Will Putin Shoot the Hostages? (Updated 1 March)

For the last few days it’s been impossible for me to think about anything other than the war in Ukraine:

  • Full-scale warfare in Europe. Europe! I know I’m showing my “white” bias, because after all, millions have died in vicious conflicts in places like Nigeria or Somalia; but still, this isn’t supposed to happen in the civilized world (no, Nigeria and Somalia aren’t civilized).
  • The heroism of Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has remained in the capital of his besieged country, knowing that Russian special forces operators are looking for him, and who told US officials who had offered to evacuate him from the country, “the fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
  • The 16 Ukrainian defenders of tiny Snake Island in the Black Sea, who refused to surrender to a Russian warship, responding “go f- yourself,” before they were all killed. [Update: this appears to not be true].
  • Ukrainians sending women and children to the borders while giving weapons to men (and some women) up to the age of 60, to fight in the streets.
  • Vladimir Putin’s crazy attempt at justifying the invasion in which he cites protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians against “genocide,” and “denazification” of the country.

The Russian army, which expected to make short work of the relatively tiny Ukrainian military (the Russian military budget at $45bn is ten times that of Ukraine), has bogged down, and as yet has been unable to conquer Kyiv, the capital. There are numerous reasons, some of them structural problems in the Russian military, logistical problems, and strategic and tactical mistakes; but I think the main cause for its failure is the difference between the attitude of a soldier fighting to defend his home and family, and one who is sent somewhere to kill people with whom he has no quarrel, and possibly to lose his own life for reasons that are unclear to him.

At this point, several thousand Russians and a few hundred Ukrainians are said to have been killed in the fighting. The Russians have aimed precision-guided weapons at military targets, and it seems that most civilian casualties are unintentional. But this may not continue. The Russians do not have large stocks of precision weapons, and it is reported that they are now bringing up less accurate weapons which – as we know well here in Israel – are likely to cause many more deaths and injuries among civilians.

In addition, in a very worrisome development, launchers that are capable of firing rockets with thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) warheads as well as other weapons whose use is guaranteed to cause mass casualties, have been seen near the Ukrainian border. The Russians used them in urban areas of Chechnya with devastating effect. Short of nuclear or chemical-biological warfare, these may be the most frightening of weapons.

The financial burden of the war for Russia is astronomical, and has already made itself felt in the Russian economy, none too strong to begin with. Serious sanctions will make it even harder. Supplies of weapons may run low (I don’t know how far to trust this guy, but his analysis suggests big problems for the Russians). Even in Russia, where dissent is severely punished, there have been large antiwar demonstrations. All this indicates that the war will be unsustainable over time. Putin must have a quick victory. And this is where the greatest peril lies.

Vladimir Putin has never shown great compassion to his enemies. The Second Chechen War and continuing conflict in the North Caucasus were characterized by extreme brutality (on both sides, it’s true). Numerous political opponents of Putin, as well as journalists and activists, have been murdered, sometimes poisoned. It is not unthinkable that if he is unable win quickly enough, he will move to a strategy of deliberately targeting civilians in order to force a surrender. In a sense, the Russian army is holding the population – at least, those who haven’t been able to flee – hostage. And if Putin doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll start shooting hostages.

This whole affair has been a series of surprises, at least for me. I didn’t even expect the Russians to invade – I thought Putin would demand some concessions and back off. But perhaps because he sensed that the West would not or could not stop him, he went for the whole enchilada, which apparently includes the installation of a puppet government over all Ukraine.

What’s next? Putin, as I said last week, is clearly a disciple of Sun Tzu, who advised that one should always “build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.” So I hope that he will provide a way out that will end the conflict with as little bloodshed as possible, and certainly not force it to devolve into mass murder, as it very well might.

The whole world is watching, as they say, and nations are learning lessons. Israel and other small countries are learning to be wary of Russia, and not to expect your Western allies to come to your aid if you need them. I’m sure Zelenskiy found it instructive when Germany responded to his request for military aid with 5,000 helmets (but to be fair, just yesterday the embarrassed Germans agreed to send anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons, probably too late to matter).

China is watching too. And what China sees is that while might may not make right, nobody is going to stop you from taking what you want if you are strong enough. With that in mind, note that China is holding a “training exercise” in the South China Sea starting today. You may recall that Putin’s buildup on the borders of Ukraine was also called an “exercise” at first.

Remember back in 1991, when the Soviet Empire was falling apart, and everyone thought that we were about to enter a new age in which the enlightened, humanitarian West, under American leadership, would bring about an age of peace, prosperity, and social progress?

Whatever happened to that?

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2 Responses to Will Putin Shoot the Hostages? (Updated 1 March)

  1. NormanF says:

    Israel has tried to stay out of the conflict – if only because Russia is in Syria and Israel needs a free hand to operate there.

    While Israel is against the invasion of Ukraine, Israel isn’t going to side with the West out of concern for the fate of Jews in Russia and Ukraine.

    That means no sanctions or anything that would anger Russia. A small country must remain on good terms with a superpower.

    Jews learned that lesson from dealing with the Romans. We live in world where you can’t always get what you want, you have to adjust yourself to reality.

    Above all, the lesson for Israel to draw here is the Jewish State cannot expect anyone to come to its aid; when Israel is under attack, it will be left to fend for itself.

    The West isn’t a reliable friend.

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