For two years Russia has been paralyzing the West with threats limiting Western response to Russian terror in Ukraine. To stop the carnage Putin must be surprised. There are three possibilities here.

The current state of the Russian war is defined by two factors:

  • The painful disparity between the Ukrainian and Russian forces – not only that Ukrainians are running out of ammunition but also in numbers of troops – the loss of the major stronghold in Donetsk Oblast, Avdiivka, may be only the first.
  • The Western allies’ strategy not to let Ukraine fall only leads to a longer war with more people killed.

Experts list remedies – the West must tighten sanctions to cripple Russian capabilities to produce ammunition and weapons, Ukraine needs American aid asap and the West must support Ukraine as long as it takes. 

But it is a part of the flawed i.e. not working strategy. As one of my friends on the social media where we push against Russian propaganda wrote recently: “The problem with the ‘help Ukraine for as long it takes’ strategy is that it doesn’t address how to go about actually giving Ukraine a decisive victory. Do they believe Ukraine can defeat Russia?”

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Element of surprise must return

Vladimir Putin said not long ago that he prefers 'more predictable' President Biden over Donald Trump. ‘Predictable’ is the key here. What the West, including the US, has been doing for the past year – since the successful 2022 offensive of the AFU -- is predictable and thus manageable for the Kremlin.

Ukraine’s success in the first year was possible because it caught the Russians off guard. Everything was surprising – Ukraine’s resistance, Hostomel airport defense, Western sanctions against Russia, the speed with which the West unified behind Ukraine, its resolve to support Ukraine and most surprising of all – a growing, throughout the first 7-8 months of the war, stream of weapons supplies to Ukraine.

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Then the stream, instead of accelerating – almost dried up. Kerch Bridge was on fire in October 2022, President Zelensky came to taste watermelons in liberated Kherson in November and then there was his Christmas address that felt like a punch in the stomach – he was forced to plead ! for more weapons. The ensuing battle for Leopard tanks lasted for months, ATACMS, F-16s, we all know the story and how the pause in the Ukrainian offensive enabled the Kremlin to revise their approach.

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The element of surprising Russians was gone. 

To bring it back, the least “nuclear” option would be to admit Ukraine to NATO – to start the process. But we all know how it goes: a choir immediately points to NATO's rule of not accepting states with border disputes. By the way, my 2-year experience with fighting Russian propaganda indicates that this argument was picked up by Russian bots and they spread it most effectively. 

If not NATO trembling with fear, then there are only two centers of power capable of bringing in an element that would knock down Russians – it would be the presidents of the US and Ukraine, Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky.

President Biden’s surprise – what could it be?

America’s status as a global superpower rests upon successful military deterrence of its enemies. This concept protects America’s national security and its interests around the globe. It also keeps up America’s political/security alliances. 

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In deterrence, however, it is Vladimir Putin who is winning. He managed to stop the West, the US from responding decisively to his blatant breaking of the fundamental world order rule – the inviolability of the states’ sovereignty. 

Another friend of mine from social media wrote recently: “How many have to die before President Joe Biden will actually use the American military that I and my neighbors pay $850 billion/year to support? What’s the point of spending all that money if the military can’t be used in a just cause? Personally, I have never seen a more just cause for military intervention in my life…”

My friend has many like-minded neighbors.

I can however already hear all the voices pitying us for the ‘ignorance’ of dismissing the elephant in the room – Russia’s nuclear powers. 

That is exactly how Putin keeps winning the deterrence here - by reiterating all too often - again this week commenting on rumors that the Western European countries are planning to send their troops to Ukraine - that he has the magic - nuclear button he would not hesitate to press.

My response to those voices:

What could he possibly hit with a nuclear missile, and not be hit back? What target could he hit even with tactical nukes and not be hit back? There is also this detail that in Russia, like the US, the process of launching nuclear weapons does not belong to one person alone.

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Here it would be good if the US president was seen as 100 percent predictable – that he would not allow Russian rogue behavior to go unpunished. At stake are other actors – Iran on its path to obtaining nuclear weapons, China and North Korea already having ones. The West cannot afford to show weakness here.

The Kremlin realizes this. But Putin’s bet with the war on Ukraine was that anything below the red line of nuclear engagement is for the West predictably negotiable. The West always recoils at using a terminal means. That feeling of impunity in the area below the nuclear bar allowed Putin to invade Ukraine. This feeling of his should be shattered.

Not only the status of global power – but leaving the Cold War paradigms behind

The need to sustain the status of global superpower should be enough for the US to come up with a more decisive policy to deter Russia than we’ve so far seen. But there is also a bilateral dimension here and not less important than the global stage.

Ukrainians have the right to feel that the US let them down twice already. 

The first time, luckily for Ukrainians the weakness of the collapsing Soviet Union was helpful. Still it is shocking to listen to the infamous “Chicken Kiyv Speech” by President George H.W. Bush, delivered on August 1, 1991, and in which he called on Ukrainians to resign their “suicidal nationalism.” 

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It was a moment when Ukraine had a chance to gain independent statehood! Fortunately, Ukrainians did not fall for this colossal misjudgment and implemented the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine (Poland was the first country together with Canada to recognize the state of Ukraine, the US did it only in December of that year).

The second time – it was the American power of persuasion 30 years ago that made Ukrainian leaders give up and give away nuclear weapons they held after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Wouldn’t it be the time for the US now to get out of the Cold War concretely and choose unequivocally Eastern Europe over Russia? To stop walking around Russia as if on eggshells?

Ukrainians will never surrender. It is an utter determination – as President Zelensky said on the second anniversary of the invasion: “We are 730 days closer to victory.”

They will never give up because they are at the next height in their state-building process – they have never before put up a similar fight and never before been as successful as they are now. For any nation, a moment like this war is defining for centuries to come. 

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Is Ukraine’s destiny sentenced now only to waiting for the US to do something? No.

President Zelensky’s surprise – what could it be?

In the late 1990s, NATO was dragging its feet about Poland’s application to join the Alliance. It was also becoming clear that Russia was not heading toward a stable democracy but descending into a corrupt unpredictable entity.

From Poland's security point of view, it was becoming dangerous.

The Poles needed to ensure Poland’s security, if not through NATO membership then by…acquiring nuclear weapons. Scott Anderson mentions this in his chronicles of the CIA in Eastern Europe, “The Quiet Americans,” that the country’s leaders told NATO – unofficially – they would go nuclear if Poland didn’t gain admission back in the 90s.

On March 12,1999 Poland with Hungary and the Czech Republic became the first former members of the Warsaw Pact to join NATO.

Only a few days ago Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski pointed to the potential results of the US leaving Ukraine without the pledged aid:

“If the US allies get the idea that the United States might not be able to help you even if the Commander-in-Chief wants to help you, that will have profound consequences for all America’s alliances around the world,” Sikorski said, adding, “Some countries will start hedging and others will be considering developing their own nuclear weapons programs.” 

The disparity between the Ukrainian and Russian military capabilities, the number of troops, cannot be leveled even if Russia imploded because the remaining Russia, not a federation anymore, but a purely national Russian state – would still have twice as big a population as Ukraine.

And not everything on the front line can be decided by the spectacular shooting down of Russian A-50 AWACS or other aircraft.

Despite what some among Ukrainian leadership might think – Ukraine would have, as always, also in negotiations about any sort of “hedging,” a committed supporter: Poland. 

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