How to stop World War Three
The besieged Ukrainian government continues to request that the West set up a no-fly zone over the country. Whilst many leaders fear that this action may lead to a wider conflict, inaction will ultimately allow Putin to use nuclear blackmail against both Ukraine and the West.
Putin’s initial strategy in Ukraine was a blitzkrieg. A short victorious war using mobile ground forces and airborne and amphibious assaults was meant to capture major cities, overthrow Ukraine’s democratic government and install a pro-Kremlin regime. Thanks to the heroism, resilience and enthusiasm of the Ukrainian military, acting with the mobilised support of the entire Ukrainian population, Putin’s blitzkrieg turned into a “blitzfail”.
Now Putin has changed his tactics. The second phase of the war is now based on the scorched earth strategy that was successfully employed in Chechnya and Syria. The goal is to kill as many civilians and destroy as much civilian infrastructure as possible in order to force Ukraine’s capitulation. Hence, we have seen air strikes on residential areas with unguided heavy bombs and missiles (including the use of prohibited weapons like cluster bombs), as well as the shelling of civilian targets with heavy artillery. These tactics are also often used to target cultural heritage sites. Russia’s contravention of the rules of war and international conventions is not a coincidence. Indeed, it is part of the overall strategy of Russia’s forces. For example, a green corridor for the evacuation of civilians is announced and then these civilians, including children, are killed as they try to exit their destroyed cities. In the last few days we have witnessed this tactic being used in the sea port of Mariupol and in the town of Irpin near Kyiv.
Ukraine’s political leaders and ordinary citizens have repeatedly issued pleas to the international community to declare and enforce a no-fly zone in Ukraine to provide protection to humanitarian corridors. If you cannot use your own aircraft and personnel, at least provide us with jets to protect our cities and children.
For the moment, the West remains deaf to the pleas of Ukrainians. President Zelenskyy has emphasised that the blood of our dead will stain the hands of those who refuse to provide Ukrainians with the means to effectively defend ourselves. We do not ask the West to fight for us. We will repel the invader ourselves. Just do not leave us unarmed!
But this is not the end of the story.
Looking at the likely scenarios of the war published on March 1st, we see that Putin has now moved from his second phase. Despite this, it is likely that he will soon advance to the third phase of the war.
The second phase of the war will eventually end as the ground assault has been effectively halted. The destruction of infrastructure and mass killing of civilians can only be accomplished through the “Syria-style” use of rockets and aircraft. However, Russia’s stockpile of bombs and missiles is not unlimited. New production needs time and components are impossible to import. Putin said that he will not stop the war until Ukraine capitulates. But what if Ukraine will not capitulate? Since February 24th the Ukrainian military has scored one local victory after another against Russian soldiers and armour. The mass killing of civilians by Russia has not (and will not) induce either Ukraine’s leadership, nor the army or society to surrender. Russia’s scorched earth tactic only motivates the population further to do more to defend Ukraine to the last drop of blood. Citizens of several cities that the Russian forces have managed to occupy have come out into the streets unarmed with Ukrainian flags to demonstrate their displeasure. This is in spite of them being faced with Russian machine guns.
A long war in its current form is impossible as the Russian forces have no broad fronts, no logistics and no reserves. Inevitably, Putin will begin the third phase of the war: the nuclear blackmail of Europe.
The world was shocked when Russian troops first took over the Chernobyl site and then seized Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Enerhodar. With regards to this second site, it is important to note that Enerhodar was seized by elite Chechen troops loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov. It remains unclear as to whether or not these forces are directly subordinated to the command of the Russian armed forces. In the immediate aftermath of these attacks, Russian state media has been filled with fake stories concerning how Ukraine supposedly maintained its nuclear capability despite having formally given up all weapons in the 1990s. These stories are contrary to the assessments of the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to which Ukraine has no military nuclear capacity and no plans to develop it. However, these facts are irrelevant as the Russian public is clearly being prepared for nuclear escalation in Ukraine.
Nuclear escalation may come in the form of an “accident” in one of the power plants. This will be presented to the Russian public as having been caused by the Ukrainians themselves as they prepared to use nuclear weapons against Russia. Alternatively, the Russian soldiers occupying one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants may find “evidence” of a supposed weapons programme and use this as justification for further bombing, destruction and eventually occupation. Overall, they would argue that Russia is just following the US playbook from Iraq.
This scenario would obviously be designed for an internal Russian audience. Few in the West now believe anything coming out of the Putin regime. However, a story of the Russian “discovery” of a supposed Ukrainian nuclear weapons programme could be used as justification (for Putin’s domestic audience) for a limited tactical nuclear strike on a Ukrainian city.
This situation opens a new page in Ukraine’s war epic. Putin and/or Kadyrov can use nuclear blackmail to gain concessions from Europe not only related to Ukraine. Putin’s idea is to force NATO to step back from Eastern Europe, restoring Stalin’s zone of influence. If you consider this impossible please think about what you considered impossible just two weeks ago.
If it comes to the third phase, all further scenarios are bad for Europe and the whole world.
The West can oppose Putin’s pressure, directly engage Russian troops and/or respond with a nuclear strike, thus plunging the world into a Third World War.
Alternatively (and sadly, more likely), the West can agree to Putin’s blackmail and pressure Ukraine to capitulate. Such a course of events would entail the total destruction of the international security system and eventually lead to the use of the nuclear threat by others. Locally, if nuclear blackmail is successful, Putin the terrorist will not stop in Ukraine. He will go further into the Baltic countries or Poland or Finland. Other states would follow in using this blackmail tactic, such as Iran and North Korea. If “just one small bomb” is allowed, “Pandora’s box” will be irrevocably opened and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty will be history.
Surrendering Ukraine under pressure from nuclear blackmail will not save the world from war. The only chance to stop the war is now, before Putin moves from the second phase of scorched earth tactics to the third phase of nuclear blackmail. The sky over Ukraine must be closed either by NATO or by Ukrainians with western jets. The international community has only one chance to stop a nuclear holocaust. It must establish conditions under which nuclear blackmail is in principle impossible.
Our European friends used to ask us every day if we are safe. At the moment we are safe but it looks like in the coming days there may no longer be any safe place left in Europe. We must stop Putin now to prevent a Third World War.
Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.
Mychailo Wynnyckyj is an Associate Professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Ukrainian Catholic University. He is also the author of “Ukraine’s Maidan. Russia’s War. A Chronicle and Analysis of the Revolution of Dignity” (Ibidem, 2019).
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