There is an old English proverb that states, “do not count your chickens before the eggs are hatched.” These past two weeks there has been a lot of good news coming out of Zelensky’s Ukraine about his crushing military victories against Russia in northeastern Ukraine east of Kharkiv. The Ukrainians have recaptured “2,300 square [sq] miles of Russian-occupied territory” since September 6 in their rout of Putin’s military.
However, as a non-Putin apologist I think that much of this good news can be easily characterized as premature and naive “happy talk” or an overly optimistic assessment from both Zelensky and Biden of the present military stalemate or war of attrition in Ukraine. Putin stated on September 16 at the Shanghai Co-operation Organization Summit in Uzbekistan that “Russia had so far not deployed its full forces” against the Ukrainian offensive. Plus, I do not fully trust NATO’s Skype-generals (e.g. Jens Stoltenberg) or Google Duo-admirals (e.g. James Stavridis) to give an accurate assessment of on-the-ground battlefield conditions.
Biden’s CIA Director, William J. Burns, despite having been the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, stated on September 8 that he viewed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “as anything other than a failure, so far, ….” However, he accurately stated in 2008, “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines [my emphasis] for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, …. I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.” It appears that Burns may have underestimated Putin’s resolve for victory.
Nevertheless, Russia’s army is presently starting to appear like the disorganized and leaderless Soviet army under the despotic Joseph Stalin, which barely defeated Finland in its disastrous Winter War from November 30, 1939 to March 13, 1940, resulting in the death of 126,875 Soviet soldiers. What many Western intelligence analysts fail to realize is that Putin has no intention of losing his war in Ukraine, which has resulted in the death of “as many as 25,000 Russians.” He also has zero intention of relinquishing Crimea to Zelensky, which Tsarina Catherine the Great annexed from Ottoman Turkey in 1783.
Putin’s military has hardly been beaten into submission, forcing him to negotiate an armistice or peace treaty any time soon, which might permanently make him cede any occupied territory to Ukraine, especially his land bridge to Crimea. That is because he has quite a few aces to play in his game of high stakes poker or perhaps a game of whack-a-mole from a Ukrainian perspective. In fact, he has seven aces to play in a war, which he has been fighting with one arm behind his back since 2014.
Putin’s first ace or perhaps his ace in the hole is the increasing possibility of cutting off all Russian natural gas and oil flowing to European NATO countries in retaliation for their severe economic sanctions and other prohibitions beginning on February 24, 2022. Since then “over 1,000 foreign companies have halted operations throughout Russia.” Berlin’s recent decision on September 16 to nationalize “three Russian-owned oil refineries to secure supplies of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel,” which accounts for “about 12% of Germany’s oil refining capacity” has greatly angered Moscow.
Despite Germany’s decades-long commitment to green energy, it is currently so desperate for alternatives to natural gas and oil that it is increasingly “stockpiling firewood” for winter heating. Many central and eastern European NATO countries such as Finland, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria are also facing the same energy dilemma while sadly clear-cutting centuries-old forests for “wood pellets,” which produce more air pollution than coal.
This winter if Russia stops its flow of all natural gas and oil to European NATO countries, they could be facing a stark choice on whether to “heat or eat … forcing their governments to offer massive subsidies, distorting their budgets, in hopes of staving off populist backlashes and pressure to get Ukraine to surrender to Putin ….” Much of Europe is indeed facing a grim and bleak winter, which has now put much more pressure on greatly increasing American liquified natural gas (LNG) exports to Europe, which “means the U.S. now accounts for nearly half of Europe’s LNG imports, about twice the share seen in 2021,” thereby greatly increasing U.S. electricity prices.
Putin’s second ace includes his calling up of “300,000 reservists” on September 21 to reinforce his existing armed forces in both eastern and southern Ukraine. He and the Wagner Group have also desperately recruited thousands of convicts in both prisons and penal colonies in exchange for “a presidential pardon after six months and a salary of 100,000 rubles ($1,623) [(£1,400)] a month.” Unfortunately, I suspect that many of these “conscripts” will tragically end up as cannon fodder.
Time will tell how effective these reservists and convicts will be in fighting the Ukrainian military. Putin has further threatened “the West that he isn’t bluffing over using all the means at his disposal to protect Russia’s territory, in what appeared to be a veiled reference to Russia’s nuclear capability …. and has “warned the West not to back Russia against the wall.”
Putin’s third ace includes the possible and unimaginable destruction of the Kyiv Reservoir along the Dnieper River, which is sixty-eight miles long and seven and a half miles wide, and its southern end is about twenty-five miles north of the capital of Kyiv with a population of three million. If a Russian hypersonic or cruise missile were to ever breach this dam, it could catastrophically inundate the entire right bank of Kyiv, end hydroelectric power, destroy irrigation, and cause a horrendous drinking water shortage.
Especially bad would be the spread of both wind-born radioactive dust and radionuclides emanating from much of the dry contaminated reservoir soil and exposed Dnieper River silt, which were contaminated by nearby Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear disaster, on April 26, 1986.
Putin’s fourth ace includes a wide arsenal of tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons, which could be deployed not just once but numerous times anywhere within Ukraine, especially southern and northeastern Ukraine. Let me call this potential use of such devastating nukes “Operation Nuclear Tornado,” or Putin’s “theory of [called] ‘escalate to de-escalate’,” which might not only reclaim Russia’s recently lost territory, but also totally defeat and terrorize the Ukrainian army and civilian population, especially the farmers, east of the Dnieper River, thereby improving any future Russian diplomatic negotiations.
Would NATO ever give Ukraine tactical nuclear weapons to retaliate? I sincerely doubt it because it could easily start World War III, and Putin is well aware of Ukraine’s non-NATO status and NATO’s timidity after Afghanistan.
Putin’s fifth ace includes the shutting down for a second time all the wheat and other grain exports from Odesa depriving Ukrainian farmers of much needed income and causing recently harvested wheat to rot in their silos. In my opinion, one of Putin’s ultimate goals during this war is to permanently control or blockade all the seaports from Mariupol on the Sea of Azov to Odesa on the Black Sea and possibly Giurgiuleshti in Moldova.
His strategy would be very similar to Abraham Lincoln’s Anaconda Plan, which put a highly effective economic stranglehold or naval blockade on the Confederacy, from 1861 to 1865. Plus, the Russian navy with its nuclear submarines, which is based in Sevastopol, Crimea, already controls the entire Black Sea, thereby making another blockade highly effective.
Putin’s sixth ace includes the possible use of increased cyber warfare against all NATO countries, especially the U.S. electrical power grid. This notably occurred for six days in early May 2021 to the Colonial Pipeline, which is 5,500 miles long and “transports roughly 2.5 million barrels of fuel daily from Houston [the Gulf Coast] to the port of New York [Eastern seaboard].” This was the “largest successful cyberattack on oil infrastructure in U.S. history” causing rampant consumer gasoline shortages, high gas prices, panic-buying, states of emergency and commercial disruption in much of the southeastern United States.
Other recent Russian cyberattacks have included “U.S.-based telecommunications provider Viasat” and their European customers on February 24, 2022 along with SolarWinds [sic] in early 2020 to name a few. However, Putin fully realizes that any U.S. retaliation against Moscow might be just as bad or more devastating than a Russian cyberattack against Washington resulting in the mutually assured destruction or partial destruction of each country’s power grid and satellite communications.
Putin’s seventh and last ace includes the unexpected strength of the Russian ruble because most Western sanctions against Russia since last February and March have failed. In fact, the ruble, which Biden wanted to reduce to rubble, was at an all-time high last July because of increased oil, natural gas and coal exports to Communist China, India and Saudi Arabia. Putin’s oil revenues dramatically increased from February 24 through June 12 while “income at Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas giant, remained about twice as high as the year before ….”
This winter I suspect that Putin has other aces up his sleeve such as possibly destroying Ukraine’s major sewage treatment plants, degrading their critical infrastructure, especially airports, railways and bridges, along with weakening their power grid, thereby plunging “Ukraine into ‘darkness’.” However, the use of any of Putin’s seven aces not to mention the simultaneous use of all seven or just one or two could devastate Zelensky’s military success or any future diplomatic negotiations, and quickly accelerate this war of attrition in Putin’s favor.
I strongly predict that Putin’s likely embargo of all natural gas and oil exports to European NATO countries this winter will be his most effective strategy to either win the war or negotiate a satisfactory truce. Meanwhile, it could be a long miserable cold winter for many European NATO countries from November through March if Putin uses his ultimate strategy of “Freeze, Baby! Freeze!
Unfortunately, all these NATO countries have foolishly forgotten that their shortsighted economic sanctions against Russia last February and March have failed, and may soon have dire economic consequences because they have ignored the ancient Greek proverb, “do not bite the hand that feeds you.”
– Robert L. Maronic