Threat of Ukrainian occupation of Crimea would push Putin to escalate – expert

Aftermath of an explosion in Luhansk caused by cruise missile

Western military support for Ukraine ahead of Kyiv’s highly anticipated Spring offensive has military analysts believing that a dramatic Russian setback could have a significant impact on the future direction of the war. Policy analyst Anatol Lieven has warned that should Russia perceive the loss of Crimea as a genuine threat, then a desperate Kremlin could escalate the conflict dramatically.

During an appearance on the Battleground: Ukraine podcast, Mr Lieven explained what the impact on Putin’ strategic thinking would be should the Ukrainian government close in on their goal of regaining all the territory lost since 2014, including Crimea.

He told the podcast the key question was to determine what the overall objective of Western countries in Ukraine was, saying: “People in the West and within the Biden administration, by the way, are very divided about this on the surface. Because the Ukrainian government has said that the job, and they have said this is non-negotiable, is to recover all the territory that Ukraine has lost since 2014, including Crimea.

“Now, not merely would that absolutely doom the Putin regime, and that is something of course that the Ukrainians, Baltics and Poles want.

“But the loss of Crimea to Russian strategic interests, Russian national pride, coupled with the certainty of his fall, I think that if that were a serious threat, then yes the Russian government would escalate radically.”

Although he argued it was unlikely that Putin would directly employ tactical nuclear weapons, saying: “Not, I think directly to the use of tactical nuclear weapons because, I mean, first that would be a shattering moral blow to Russia, but also, of course, it would be somewhat ironic because they will be using them on territory that they claim is Russia.

“But I think the most likely it will be something else intended not to stop the Ukrainians on the battlefield, but to terrify the west of the Europeans in particular, into agreeing to a ceasefire.”

For instance, a potential move by Russia could involve disabling American intelligence satellites, which have been instrumental in assisting the Ukrainians, suggested Mr Lieven.

He said: “That could be, for example, knocking out American intelligence satellites, which have done so much to help the Ukrainians. A friend of mine who used to be the CIA said that frankly, surprised the Russians haven’t done that already, given the amount of damage that US intelligence has done.

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“Or of course, they could attack Western infrastructure, and they would say this was in retaliation for the American alleged or presumed American destruction of NordStream and then see how the West responds and then go from there.

“Of course, the next stage bombarding NATO bases in Poland, not cities, but bases, as I say, basically as a set of warnings, but that would initiate an escalatory spiral and we don’t know where it would end.

“Because obviously, the proposal, suggestions, threats that the US should send the American Air Force into action against Russia, in Ukraine, where that happened, Russia would certainly bombard our bases in Poland and that will be an attack on a NATO ally.

He added: “So yes, the threat of escalation is there.”

The latest theory came as UK announced it was providing Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine. In a statement made in the House of Commons last Thursday, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace officially confirmed that the weapons were being provided at a cost of £2.2 million per missile.

He said: “Storm Shadow is a long-range conventional precision strike capability. It compliments the long-range systems already gifted, including HIMARS and Harpoon missiles, as well as Ukraine’s own Neptune cruise missiles and longer-range munitions already gifted.

“The donation of these weapon systems gives Ukraine the best chance to defend themselves against Russia’s continued brutality.

“Especially, the deliberate targeting of Ukrainian Civilian Infrastructure, which is against International Law. Ukraine has a right to be able to defend itself against this.

“Their use of Storm Shadow will allow Ukraine to push back Russian forces based within Ukrainian Sovereign Territory.”

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