President Putin’s ‘Blitzkrieg’ approach to the invasion of Ukraine has seen Russian troops capture vital strategic hubs and spread across the country at lightning speed. But what might happen next? MARK ALMOND, Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford, runs through the options.
1. A SUDDEN WITHDRAWAL
Vladimir Putin likes to surprise his opponents. Given the speed and scale of the Russian invasion, what could be more shocking than a sudden halt to hostilities and a pulling back of troops?
If Putin decides that his ruthless punitive action has achieved his main goals of forcing Ukraine to bow to his demands and humiliating Nato, then his army just might stage a ‘triumphant’ march home.
Such a surprise retreat could head off the worst of proposed Western economic sanctions – and allow Putin to portray himself as a ‘peacemaker’.
Likelihood: A vain hope.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks about authorising a special military operation in Ukraine’s Donbass region during a special televised address today
2. UKRAINE IS OVERRUN
The effectiveness of the Russian bombing and the speed of its tank advances suggest that this war will be over in days. Indeed, US sources fear Kyiv could fall as early as Sunday.
The Russian army and officers of the FSB – the new KGB – could soon be fanning out across the country to hunt down those who spoke out against Russia’s ambitions pre-invasion.
And while only a small percentage of Ukrainians may be prepared to collaborate with a massive military presence, a puppet government could be installed in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, millions of Ukrainians would be allowed to flee into the EU – the simplest way of ridding the country of potential rebels.
Likelihood: The most probable outcome.
An explosion lights up the night sky over Kyiv, in Ukraine, in the early hours of Thursday as Russia invades
3. UKRAINE FIGHTS BACK
Russia’s early triumphs could prove illusory. In 1941, the Nazis rapidly overran Ukraine but were soon undermined by massive partisan resistance.
The Ukrainian government’s distribution of firearms and shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons could mean that Russian troops will increasingly find themselves ambushed deep inside occupied territory.
And significant Russian casualties could erode acceptance of the war back home.
Burned Russian AP near of Hlukhiv of Sumy area, in Ukraine today, as Russian troops entered the country
The sight of body bags being returned during the Afghan War of the 1980s aroused widespread discontent and helped erode the stability of the Soviet Union, although Russian forces today deploy mobile crematoria.
Putin may have started this war at a time of his own choosing, but calling a halt to it may prove to be more problematic.
Likelihood: High. Kyiv has been distributing weapons to any citizen who requests one.
4. RUSSIA PUSHES ON BEYOND UKRAINE
If Putin decides he is on a roll, his army could move on to the weak, neutral ex-Soviet states that border Russia (Moldova, Georgia and the central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan).
Last month, Russia’s airborne troops staged a dry-run for Ukraine when they flew into Kazakhstan to ‘stabilise’ it following riots over energy price rises.
That successful operation set a precedent.
The Kremlin might well take the view that Nato will not interfere with any Russian military absorption of these defenceless states.
Russian peacekeepers of Collective Security Treaty Organization leaving a Russian military plane after withdrawing its troops from Kazakhstan, last month
Indeed, all the indications are that the leaders of Western nations will restrict their retaliation to imposing sanctions as long as Russian aggression is confined to the non-Nato ex-Soviet republics.
Quite quickly, Putin could create a vast new Russian Empire, while the West will have effectively retreated to the borders of the EU. This would lead to a dangerous new Cold War.
And let’s not forget China.
China’s president Xi Jinping might see Moscow’s swift recovery of ex-Soviet territory as a spur to invade Taiwan. At the very least, China’s navy and airforce might try to strangle that island’s trade.
Likelihood: Given Putin’s imperial ambitions, remains a real possibility.
5. NUCLEAR CLASH WITH THE WEST
During the Cold War both Washington and Moscow agreed that it would be MAD – a suicidal path to Mutually Assured Destruction.
But Putin openly threatened to use nuclear weapons in his speech announcing the invasion of Ukraine yesterday morning.
What if he is sufficiently emboldened by the collapse of Ukraine’s Western-trained and equipped army to engage those Eastern European Nato members that he regards as a ‘soft targets’?
A Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launching during a training launch as part of the Grom-2022 Strategic Deterrence Force exercise at an undefined location in Russia this month
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example.
That could trigger Nato’s Article 5, which requires all members of the alliance to go to the aid of a member country that is attacked.
In such a circumstance, Putin could move from nuclear blackmail to deploying Iskander missiles against his Nato neighbours.
Even that terrifying scenario cannot be discounted now.
Likelihood: Slim, but it can’t be ruled out entirely.