Analysis |

Putin Wanted Another Crimea. He May Get Another Chechnya

Russia-Ukraine war: Whatever credit Israel hoped to gain with Bennett's mediation efforts, it lost with its embarrassing handling of refugees

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Residents evacuate the city of Irpin, north of Kyiv, on Thursday.
Residents evacuate the city of Irpin, north of Kyiv, on Thursday.Credit: ARIS MESSINIS - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

More than two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, it’s a reasonable assumption that Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected to be in a very different place at this stage. However, Russia’s military plan in Ukraine foundered almost from the get-go, and Putin finds himself in a difficult, grinding campaign that could develop into a prolonged war of attrition.

As far as is known, even these interim results have not yet prompted the Russian president to change his mind. Moscow does not believe in tears: This week, Putin looked determined to push on with the Russian offensive, at a heavy price in blood for the Ukrainians – but also for his troops.

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The hypothesis taking shape gradually, in Israel and the United States, is that the decisive move Russia planned initially was almost police-like in its character. After large forces had been massed near the border, an elite force was supposed to stage a raid in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would be arrested (in practice, abducted). As such, the Russians hoped to reprise their 2014 success in Crimea: to seize the advantage by a surprise move and break the adversary’s spirit of resistance.

Instead of Crimea, they encountered Chechnya. The special force landed outside Kyiv, but became bogged down in stiff fighting with Ukrainian soldiers, and the opening move went awry. Ukraine probably relied on an early intelligence warning from the West. As a whole, indeed, Western aid is of great benefit to the Ukrainian resistance.

But despite the many speeches and moving gestures, it’s doubtful whether the Americans are all that bothered about the fate of Ukraine. They have a different agenda. The United States wants to curb Russia’s annexationist ambitions, and still more important, to send a signal to China, which is observing the events with interest, that should it decide to take similar action against Taiwan, it will run into obstacles and fail.

Since the failure of the initial operation outside Kyiv, and despite sending almost 200,000 soldiers into Ukraine and engaging in heavy shelling, Moscow is finding it difficult to set right what went wrong. At the same time, Zelenskyy, who was spared abduction and probably execution (a move the IDF terms “decapitation”), has become a national, even an international, hero who is leading the resistance of his nation skillfully and courageously.

Together with the soldiers, the Russians have massed thousands of tanks and armored personnel carriers. However, some of the Russian means of combat appear to have become antiquated in recent years, and the spirit of combat among some of the corps – which were excluded from the preparations for the invasion and were surprised to find themselves on Ukrainian soil – is not high. The Russians have bitten off small sections (in the north, east and south) of the vast country, and continue to be surrounded by a large and hostile civilian population. Confronting them is an army with inferior resources, but which for the moment looks quite determined to go on fighting.

Soldiers stand guard behind a barricade, with the Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre in the background, in Odessa, Ukraine, Thursday.Credit: ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS/ REUTERS

Putin’s solution, if most of his demands are not acceded to in the negotiating channels, will probably be to continue the pounding. Without Western forces in combat against him – a scenario that the United States and Europe have already ruled out – it’s not likely that resistance exists that will stand up to him over time.

    The battle for Kyiv is liable to end in large-scale destruction and devastation, whose contours are already visible in some of the cities the Russians have invaded. The longer the fighting in dense urban areas continues, the more the horrific images will emerge and in their wake condemnations and sanctions by the West. Still, despite the catastrophic damage the Ukrainian adventure has inflicted on Russia’s economy and its foreign relations, Putin is showing no signs that he intends to stop.

    Without intending to, the Russian invasion has had a number of secondary effects. NATO, an organization whose relevance was considered doubtful for years, is suddenly enjoying renewed importance and popularity, with even Sweden and Finland contemplating joining the alliance. The military industries, including Israel’s, are on the brink of a golden age of new orders from the countries of the democratic world, which were appalled to rediscover the dangers of war.

    Even the discussions of the coronavirus pandemic have been shunted aside. (A singular epidemiological phenomenon was revealed in Israel’s television news studios: The moment the news started to focus on Ukraine, the danger of infection passed completely and the obligation to wear face masks was canceled.)

    Bennett's familiar gamble

    Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also insinuated himself into the immense tumult in Europe, through the mediation missions he took on himself. Apart from a bizarre and unnecessary lashing of Zelenskyy by Israeli sources, who had the effrontery to call on him (via leaks to the Israeli media) to compromise with the Russians, Bennett appears to have chalked up a few points here. He reinforced his image, domestically and abroad, as being capable of playing on the world stage. He may also have reduced Washington’s pressure on Israel to take a sharper line against Russia, with the excuse that this would hamper the mediation efforts.

    Incidentally, Bennett’s trip to Moscow a week ago was so compartmentalized that the IDF only learned about it at the last minute. The prime minister’s military secretary, Maj. Gen. Avi Gil, who was on a private trip abroad, didn’t participate. It’s the second time the army has been out of the loop; the first was when former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Saudi Arabia in November 2020.

    Ukrainian refugees arrive in Israel via Romania, at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Sunday. Credit: Hadas Parush

    The chances that Bennett, or any other leader, will help achieve a cease-fire don’t look very high. But there was something about his gamble in attempting the mediation that recalled moves by Netanyahu. The latter’s approach was illustrated in a clip in which he’s seen sneaking into the front row of world leaders during the funeral of the victims of Islamist terrorism in Paris in 2015. That, more or less, is what Bennett did this time. He pushed himself into the front row, even though no one expected to see him there. And as with Netanyahu before him, the world seems to react with a shrug of the shoulders.

    However, everything that Israel hoped to win in the global arena through Bennett’s volunteer, improbable mediation mission, it lost ten times over by its embarrassing behavior over admitting Ukrainian refugees. In the forefront of that fiasco was Bennett’s political partner, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who continued to wink and nod at an imagined electoral base whose members are hardly likely to vote for her again. The stuttering and zigzagging showed Israel to be a petty, nationalist country that is incapable of rising to the hour. The counting of foreskins at the airport will continue – with barely a wisp of protest from the left wing of the government coalition.

    It will be explained to us that weightier strategic considerations lie in the background, topped by “anyone but Bibi.” The report published this week by the state comptroller, about the immense waste of money brought about by Netanyahu and his staff in connection with the prime minister’s plane, was another reminder of how little reason there is to be nostalgic for his term in office. But the main reason that Shaked and others are able to go on fomenting such damage is that the ministers on the left have become enamored of their deerskin seats, just like their counterparts on the right.

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