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The Looming Prospect of The Samson Option in Ukraine

Prof Madhav Das Nalapat Wed, 01 Mar 2023   |  Reading Time: 5 minutes

Joe Biden has an antipathy towards Vladimir Putin, the man he holds responsible for Donald Trump winning the 2016 Presidential election, and this may have been among the elements that came together in his mind to make the 46th President of the US decide that it was not enough to preserve what was left of Ukraine after the takeover of parts of it by the Russian Federation in 2014. That the very future of western civilization depended on President Voldymyr Zelensky winning back all the territories lost to Russia since the Maidan revolution that replaced a pro-Russian government with a Russophobic crew in 2014. Given his career in drama, albeit of a comic nature, and the difficulty faced by some showmen in disengaging from the stage personality to the everyday persona, it was almost predictable that Voldymyr Zelensky would embrace the offer of making him a hero in the history of Ukraine by rolling back the Russian-speaking multitudes that had shaken off the control of Kiev. Add to the mix Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who not so deep in his heart and mind may still be yearning to be accepted as a “good European” by others in Europe, the continent that Russians from St Petersburg consider their natural home.

Odd as it may sound, given the high-decibel global media campaign against the “brutality” and “ferocity” of the Russian military campaign against Ukraine that began on 24 February 2022, the loss of civilian life there has been small when compared to the loss of life suffered in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan (before being retaken by the Taliban), Syria or Libya. The latter four countries were “liberated” by the US and other NATO forces, although there is a difference of opinion on whether the populations there feel better off after being freed from despotic authoritarians such as Saddam Hussein, the Taliban or Muammar Gaddafy. Thus far, the Syrian population seems in no hurry to be freed of the Assad regime and to come under the control of elements that see the Taliban as the role model where governance is concerned.

In Afghanistan, Biden seems to not have been entirely accurate in his expectation that the “new’ Taliban (visible only to the US President and his advisors) would prove to be kindly, gentle rulers who forget a past in which their principal occupation was to spread the growing of poppy and to hunt down US forces and their Afghan collaborators. Judging by the US President’s public statements, the intention behind going forward with the Trump-era Agreement of Surrender between the US and the Taliban was to free himself from such entanglements in order to concentrate on the threat posed to US interests by Communist China. Instead, Biden has shifted almost all his attention and the future of his White House legacy towards ensuring the defeat of Russian forces through their eviction from the entirety of Ukraine. The individual President Biden relies on for advice in matters military is General Mark Milley, and few would accuse him of having an acute intellect. It is therefore entirely plausible that Milley persuaded Biden that Zelensky’s dream of re-conquest at the expense of Russia was feasible. Much has been made of Kiev’s instant discovery that the initial intention of the Russian “Special Military Operation” (SMO) was to take over the Ukrainian capital within a week. Given that the Russians have from the start made it clear that the objective of the SMO was to protect the existing boundaries of the Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine, how insights such as Putin’s objective being the capture of Kiev in three days were gleaned by the Ukrainians remains a mystery.

In contrast, Russian sources say that Putin was and remains opposed to any move that might convert Kiev into ruins, a city that is considered to be the birthplace a millennium ago of the Russian Orthodox Church. They add that most of the outwardly civilian targets that have been struck throughout Ukraine are nests of enemy soldiers adopting the tactics of the North Vietnamese Army during the 1960s of taking refuge and setting up operations in civilian areas, so as to gain an extra layer of protection from US and ARVN attacks, a calculation that was often found to be inaccurate in a war where civilian casualties were several hundred times more than the number of civilian lives thus far lost in the Ukraine conflict since 2022. In Moscow, especially in the military and the security services, 25 February 2023 is a day of shame caused by a Higher Command that constantly sought to limit the reaction of the forces under him to the steady escalation of training and weapons supply (not to mention the clockwork regularity in the tightening of sanctions) by the US and its partners. Fortune favours the brave, it is said. In the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Leonid Brezhnev and later Gorbachev vetoed suggestions that Peshawar and Quetta be bombed so as to slow down the flow of weapons and personnel to those fighting the Soviet military in Afghanistan. The fear was that such a move would provoke a kinetic US reaction against the USSR, given that Pakistan was a treaty ally of the US. Just as India would have finished off the PLA in 1962 were the Indian Air Force brought into the Sino-Indian conflict, the USSR would have succeeded in terminally weakening the resistance in Afghanistan, had supply routes from Pakistan been destroyed. Since autumn of last year, an argument has been simmering within the Russian Federation that the taking out of supply routes from Poland to Ukraine, combined with a flexing of nuclear muscle, would ensure that the flow of weapons to that unfortunate country cease, and consequently its ability to harass and to a considerable extent hold at bay the Russian advance. In 1940, Stalin made a fool of himself by attacking tiny Finland and having his military gasp for breath, a factor that convinced Hitler that the USSR was “a giant with feet of clay”. In much the same way, militaries that are looking into possible responses that may be needed should Cold War 2.0 morph into World War III have been forming a somewhat contemptuous view of Russian military capability. How much of this is real and how much has been caused by timidity on the part of the Higher Command of the Russian military is not discernible. A second full year of the Ukraine war passing by without a Russian victory would almost certainly witness efforts at the replacement of Putin as the supremo by an individual who would be far more willing to take risks real or perceived for victory than Putin has shown himself to be. An attack on supply routes within Poland, a NATO member state, would confront President Biden, Chancellor Scholz, Prime Minister Sunak and President Biden in particular with the unappetizing option of either entering into a direct rather than a proxy conflict with Russia, or surrendering at the very least Crimea, the Donbass and Lugask to Moscow and shattering Zelensky’s dream of retaking the territories lost in 2014.

The inability, whether inherent or as a consequence of caution in the Higher Command, to take control of the Donbass and Lugansk and ensure the destruction of the rest of the Ukrainian military, has resulted in contempt replacing awe where the Russian military is concerned. As for Putin, if he is unable to subdue Ukrainian forces (and it must be said that the way they have been mobilised to do battle by President Zelensky has been spectacular) before the onset of another winter in Europe, Strongman Putin will be seen to be a Strawman. The persistent ramping up of weapons supplies by NATO to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia means that unless Putin shows the courage and resolve as Zelensky has, he will be an object of both ridicule and pity. A stalemate on the battlefield is not an existentially secure result for President Putin. A defeat would have the same impact on the system of governance that sustains him and his subordinates in office that was inflicted on Mikhail Gorbachev after the ignominy of the Afghanistan surrender in 1988. Thus far, Putin’s attempts to confine the war in a way that does not provoke a much wider conflict have not worked against the relentless drive by Biden and his partners to humiliate him on the battlefield, albeit at the expense of Ukrainian lives. Given the inherent and unutilised strengths of the Russian defence capability, were leadership in the Kremlin be bold rather than hesitant, a question that may loom before President Putin is whether to go the Samson way, and bring down the entire structure containing his foes, NATO. if there seems no route to success other than going for broke, in the way President Zelensky has, that option may hold greater and greater appeal within the Kremlin.


Author
Professor Madhav Das Nalapat is Director, Department of Geopolitics & International Relations at Manipal University, India.

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POST COMMENTS (2)

ASHOK IYER

Mar 13, 2023
Kalidan Singh Ji, the US and the West only care about India as long as it benefits them. Right now, they need us to counter China. Additionally, India is a huge market for their products and we are also a huge source of supply of skilled manpower. So, they will play along with us regardless of our stance on the Russia-Ukraine war. The day we cease to be of any use to them, they’ll discard us like toilet paper. Look at how they used and abandoned Pakistan. However, India, under PM. Modi ji, has played its moves very smartly and our support to both the warring Democrats and Republicans ensures that they’ll need us for a long time in the future. The only feasible solution for the Russia-Ukraine war is a face saving peace agreement wherein all parties look like they have the upper hand because neither side, be it Russia or the US, UK etc. can afford to withdraw unilaterally as that will have severe repercussions for them in their domestic political fronts.

Kalidan Singh

Mar 04, 2023
Excellent article, thank you Mr. Nalapat. Like may, I have watched this horrifying war and wondered about India's response. There are two unknowns that bother me because I want India to come out ahead of this one. First, we have no idea how this ends. However, it does not end in a Russian victory. We are, in the minds of all Europeans and Americans, on Russia's side. This will not be without repercussion. We will pay a price for it. That does not mean I have a problem with India's actions and posture. We are for peace. Second, and relatedly, will the west (EU, UK, US) punish India and produce adverse consequences in the I2U2, and the Quad for us. I am quite aware that no matter what happens, India has no real allies in the west, it is absolutely no skin off their nose what happens to India. Churchill pretty much knew he would never be tried as a war criminal for starving the people of Bengal, and Rudyard Kipling is still worshiped as a hero by Indian elite. What that means is - are we prepared to deal with our neighbors (China and Pakistan) on our own? I hope we are.

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