Ukraine Scenarios for Putin and the World

What kind of Russian occupation – as in Afghanistan? Iraq? Abkhazia? Chechnya? Imagining the day after a Russian conquest of Kyiv is not a pretty picture – also not for Vladimir Putin.

February 26, 2022

A tattered flag of Ukraine

It may be only a matter of time before Russian troops control the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and succeed in toppling President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

What if?

Of course, the entire civilized world hopes that this will not happen, but the “what if” (that happens) is very relevant.

Why?  Because assuming that Ukrainians have the stomach to launch an insurgency – and the odds are that they do – this may well not be the end of the story.

Slavic ethics?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops could find themselves in Ukraine for the long haul, fighting an insurgency.  The question then becomes: Do his troops have the stomach for that?

The early evidence is not encouraging for Mr. Putin.  Indications are that, in contrast to their commander, Russian troops, often undertrained and one-year conscripts, have a real problem with brazenly attacking their brother (and sister) nation completely unprovoked.

If so, Mr. Putin may have bitten off more than he can chew.  That is so both despite and because of the devastation he seems hell-bound on bringing on.

Another Afghanistan for Putin?

Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 after a costly decade-long war in which they battled a U.S.-Pakistani-Saudi-backed Islamic insurgency.

Their eventual defeat resembled the humiliation suffered by the United States first at the hands of the Vietcong in the 1970s and then last year at the hands of the Afghan Taliban, which led to the hasty U.S. withdrawal from the Central Asian state.

Chechnya on the horizon?

As Ukrainians weigh their options for a post-Zelenskyy era, Chechnya, rather than Afghanistan, will likely be on their minds. That is a tragic, but quite realistic assessment on their part.

In Chechnya, Russian troops brutally quelled an Islamic insurgency in two wars between 1994 and 1996 and 1999 and 2000. They besieged and devastated the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Why are Ukrainians likely right to focus on Chechnya? Because their country is not Afghanistan. It does not border on a country like Pakistan that, while having a rather duplicitous agenda, would not be willing to invite the wrath of Russia.

NATO members Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia are unlikely to volunteer as Ukraine’s Pakistan.

NATO’s focus

NATO expects its build-up along Russia’s European frontiers to deter Mr. Putin from expanding his war beyond Ukraine.

But it is unlikely to want to give the Russian leader a blatant excuse by going beyond that strengthening of the defensive posture.

However, that would not stop NATO members from supporting a Ukrainian insurgency covertly.

Ukraine as another Iraq?

Ukrainians may also look at Iraq as they consider their options. That could be more problematic for Mr. Putin. Elements of the Iraqi army, granted with the support of Iran and Syria, posed part of the backbone of the costly fight against the U.S. presence in the country following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Mr. Putin may have had that in mind when he this week called on the Ukrainian military to seize power in their country in a bid to avoid an even bloodier battle than the fighting so far, particularly in Kyiv.

Putin’s miscalculation on Iraq

If Mr. Putin is betting on the fact that the Ukrainian military trained and armed itself to fight a conventional war (like the Russian invasion), he may want to think twice.

Case in point:  The post-invasion scenario in Iraq after 2003 suggests otherwise.

That is undoubtedly what Ukrainian and Western proponents of a long-drawn-out insurgency believe.

Ukraine is waiting to bite back — hard

“By combining serving military units with combat veterans, reservists, territorial defense units and large numbers of volunteers, Ukraine can create tens of thousands of small and highly mobile groups capable of attacking Russian forces. This will make it virtually impossible for the Kremlin to establish any kind of administration over occupied areas or secure its lines of supply,” said former Ukraine defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk.

A poll conducted in December by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology suggested that one in three Ukrainians would be willing to join an armed resistance against Russian forces.

Going after any Russian soldier in Kyiv

As politics scholar Olexiy Haran reported from Kyiv, volunteers led by military and former officers had already established irregular fighting units armed primarily with automatic weapons across the city.

“People are armed. Yesterday, 18,000 Kyivites took up arms. There are volunteer groups all around the city. They pursue any Russian soldier, paratrooper or subversive group that is trying to organize a provocation,” Mr. Haran said.

Kyiv is not Grozny – and Ukraine is not Chechnya

Ukrainians would further benefit from the fact that Kyiv is not Grozny – and Ukraine is not Chechnya.

There, the world looked the other way – in part because Russia was fighting an Islamist and jihadist insurgency.

Moreover, Mr. Putin’s assertion that he is fighting neo-Nazis and drug dealers in Kyiv is simply preposterous.

Abkhazia as Putin’s best-case scenario

Abkhazia, one of two Russian-supported territories that broke away from Georgia in 2008, may be Mr. Putin’s best-case scenario. Abkhazia is wracked by political instability rather than insurgency and violence.

Anti-government protesters have demanded a halt to sales of real estate and energy assets to Russian nationals and a notion of a “shared sovereignty” between Abkhazia and Ukraine.

They also denounced a proposed Russian-style law that would allow the government to label non-governmental organizations (NGOs), public figures and media as foreign agents.

Abkhazia may be Ukraine’s least likely model, at least for the near future.

Conclusion

Whatever Ukrainians decide for their part, a Russian occupation of Kyiv, including the replacement of Mr. Zelenskyy with a more Moscow-friendly figure, as Putin demands, is likely to be the beginning rather than the end of the story.

Takeaways

An Afghanistan scenario is not likely to materialize for Ukraine. Why? Because the neighboring NATO members – Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia – are unlikely to volunteer as Ukraine's Pakistan.

Putin is ruthless and he is deceptive. No wonder Ukrainians worry about a Chechnya scenario for themselves. Russian troops brutally quelled an insurgency – and besieged and devastated the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Mr. Putin may have had the Iraq scenario in mind when he called on the Ukrainian military a day after he started his attack on Kyiv to seize power in their country in a bid to avoid an even bloodier battle.

“Ukraine can create tens of thousands of small and highly mobile groups capable of attacking Russian forces. This will make it virtually impossible for the Kremlin to establish any kind of administration over occupied areas or secure its lines of supply,” (Andriy Zagorodnyuk, former Ukrainian defense minister).

Kyiv is not Grozny – and Ukraine is not Chechnya. There, the world looked the other way – in part because Russia was fighting an Islamist and jihadist insurgency.

Putin has miscalculated: A Russian occupation of Kyiv, including the replacement of Mr. Zelenskyy with a more Moscow-friendly figure, as Putin demands, is likely to be the beginning rather than the end of the story.