The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a NATO renaissance, at least rhetorically. It appears rejuvenated, robust, and capable of confronting Russia in the long-term. Nevertheless, the Ukraine War has merely obfuscated severe political fissures within NATO. Ironically, they are the inverse of the difficulties NATO faced in the early Cold War. It is not America, prone to isolationism and jealous of its sovereign rights, which might abandon NATO, but Western Europe, skittish at suffering high commodity prices, which is most likely to seek a settlement with Russia at NATO and Ukraine’s expense. Considering the likelihood of Russian ceasefire overtures come this fall, the U.S. must prepare to confront Russia beyond NATO.
Russia has reoriented its military strategy in Ukraine in a manner consistent with its military capabilities. In the long-run, Vladimir Putin certainly hopes to conquer the country outright, or at least install a quisling regime that will accept integration into a new Russian Empire. In the short-term, however, Mr. Putin seeks two strategic prizes.
First, Mr. Putin hopes to conquer the Donbas. Neither Donetsk nor Luhansk Oblasts provide Russia with significant economic or material benefits. State support alone sustained the fabled Donbas mines until 2014. Since then, intermittent combat between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists has destroyed the region’s limited economic fundamentals and displaced much of its population. Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s rhetorical approach to Ukraine has emphasized the Donbas since 2014. Russia’s “Special Military Operation” is waged in general to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, but to defend the supposedly oppressed Russophilic Ukrainians of the east. Control of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts provides Mr. Putin with a domestic victory: Russia, he may state, has rescued those most in danger of nefarious Ukrainian predation.
Second, Mr. Putin strives to maintain Russia’s hold on Ukraine’s south. This is the real strategic prize in the war, insofar as it provides Russia with tangible economic and military benefits. Combined, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts produce between 10 and 20 percent of Ukrainian food exports, depending upon the crop. Some Ukrainian agricultural produce is stored near these major ports, giving Russia access to even more foodstuffs in the near-term. Hence the bumper crops that Crimean and Caucasian farmers have reported for this year almost certainly include Ukrainian goods. Apart from Odesa, moreover, Russia now controls all of Ukraine’s major ports. Hence Russia, by holding Ukraine’s south and limiting its own food exports, can pressure the global food supply. Additionally, holding Ukraine’s south provides a land bridge to Crimea, which before February 24th was under long-term Ukrainian pressure. With the south in hand, even absent, Odesa, Russia holds a dominating position in the Black Sea.
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