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It’s now Putin’s plan B in Ukraine vs Biden’s and Zelenskyy’s plan A

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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 Plan A and Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Plan A. Let us hope that Biden and Zelenskyy triumph, because Putin’s possible 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 realised 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 5 million 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 Zelenskyy 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— 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. 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 on Saturday, Britain’s Defence 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 Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy’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 Zelenskyy’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, Zelenskyy is — wisely — still keeping one eye on a diplomatic solution, always pushing for negotiations with Putin while rallying his forces and people.

The New York Times reported 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 Odesa, 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 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.

So, there you have the question of the hour: Will the pressure on Nato countries from all the refugees who 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? - New York Times

Thomas L Friedman

The writer is an American

political commentator and author

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