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Did Putin blunder the Kremlin into a dystopian World War III?

Two bronze statues of a 10th century Varangian grand prince, one in Kyiv overlooking the Dnipro River and the other outside the red crenelated walls of the Kremlin in Moscow gazing southwest toward Kyiv, stand 470 miles apart in Eastern Europe. Symbolically, they are at the core of the armed conflict in Ukraine between two of the Norseman’s legacy namesakes — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. They are also at the center of what arguably has devolved into a dystopian third world war.

Volodymyr the Great, in Ukrainian, or Vladimir the Great, in Russian, was the founder of the proto-state of Kievan Rus’ — a then loosely autonomous region in what is today parts of Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. Ostensibly, the Kievan Rus’ territory mirrored the Viking trade routes connecting Scandinavia to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. It also included Crimea, where St. Volodymyr was baptized in 988, introducing Orthodox Christianity to Eastern Europe.

Today that territorial expanse has engulfed the global community in a bizarre and unexpected war after Putin blundered the Kremlin into Ukraine on Feb. 24, only to have his troops abruptly falter and stall on the outskirts of Kyiv before being forced to withdraw.

Putin’s justifications for invading — and by extension, his excuses for dragging the international world into his war — are ever-changing. First, it was to reunite Kievan Rus’ based on obscure Medieval historical ties. Then it was to finish the work of World War II by “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. Currently, it is to create a multipolar world, which, conveniently, would entitle Putin to all of Ukraine.

No one in January — not President Biden, nor the Pentagon, nor even Putin — believed that by July the world would be embroiled in this equivalent of World War III. Plus, no equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (sparking World War I) or a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor (bringing the U.S. into World War II) appeared on the horizon. In early February, the debate was whether Ukraine could last 72 hours if Russia invaded. By late February, it had shifted to whether Kyiv could stand for 30 days. By late March, prognosticators debated if or when Putin would turn to tactical nukes to “escalate to de-escalate” his invasion.

Yet here we are. And, ironically, unlike in WWI when the Triple Entente and Triple Alliance triggered nations automatically into war, the NATO alliance to date has spared the U.S. from putting “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, thus enabling Washington to focus primarily on a modern-day lend-lease approach of militarily supporting Kyiv.

Presently, an equilibrium appears to have set in on the Ukraine battlefields, largely taking the form of a bloody stalemate more akin to the trench warfare of Verdun in WWI than to what any serious Pentagon military war planner envisioned a WWIII might look or feel like. Thus far, Ukraine has effectively withstood repeated Russian assaults in large part because of superior NATO weaponry and training, as well as the valiant esprit de corps of its troops.

Russia, meanwhile, is tenuously avoiding a culminating point in Ukraine — Clausewitz’s classic definition of defeat — because of the Kremlin’s willingness to sacrifice however many Russian soldier deaths or wounded in action it takes to wage this war of attrition. Likewise, for now, China, India and Middle Eastern countries are willing to throw Putin economic lifelines in order to profit off Moscow’s severely sanctioned economy. China and India alone now account for 50 percent of the Kremlin’s oil exports at heavily discounted (as much as 30 percent) prices.

As Putin declares an operational pause in Donbas, Washington needs to quickly recalibrate how to decisively win this war. That begins with rapidly coming up to speed on where the battlefields are.

The obvious one is the roughly 9,000 square miles comprising Donbas — an area equivalent in size to New Hampshire or Vermont — where, paradoxically, a conflict global in scale is largely being fought on a relatively miniscule hot battlefield. Despite recent territorial advances by Russia in Luhansk, progress has been slow and costly. Ukraine’s introduction of HIMARs and other advanced NATO offensive weapons may marginalize Russian artillery and change the course of the war.

Less obvious, in terms of understanding the war, is how economic alliances, as instruments of national power, are rapidly becoming the peer competitor, if not prevailing force, of military alliances. Much has been made of Western sanctions against Russia; however, Moscow, at least for now, has successfully deflected the impact of those sanctions back onto the U.S. and Europe in the form of higher energy and food costs.

It also means understanding that this war is unlikely to go nuclear. Despite fantasizing on Russian state media about using nuclear weapons to destroy Ukraine and/or NATO, Putin realizes that, short of an attack by NATO on Russia, his military is in no position to take on the alliance’s military forces. Moscow struggles to advance a kilometer at a time in Donbas. It simply does not have the capacity or will to conventionally widen the conflict.

Plus, notably, to date the Kremlin has absorbed humiliating defeats without resorting to tactical nukes, including retreating from Kyiv, the sinking of the Moskva and, most recently, the embarrassing evacuation of Snake Island, Ukraine’s Alamo.

Still, Putin is unlikely to stop. Ukraine was merely the first steppingstone in retaking the heart of Kievan Rus’ — and beyond. His calculated plot has long been underfoot and nothing will dissuade Putin from doggedly pursuing his would-be Peter the Great empire version of the Russian Federation.

As evidence, revisit Putin’s establishment of Nov. 4 as Russia’s National Unity Day. Since 2005, Putin has used the new holiday to erase the old communist narrative of Russia and build a narrative that Ukraine spiritually and territorially is an inseparable part of Russia. He unveiled the statue of Vladimir the Great on National Unity Day in 2016 and then, last year, exploited the day to declare Crimea is “forever a part of Russia,” leading up to his “special operation” in Ukraine.

This war is not what the Pentagon, politicians or Americans in general thought it might be: a nuclear and/or biological Armageddon. But it is global in scale — especially economically — and its outcome will be as defining as the end of WWII. Nothing less than global democracy as we have known it since 1945 is at stake.

Thankfully, history foreshadows a positive end to this dystopian WWIII. Volodymyr the Great survived in Kyiv because of help from his Nordic relative, Haakon Sigurdsson, the ruler of Norway — and his Viking descendants in Sweden and Finland are choosing NATO and Volodymyr Zelensky over Vladimir Putin. 

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022

Tags Kremlin Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky warfare

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