Thomas L. Friedman

It’s Now Putin’s Plan B in Ukraine vs. Biden’s and Zelensky’s Plan A

After a confusing month, it is now clear what strategies are playing out in Ukraine: We’re watching Vladimir Putin’s plan B versus Joe Biden’s and Volodymyr Zelensky’s plans A. Let us hope that Biden and Zelensky triumph, because Putin’s potential plan C is really scary — and I don’t even want to write what I fear would be his plan D.

I have no secret source in the Kremlin on this, only the experience of having watched Putin operate in the Middle East over many years. As such, it seems obvious to me that Putin, having realized that his plan A has failed — his expectation that the Russian Army would march into Ukraine, decapitate its “Nazi” leadership and then just wait as the whole country fell peacefully into Russia’s arms — has shifted to his plan B.

Plan B is that the Russian Army deliberately fires upon Ukrainian civilians, apartment blocks, hospitals, businesses and even bomb shelters — all of which has happened in the past few weeks — for the purpose of encouraging Ukrainians to flee their homes, creating a massive refugee crisis inside Ukraine and, even more important, a massive refugee crisis inside nearby NATO nations.

Putin, I suspect, is thinking that if he cannot occupy and hold all of Ukraine by military means and simply impose his peace terms, the next best thing would be to drive five or 10 million Ukrainian refugees, particularly women, children and the elderly, into Poland, Hungary and Western Europe — with the purpose of creating such intense social and economic burdens that these NATO states will eventually pressure Zelensky to agree to whatever terms Putin is demanding to stop the war.

Putin probably hopes that although this plan most likely involves committing war crimes that could leave him and the Russian state permanent pariahs, the need for Russian oil, gas and wheat — and for Russia’s help in addressing regional issues like the impending Iran nuclear deal — would soon force the world to go back to doing business with “Bad Boy Putin” as it always has in the past.

Putin’s plan B seems to be unfolding as planned. The French news agency, Agence France-Presse, reported from Kyiv on Sunday: “More than 3.3 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the war began — Europe’s fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II — the vast majority of them women and children, according to the UN Another 6.5 million are thought to be displaced inside the country.”

The story went on to say: “In an intelligence update late Saturday, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Ukraine was continuing to effectively defend its airspace, forcing Russia to rely on weapons launched from its own airspace. It said Russia had been forced to ‘change its operational approach and is now pursuing a strategy of attrition. This is likely to involve the indiscriminate use of firepower resulting in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure, and intensify the humanitarian crisis.’”

Putin’s plan B, though, is running headlong into Biden and Zelensky. Zelensky’s plan A, which I suspect is playing out even better than he hoped, is to fight the Russian Army to a draw on the ground, break its will, and force Putin to agree to Zelensky’s terms for a peace deal — with only minimal face-saving for the Kremlin leader. For all the barbaric bloodshed and bombings by Russian forces, Zelensky is — wisely — still keeping one eye on a diplomatic solution, always pushing for negotiations with Putin while rallying his forces and people.

The Times reported on Sunday that “the war in Ukraine has reached a stalemate after more than three weeks of fighting, with Russia making only marginal gains and increasingly targeting civilians, according to analysts and US officials. ‘Ukrainian forces have defeated the initial Russian campaign of this war,’ the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research institute, said in an analysis. Russians do not have the manpower or the equipment to seize Kyiv, the capital, or other major cities like Kharkiv and Odessa, the study concluded.”

Biden’s plan A, which he explicitly warned Putin of before the war started in an effort to deter him, was to impose economic sanctions on Russia the likes of which have never been imposed before by the West — with the aim of grinding the Russian economy to a halt. Biden’s strategy — which also involved sending arms to the Ukrainians to pressure Russia militarily as well — is doing just that. It is succeeding probably beyond Biden’s expectations because it was amplified by hundreds of foreign businesses operating in Russia also suspending their operations there — voluntarily or under pressure from their employees.

Russian factories are now having to shut down because they cannot get microchips and other raw materials they need from the West; air travel to and around Russia is being curtailed because many of its commercial planes were actually owned by Irish leasing companies, and Airbus and Boeing won’t service the ones that Russia owns outright. Meanwhile, thousands of young Russian tech workers are voting against the war with their feet, and just leaving the country — all within only a month of Putin starting this misbegotten war.

“More than half of the goods and services flowing into Russia come from 46 or more countries that have levied sanctions or trade restrictions, with the United States and European Union leading the way,’’ The Washington Post reported, citing the economic research firm

The Post story added: “In a televised speech Thursday, a defiant Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to acknowledge the country’s challenges. He said the widespread sanctions would force difficult ‘deep structural changes in our economy’ but vowed that Russia would overcome ‘the attempts to organize an economic blitzkrieg.’ Putin added: “It is difficult for us at the moment. Russian financial companies, major enterprises, small- and medium-sized businesses are facing unprecedented pressure.”

So, there you have the question of the hour: Will the pressure on NATO countries from all the refugees that Putin’s war machine is creating — more and more each day — trump the pressure being created on his stalled army on the ground in Ukraine and on his economy back home — more and more each day?

The answer to that question should determine when and how this war ends — whether with a clear winner and loser or, maybe more likely, with some kind dirty compromise tilted for or against Putin.

I say “maybe” because Putin may feel he cannot tolerate any kind of draw or dirty compromise. He may feel that anything other than a total victory is a humiliation that would undermine his authoritarian grip on power. In that case, he could opt for a plan C — which, I am guessing, would involve air or rocket attacks on Ukrainian military supply lines across the border in Poland.

Poland is a NATO member, and any attack on its territory would require every other NATO member to come to Poland’s defense. Putin may believe that if he can force that issue, and some NATO members balk at defending Poland, NATO could fracture. It would certainly trigger heated debates inside every NATO country — especially in the United States — about getting directly involved in a potential World War III with Russia. No matter what happens in Ukraine, if Putin could splinter NATO, that would be an achievement that could mask all his other losses.

If Putin’s plans A, B and C all fail, though, I fear that he would be a cornered animal and he could opt for plan D — launching either chemical weapons or the first nuclear bomb since Nagasaki. That is a hard sentence to write, and an even worse one to contemplate. But to ignore it as a possibility would be naïve in the extreme.

The New York Times