Gordon Hahn: Putin’s war decision and its consequences

Gordon Hahn: Putin’s war decision and its consequences

Gordon Hahn

May 3, 2022

Recent reporting suggests that my sense that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not planned to invade and was instead engaged in coercive diplomacy in massing troops around Ukraine is supported, though not necessarily confirmed by US intelligence, according to a recent report on US pre-war intelligence. The decision to invade and, in particular, to conduct a ‘special military operation’ rather than declare war on Ukraine has led to a prolonged conflict fraught with the risk of escalation and direct NATO involvement. NATO countries are already de jure co-belligerents, bringing — together with Russia — the world to the brink of a world war that could quickly go nuclear.

The relevant report notes: “Putin did not make a final decision to invade until just before he launched the attack in February, according to senior current and former U.S. intelligence officials.” “The CIA was saying through January that Putin had not made a decision to invade.” “Putin was still keeping his options open.” “It wasn’t until February that the agency and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community became convinced that Putin would invade” “Putin waited until almost the last minute to decide to start a war with Ukraine.”

Originally published on the author’s blog on April 28, 2022

The new report has some erroneous information that exculpates Ukrainian actions that might have prompted Putin’s decision to invade, believing that 8 years of unfulfilled Minsk agreement promises and three months of stalling on his proposals for Ukraine, NATO, and European security architecture settlements had proven finally futile: “‘Biden took the unusual step of making the intelligence public, in what amounted to a form of information warfare against the Russian leader.

He also warned that Putin was planning to try to fabricate a pretext for invasion, including by making false claims that Ukrainian forces had attacked civilians in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The preemptive use of intelligence by Biden revealed ‘a new understanding … that the information space may be among the most consequential terrain Putin is contesting,’ observed Jessica Brandt of the Brookings Institution”.

Ignored by Ms Brandt is that Washington was issuing disinformation; something that would also make Putin less likely to believe his ‘Western partners,’ as he used to refer to them.

There is no benefit for Washington or the US intelligence community to issue the report indicating a last-minute decision by Putin as disinformation. The event has already occurred. Moreover, the US government and intel and Western narrative is that Putin is bent on territorial expansion and recreating the USSR. Therefore, a narrative in which Putin was not initially prepared to invade Ukraine goes against this traditional narrative.

The same is true for the origins of the August 2008 Five-Day Georgian-Ossetiyan/Russian War, which was sparked by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s invasion of South Ossetia and the August 7-8 bombing of its sleeping capitol with inaccurate GRAD rockets, killing tens if not hundreds of Ossetiyan civilians and 19 Russian peacekeeping troops.

Putin’s decision to invade was likely driven by several factors: (1) Western intransigence and dismissive, even disdainful reaction to Putin’s demand for a reordering of the European security architecture, first of all, an end of NATO expansion, especially to Ukraine; (2) a Ukrainian commitment to non-aligned status; and (3) Kyiv’s defiance of and challenge through escalation to the explicit threat posed by Putin’s troop deployments and coercive diplomacy.

By February, Washington and NATO had made it clear they had no intention of even considering an end to NATO expansion to Ukraine, insisting on the inviolability of its ‘open door’ policy. This was occurring on a background of several years of expanding NATO-Ukrainian military cooperation, most notably the U.S. and its allies continued training of Ukrainian forces, including neo-Nazi formations such as the terrorist Azov and Right Sector’s Ukrainian Volunteer Army, the conduct of NATO exercises with Ukraine designed to make Kyiv’s forces interoperable with NATO forces much as NATO member-states armies are, the construction by the British of a proto-naval base on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, and NATO’s conduct of military flights over Ukrainian territory.

These developments prompted Putin to see and state that Ukraine de facto was already a NATO member.

Similarly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy refused to make any clear expression of a willingness to renounce the Poroshenko-era constitutional amendment on Kyiev’s aspiration to NATO membership and the mandatory implementation of policies aimed at achieving that membership.

Days before the February 24th invasion, Zelenskiy rejected a February 19th proposal from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that would have included Kyiv’s renunciation of its aspiration to NATO membership, a declaration of Ukraine’s neutrality, and a joint American-Russian security guarantee codified in a treaty to be signed by Presidents Biden and Putin.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Zelenskiy’s rejection of the German offer “left German officials worried that the chances of peace were fading.” French President Emmanual Marcon had the same sense and in a phone call issued an appeal to Biden to make another push for diplomacy. “I think the last person who could still do something is you, Joe. Are you ready to meet Putin?” Macron said to Biden.

But Washington expressed no interest in more diplomacy – see here and here. It may or may not be relevant that “Biden’s warning on February 18 that the invasion would happen within the week turned out to be accurate,” since Biden’s indifference to forestalling Putin’s invasion helped fulfil his ‘prophecy’.

Nevertheless, Sholtz continued to engage Putin. In a February 21st call to the Kremlin, Sholtz tried to forestall Putin’s recognition of the independence of Ukraine’s breakaway LNR and DNR. Putin surely was informed of Zelenskiy’s rejection of the proposal and of the Americans’ lack of interest in engaging either Kyiv or Moscow. Perhaps Putin hoped that the threat of such a declaration would concentrate Zelenskiy’s mind at the last minute and prompt him to take a neutrality position seriously. No such reconsideration on Zelenskiy’s part came, and Russia recognized the breakaway regions’ independence and then invaded Ukraine along several fronts.

However, it is very likely that by the time Sholz’ February 21st call, Putin had already issued the order to begin military operations. Zelenskiy’s actions helped Putin in deciding. Putin’s final decision was also prompted by the Ukrainian army’s military escalation in Donbas.

From the OSCE SMM monitoring mission’s data, it appears that the Ukrainian side — regular Ukrainian army forces or the informal volunteer armed formations of the DUK type — provoked Putin’s moves, first, to recognize the DNR/LNR’s independence, then to attack Ukraine. The first major escalation occurred on the evening of February 18-19 from the Ukraine government-controlled side of the contact line. In the Donetsk region/DNR “The majority of ceasefire violations were recorded on the morning of 19 February in areas east, east-south-east, and south-east of Svitlodarsk (government-controlled, 57km north-east of Donetsk), on the evening and night of 18-19 and 19-20 February in areas north, north-north-east, and north-north-west of Shyrokyne (government-controlled, 100km south of Donetsk) and on the morning of 19 February close to Staromykhailivka (nongovernment-controlled, 15km west of Donetsk).”

In the Luhansk region, “(t)he majority of ceasefire violations were recorded in areas close to the disengagement area near Stanytsia Luhanska (government-controlled, 16km north-east of Luhansk) during the day on 19 February (see below), and in areas inside and close to the disengagement area near Zolote (government-controlled, 60km west of Luhansk) during the day and evening of 18, 19 and 20 February. In the previous reporting period, the SMM recorded 975 ceasefire violations in the region, the majority of which also occurred near the disengagement areas near Stanytsia Luhanska and Zolote” (OSCE SMM Report, 20 February 2022, p. 4, ).

According to the Ukrainian website Tsenzor.net, during this period and for some period before, Ukraine’s authorities were refusing journalists access to the conflict zone to around 400 journalists, permitting access only to a selected 25 ‘international journalists.’ Some journalists had been denied access for over a month. On February 21, a Ukrainian fire in Donetsk put a coal mine ventilator offline, forcing more than 250 Donbas miners to evacuate from the mines.

Meanwhile, in the same period, Zelenskiy displayed virtually no effort to meet Moscow halfway on security issues and even escalated tensions by implying Kyiv was ready to reconsider its non-nuclear status rather than its non-aligned status. At the February 19th Munich Security Conference, Zelenskiy issued a not very veiled threat to reconsider its adherence to the Budapest Memorandum, which had led to the post-Soviet exchange for Ukraine’s recognized sovereignty over Crimea in return for Kyiev’s transfer of all Soviet nuclear forces on Ukraine SSR territory to Moscow.

Zelenskiy stated that if NATO would not guarantee Ukraine’s security even as Kyiv and NATO insisted on Ukraine’s NATO aspirations in defiance of Moscow’s security concerns, then “Ukraine will have every right to believe that the Budapest Memorandum is not working and all the package decisions of 1994 are in doubt.”

Zelenskiy’s threat of possible acquisition of some nuclear capability demonstrated clearly Kyiv’s unwillingness to bend to Moscow’s demands.

Special Military Operation, War, and Total War

Putin’s decision also included limits on the war, which Moscow calls a ‘special military operation.’ This aspect of the war is particularly intriguing and telling. The Russian army has refrained from shelling anywhere near central Kyiv. Unlike the US war in Iraq, Putin’s war is not war, no less total war. There have been no airstrikes or missile attacks on the Ukrainian government’s central civilian and military leadership, and civilian infrastructure has gone largely untouched, despite thousands of targeted rockets raining down on military targets. In Iraq and in any full-scale war such targets are a priority in order to disrupt the leadership.

In the first days of the US-led war in Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s presidential office, intelligence service headquarters, the Defense Ministry, and other government buildings were targeted. So far in the Russo-Ukrainian ‘war’ the Office of the President, Rada, government ministries, the Defense Ministry and General Staff headquarters have not been targeted.

In this sense, Putin’s ‘operation’ is not a war in the way we usually understand a full-out declared war.

In addition, numerous video speeches Zelenskiy has made demonstrate precisely where he is located: in, around, and underneath the Presidential Office. Why has Putin not ordered the Russian military to hit such targets?

First, he needs or at least needed at the war’s outset to have a negotiating partner with legitimacy inside Ukraine who can sign and carry through any ceasefire agreements and a final peace treaty, if he hopes to avoid having to occupy all of Ukraine and getting bogged down in a guerilla war quagmire, which very possibly could emerge in western Ukraine. In other words, the fact that Putin has not targeted Zelenskiy, regardless of unconfirmed reports in Western media of special forces teams hunting him down, demonstrates that Putin is preserving and prefers an option in which he and Zelenskiy agree to terms.

On the other hand, the Russian invasion force that moved south from Belarus to threaten Kyiv may not have been deployed merely to hold Ukrainian troops in place so that they could not move south to help the nearly encircled 60,000 force in Donbas. It may also have represented an alternative option for a potential Plan B or C that could have been built around an encirclement and blockade of Kyiv in the event Zelenskiy and his government evacuated to Lviv or elsewhere to the west.

In such a case, the Russians would have been in a position to establish a new, friendly regime without having to enter into force-destroying urban warfare or even prolonged operations beyond Donetsk and Luhansk, though a western Ukrainian-based insurgency would have been the likely result as it may be in future under numerous scenarios. The new regime would have been less able than Zelenskiy’s Maidan regime to guarantee fulfilment of agreements, but the Ukrainian military likely would have stood down, and Russian forces could have moved forward with de-Nazification in Mariupol, Dnepropetrovsk, and elsewhere.

We will know that all hope for a negotiated settlement is lost when Russian operations begin against such government and critical civilian installations, perhaps preceded by a vote in the Russian Federal Assembly on a resolution declaring war on Ukraine. This will be the last step prior to the present Ukrainian regime being forced to escape to Lviv and likely then surrender or be annihilated.

This could lead to a prolonged guerrilla war conducted by Ukrainian partisans, with any departure of Russian forces leading to an Iraqi/Syrian scenario of various forces prolonging chaos, including terrorist attacks carried out by Ukrainian nationalist, ultranationalist, and neofascist groups. The only stopgaps to such catastrophic outcomes are a concerted Western drive to push forward Russo-Ukrainian peace talks or WW III.

The Vulnerabilities

Therefore, Putin’s decision to undertake a ‘special military operation’ and at the same time limit the war far below the total war threshold along with Western decisions to deepen the conflict by providing massive military assistance to Kyiv rather than to contain and end it through diplomacy make a ‘World War III’ scenario beginning across Europe with the potential to spread through a Taiwan conflict through much of Asia more likely.

By avoiding total war, Putin has allowed NATO countries, led by the US, to act as co-belligerents as James Carden and constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein have noted. Supplying billions of dollars in weapons, financial aid, and military intelligence, NATO countries have violated any accepted legal definition of neutrality and opened themselves up to direct military retaliation.

The stakes were raised this week when British officials urged Kyiv to use weapons London is supplying to attack Russian territory, leading to a Russian warning that any such attack, should it materialize, is already in the queue for “lightning” retaliation upon Putin’s orders. Germany will replace Polish Soviet-era tanks that the Poles have now pledged to send to Ukraine.

Numerous other NATO members have sent lethal weapons to Ukraine. At the same time, attacks on a television tower and arms depot in Transdniestria were carried out by unknown forces but blamed on Ukrainians by Russia and Transdniestria. This raises the spectre of Transdniestrian and Russian forces in the breakaway Moldovan region entering the war, which could bring in Moldova’s fraternal state and NATO member Rumania.

In other words, the US and a host of other NATO states are co-belligerents; some on the verge of becoming direct participants.

Whether one or both parties want it or not, their actions have set the stage for a Kremlin decision to declare war, meaning total war, on Ukraine.

A Russian declaration and accompanying escalation of violence is likely to be followed by a NATO intervention supported by a desperate and illegitimate US administration, which appears bent on aping Ukrainian and Russian authoritarianism at home and creating a besieged fortress rally around the flag dynamic before the upcoming elections in which the Democrat Party-state is destined for a resounding defeat.

Russia started this war, viewing de facto or de jure NATO expansion to Ukraine as an existential threat.

Now the West is backing a war to defeat Russia in Ukraine, set the stage for Ukraine’s NATO membership, bring the war to the Russian territory while simultaneously the collective West seeks to create political chaos inside Russia through massive economic sanctions in an attempt to bring Putin’s removal from power. In short, the existential threat has not gone away; it has simply been transformed and intensified.

We are at the edge looking into the abyss without any seriousness in diplomatic purpose, no less the requisite grave urgency now necessary to preserve what remains of peace.

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