By Peter Rough
Putin isn’t backing down on his invasion of Ukraine nearly a year after invading the country. Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP
In the Ukraine war, the United States has developed a novel strategy: boiling the frog. If Russian leader Vladimir Putin feels the full brunt of Western capabilities at once, the thinking goes, he may react unpredictably. If, however, the West turns up the heat slowly — by spacing out the delivery of key weapons and restricting their use — Putin will accept each incremental increase. One day, he’ll wake to find it’s too late. He’s already cooked.
But this strategy prolongs the war. It ties Ukraine’s hands, preventing it from exploiting Russian vulnerabilities in a timely manner. While Ukraine pays in blood, Putin has time to regroup and revise his strategy to account for whatever new weapons Ukraine has received that month.
The supply of battle tanks is a case in point. For months supporters of Ukraine issued calls to supply it with tanks, which the Biden administration rejected.
The White House reversed course when it became obvious Putin was prepping the battlefield for a new offensive, strengthening his lines and pummeling Ukrainian positions with artillery barrages. By the time Western tanks finally arrive on the battlefield, the offensive will already be underway and launched from newly fortified positions.
The Biden administration has exercised such caution because it worries about triggering a nuclear war. But this telegraphing of fear signals to Putin that the mere threat of nuclear escalation will wring concessions from the West. By rewarding nuclear brinksmanship, the Biden team is increasing, not decreasing, the odds of escalation.
Indeed, a close examination of Putin’s saber-rattling reveals that it comes not in response to setbacks on the battlefield but to expressions by US leaders of reluctance to support Ukraine’s war aims. Putin is not suicidal. He has remained at the helm for over two decades, in part due to his respect for the logic of deterrence. Unable to take even the Donbas after a year of combat operations, he knows his degraded military is no match for the US and NATO. He has no intention of going to war with the West.
Vladimir Lenin supposedly said, “Probe with bayonets. If you find mush, you proceed. If you find steel, you withdraw.” Putin has yet to find steel in the American position.
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After announcing tanks for Ukraine, the Biden administration reconfirmed that its objective is not to attain victory but to force Russia to the negotiating table, where Ukraine will also be asked to make concessions. On cue, Putin threatened the West with annihilation at last week’s commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad.
To flip the script, the United States should set as its strategic goal the full liberation of Ukraine, provided Ukraine is willing to continue the fight. By setting down a powerful marker, the Biden administration would demonstrate to Putin the futility of his threats, strengthen Ukrainian morale and create the conditions that would foster a true spirit of compromise in Moscow.
A policy aimed to achieve a Ukrainian victory would also establish the principle that nuclear blackmail won’t be rewarded. Putin’s inversion of the logic of nuclear deterrence — utilizing it not as a defensive concept but for offensive blackmail — will have failed.
Moreover, a policy of victory would give the administration a clear goal around which to rally the American people. And it would signal to China, as well as to our allies, that the United States has the political will to back its partners even in the toughest of circumstances.
Perhaps most important, however, it would give Ukraine a better chance at survival. The administration’s focus on forging a military balance that eventually yields a negotiated solution is premised on the total exhaustion of both Russia and Ukraine. By insisting that its weapons not be used to strike Russia (or even Crimea), Western policy ensures the destruction of vast swaths of Ukrainian territory while leaving Russia unharmed.
By contrast, a policy aimed at victory would provide Ukraine with access to advanced unmanned aerial vehicles, fighter jets and long-range systems like the Army Tactical Missile System that can hold Russian supply chains at risk, including inside Russia proper, and shorten the war. 58
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Undoubtedly, Putin would look at such a development with frustration, even anger. But with the US committed to Ukraine’s victory, no amount of cunning or bluster could arrest the collapse of his imperial project.
The boiled frog strategy assumes that Putin will wake up, realize that the cost of the war is too great to bear and sue for peace. But the only way to bring him to his senses is to turn up the heat.
Peter Rough directs the Center on Europe and Eurasia at Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.
“In the Ukraine war, the United States has developed a novel strategy: boiling the frog. If Russian leader Vladimir Putin feels the full brunt of Western capabilities at once, the thinking goes, he may react unpredictably. If, however, the West turns up the heat slowly — by spacing out the delivery of key weapons and restricting their use — Putin will accept each incremental increase. One day, he’ll wake to find it’s too late. He’s already cooked.”
That’s a poor strategy from an administration whose first main feature is that of fear. This strategy is causing undue death and destruction.
It should’ve made it clear to the bunker monkey right from the start of his buildup preceding the war, that any attack on Ukraine would be met with full force, at least with massive weapon deliveries to Ukraine and declaring a NFZ over the territory of Ukraine. The message should have been made loudly and clearly and with plenty of confidence in its presentation. We should have assured the destruction of their army, air force and navy. This is the only language that a filthy ruskie like Vlad understands.
Instead, what Biden did was to assure no US troops being involved and “harsh” sanctions. We permitted atrocities and deaths and destruction over large parts of Ukraine for an entire year soon, and even allowed the blockage of grain shipments, causing much suffering in many countries. Our help, our responses were slow, tedious, reluctant, late and with too little. This is not how you do things in such a situation. There are innocent people dying, raped, tortured, and kidnapped all along! Is this not an unnecessary tragedy?
“Boil the frog” indeed has been a very piss-poor strategy. As you mentioned it has only prolonged this war, emboldened pootin and others as well as amplified Ukrainian suffering and death. However this is not just the U.S. doing. Many western allies have taken the same erroneous approach. Some decisions by Ukraine in the lead up to expanded aggression by mafia-land were also not helpful in minimizing death toll. Unfortunately also Ukraine was betrayed from within by brainwashed rashist sympathizers/infiltrators who ratted out their neighbors, and sold their souls by giving the genocidal horde key information and assistance. Although this conflict has exposed where individuals loyalties lie and those cockroaches are being sifted out, Ukraine has paid a tremendous price in blood, sweat, and tears. If allies continue to refuse to go in, all must be provided (without reservation with urgency this demands)in land, sea and air capabilities to hit pootin with the solid steel wall needed to stop him cold, and drive his genocidal horde out of Ukraine.
Indeed, Sir Bill, this war exposed the angels and the demons, both in Ukraine and in other nations.