It’s been some three weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. So where are we now and where is this likely to go?
Russia seems stalled in general, but its military is continuing attacks on UA cities with increased shelling of civilian areas and facilities, leading to massive evacuation of civilians. Russian military is opening various evacuation corridors for Mariupol and other cities, so that the civilians can get out. Ukrainians, of course, because Russians are on the side of Russia in this conflict.
Stripped of high language, this basically means exodus of one ethnic group from an area. We have a term for this since the early 90’s, and I still remember a discussion in an UNPROFOR base in Pleso on whether it should be “cleaning” (me) or “cleansing” (everybody else). By now, we all know what ethnic cleansing means. Let’s have no illusions, that’s what’s happening in Ukraine now.
There are also signs of high frustration on the Russian side. The alleged second mightiest military on the planet ended up bogged down with problems Eastern Europeans recognize, but which can still surprise western members of the alliance. Poor maintenance, lack of supply of such basics as food and fuel, lack of spare parts and general logistics, failed communication, poor intelligence which claimed all the wrong things, and above all, poor morale, all make up parts of the Russian failure to secure a lighting victory Moscow clearly expected.
Likewise, the real Russian objective in this war is becoming clearer. At the beginning of the war, Russia outlined three objectives: “protection of population from genocide”, denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine.
The main objective, “protection of population”, the excuse worn out since the German annexation of the Sudetenland, seems to mean occupying parts considered “Russian” and cleansing them of “genocidal” non-Russians. If that includes some factories, power plants, arable land or other useful parts of Ukraine (such as ports, or land bridges to Crimea or Moldova), so be it.
The so-called denazification, is as ridiculous on deeper analysis as it is at first glance. Much has been said about it, from Zelensky’s family history, to comparison of systems of government in Russia and Ukraine. But what it clearly meant was a regime change. Thus the (for me surprising) attack on Kyiv. Why attack a city of two million people, which you clearly won’t be able to hold? It seems so that you can decapitate the political leadership and install your own pawns into power.
The objective of demilitarization explains another thing that surprised me, the sheer amount of destruction. Although Russia is nominally concerned with the possibility of UA joining NATO, what it claimed as objective was a complete elimination of its military capabilities. It was clear from the start that 180,000 troops cannot occupy a country as big and as populous as UA. So again, why attack areas you are clearly not going to hold? Apparently, so that nobody else can use them either. It seems that Russia intends to reduce to rubble everything which it cannot keep.
But lately, the Russian negotiators changed the tune. “Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was demanding that Ukraine cease military action, change its constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory, and recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states.”
Apart from several obvious questions, such as who should stop doing what, who would control and guarantee any such arrangements, reparations, borders of the so-called separatist republics etc, this seems to indicate where the Russian red lines actually go.
NATO already indicated that any membership prospects for UA are remote, to say the least, and the UA leadership indicated that it is not opposed to neutrality. All fine and well, albeit somewhat reminiscent of Budapest in 1994. From that perspective, the Russian concept of “neutrality” seems to mean “we can come in, but nobody else”. That aside, this objective seems achievable.
Of course, if UA agreed to other claims, and even if Russian troops withdrew immediately (instead of staying on around Kyiv or in Kharkiv as “peacekeepers”, for instance), it beggars belief that Russia would simply let go of the southern corridor it currently holds. Of course, it may not be able to hold it for long, or even use it much, but it now controls it.
Finally, all of this would actually change next to nothing on the ground. Russia was already enjoying relatively peaceful possession of Crimea and the “DNR/LPR”, so why go to war in the first place? There are many excellent analyses of the “why”, and they mostly agree on Russia deciding it was strong enough both internally and internationally, and in a time squeeze because UA, a “non-state” was visibly strengthening its democracy (and military) with every day past. So Russia, in its own mind, had to act quickly, while the US was crippled with what Russia saw as weak leadership, and while Merkel’s successor was still getting his sea legs. NATO was “braindead” anyway, so Macron and others could be seated at the long table with impunity.
To date, it seems clear that Russia’s strategic objective is to consolidate the DPR/LPR area into one contiguous territory, and secure the land strip along the coast to Crimea and onwards to Transnistria, taking Odesa or not. In order to maintain those gains, UA’s ability to wage any kind of a war should be reduced to dust if it cannot be occupied.
However, Russia seems to have miscalculated badly. The invasion is stalled on most fronts, military gains are slight and sometimes temporary, almost the entire force set aside for the invasion is committed, and the military is running out of soldiers and equipment to send to UA. Sure, the real professional units (the dreaded Specnaz and others) have not yet been committed in full. But can Russia really afford to commit its entire military, or even a significant portion, to Ukraine? UA has only one problem, the Russian aggression. Russia has many. To add insult to injury, Russia’s military reputation is going south much faster than its troops.
Russia also missed a step not using the economic levers it had over many smaller countries and some politicians. Whereas last year Russia could’ve used its shares in various European companies to shake local economies, its economic advantages are burnt to a crisp by the harshest sanctions in modern times. Also, its advantages apparently were not used properly in preparation for the war. Guessing why is beyond me, but it might have something to do with the ability to plan realistically.
In addition, and with much more severe long-term consequences, Russia underestimated the international resolve. It clearly did not expect “the political West” (to borrow a phrase from a friend) to agree on such crippling sanctions that stand to reduce Russia’s economy to early 20th century in a matter of weeks. Nor did Russia expect the international community to turn against Russian actions so quickly and in unison. Even China seems uncomfortable with Russia’s actions, and when the US said Russia asked China for help, Beijing “heard nothing of the sort”. (On top of everything, it would be highly embarrassing for China to suffer intelligence leaks because Russia cannot keep its lines secure and western agencies hear everything they say.)
Apart from a handful of client states, Russia is increasingly isolated, impoverished and close to bankruptcy. So the Putin regime may well wonder what it has to show for this adventure, and unless it can come up with at least a few shiny beads, its survival might be in question.
Which is why most analysts expect Russia to escalate, rather than draw down the conflict. Current regrouping around Kyiv, attacks on Dnipro and even shelling of Lvov, indicate Russia’s increasing commitment, not withdrawal, whatever Russian negotiators say. But Russia’s tactics are getting increasingly brutal, with indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas (a phrase Russian political and military leaders would do well to research) and mounting civilian casualties.
It also seems that nobody in Moscow is considering national or personal responsibility for any of this. But the international community should have at least an idea how to treat Russians responsible for the war once the shooting stops. (A side note: I keep saying Russia, and not Putin, because although there is clear resistance to this war in Russia, and although it is a certain limited circle waging this and other wars, the war is still an act of the state, an act of a collective and not of an individual. It’s not just Putin doing this.)
All of this begs the question how does the war end? We’ve seen many excellent articles over the past two weeks on various options, covering everything from Russia’s total victory and a push onwards into Moldova or a NATO-Russia devastating conflict, to overthrow of Vladimir Putin, UA victory, and restoration of international peace (although not necessarily the order as it was).
General wisdom claims Ukraine will not be able to defeat Russia. That is based on sheer size of Russian armed forces, many times that of Ukraine, and the fact that Russia is a nuclear power, which Ukraine is not. But at least several credible scenarios suggest that Russia might not be able to win outright.
What does Russia need to stop shooting? A victory? Something that looks like it? A serious defeat? What of those can Ukraine and the world achieve and live with? If I had to guess, I would think that the real end will come once Russian advances stall completely. And that it would take the form of various lines of partition (Crimea not open to discussion, territories Russia considers independent to be treated one way, territories under Russian military control another, etc.), with complicated maps and lots of color shading. My guess is that Russia will try to consolidate its grip on areas east of Dnipro if possible, or just the east and south strips if wider aims remain out of reach.
If Russia secures the southern corridor (in the process also making Ukraine a landlocked area, with other implications), it might consider it prudent in the immediate future not to attempt to conquer Ukraine entire but secure its gains and concentrate on the future. This calculation could include an immediate push towards Transnistria, or a repose of several years to regain breath, calm down the international furor, regain some of the lost prestige (“we might be bad guys, but we are great warriors so you better be nice to us”), and the like.
But once Russia stops shooting, it will attempt to get back into the international community somehow, and the IC would do well to be prepared to answer such attempts.
From the most immediate perspective (be that in weeks or in years) the EU and the US also need a response to UA and those who will watch their actions. It seems that this response will have to be on unprecedented scale and with unprecedented political engagement. Or rather, precedents that comes to mind are the divided Germany, Cyprus and post-conflict transition societies of Western Balkans.
If Russia offers to stop shooting tomorrow but keep its troops in the south and the east as peacekeepers, what does the IC say? Do we press UA into accepting peace now, with a promise to solve problems later? It seems clear that Minsk 1 and 2 are dead, but it is the nature of international agreements to be remembered in subsequent arrangements. So some elements are likely to survive. And so on.
The ideal situation from European integration perspective (regardless of whether the ultimate aim is a full membership or a strategic partnership) is to have one administrative system which operates throughout the country. Right now, that does not seem likely.
How does one integrate a country where a part is controlled by someone else? There are precedents in Cyprus (a success), Serbia and Kosovo (“postponed successes”). How does one integrate a country divided by a wall? Look to Germany. All of those processes included some really difficult political questions, and UA is likely to raise some of the same. If Russia stays present in Ukraine under some peace arrangement and under whatever guise, the international community needs to decide how to treat it. Will it have a veto, will it be ignored, will it be allowed political and financial influence, will it participate in possible transitional administrative arrangements?
In addition, Ukraine is already badly hurt by the war and it will need to be rebuilt. Hopefully modernized at the same time, perhaps along the lines of the Marshal Plan. Unless Russia is pushed out completely, there will be questions on how to approach such problems in the east, from systems interconnections to airport locator codes, payments, insurance, licensing, billing, security services competencies and jurisdictions, etc.
This is on top of regular transition problems which UA will have to deal with. And regular transition and European integration processes have a tendency to ignore everything that does not fit the process. In several cases it did not really work well. So perhaps this time we would do well to plan for the real situation on the ground, rather than an ideal one we would like to see. This includes technical and security problems, broken promises, administrative failures, changing interlocutors, jurisdictional issues etc. It will not be possible to plan for all of them, but dealing with the unforeseen will be easier if at least some problems were solved in advance. And that planning should start as soon as possible.