The West has successfully called Vladimir Putin’s bluff

Nato’s assertion of escalation dominance by stealth has helped the Ukrainians check the Russians and to contain the war.

Hew Strachan. April 26

Meeting between US and Ukrainian officials in Kyiv

Since the initial shock of 24 February, the war in Ukraine has acquired a deceptive stability for those lucky enough to be viewing it from a distance. The situation maps published in the papers look much the same from day to day, with the Russians occupying territory in the east and to the south. In reality, buildings and ground change hands multiple times in fierce tactical actions. Generals talk about the “big-hand, small map” problem, in which scales simplify major problems, foreshorten distances and reduce the obstacles to a two-dimensional plane.  

The opportunity for strategic surprise seems to have passed. Satellite and signal intelligence, much of it in the public domain, gives ample warning of unfolding operations. Russia’s immediate intentions are clear to the world, not just to the Ukrainians. But one big strategic shift has occurred. Almost imperceptibly, the Russians have conceded escalation dominance to Nato. 

Individual members – Britain principal among them – have proved ready to take risks which they rejected six weeks ago. Moreover, they are doing so quite openly, discarding the “plausible deniability” which characterised their earlier efforts to help Ukraine and ceasing to focus only on weapons systems with which Ukrainians might be familiar and on which they had been trained. They provide the training, both in their own countries and (it would seem from some reports) in Ukraine itself. They no longer necessarily proceed covertly or indirectly, but trumpet what they are doing, advertising to the world their direct support to Ukraine and so signalling that they, not just Ukraine, are in this for the long haul. 

The always dodgy distinction between defensive and offensive weapons, so central to the debate in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, is being progressively put to one side. In the 1980s, during the Cold War, some retired German officers argued for “non-offensive defence”, in order to reassure the Soviet Union as to Nato’s intentions. Then, as now, tanks were taken as the twin symbols of an offensive capability. Undoubtedly tanks are still a necessary part of an attack, albeit in conjunction with other arms, but the same applies in defence. They can be sited, hull down, to provide support to defending infantry and they can be used for counterattacks to recover lost ground. The moral issue concerns not the weapon itself but how it is used. It is Ukraine, not Russia, which is defending its country.

The British and the Czechs have led the way in putting the defensive/offensive distinction to one side, but the United States is following suit. It has promised heavy artillery, which will strengthen Ukraine’s ability to counter Russian attacks and do so deep into Russian positions, but in due course heavy artillery could prepare and shape Ukraine’s own counterattack. President Biden has himself dropped some of the risk-aversion that characterised his initial handling of the crisis. Then he was worried by the fear of triggering what he called “World War 3”; now – as he promises $800 million for Ukraine – he talks of setting “the stage for the next phase of the war” on what he calls “the front lines of freedom”.

Boris Johnson has denied that the actions of his own Government in supplying Ukraine are escalatory. It is, he said, “the actions of Putin and his regime” that are escalatory. Yes, they were, but less so now. Putin invoked the threat of nuclear weapons at the beginning of the invasion but he has not since. Russia may have tested its new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile last week, but its procurement predates the invasion of Ukraine. At least for the time being, Russia has refocused its campaign into a more geographically contained set of objectives, commensurate with the forces it has available. Securing control of Donbas and mastering the southern coast of Ukraine look limited by comparison with what went before. Nor so far has Putin responded to the West’s gradual and more delicate escalation with conventional weapons in either declaratory or military terms.

Nato powers are keeping Ukraine in the fight, several increasingly doing so at the expense of their own inventories. They are prejudicing their ability to fight any future war in order to enable Ukraine to prevail in this one. As they do so, they both implicate and shame those allies which retain the circumspection of late February, most conspicuously Germany. By treating Ukraine more as an ally than a partner (Britain’s Integrated Review drew a distinction between the two), they come closer to denying Putin the objective for which he launched this invasion in the first place – to keep Ukraine out of Nato.

Nato’s assertion of escalation dominance by stealth has helped the Ukrainians check the Russians and to contain the war, at least for the time being and only geographically. But a limited war too carries consequences. As is now widely acknowledged, the war will be protracted. Second, the death and destruction within the fighting zone are not constrained. Ukraine has suffered catastrophic economic consequences, losing both productive capacity and the ability to export. Thirdly, geographical containment has not yet translated into limited aims for either side, with both seeing this war in existential terms. 

The fighting itself has made compromise increasingly remote. Without meaningful negotiation, the war can expand once more. If it does, who will now escalate first? And should we not recognise that escalation does not need to be nuclear or even chemical, but geographical? The Sea of Azov and now the Black Sea are already conflict zones. Supply lines and logistics are central to the war efforts of both sides: if a Ukrainian attack on those in Russia makes military sense, so does a Russian on Ukraine’s in Poland. 


Sir Hew Strachan is an Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews

5 comments

  1. There is too much self-praise there on the part of the West. Only a small handful of countries deserve real praise, and they include Poland and the three Baltic States. The rest only played follow the leader, and most only very sluggishly. Had the West responded quickly, with brains and foresight, the war would already be over or never have started in the first place.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Agreed.

      “Securing control of Donbas and mastering the southern coast of Ukraine look limited by comparison with what went before.”

      Now that is a failure to understand that those objectives, if achieved, will lead to the end of Ukraine.

      Can Mariupol be retaken? Almost certainly not without western help in the form of air support.

      Can Kherson be retaken? Most certainly; in fact it is vital. But Ukraine needs big numbers on the ground.

      Retake Kherson and ensure that Mykolaiv and Odessa can never be captured.
      On the latter point, taking “Transnistria” would be a very wise defensive move by the Ukrainians.

      Liked by 5 people

  2. I understand the self praise part of the article but as a Ukrainian American, I can’t help but thank God for the LEADERSHIP of Boris and the support of the British people. It was Boris who quietly pulled everyone together, notwithstanding Biden’s bullshit that he led. It was Boris who pulled the countries together. I don’t know where we’d be without the Brits but I do know that I’ll always be grateful to the Brits and Boris for their courage and tenacity. THANK YOU!!!

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.