By Keith Preston
Putin has taken an extremely big gamble. If he remains committed to limited objectives, he might just get away with it. Limited objectives would be claiming the disputed territories, accessing the Black Sea, pipeline interests, keeping Ukraine out of NATO, and intimidating Russia’s neighbors to the south away from getting too close to the West.
But if Putin opts for a full-blown occupation/annexation of Ukraine, he has an Iraq War Two situation on his hands. And if he ventures into NATO countries or countries outside Russia’s immediate border, he’s in deep shit.
The worst thing NATO could do is overreach and back Putin into a corner where he becomes desperate. If Putin tries to occupy all of Ukraine, it is strategically advantageous to let him get bogged down with a guerrilla insurgency (like the USA in Vietnam and Iraq, or both Russia and the USA in Afghanistan). An effort toward the “liberation” of Ukraine would mean directly engaging with Russian forces, which should be avoided as long as Russia only remains in Ukraine.
However, it is obviously possible to deter expanded Russian adventurism by placing a defensive ring of NATO forces in the border states to Ukraine and Russia other than Belarus and Moldova (all of these are NATO members except the two mentioned) similar to the Iron Curtain standoff during the Cold War (with the borders of Russia and/or Ukraine amounting to the new Berlin Wall).
It would also be possible for NATO to arm the Ukrainian insurgency against the Russian occupation (like Western backing for the mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War). A consequence of this would be large numbers of civilian casualties in Ukraine itself, and if/when Russia leaves a far-right fascist-like regime will probably emerge, because that is what usually happens with these things.
If Putin remains limited in his objectives, it could “only” be another Chechen War or Russian-Georgian War. If Putin actually tries to fully occupy and annex Ukraine, it will be the Russian version of America’s Iraq War Two, particularly, if NATO arms the resistance, which they probably will. The main danger is if there is direct conflict between NATO and Russian forces because who knows how far that could spread, and both sides are nuclear-armed.
But the main thing both sides need to do is not give the other side a reason to launch a nuclear first strike.
And in the interests of full disclosure, I am writing this from a desk chair, not an armchair.