Comment: Why Ukraine should keep its fight within its borders

Incursions into Russia offer strategic benefits, but would come at a cost to Ukraine’s global support.

By Andreas Kluth / Bloomberg Opinion

In recent days, Ukraine may or may not have started taking the war to the Russians in their own country. Let’s say it did; or that it plans to. Would that be a good idea?

This week, paramilitary forces crossed from Ukraine into Russia and caused a major ruckus; though so far not much more. The Russians, as is their wont, immediately blamed the incursion on “Ukrainian terrorists” and “fascists.” You can ignore all that; and indeed everything coming out of the Kremlin, whose specialty is lying.

The groups claiming credit for the attacks instead consist of Russians who defected from the army of their president, Vladimir Putin, and are now fighting against him, and for Ukraine. One outfit calls itself the Freedom of Russia Legion. Another is the ultranationalist Russian Volunteer Corps.

Little is known about these Russian anti-Putin paramilitaries; and specifically, whether they take orders from Kyiv or act autonomously. But they seem to be at least loosely affiliated with Ukraine’s “International Legion,” a force of foreign volunteers that’s been compared to the “international brigades” that fought in the Spanish Civil War against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists.

Kyiv, for its part, denies being involved in the cross-border attacks. Perhaps. But let’s put that aside and ask a bigger question: Would launching attacks into Russia proper — and I mean more than skirmishes — make strategic sense?

Some of the greatest military minds in history have won defensive wars in exactly that way. The idea is to threaten an invader’s home base, forcing him to withdraw, wholly or partially, from the original front line in order to protect the rear.

On a grand scale, that’s what the Roman commander Scipio Africanus did between 210 and 202 BCE. Hannibal, the most fearsome enemy the Romans had ever encountered, had been terrorizing Italy with his Carthaginian invasion force for eight years. So Scipio took a Roman army to Iberia, to capture Hannibal’s bases there. A few years later, Scipio crossed to northern Africa to threaten Carthage itself. Only at that point did Hannibal leave Italy to defend his homeland. Scipio defeated him, and Rome won the war.

In the same way, Ukraine could open up new fronts inside Russia. Putin would then have to pull parts of his invasion forces out of Ukraine and send them to Russia. That would weaken Russian positions in Ukraine, and help the Ukrainians retake their own territories. Putin would also start looking weak in his own country, and would become vulnerable — politically or physically — to coups.

But Ukraine isn’t ancient Rome, and Russia isn’t Carthage; and Putin certainly isn’t Hannibal, one of the greatest military geniuses in history, despite his eventual defeat. The strategic situation is completely different.

The first difference is that Putin, unlike Hannibal, has nukes, and has repeatedly threatened to use them if backed into a corner. For now, the world — including his ostensible ally China — has convinced him that nuclear escalation wouldn’t be tolerated. But Russian doctrine does envision using atomic weapons when the Russian state itself is at risk. Since Putin equates that state with himself, he might decide that he has nothing left to lose, and deploy.

Another distinction is that Ukraine, though it now has the most battle-hardened army in the world, relies on continued Western support. It defends its skies with American antimissile rockets, will launch its counterattack with German battle tanks and may yet dominate the air with F-16 fighter jets.

But all this help has so far been predicated on the assumption that Ukraine only defends its own territory. The greatest fear in the West is that NATO could get dragged into a shooting war with Russia, which could escalate into World War III. Some Western countries — possibly even the U.S. after the election of 2024 — could stop supporting Ukraine if it adopted offensive tactics. The so-called Global South, already on the fence, would probably turn against Kyiv.

A subtler version of a “Scipionic” strategy would therefore be to attack Crimea. That peninsula is Ukrainian territory in international law, even though Putin already “annexed” it in 2014. (He illegally grabbed another four Ukrainian regions last year.) Psychologically, Putin and Russians consider Crimea part of their country, but the world does not. So it’s fair game.

Retaking Crimea would cost a lot of Ukrainian blood. Kyiv doesn’t have the long-range missiles, air power or amphibian forces to go around Russian troops in two other occupied Ukrainian regions, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. So it would have to go through those areas, crossing the Dnipro and frontally attacking the Russians, who are well dug in.

A better approach might be simply to cut Crimea off from Russian supply lines. To do that, the Ukrainians would use their new Western tanks and other weapons to punch through Zaporizhzhia and to the Sea of Asov, severing the “land bridge” the Russian have built for themselves there between Luhansk and Crimea. If this offensive succeeds, the Ukrainians could make Russian positions in Kherson and the Crimean peninsula indefensible in the long run.

With luck, Putin would at that point decide that he’s had enough and grudgingly enter peace negotiations, somehow spinning his “special military operation” as a success at home with maximally coercive propaganda. By contrast, if Putin came under military pressure in Russia proper, he couldn’t pretend to have won anything. He’d have to double down on the narrative that he’s defending Russia from alien enemies.

So the Ukrainians shouldn’t attack Russia proper, nor encourage proxies such as the Russian anti-Putin paramilitaries to do it for them. Better for them to make clear to the world that they’re purely defending their country. The strategy must remain to win global support and then retake as much of Ukraine as feasible.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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