“Everyone goes to Valuyki.” That phrase, captured on social media, may have provided the biggest clue about where Russia’s armed forces might strike Ukraine if Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashes the 130,000 troops he has massed along the border.
Draw a straight line from Valuyki, strategically located north of the Russian-backed breakaway Donbas region and east of Kharkiv, to the large city of Dnipro on the river Dnieper. It is approximately 300 kilometers, the shortest possible distance to the formidable natural defense that the river provides. Controlling that line would enable Russia to cut off all of southern and eastern Ukraine, completely encircle the Ukrainian armed forces currently facing Donbas, and quickly compel them to surrender.
The immediate military rewards would be significant: complete control of the Sea of Azov, and secure defense of the land corridor to annexed Crimea, including of fresh water flowing into the rain-starved peninsula. And if Ukrainian military resistance is unexpectedly weak, Russia could extend its land-grab beyond Odessa to the Moldovan border, cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea altogether, and cripple its maritime economy.
If resistance is greater than Russian military planners predict, a fail-safe alternative is to withdraw swiftly to Donbas, inflicting heavy casualties by aerial bombardment on the encircled Ukrainian army to compel capitulation to the Kremlin’s peace terms.
The nature of those terms is clear. Throughout Russia’s history, its leaders, acutely aware of the fragility of their vast empire, almost always based their defense strategy on creating a territorial cordon sanitaire. Portraying NATO as an aggressive and expansionist threat has been useful propaganda for the Kremlin, even if what Russia mostly fears is NATO’s defensive capabilities.
Until Russia’s annexation of Crimea and de facto occupation of Donbas in 2014, Ukraine was ambivalent about joining NATO, although keener on EU accession. Now, military leaders, politicians, and a clear majority of the population have concluded that only NATO can guarantee Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression. True, NATO has been careful not to extend any guarantee for Ukraine via a membership action plan, offering only a vague promise of membership at some distant date. But active military cooperation between NATO and Ukraine has deepened considerably, stopping just short of supplying weapons, vetoed until very recently by Germany and the Netherlands.
Hence Putin seems to have concluded that the best way to prevent Ukraine from deploying NATO weapons or joining the Alliance is to compel its leaders to agree to Russia’s humiliating terms. Putin’s long-stated desire to destabilize Ukraine and bring it back into its sphere of influence suggests that the Kremlin views Ukraine’s proper role as that of a vassal state. And because the perverse logic dictating military force is apparent, so is the difficulty of concluding a deal to prevent it.
The United States and European powers have already ruled out deploying troops on the ground in Ukraine. They have also failed since 2014 to arm Ukraine sufficiently to make a Russian invasion too costly. Only now is this being seriously discussed, which at this point may merely persuade Russian military strategists to accelerate their invasion plans. Neither a no-fly zone over Ukraine nor a blockade of the entrance to the Black Sea has been proposed, although Turkey could, in principle, be requested to show NATO solidarity by invoking the 1936 Montreux Convention to interdict Russian shipping in the Bosphorus.
The US and Europe are relying almost entirely on targeted economic sanctions as a deterrent. But sanctions have not deterred Russia in the past. Russia is adept at exploiting EU discord, playing off hawkish Poland and the Baltic states against a dovish Germany, Italy, and Hungary. For example, while excluding Russia from the SWIFT system for international payments would potentially be very damaging, German opposition leader Friedrich Merz is already pushing back against the idea. The deep division in EU views would persist even if Russia launched a war of aggression against Ukraine, with draconian sanctions watered down as opposition to them grows.
One sanction that would have a significant effect is confiscation of Russian political elites’ offshore financial assets. The proceeds could be held in escrow for eventual payment to Ukraine as war reparations for harm caused by Russia. The US and European governments should enact whatever legislation is required to give themselves the necessary powers. These laws should be widely publicized and disseminated.
Such “smart” sanctions may not seem overwhelming, but the Kremlin is ruled by greed and personal interest, not ideology. Russian leaders are clearly sensitive about the possibility. When the US announced plans to include personal sanctions against Putin and other top officials, the Russians declared that this would be an “extreme” step signifying a complete breakdown in bilateral ties. The US and Europe should interpret this as a sign of how effective a threat of permanent damage to the financial interests of Putin and his entourage would be.
Already, Putin must be aware that to launch even a limited Ukraine incursion is to enter unknown political territory where the risks are in fact considerable. Russian forces, which will include many young recruits, can expect a hostile reception in Ukraine, with the violence of any guerrilla war undoubtedly spreading into Russia. Volunteer forces are already being trained to carry out covert longer-term insurgency.
Moreover, the Russophone majority in Ukraine’s south and east, looking at the mess occupied Donbas now finds itself in, will actively oppose any invasion. In western Ukraine, if Russian forces dared to cross the Dnieper, the resistance would be even fiercer. As one Ukrainian recently told my friend, even his village’s elderly men would fight the “Muscovites.”
So let us prepare “personal sanctions from hell” for Putin and his circle – and, for now, keep all eyes trained on Valuyki.
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