Putin's war is driven by his fears of Russia's decline. That gives Ukraine a path to victory.
One year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces brutally invaded Ukraine. His invasion has sparked the most violent conflict in Europe since World War II. Hundreds of thousands have died, massive ethnic cleansing is underway and thousands of war crimes have been documented.
Battles rage across a front of more than 600 miles, and Russian missiles continue to bombard civilian targets. Can the conflict, which seems unstoppable, be ended, and if so, how?
For Ukraine and the West, the stakes are high: If Russia succeeded, a nation state and its population of 40 million would be eradicated, with millions of deaths; the post-World War II international system, which has prevented major war for 75 years, would be weakened; and more than a century of international humanitarian law would be violated.
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Russia’s aggression also raises profound risks of escalation to a NATO-Russian nuclear
confrontation. China is watching, and might interpret a weak Western response as an invitation to move militarily against Taiwan.
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For Putin the stakes are also high. Despite his protests, he was never really concerned about NATO, but he fears the impact of a prosperous and democratic Ukraine on his border.
He also is concerned that a future Russia without Ukraine, Belarus and other former client states in Eastern Europe would be a “rump state,” unable to survive against an expansionist China.
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Driven by ego and the historic fears and legacies of three centuries of Russian imperialism, he is wagering millions of Russian lives and his own regime on the hope that his reckless aggression will break the West’s will to support Ukraine.
Since last February, the war has been waged in four phases. First, a clumsy, failed grab for Kyiv, and then a protracted, grinding artillery war in Donbas. A successful but limited Ukrainian counteroffensive followed in the autumn to regain some of the land taken by Russia in the war’s earliest stage. And for the past six months, a costly stalemate has been marked by missile and drone attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure and population, and relentless assaults by convicts and untrained conscripts backed by heavy artillery fire against Ukrainian defenses in Donbas.
Russia has continued to mobilize its manpower and is now in the early stages of a massive offensive with perhaps 500,000 new troops and up to 400 aircraft, marking a fifth phase of the war.
Ukraine is struggling to hold its positions in Donbas, even as it inflicts heavy casualties on the Russians. Meanwhile, Ukraine is building a counteroffensive strike force that could attack south into the approaches to Crimea.
Not as visible publicly is Ukraine's struggle to gain and maintain superior battlefield intelligence, target Russian logistics and command and control, and create partisan resistance within Russian occupied areas and even within Russia itself.
Ukraine and its people have shown incredible courage, skill and resilience. The Biden administration has very competently built and sustained Western unity to provide military support to Ukraine and to impose steep sanctions on Russia.
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These statements of support – staying with Ukraine "as long as it takes" – are themselves significant "information operations" that should cause Putin to reconsider his aggression.
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But what might appear to be a thus-far brilliantly managed containment of Russian aggression is balanced on a welter of conflicting concerns and seems to lack a specific goal.
Which weaponry can be provided Ukraine and how fast? Will it be enough to stop Russia's advance? Can the Ukrainians use it effectively? Can it be provided without provoking a Russian nuclear response? Can Ukraine counterattack and with what degree of risk? Can China be kept from supplying lethal assistance to Russia? Can Western sanctions be held and made more effective? Can European nations deal with the inflationary impact of weaning off Russian gas and oil?
What Russia can mobilize vs. what the West can provide
In fact, Western concerns about Putin’s “red lines” and his nuclear threats have created an actual strategy of incremental reinforcement of Ukraine: first Javelin, Stinger and infantry weapons; then artillery; then HIMARS; then antiaircraft. Now, armored fighting vehicles and tanks, but no fighter planes yet.
The emerging strategy seems aimed at "bleeding out" the Russian aggression, albeit at a very high cost in Ukrainian casualties, even though virtually every analysis shows that Putin is driven by geostrategic aims and is not deterred by huge losses.
The war has thus become fundamentally a war of resources – what Russia can mobilize versus what the West can and will provide. But can Putin be persuaded to give up before Ukraine loses the support of the West?
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And this strategy might not be enough to restore Ukraine's territorial integrity, reinforce the rules-based international system and generate accountability for grievous violations of international and humanitarian law.
Most wars are usually ended by negotiations, but negotiations ensue only when one side or the other foresees losing on the battlefield, and the outcome of such negotiations reflects battlefield outcomes. Putin is determined, but he is not irrational. He must be convinced he is losing to be persuaded to come to the negotiating table.
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Simply holding the line in Donbas is unlikely to be sufficient, no matter the extent of Russian losses. This argues for a more pointed strategy: One that enables Ukraine to threaten what Putin most values – Crimea – while also holding in Donbas.
With Crimea, Russia achieves military dominance of the Black Sea, control over its natural resources, as well as threatening Ukraine's economic lifeline to the West. But Crimea is not Russia’s; it is legally part of Ukraine. It was seized in early 2014 by a Russian military operation. The West has maintained selective sanctions on Russia for nearly nine years to punish Russian aggression there.
In coming months, Ukraine should receive more of the tools it needs to counterattack successfully, closing the land bridge and advancing into Crimea. This includes more tanks and armored vehicles – Ukraine has requested 300 to 500 modern Western tanks – plus more self-propelled artillery, long-range rockets, fighter aircraft and modern attack helicopters. Training for these new systems should begin now, even before a decision to provide them is made.
Ukraine also needs more effective forward logistics, and the West needs to more fully mobilize its military industrial base to provide the systems and munitions Ukraine needs while also replenishing its own stocks.
Absent this reinforcement of Ukrainian capabilities, the battle in Ukraine is likely to seesaw back and forth inconclusively into the next year, with increasing risks of Western frustration and Russian escalation. Neither outcome advances Western security or the rules-based international system.
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Delay enables Russia to strengthen its military and its military production and perhaps have greater success in evading Western sanctions. It also increases the risks of Chinese military assistance to Russia or Chinese action against Taiwan.
The combination of powerful Ukrainian offensives into Crimea plus the growing mobilization of the West's military-industrial base will, in a sense, maintain the incremental strategy that has emerged: NATO will not engage in hostilities, the United States will not become a belligerent, there will be not an attack by the West on Russia, and there will be no sudden escalation to trigger Putin's nuclear forces.
But aiming military actions more directly at what Putin most values, Crimea, is a concrete, understandable and achievable military objective.
It also is the best means to promote meaningful negotiations, and the most expeditious way to end the war successfully, for Ukraine and the West.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark is a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center. Follow him on Twitter @GeneralClark
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine can win this war. To outlast Putin, focus on Crimea.