Created on:
June 10, 2022

A Geopolitical Disaster: Putin’s War on Ukraine

Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt

The original article was posted on Frontline Defence Online on June 05, 2022. See article here.

As we enter the fourth month of a three-day “special military operation” into Ukraine, it has become quite clear that Vladimir Putin has greatly miscalculated the outcome of his invasion. It would appear that he and his senior commanders have dramatically failed in their reported expectation to crush Ukrainian resistance in a rapid 72-hour blitzkrieg-like attack with the intention of replacing Kyiv’s democratically elected government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a more Moscow-friendly leadership.

The cascading consequences of Putin’s now-described geopolitical “fiasco” of a decision to invade, is globally apparent. The costs of launching this poorly planned and feebly executed multi-pronged invasion of Ukraine becomes more apparent daily in terms of the Russian men and material destroyed. Estimates of upwards of 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in action, unknown numbers of wounded, accompanied by unsustainable losses in armoured personnel carriers, tanks, soft skinned vehicles and artillery. Ukraine is also losing upwards of 100-150 killed in action daily.

Unintended Consequence

Executing a plan intended to sow dissension amongst NATO allies and to push back the alliance from Russia’s borders has come to naught. This unwarranted and aggressive move against the Ukraine had two immediate objectives: provide strategic depth and re-establish Russia’s sphere of influence amongst its previous borders. Instead, it has reaped a response that was totally unforeseen, and has not spawned the dissension Putin hoped for but rather has reenergized NATO’s purpose and membership. This incursion into Ukraine’s sovereign territory has witnessed a reinvigorated alliance determined to protect the sovereignty of the 30 members of NATO from a threatening Russian autocrat.

For Russia’s northernmost neighbour, Finland, Putin’s actions have created the geopolitical realization of the necessity to apply for NATO membership. In tandem, Sweden has also sought admission into NATO. These intentions of joining NATO are in their respective national security interests, as is the belief that NATO membership will assist in ensuring their sovereignty and survivability against any incursions by Russia or any other threat presently or in the future.

The political decision to seek NATO membership is predicated on the hard reality that Russia has proven, on a series of occasions, to have disregarded international treaties and clearly does not subscribe to a rules-based international order. In the recent past, Russia has ignored international borders, abrogated their responsibilities on the employment of chemical and biological weapons, as well as the deploying Russian forces in both Georgia and Moldova. Despite Russia having signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity, 20 years later Russia’s forces seized the Crimea in 2014 and facilitated an open insurrection in the eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Finland and Sweden bring to the alliance professional and well-equipped militaries that will integrate easily into NATO operations, and both nations are focused on National Service and enhanced national resistance. Sweden has developed a concept of total defence, re-introduced limited conscription and exercised its population through the conduct of national resilience exercises. Moreover, both countries have been conducting exercises with NATO forces and worked extensively in NATO operations. Both nations have played key roles in the 10-nation strong Joint Expeditionary Force set up in 2014, bringing together non-NATO and NATO members. Both countries have modern air forces and navies, and would be of substantial assistance to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in exercising control of the Baltic Sea, thus inhibiting any Russian military initiatives in the region.

This truly dramatic move by both countries to become NATO partners underlines how neutrality, once confronted with an extreme autocratic and threatening nation, is neither practically nor morally sustainable. Moreover, other nations will likely seriously reflect upon their respective neutrality in the wake of the unwarranted attack on Ukraine. Traditionally neutral Austria, Switzerland and Ireland may be pressed to consider a more fulsome collective security arrangement in the form of NATO, which, considering the 70 years of peace in Western Europe, remains the most successful military alliance.

Putin’s Strategic Misstep

Putin’s intent was arguably twofold: re-establish Russia’s strategic depth and, with this, its traditional sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. However, Putin’s ambition to achieve this has re-energized NATO members as to Russia’s threat to the sovereignty of participating nations. Madrid will host NATO’s June 2022 national leaders meeting, which will likely see a reinvigorated and determined leadership and a shift in NATO’s posture in Eastern Europe. This could incorporate more deployments into border countries, the positioning of surface-to-air missile defence, the activation of a 40,000-soldier rapid reaction force, as well as conducting more aerial patrols over the Baltic.

The addition of Finland, and likely Sweden, into the NATO fold will provoke a Russian response probably in the form of positioning military forces, missile systems and conducting regional exercises along the borders.

In advance of this, NATO will continue to train and exercise members in conducting joint and combined field exercises in Finland, Poland and the Baltic states. This will contribute to forging effective command and control structures and practice combined arms operations at battalion and brigade levels, while garnering insights in operations in participating countries. Observations drawn upon Russian tactical operations in Ukraine have emphasized the dearth of tactical leadership, ineffective command-and-control as well as the inability to conduct comprehensive combat arms operations in all phases of war. Hence the need for NATO to constantly practice combined and joint operations throughout all areas of operation within NATO’s purview.

Impact of Finland and Sweden's intent to join NATO

The May 2022 announcement of Finland and Sweden’s submission to join NATO has shaken Putin’s strategic intent of pushing NATO further from Russia’s frontiers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has geopolitically changed the landscape, extending NATO’s borders some 830 miles. This unintended consequence, predicated on Putin’s assessment that Western nations would not come to the assistance of Ukraine as they are not members of NATO and therefore do not enjoy the protections of Article 5, underlines a dearth of reality in his strategic thinking. Putin faces a fundamental shift in European security as both nations will be attending the NATO conference in Madrid. Putin has persistently identified to Russian citizenry that NATO is both an aggressive and expansionist alliance that threatens Russia’s borders and national security. His offensive against Ukraine was predicated on pushing NATO further from Russia’s traditional borders and to warn other nations that joining NATO could be problematic for their national security. In this proposition and subsequent action, Putin has badly miscalculated his moves on the European geopolitical chessboard. Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members is a significant geopolitical realignment for both NATO and the Nordic states.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia had a geostrategic advantage in central Eastern Europe. Belarus was a Moscow-friendly ally and, since 2014, the Crimea and substantial parts of the Donbas region were Russian-occupied. In a move of geostrategic greed, the invasion of Ukraine turns the tables, losing the neutrality of two strategically important northern European states. From a military point of view, the geographic positioning of the Baltic states, along with Finland and Sweden will make the Baltic Sea a NATO lake. Moreover, there is no way Russian forces can protect the Kola Peninsula and the strategically important city of St. Petersburg should there be a conflict with NATO.

This Finnish and Swedish initiative will also have an impact upon the operations of the Russian surface and submarine forces positioned in the Kola Peninsula. Attempts to navigate into the North Atlantic will be problematic, as transiting naval assets would be vulnerable to Finnish, Swedish and Baltic interception and/or blockade. Notwithstanding, over the decade, the Finns and Russians have maintained close cultural and economic ties, despite the historically traumatic 1940 Winter War and subsequent conflict, but it is quite clear that the ongoing war in Ukraine has forced a new direction in this somewhat taut relationship.

With a population of 5.5 million, a policy of mandatory conscription, and the capability of mobilizing a wartime military force of some 280,000, Finland will be a potent ally for NATO. Moreover, although not at present a NATO member, Finnish forces have been modernized and training with NATO for a number of years, and had even planned for a possible invasion by the Soviet Union prior to its breakup. Finland’s neighbour Sweden also fields an impressive military force, well-trained in Arctic operations, and has conducted substantial training with NATO, as well as participating in NATO peacekeeping operations, such as in Kosovo. It has a potent coastal Navy and submarine force and a well-equipped Air Force.

Putin’s decision to invade has turned out to be a geostrategic blunder. Possibly predicated on ill-informed intelligence that promulgated the analysis that Ukraine would fall in a short three-day campaign, he orchestrated a multi-pronged invasion. The invasion would, in Putin’s view, be a divisive strategy that would negatively affect the cohesion of NATO members. In contrast, it had a unifying effect that immediately crystallized the threat on NATO’s borders and enticed previously neutral countries to apply for NATO membership. Russia’s hope of mitigating NATO’s expansion has in turn doubled NATO presence on Russia’s borders from 754 miles to 1,584 miles. Concomitantly, it demonstrated the inability of Russia’s much vaunted “modern military forces” to achieve success on the ground.

Yet Russia continues its invasion efforts, and we have a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to counter this. NATO and the West must keep the economic, political pressure on Putin while pouring arms, ammo, artillery, medical, food, and aircraft to sustain the Ukrainian forces in this fight for sovereignty.

At the same time, we must buttress NATO solidarity to persevere, and ultimately prevail, in what I feel will be a extended fight. Will this be a "Vietnam" for Putin, or better still a "1989 Afghanistan" which saw the demise of the USSR in its wake?

This Russian transgression is a salient warning to Europe, and the civilized world, that ever-present threats to the security of nations exist from aggressive authoritarian regimes. A lesson from history we seem to often ignore, at our own peril. 

Colonel J. Paul de B. Taillon

Explore more insights