, again and again that autocrats and tyrants must be met with force; and if not, they only escalate their demands.  In the 18th and 19th centuries Europe combined to oppose Napoleon, in the 20th Hitler. Putin is the next in a rogue’s gallery of tyrants that believe ‘might is right’. History shows that the only way to oppose these people is collective security, or for the nations that do value human rights, national sovereignty and the ‘rule of international law’ to work together using their collective strength to oppose them.  That is why alliances like NATO exist.

The difference today is that Putin has a large nuclear arsenal. Opposing Putin, requires accepting that threat of global nuclear war.  Strategically, the mitigation for this threat is making sure that NATO’s dialogue is unemotional, that it is tied to principles of international law.  This means that discussion focusses on Putin’s actions, rather than conflating his actions with Russians generally. It is an important distinction because it provides opportunity for any opposition within Putin’s military or political circle to reasonably argue against nuclear escalation on the grounds on an existential threat to Russia.  People may be able to sacrifice themselves, their children and their children’s children for their country, however are less likely to make that sacrifice for one person.  So, it is important that NATO leaders choose their words carefully to ensure; that if they choose too, Russians can distance themselves from Putin.

At the moment the war is at critical phase. Tactically, the Russians are struggling to win ground. In the east they are making some very limited progress.  However, bad weather, heavy losses and poor morale mean that Russia’s probing attacks are not making significant progress.  It is likely that there is a ‘second echelon’ preparing to be committed either south from Izyum to take Kramatorsk and Sloviansk or west from Luhansk through the towns of Rubizhne, Kreminna and Popasna to attack Severodonetsk.  However, at this stage where this attack will fall is uncertain and last week’s Russian activity has failed to find a Ukrainian weakness. Likewise, in the south the Russians are still unable to advance further than Kherson.

Ukraine on the other hand is receiving huge amounts of military equipment and supplies from a world-wide coalition.   The NATO reports indicate that the Russia is struggling to maintain air-superiority over even eastern Ukraine.  NATO flooding Ukraine with anti-aircraft missiles has driven Russian planes from most of Ukraine’s airspace.  Everyday Ukraine gets stronger. 

The war is in the balance tactically, Russia either needs to win quickly, escalate or negotiate.  The chances of Russia winning with its current forces are minimal.  The Russian’s simply do not have the numbers that they require.  All the artillery in the world cannot seize and hold ground, his requires infantry and Russia is running out of infantry.   

This means that Russia is now faced with a number options;

  • Nuclear escalation.
  • Mobilise and escalate conventional operations.
  • Negotiate.

The first option, nuclear escalation while ‘on the table’ is unlikely.  Using tactical nuclear weapons would turn more nations against Russia and based on NATO’s current resolve could see a significant NATO escalation.  Using tactical nuclear weapons may convince NATO to impose a ‘no-fly’ zone or even to escalate further and attack Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons supporting infra-structure (i.e. their bases, maintenance and supply areas) to prevent further use in the conflict.   Use of strategic nuclear weapons is unlikely because their use creates a no-win outcome.  

The second option, conventional escalation is highly likely. To date, Pentagon intelligence has been very accurate and if it reports that Russia is preparing for general mobilisation it is likely to be in progress.  A declaration of war against Ukraine and mass mobilisation would allow the full military power of Russia to be deployed against Ukraine.  This could provide the resources to win quickly in the east and then negotiate.  The risks for Russia are that the Ukrainians may still beat them and further diminish Russia’s prestige and military resources.   Further, if the Ukrainians can hold on for a long-time, they may even force the Russian economy to collapse. 

Another question is whether Russia would risk conventional escalation beyond the borders of Ukraine, into a NATO state. Would Russia follow through on its threats to Britain or Poland?  This option is highly unlikely because NATO is holding its resolve, rather than backing away from Russian threats the alliance is escalating and demonstrating that it is willing to fight. NATO and its allies vastly outnumber and overpower Russia.  Escalating into a war with NATO would destroy Putin so is unlikely.

The final option is negotiation.  I noted with interest that this morning Sergei Lavrov was ‘walking back’ his recent nuclear rhetoric and also that evacuations of civilians from Mariupol are being discussed.  Perhaps, NATO’s resolve is bearing fruit and we are approaching a realisation in the Kremlin that negotiation could be a better option than continuing the war?  The evidence for this is not good, it seems more likely based on recent history that Putin is stalling while he prepares his next move. 

Last week it was reported that Russia Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, is in Ukraine assessing the situation this visit will likely set policy for the next phase of the war.  This trusted general will be finding out what is happening on the ground and reporting back to Putin and there are likely to be some rapid changes in the next week, before Victory Day on 9th May.  Most likely, based on Russian behaviour to date a commitment of remaining forces to one axis of advance either in the north-east or in the south towards Odessa followed by general mobilisation to replace the loses and continue the war. 


Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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