Russia's bottom line is now apparent, with major implications for Ukraine and NATO.
Martin A. Smith is Senior Lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. His main research interests are in the fields of international power, European security and United States foreign policy. His most recent books are What’s wrong with NATO and how to fix it with Mark Webber and James Sperling (Polity 2021), The Foreign Policies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush: A Comparative Perspective (Routledge 2018) and George W. Bush’s Foreign Policies: Principles and Pragmatism with David Brown and Donette Murray (Routledge 2018). His articles have appeared inter alia, in International Affairs, European Security, West European Politics, The Journal of Strategic Studies, and Contemporary Security Policy.
What is your view on the latest developments in Ukraine? How would you assess Ukraine’s recent success in the battlefield?
Recent developments make clear that President Putin’s absolute bottom line in the war is to retain control of Crimea. Russia’s secondary military objective is to keep control of as much territory as possible in the Donbas, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson to enable it to maintain the land corridor linking Crimea to the Russian Federation and also safeguard the Perekop Isthmus, the gateway to Crimea from mainland Ukraine. The Russian leadership also wishes to keep control of as much of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts as possible to maintain a presence on the Black Sea coast, from which it can continue to threaten Odesa and Ukraine’s vital export arteries. The scale of the Russian missile strikes following the October 2022 attack on the Kerch Bridge shows the ‘untouchable’ importance of Crimea for President Putin. If it is retaken by Ukraine, the future of the Putin regime will likely come into question in Russia.
The recent Russian ‘annexation’ of the four oblasts is a smokescreen and not to be taken at face value. We saw this when the recapture of Lyman a day after Putin’s grand ceremony in Moscow produced no specific Russian response. It could also be seen in Dmitry Peskov’s statement about Russia’s borders in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson being fluid and undecided. What the annexation does is provide a pretext to justify holding on to the territory deemed necessary to safeguard the land bridge and keep the foothold on the Black Sea coast.
The time is coming when the Ukrainian government and military command will need to decide if the aim really is to liberate all occupied territory, including Crimea. Recent battlefield successes in Kharkiv, Kherson and the Donbas have been impressive and Ukraine currently has significant momentum in all four oblasts. Any operation to retake Crimea will be a daunting proposition however. It would have to be done by land – through the Perekop Isthmus – as Ukraine does not have the naval capability necessary for significant amphibious operations. After over eight years of occupation, Russian forces and their local proxies can be expected to be well-dug in and, relatively-speaking, well-motivated. Over the coming weeks and months we can expect to see a stiffening of Russian resistance in the four oblasts as Ukrainian advances threaten the land bridge, Perekop and Russia’s presence on the Black Sea coastline. If it doesn’t happen and Ukraine’s battlefield momentum is maintained, that would be a strong indication that the Russian army in Ukraine is in a potentially terminal state in terms of its operational capability.
Do you think Putin might proceed with using tactical nuclear weapons? Or is he just bluffing?
The Russian response to the Kerch Bridge attack, relying on near-simultaneous strikes on population centres throughout Ukraine using long-range conventional missiles, is indicative of what we can, regrettably, expect to see as Ukrainian forces continue operations in the four oblasts. Strategically, this is a sign of relative Russian military weakness: retreating on the battlefield but ultimately unwilling to risk resorting to nuclear or other forms of WMD use. The punitive terror-strikes show few signs of breaking civilian morale in the cities being targeted, or elsewhere.
Nevertheless, western leaders are right to treat President Putin’s oblique statements about possible nuclear use with prudence and caution. The efficacy of mutual nuclear deterrence rests on a principle articulated by former US National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy: ‘the certainty of uncertainty is what deters’. We cannot be 100 percent certain that Putin will never resort to nuclear use in extremis and that ultimate uncertainty conditions the nature and extent of western military support to Ukraine. Equally, Putin cannot know whether and under what circumstances the US or NATO might consider using nuclear weapons. So Russia is deterred, not only from going nuclear itself but also from potentially provocative acts below the nuclear threshold, such as systematic attacks on the hubs and supply lines being used to funnel military materiel from NATO countries into Ukraine.
Is there a chance for Ukraine to join NATO in the near future?
During the current conflict, Ukraine has developed a unique relationship with NATO and its member states. President Zelensky has rightly insisted that any agreement for ending the war must include reliable guarantees of Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity. The only source of such guarantees is NATO. Previous Ukrainian leaders found to their cost the value of unreliable .security assurances’. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which had provided the framework for the country’s post-Soviet denuclearisation, was blatantly violated by Russia and ignored by its two western signatories, the US and UK, in 2014. The declarations in that document about respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, territory and independence were not backed up with any military substance and no price was paid by Russia for disregarding them.
What makes NATO security guarantees different is that actual military plans and force commitments underpin them. These create what has been called the ‘presumption of automaticity’. An attack on a NATO member would trigger a collective military response as stipulated in Article 5 of the NATO treaty. The guarantees offered by this article are only available to member states. However, a lesser-known clause – Article 4 – allows members to take collective military action when they judge key wider security interests are at stake. Helping Ukraine to avoid being subjugated or even eliminated as a sovereign state by Russian aggression is clearly a vital security interest for NATO members.
It is hard to believe that, having stood with Ukraine since February 2022, NATO members would abandon it as part of any settlement. A precedent for the extension of de facto security guarantees to non-member states exists from the NATO air campaign against Serbia over the Kosovo crisis in March-June 1999. NATO publicly stated that any military action by the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia against neighbouring states supporting NATO missions would be treated as a threat to the security of member states themselves and dealt with accordingly. So there is a precedent for a NATO security guarantee to be extended to non-member states before they join the Alliance.
How can Ukraine secure more military support from European countries?
Firstly by making realistic requests, and secondly by showing that it can use the assistance provided to achieve operational success.
During the early weeks of the war, time and effort on the Ukrainian side was spent demanding that NATO members enforce a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace. This was never on the cards (being seen in the West as bringing NATO directly into the conflict), and it would have been of questionable military value given that the principal challenge – then as now – was to stop and repel Russian forces on the ground.
It is to the credit of President Zelensky and his advisers that they have moved away from grand but unrealistic demands, in favour of more achievable requests for materiel and training, which the Ukrainian armed forces have then shown they can put to effective use on the battlefield. This is well-illustrated by the HIMARS artillery system, now being supplied by the United States in increasing numbers, and reportedly with more sophisticated munitions. Current indications are that a similar approach will yield results with an increasing supply of modern American air defence systems in the wake of the recent Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian cities. An important factor is that Ukraine can show that it is already capable of significant success in air defence with the means currently at its disposal – as seen in reports that over 50 per cent (and perhaps as many as two-thirds) of Russian missiles fired after the Kerch Bridge attack were intercepted and neutralised.
The views expressed here are personal and should not be taken to represent the policy or views of the British Government, Ministry of Defence, or the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.