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Opinion The fight ahead in Ukraine: Body bags and cyberwar

Civilian participants in a Kyiv Territorial Defense unit train in a forest near the Ukrainian capital on Jan. 22. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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Russians sometimes speak of the bodies of dead soldiers arriving home from the battlefront as “Cargo 200,” a European defense expert told me last week in Kyiv. The term originated during Russia’s war in Afghanistan, when corpses were shipped home to Moscow in zinc-lined coffins.

​The Ukraine war, if it comes, won’t be short — or cargo-free. There will probably be an initial spasm of intense bombardment. Russian missiles and jets will likely strike targets deep inside Ukraine, and Kyiv will respond by trying to kill as many Russian soldiers near the border as it can, as quickly as possible, sending those grim “Cargo 200” shipments back home to break Russia’s spirit.

But that will just be the start. Defense officials in Washington and Kyiv foresee a long, bitter battle — probably broken by pro-Russian coup attempts, intermittent cease-fires and desperate peace plans — that will leave a volcano of violence festering in the middle of Europe. As during the Cold War, the path of eventual victory for the West will be unity, patience and a refusal to compromise on matters of principle.

Though analysts talk of a Russian tank invasion across the flat, frozen terrain in midwinter, the decisive initial factor, as in most modern wars, will probably be air and missile attacks. Ukraine has precision-guided missiles that can strike Russian forces in their staging areas and invasion routes. But Russia has much stronger firepower, and it may be able to pummel Ukraine for weeks from a distance without launching a risky ground invasion all the way to Kyiv.

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How should the United States and its allies respond to such a brutal battle, if it comes? They’ll support Ukraine in the initial phase of the war with weapons and technology, and a cordon of NATO troops along Ukraine’s borders to prevent an expansion of the war. But President Biden and other allies have said they won’t commit U.S. troops directly to support a country that isn’t a member of NATO. The world will have Ukraine’s back, perhaps, but not its front lines.

Thinking about the horrifying conflict that may lie ahead, it’s important for the United States to focus on winning the long war, whatever the reversals in the initial phase. Above all, that means keeping the NATO alliance together and avoiding tempting early compromises to halt the conflict on Moscow’s terms. Russian President Vladimir Putin is bidding to return the world, not to 1989 when the Cold War effectively ended, but to the postwar 1940s when Moscow imposed what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called an “iron curtain” to guard its sphere of influence.

The Post's View: On sanctions against Russia, the West’s best policy is to keep its powder dry

This might be the world’s first large-scale cyberwar, and, here, the United States and its NATO allies can help, if Ukraine will let them. The Russians are likely to mount cyberattacks and disinformation operations to disorient the Ukrainian government and people; NATO experts have been urging authorities in Kyiv to prepare by disconnecting any vital services from the Internet and preparing alternate means to communicate with the population.

But Ukrainian resilience needs improvement, judging from a visit to Kyiv last week. And, sadly, the stoical but disorganized Ukrainians don’t seem ready to absorb the cyber expertise that the United States and other partners are ready to offer.

Unless the West bends, this war will almost certainly end with a defeat for Putin, whose own advisers must doubt the wisdom of the course he has chosen. If polls are any indication, Russians will rebel at the cost of this “war of choice,” begun by a leader who became mesmerized by his dream of a forced remarriage with Ukraine and a re-creation at gunpoint of the essential components of the old Soviet Union.

Polls conducted last year by the Levada Center, an independent polling group in Moscow, show the fragility of Putin’s domestic base. In a May 2021 poll, 43 percent of Russians opposed the Putin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the same percentage as those supporting them. Young Russians, below the age of 40, were much more likely to oppose Putin’s pet cause. When asked what a Ukraine war would mean for Putin’s popularity, nearly twice as many Russians thought it would cause dissatisfaction as those who believed it would augment his authority. Here again, younger Russians were much more likely to see trouble ahead for Putin.

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Young Russians are connected to the modern world, through cellphones, social media and easy travel to the West. That’s why the Biden administration’s threat to impose severe economic sanctions is so potent: Russia doesn’t make computer chips; it lacks a technology base; its financial system depends on Western banks; its oligarchs luxuriate abroad in London or the French Riviera. Putin might cope with the economic costs of isolation, but not the political and social ones. If Russia became a pariah, Putin would risk losing his legitimacy.

Given the potential costs of this conflict, why has Putin risked war to pull Ukraine back within Moscow’s control? One answer may lie in his conviction, expressed in a long manifesto last summer, that Ukrainians and Russians are one indissoluble people. If that’s true, then Ukraine’s increasingly European, democratic identity spells doom for the autocratic Russia Putin has created. A free Ukraine will pull Russia westward if it isn’t brought to heel.

“There is a threat of real war here in the middle of Europe,” Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister Emine Dzheppar told me last week in Kyiv. “We are the country to fight back.” Ukraine may pay a terrible price initially for this resistance, but if the West stays united in opposing Putin, he’ll lose his bid for regional dominance, just as his Soviet predecessors lost the Cold War.

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