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Putin in Ukraine: Theatrical warfare at what cost?
Image: Armed forces of Ukraine, National Guard, Kyiv. Soldiers of Ukrainian army take an oath in military system near Verkhovna Rada. Kiev,Ukraine, 2021

Putin in Ukraine: Theatrical warfare at what cost?

30 January 22
 | 14 MINS

Ukraine – Russia, Putin’s theatrical warfare: Dr. Brendan Flynn examines the implications and the real cost of war, and how Putin has captured the world’s attention like never before.

Theatrical Warfare, and the Lessons of History

More than 40 years ago, on September 4th 1981, Polish citizens woke up to the frightening sounds, smells and sights of Russian army tanks and mechanised columns trundling over their streets, belching diesel, crews alert and poised. At Polish railyards there were ominous tailbacks of Russian military material waiting to disembark. Polish TV news methodically beamed images to domestic and international audiences, showing Soviet tanks on the move, artillery barrels trained on targets, and helicopters flying menacingly. Moscow termed these activities Zapad 81 (West 81), scheduled military exercises – all now part of the history of the Cold War.  Or is it?

Zapad 81 was the cover story for a vast KGB psychological warfare operation to intimidate a Poland that was slowly loosening the grip of Communism. For ordinary Poles, especially those who backed the Solidarity Trade Union led by Lech Wałęsa, there was a stark message: “Russia will invade unless Poland tows the Party line”. Everyone in Poland got that message. A few months later, martial law was declared and a Polish Communist general took power. By theatrically threatening to invade, they did not actually have to invade. There was to be no repetition of Prague 1968, or Budapest 1956.

Today on the borders with Ukraine, a Russia regime led by an ex-KGB officer  is openly marshalling massive troop concentrations, livestreamed in plain sight of social media. Hourly updates appear on the Kremlin friendly RT channel. The scale of the build-up is advertised and dramatised. As in 1981, the official line is ‘military exercises,’ the term also used for Russian troops entering Belarus, en masse, last week.

It is entirely possible that the current Russian build up is a very high stakes and elaborate repeat performance of 1981. However, that does not mean we can relax and that war won’t happen, or that it doesn’t really matter.

Vladimir Putin – A Man of War

By threatening Ukraine, NATO and the wider west, with the horrific prospect of an all-out invasion, Putin has already got much of what he wants.

Ukraine is forced to react by mobilising its military. Uncertainty is exerting extreme pressure on Ukrainian military morale. The country is already destabilised by the enormous threat hanging over it. The cost of servicing public debt has increased and there are signs of investors taking flight.

Putin has the world’s attention like never before. That is real geopolitical power. He has the ‘respect’ that comes from a visceral fear that Russian can, if it chooses, invade a large western-friendly state.  He has achieved an ad hoc series of negotiations. The Russian delegation walked out of talks in Geneva. More theatre?

Putin came to power through war with Chechnya in 1999. His stature and popularity within Russia has grown with wars against Georgia (2008), the annexation of Crimea (2014) and supporting separatists in the Donbas since then. His military adventures in Syria have delivered success for Assad and Russian arms sales. Putin has thrived on war. The Russian military is vastly more experienced than it was in Chechnya. It is now innovative and adept at blending political, psychological and blunt military force.

The NATO Paradox

The latest responses by NATO have been dutifully trash-talked by Russian diplomats, but a door has been carefully left open for ‘further consideration’. NATO and Biden have offered negotiations and concessions on arms limits, especially for nukes, and possibly other measures limiting each side’s troop numbers and deployments.

Russia is  making demands that it knows cannot be acceded to. Russia insists that Ukraine can never join or participate in any way with NATO, and that all countries that have joined NATO since 1997 must remove NATO forces and weapons from their territory. What that means for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria (and other recent NATO members) is that they would be in reality abandoned by NATO. It would be the end of NATO, which may be the real strategic objective here.

The lazy idea that Putin has a point and NATO should not be in Ukraine threatening Russia is casually thrown around in western and Irish commentary. It ignores the reality that Russia has been supporting an armed secession within Ukraine for years, in violation of its international treaty obligations. The irony is that NATO does not actually want to offer Ukraine full membership of NATO any time soon, notwithstanding a 2008 ‘eventual’ invitation to do so that still stands, technically. Putin is under no illusion about these political realities.

A further irony is that France and Germany, in particular, have been lukewarm on Ukraine getting a security guarantee under Article 5 of the NATO alliance. After all, whole chunks of eastern Ukraine are already occupied by Russian backed separatists and the Crimea has already been illegally annexed. There has been a low level war since 2014 and killing in small numbers  has continued.  Russian forces have entered Ukraine to fight alongside Ukrainian separatists. Ukraine is quite simply unready to join NATO any time soon.

On balance, however, NATO plays a positive role through a process called “enhanced opportunities partner status” in making sure that Ukraine has a professional and well-disciplined military in place of the rag-tag and ad hoc, ill-disciplined militias and volunteer units that emerged in the crisis of 2014-15. Paradoxically, NATO’s links with Ukraine have probably served to restrain the Ukrainians and reinforce upon them what Angela Merkel has said many times: ‘there is no military solution’ to Ukraine’s problems with Russia.

The Knowns and Unknowns

Be in no doubt: the threat to Ukraine is real.  What is uncertain is whether it will be carried out and whether, if force is used, it will be an all-out invasion or a more limited ‘bite and hold’ operation, possibly along the Ukrainian coast taking Mariupol and Odessa and linking up with the Crimea. Another unknown is how Ukraine’s society and military would react. There are signs the Russians could face a much tougher and bloodier fight than they did in 2014–2015. Wars never go according to plan.

Two puzzles stand out. If the Russians are seriously planning to all-out invade Ukraine then why prepare so openly for it, thereby losing all element of surprise? The absence of surprise would suggest that this is primarily theatre: a giant psychological warfare operation with the option to use some force.

On the other hand, now that Russia has mobilised what seems to be an invasion force in scale (over 100,000 troops), Putin has a domestic political problem: can he afford to march his soldiers ‘up the hill’, only to ‘march them down again?’ That suggests that he might have to actually carry out his threat, at least at some level.

That brings us back to the negotiations, currently being prodded by the French and Germans. If some kind of diplomatic deal or Treaty can be brokered giving Putin what he can call ‘victories’, he may well be able to present the outcome to the Russian public as a success. After all, the Kremlin controls most of the newsprint, TV and increasingly much of the Russian internet. Ordinary Russians will be relieved that their sons and daughters in uniform can come home safe.

And here is where the military theatre gives way to what quite possibly will become diplomatic farce and tragedy. The Ukrainians are quite rightly alarmed at the prospect of a Munich style compromise, in which all sorts of concessions and deals could be agreed by the great powers over their heads. The Americans, facing a rising China, are very keen to avoid a nasty brutish war on the borders of Europe, one that nobody can ever really win.

One could conclude, therefore, that Putin has acted with perfect dramatic timing, aided by strong Russian foreign currency reserves, and soaring revenues of his petro and gas economy. If the crisis becomes a larger scale invasion and war, there will be enormous consequences for European politics, the fate of Russia itself, and America’s role in world affairs. It would also be a profound human tragedy for ordinary Ukrainians and Russians. Military theatre could quickly turn to tragedy.


Dr. Brendan Flynn

Dr. Brendan Flynn is head of discipline for Politics and an assistant professor/lecturer at the School of Political Science and Sociology, NUI Galway. Brendan’s current research interests include maritime security and defence and security studies more broadly, but he retains an interest in environmental and security issues at the intersection of climate and energy trends. He teaches European politics and Ocean and Marine politics and has lectured at the Irish Defence Force’s Joint Senior Command and Staff Course. Recent research projects include The Evolution of Irish Defence Policy (2021-22) and the EPA funded EPIIC project (2016-2019), which examined environmental policy integration in an Irish context.


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