by Austin Bay
February 15, 2023
The first anniversary of Russia's war to conquer Ukraine is upon us, with no apparent military or diplomatic route to a ceasefire much less just peace.
Despite its manpower and resource advantages, Russia's inept military cannot field and employ decisive combat power. Ukraine manages to survive on the battlefield, but Russian missiles have savaged its cities.
Is there a way to stop the bloodshed and spur fruitful negotiations?
Perhaps -- if we focus on the war's center of gravity.
"Center of gravity" is a concept articulated by military theorist Gen. Carl von Clausewitz. There are various definitions, some applicable to grand strategy and others to operations. The U.S. Department of Defense defines a center of gravity as "the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act." Naval War College professor Dr. Milan Vego says (I paraphrase) a center of gravity is a "source of leverage" whose destruction will have decisive impact.
A grand and very personal delusion drives Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Since the mid-1990s Putin has propagandized ethnic Russians, using claims of Russian victimhood to incite ethnonational passions. In turn, those passions mobilize ethnic Russian support for an imperial war to reclaim territories that according to Putin belong to Russia, with the key pieces to his reconstructed puzzle being Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan (the RUBK).
Putin himself is the driving strategic force -- the center of gravity -- behind the 21st century war for the Russian Empire, with Ukraine being its bloodiest phase.
The first column I wrote after the February 2022 Russian invasion began argued that the best way to end the war was either an internal coup toppling Putin or "a nine-millimeter solution" -- a bullet in his head.
It's still the best option. There are indications Putin knows it. Reports crop up that Putin has taken to traveling by armored train instead of flying by air. Apparently, he fears Ukrainian drones.
Can his removal be encouraged or facilitated by Ukraine and its allies?
No guarantees, but why not try?
Hard diplomatic narrative warfare should personalize the war, tie it to Putin the man and then promote his removal "to promote peace." Emphasize Russia's isolation -- not even Belarus will join the war. Inundate Russia with the terrible fact that 150,000 Russians lost their lives in the first year of Putin's war. Digital media porosity will insure the number reaches tens of millions of Russians. Even if Russians are already aware of the number, hammering on it puts political pressure on Vlad.
The hard narrative should emphasize Ukraine's fight is with a delusional clique, not the Russian people, who are fellow Slavs.
Western diplomats should make the case a post-Putin Russia will benefit from friendly economic, political and security relations with the West. Security relationships? Putin's Ukraine quagmire has weakened Russia and made Siberia vulnerable to communist Chinese exploitation.
There are other diplomatic-economic lines of operation. For example, penalize every international activity that has a personal or political connection to Putin. Freeze the assets. Make a show of it.
Military and special forces operations directed at Putin must be prepared. According to Western sources, pro-Ukraine or anti-Putin Russians within Russia have provided Ukraine with targeting data and information on Russian military activities. Ukrainian drones have struck Russian strategic bomber bases.
Military-economic operations are an attractive option. Ukraine already pays bounties to defecting Russian soldiers who bring along a tank. Offer, say, a $900 million reward for Putin's arrest. (It's cheaper than another month of war.) Go full cowboy and produce "Wanted Dead or Alive" posters. A schtick? Sure. But the posters will go global.
If the mega-jackpot Powerball bounty attracts corrupt actors in the Kremlin -- good. A few Russian elites might vacillate and defect -- or pull the trigger.