Across Europe, the first real pain points of the Ukraine war are starting to be felt, as inflation rockets, in part caused by energy prices. Already in the USA, certain Republicans are said to favour pulling financial aid and focusing on the domestic economy instead. All the while, winter has yet to start and Putin is a long way from either giving up or being deposed. Remember, it is the hawks he fears the most and from their perspective, the failure of Russia is that they have been too weak or they would have won already. Hence the introduction of Khomchak. With his introduction, Russia is signalling their mindset is that victory is not negotiable. Equally for Russia to win, they need to make it so the west will no longer support Ukraine, due to the sheer cost of the war. How could this be achieved?
- The drone war is a good start. Each kamikaze drone costs approx. 20k USD, whereas the missiles needed to take them down are up to 100x more expensive. Insofar that Ukrainian AAMs are taking down 80%+, 20% are getting through and the west is needing to make decisions on replacing the batteries.
- Increase the infrastructure damage. This does two things. First of all, it increases the number of refugees, it also means that the west needs to send energy to Ukraine (as they lose their own capacity)
- Work with partners to increase commodity prices (e.g. Oil and OPEC+)
This is the Russian equivalent of sanctions. Making it more expensive for the West as a function of supporting Ukraine. Then factor, the longer the war drags on, the greater the cost and political pressure as a result. For example, while the EU worked to fill their reserves to be able to get through this winter if the war continues into next autumn, what then? Whilst there are discussions around importing LNG from Qatar and the USA, this product is already mostly locked in by Asia. Not to mention it is significantly more expensive. When you then consider the recession looming for much of the west, supporting Ukraine is likely to become increasingly politically challenging as voters apply pressure for policies that are domestically prioritised. Already Hungary have announced no plans to change its gas supplier, arguing that the current policy is not viable. How long before the German industry starts making the same demands?
On top of that, there is a lot the Russians can still do to escalate which could cause the west to blink. Such policies include:
- Severing deep-sea cables between Europe, the UK and USA. Impossible to prove but would be highly effective in damaging commerce. See the recent incident in the Shetland islands over the last few days, officially this was marked as done by a fishing boat, but given the cable was damaged in two locations quite far from each other, that doesn’t necessarily stack up.
- Destroying the Kherson Dam. This would mean fresh water would be able to flow through to Crimea without constraint, it would also show the Russian intent to escalate without regard for life or damage to others. Not to mention the impact on energy for the region.
- Deploying a tactical nuke into the black sea near Odesa would create a radioactive tidal wave, making whole swathes of coastline unliveable. Unthinkable for the west, but if this was done, how would the west respond? No doubt the warning from the Russians would be that was a warning, Kherson is Russian, continue and we will do this again.
With that, there is no doubt that the Ukrainian nation has the will to win, but only with Western support. Equally to back Ukraine to win needs to be an all-in mindset, so to use a poker metaphor, unless the western allies are prepared to back Ukraine all the way and show they are, Putin will keep escalating and the longer the war goes on, the more in his favour the dial swings.
Therefore what could the west do to take the initiative and prevent that?
- Supply Ukraine with all state-of-the-art weaponry requested including long-range artillery systems, so garrisons and supply dumps can be targeted from distance.
- Start placing sanctions on countries found to be trading / collaborating with Russia in any capacity. In effect polarises the world into either supporting Russia or supporting Ukraine.
- Create an air corridor to Lviv, through extensive AAM systems. This then allows for commercial flights (which can be underwritten by Gov’t, and backed by NATO.) This then means the West can fly in supplies faster and easier. It also sends a message to Russia, that the air corridor could be expanded further to cover Kyiv and that any actions the Russians take will be handled accordingly.
The sting in the tail is the 8,000 troops in Belarus amassing at the border. Whether they would seek to do another surgical strike on Kyiv is a moot question, assume they will. So perhaps the best solution for the west would be to declare the whole country a no-fly zone, including drones. When this was first discussed, it was perhaps too early, but now it is possibly the only way the west can avoid an escalation on Putin’s terms, which would be far more damaging. The Russians are merciless, ruthless and solely focused on doing whatever it takes to secure victory. In order for Ukraine to win, therefore, the west must stop reacting and start escalating to take back the initiative.