The Kyiv Uprising scenario
On August 1st at exactly 5pm, Warsaw will remain motionless. Sirens and horns will shriek, people will pause, and all traffic – cars, buses, and trams – will stop in its tracks. As every year, for a few minutes, it will feel as if time is standing still. This is done to pay homage to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The uprising that began on August 1st 1944 and lasted for 63 days has become Poland’s national symbol of martyrdom. But the commemorations and tributes to the veterans that are still living are always accompanied by a national debate: “Was it worth it?”
Critics of the uprising say that it was reckless, maladroitly planned, was doomed from the start and that the poorly equipped resistance fighters (many of them teens or still children) had no chance against the professional German war machine. In effect, 200,000 Poles died in comparison to approximately 9,000 Germans. On the other hand, as first-hand accounts recall, after a ruthless five-year occupation of their country, Warsaw was a ticking time bomb and Poles wanted to liberate their capital ahead of the advancing Soviet army. Although Radio Moscow had initially urged Varsovians to rise up against their occupiers, the Red Army stayed on the eastern bank of the Vistula River while Warsaw was bleeding. Hitler ordered the city to be leveled with the ground because Poland’s capital was a symbol of insubordination. To the Führer, Warsaw was what Kyiv is now to Putin: a symbol of defiance.
“Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities,” proclaimed Vladimir Putin in a speech to the Russian parliament in March 2014. “Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.” Most Russians seem to agree. When asked by the Levada Center about a date, era, or event that was the beginning of Russian history, 26 per cent of Russian respondents said “Kievan Rus”; 12 per cent said, “Christianisation of Rus”; seven per cent said, “Formation of the Russian principalities”; only two per cent responded, “Founding of the Tsardom of Muscovy.” No wonder that Putin erected in front of the Kremlin’s gates a 56-foot statue of Vladimir the Great, who baptised Kievan Rus in the 10th century. Contrary to Putin’s liking, Vladimir had nothing to do with Muscovy, which did not exist until the 12th century. But Russia’s president has his own vision of history based on imperial nostalgia and an amalgam of both tsarist and Soviet imperial heritage.
Putin wants to leave behind a legacy worthy of Russia’s supreme imperial architects: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin. He does not want to go down in history as another Mikhail Gorbachev, who inadvertently deconstructed the Soviet empire and for whom Putin has profound disdain that is shared by many of his countrymen. The president of Russia wants Ukraine and not just Crimea and the eastern provinces. He wants all of it. But the key to Ukraine is its capital, Kyiv.
Ironically, Moscow’s actions have unintentionally solidified Ukrainian national identity and sparked an upsurge of contempt for Russia in a country whose citizens, many of whom are Russian speakers and have family members living in Russia, generally held favorable views of their neighbours. The annexation of Crimea and war in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have also pushed Ukraine into the lukewarm embrace of the international community, which has offered the government in Kyiv financial assistance contingent upon the implementation of reforms. Although additional efforts need to be undertaken, especially in the area of structural and governance reforms, in April the International Monetary Fund approved a one billion dollars installment of financial support for Ukraine’s reform programme. The IMF also noted an increase in transparency, the setting up of anti-corruption institutions, and commended the significant increase of gas prices “to close a loophole for corruption.”
One very visible sign of the change of times is the national police that has been replacing the old militsiya. The young police officers, in their black uniforms and hats resembling those of the NYPD, are supposed to be incorruptible, and to help them stay that way they are getting paid three times the amount that the old cops were making. If you ask a cab driver in Kyiv what he or she thinks about the new police, their proud response is “molodtsi!” which basically means that they are great. If attacked, it is very unlikely that these young Ukrainians would lay down their weapons. Furthermore, given the example of the audacious “Cyborgs” who defended the Donetsk airport (or what was left of it) from Russian-backed separatist for 242 days, and the ongoing sacrifice of Ukrainian servicemen on the eastern front, it is not a question of whether Ukrainians would fight for their capital, but how long can they last. And how long will the world watch before Kyiv resembles the ruins of Warsaw in 1944.
A scenario of Russian tanks in Kyiv may have been far-fetched just a few years ago, however, following the annexation of Crimea by the Russia, nothing is unimaginable anymore. “Coloured revolutions” like the ones in Georgia or Ukraine have been Putin’s worse nightmare and now echoes of similar mass mobilisations are resonating at home. The mass protests against corruption in Russia in March 2017 and the Kremlin’s decisive and brutal reaction suggest that the regime is vulnerable. The protests were not limited to St. Petersburg and Moscow, but included some 150,000 people in almost 100 cities. To counter this potential danger before the 2018 presidential elections, the Kremlin may be tempted to pursue war abroad.
Although Putin’s public support remains at over80 per centand the backlash for the government’s corruption fell on Dmitry Medvedev, a violent, nationwide crackdown against Russian youth could turn the tide. The euphoria from “returning” Crimea to the motherland is wearing off and the limited conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Russia’s involvement in Syria may not be enough to rally Russia’s society behind the president. That is why as the government becomes increasingly pushed to the wall by a new generation of young Russians, who are no longer placated by the relative economic stability flowing from petrodollars, but who wish their country to be modern, developed, and truly democratic instead of corrupt and authoritarian, Putin may strike against Ukraine to hide behind the veneer of a political and military crisis that only he can solve.
Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the former president of Poland and the leading expert on Ukraine among European statesmen, believes that if Putin tried to pull off in Kyiv what he did in Eastern Ukraine, “it would be a tragedy, a total bloodbath.” It is hard to tell if Putin is aware of this because he has repeatedly underestimated Ukrainians’ will to fight. Importantly, in case of an invasion, Ukraine does not stand a chance against the Russian army. That said, the United States and the European Union, working closely with China, must deter the Kremlin from all-out aggression against its neighbour. When Putin thinks of taking over Ukraine, the image that comes to his mind should be Afghanistan of 1979, not Chechnya of 1999. Putin must be convinced that a war in Ukraine would be a prolonged and inopportune escapade like the ten-year Soviet war in Afghanistan and that his approval ratings would not go up as they did following Russia’s ruthless aggression against Grozny at the time of his ascension to power.
The way to make him think twice about attacking Ukraine is to raise the price that he would pay if he irrationally decides to go to war. Zbigniew Brzezinski believed that a Russian military campaign in Ukraine would require taking over cities, which are in fact a set of fortifications. Alluding to the Warsaw Uprising, the former National Security Adviser noted that defensive weapons gain advantage in the urban context, which make the assault extremely arduous for the attacker. For that reason, the West should be willing to provide Ukraine with defensive weapons, especially weapons suitable for urban defence.
Testifying before the House Committee on Armed Services in late March, Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, also affirmed that the US should consider providing Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons. In 2016, he stated, “I think there is a requirement for an anti-tank weapon like Javelin in their situation.” Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO and current US special envoy to Ukraine, said that providing lethal defensive weapons would allow Kyiv to “defend itself if Russia were to take further steps against Ukrainian territory.” Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, now Chairman of Rasmussen Global, argues that defensive lethal weapons from the US would act as deterrence and send a “powerful signal to Russia about Washington’s obligations towards Ukraine.”
These weapons should not give Ukrainians a false notion that they could win against Russia, but give Russians an genuine sense that winning against Ukraine would come at a steep price. This may help Kyiv avoid Warsaw’s tragedy.
Maciej Olchawa is the author of several books, including Misja Ukraina, analysing the political-diplomatic game in Ukraine in 2013. His articles appeared in Arcana, Eastbook.eu, The Diplomat and The Huffington Post.