May 11, 2022

The war in Ukraine turns into a high-stakes game of bloody poker

Oith Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky both putting a wet blanket on the peace talks, it seems the major players are fully confident that their strategies will prevail.

For Putin, the new strategy is similar to the old strategy. Except that the new objectives are such that the Russian army actually has the possibility of achieving them. The idea of ​​overthrowing the Ukrainian government and replacing it with a pro-Moscow supplicant might still be on Putin’s mind. But for now at least, expelling Ukrainian troops from the Donbas region and extending the administrative lines of the so-called independent republics to the east is the name of the game. This “second phase” of the operation, although many Less fantastic than Moscow’s original campaign plan, will be no less resource-intensive for a Russian army that saw around a quarter of its combat strength in Ukraine destroyed in the first two months of the war.

Putin is betting on a Russian victory. And the alleged capture of the coastal city of Mariupol after a two-month siege gives the Russian leader something to brag about. But the more ground Russia is able to gain, the more likely it is that Russia’s earlier embarrassments around Kyiv will be forgotten. It will also give Moscow more diplomatic clout in case serious peace talks resume.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is betting that its own troops can shock Russians (and the world) in the east as dramatically as they did in the north. While the Ukrainian government was open to a diplomatic resolution to end the conflict a few weeks ago, when Russian forces were pinned down outside major cities, it now considers peace talks to be of secondary importance to to the main effort: to resist Russian territorial advances by force of arms. From kyiv’s point of view, it just doesn’t make sense to negotiate seriously when the other side, Russia, has sent all its ground troops into the Donbass and is starting to show some momentum on the field of battle. No one can say whether Ukraine’s bet will pay off.

The West is making its own bets, betting that an indefinite supply of heavy equipment to the Ukrainian military and ever-tightening sanctions against the Russian economy will, over time, force Putin to at least sit down and talk seriously. President Joe Biden’s April 21 announcement of an $800 million military aid package for Ukraine, coming just weeks after another $800 million pledge, is further evidence that Washington is ready to continue this aid as long as necessary. Washington is also pushing European allies to do more.

Simply put, the war in Ukraine is starting to take the form of a high-stakes poker game. Each side believes it has the cards needed to win. Russia hopes the West’s solidarity will slowly begin to crack as the war drags on, while Ukraine and the West anticipate that the longer and more costly the war will be for Russia, the more Putin will be willing to look for an exit ramp. Both, however, can be disappointed.

Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner Beltway Confidential Blog. His opinions are his own.