What if Putin is not looking to end this war?
His definition of success or failure might be very different from ours
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – Plato
The analytic consensus in the West is that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a huge mistake which he must now regret. The attack has been a costly failure and Putin is now looking for an exit strategy. The latest evidence is Russia’s retreat from Kiev, with the suggestion of a shift to more limited war aims – the capture of Donbas.
Whether this picture is correct or very wrong matters greatly. It will determine Western policy – based on perceptions on who is “winning” – and therefore how this war plays out. But more importantly, it bears on the long-range strategic decisions required of Western leaders as world stability teeters on the brink of chaos.
The notion that the assault on Ukraine was a mistake assumes that Putin perceived he had a choice. That is an odd thing to believe about an autocrat who has been constantly clear for many years about his absolute red line: no further eastward expansion of NATO or the EU into Russia’s “backyard”. He attacked Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to prevent that from happening. Why would things be different in 2022? There is nothing in Putin’s record that suggests a bluffer’s mindset, and everything about it suggests a deep – even paranoid – obsession with NATO.
From Putin’s point of view, the real mistake would have been to hold off from acting on a clear and present danger. He said so himself in his 24 February speech, when he drew a parallel with Stalin’s error in 1940 and 1941 of going to “great lengths to prevent war … until the very end”. In Putin’s telling, the Soviet Union failed to make “the most urgent and obvious preparations … to defend itself from an imminent attack”. “We will not make this mistake a second time,” Putin vowed as his tanks rolled into Ukraine.
There can be no doubt that Putin, at least, was absolutely convinced of the military threat he saw building up in Ukraine as Kiev drew closer to NATO. It is all laid out in his notoriously long address on 21 February. The ability of Ukraine to “acquire tactical nuclear weapons” relatively easily; Ukrainian airfields upgraded “with US help” that can transfer army units in “a very short time”; Ukraine’s command-and-control system already “integrated into NATO”; or Western weapons being “pumped” into Ukraine “ostentatiously”.
Putin’s apparent sense that Ukraine’s defences were improving rapidly explains why he attacked now, even though Ukraine was not actually about to join the Alliance. Given how the war has gone so far, he was right to worry. The widespread narrative that Putin and the Russian General Staff expected an easy fight does not fit either with the massive quantities of men and equipment deployed on Ukraine’s borders – complete with crematoriums, field hospitals and blood banks – or with what is known about Russia’s pre-war large-scale intelligence penetration of Ukraine. And it is near impossible that the “correlation of forces” – Russia’s equivalent of net assessment, a type of analysis of opposing militaries – calculated by the General Staff before the war would have completely failed to account for the transformation of the Ukrainian Armed Forces since 2014 that was already much discussed in the West.
While a Ukraine that was becoming stronger militarily may account for why Putin could not wait any longer, it doesn’t tell us why he waited until now and didn’t strike sooner. Three other points are relevant here. The first is that Russia undertook a significant military campaign in Syria from 2015 to 2020 when the battle for Idlib concluded with a Putin-Erdogan deal (some Russian forces still remain in the country); it would have been the height of folly to start a second war while engaged in another. Secondly, Donald Trump’s presidency appeared – for a while at least – to offer the promise of a US-Russia political accommodation on terms acceptable to Moscow if Trump had won re-election; it was worth waiting to see how that played out.
Thirdly, Russia clearly hoped to see Minsk II implemented. This 2015 ceasefire accord included a promise of autonomy for the Donbas “rebel” territories while keeping them within Ukraine, effectively giving Russia a veto on Kiev’s accession to NATO. Ukraine had signed it at gunpoint in 2015, but the deal was also counter-signed by France and Germany and endorsed by a UN Security Council Resolution: until relatively recently it was Putin’s best bet for achieving his strategic goals via a political route. But Zelensky, elected in 2019, came in due course to take a firm position on Minsk II – with Western support – and it became clear to everyone that this process would not move forward.
With these three important factors out of the frame as events rolled on, and with a window of military opportunity closing as Ukraine grew stronger, it is not hard to see why, from Putin’s perspective – and as Western intelligence warned – now was the time to move towards a full-scale invasion. Not doing anything was not an option from his point of view: down that road lay NATO membership for Ukraine.
And once Ukraine joined NATO – a clear prospect from Putin’s perspective, and not even up for discussion by the Allies – its “tactical aviation” based there could strike Russian targets as far as Kazan, according to him. But the ultimate nightmare, in his words, was “the risk of a sudden strike” on Russia: “hypersonic assault weapons” deployed in Ukraine would take only four minutes to reach Moscow. “It’s like a knife to the throat”.
Whatever we might think, Putin certainly felt – as he explicitly repeated several times in his war speech – that a future foreign military presence in Ukraine that advanced NATO hardware roughly 1,000 kilometres eastwards was “totally unacceptable” and even “a matter of life and death” for Russia. He could and would not be the Kremlin leader that lost Ukraine to NATO.
All the evidence thus points to the fact that in Putin’s own mind the invasion was a last resort once he concluded there was no other way to secure what he saw as a vital Russian interest, and that time was running out. If this interpretation is correct, then Putin will never see the war as a mistake no matter how high the costs: he will have already convinced himself that any other course of action would have been worse for Russia – indeed, irresponsible – certainly in the longer term.
This might be entirely “mad” from our perspective, but that’s irrelevant here. What matters is how Putin views his own bottom-line because – assuming he remains in power – this will determine his cost-benefit calculation in continuing this war as well as his real interest in any serious peace negotiations.
When it comes to any regrets that Putin might have in relation to his attack on Ukraine, Western assumptions tend to focus on the powerful blowback to Russia. The catalogue of pains that Putin’s war has brought on his own country ranges from the military to the economic to the diplomatic and indeed social. Moscow’s armies are being mauled by Ukrainian forces while NATO is only growing stronger and more unified in response to the invasion with full German rearmament underway.
On the economic front, the crippling sanctions applied to Russia are effectively disconnecting it from the Western financial and economic system. They are also triggering a strategic Western decoupling from Russian energy supplies. It is costly to the West in the short run but the idea is that in the medium-long term this will destroy a large chunk of what remains of Russia’s income.
Many are predicting that the country’s future will resemble that of North Korea: an isolated, autarkic society with an impoverished people run by a brutal dictatorship, cut off from modern Western consumer goods and advanced technology and forced to rely on much inferior, Soviet-style substitutes. A rogue nation, its culture and citizens effectively excluded from the civilised world, viewed with suspicion and made to feel the full responsibility of supporting a murderous Kremlin regime.
For any country and leader, such disastrous – and unanticipated – consequences would surely prompt regret at the fateful decision that led to them. Yet, again, Vladimir Putin likely takes a very different view from the Western analytical consensus because his values, logic and aims are so radically different from ours.
For Putin, this war is about much more than just Ukraine because Russia is not just another power. He sees Russia as a “civilisation-forming state” whose struggle is not simply “geopolitical” but, in a way, civilisational. His responsibility is therefore not just to the Russian Federation as a sovereign country, but to the Russkyi Mir, the “Russian World” whose full meaning and historical importance transcends questions of merely “national” interest or material discomforts. For Putin, this confrontation is the final and necessary breakpoint with the post-Cold War US-led world system which he first condemned in his notorious 2007 Munich speech. The ultimate goal – which Putin shares with China – is to end Western dominance in global affairs, and especially the dominance of Western values, culture and norms which he simply hates.
In this context Putin might not see the mass exodus from Russia of Western companies and “liberal”, Western-oriented Russians as a loss but as a net gain. A great, accelerated and self-propelling de-Westernisation is underway in Russia, combined with a self-purging of Westernised elites which Putin only recently called “traitors” on TV. The era of Western cultural influence in Russia is at an end; the country’s Eurasian future – the vision articulated by Alexander Dugin, Putin’s favourite “philosopher” – is about to begin.
As to the geopolitical and geoeconomic prospects for Russia, Putin could survey the current general situation and find – from his perspective – a much more mixed picture than the dominant Western narrative might suggest. While he lost more than half of Russia’s international currency reserves to Western sanctions, the original financial war chest Putin had built up was large enough that hundreds of billions are still available to help stabilise the economy. And the full scale of Europe’s dependence on Russian energy has become clear while higher prices due to the war are actually driving more Western money into Putin’s coffers.
Astonishingly, the rouble has recovered all losses and is now back to pre-war levels in little over a month, largely driven by Moscow linking the rouble with energy and also with gold. When Putin spoke about his ambition to see the dollar lose its dominance as the global reserve currency, the notion seemed silly. But what happens if more countries start to follow the Saudi and Indian examples of switching payments – for energy, in these cases – to yuans and roubles? What happens if Russia and China really do create, gradually, an alternative global economic system complete with a separate SWIFT mechanism for example? Amid G7 leaders’ rhetoric about the “world” being united against Russia, over 30 countries refused to condemn it at the UN (including China and India): together they represent over 55% of world population.
Many Russian industries – some very important, like aerospace and electronics – will be affected in due course from shortages of various components. But Putin knows that new suppliers can be found, starting with China and India which are eyeing the sizeable Russian market now suddenly free from Western competition. The Russian people will suffer, of course, but they are used to hardship. Their faith – by and large – in Russia’s just cause and grand destiny, as framed by the Kremlin’s propaganda, will keep them going.
In the meantime, Putin’s prestige among America’s enemies has been strengthened. And they are many, right across the world. Living in the Western bubble it easy to forget how much hatred, contempt, envy or at the very least indifference there is, out there among the foreign cultures of the global south, for liberal values – especially in their distorted postmodern form – and the ideals of democracy and freedom so dear to Europeans and their close overseas cousins and friends. The sad reality is that for many people, some of them our compatriots here in the Euro-Atlantic space, Putin is the underdog taking on a bully US empire. By crossing the Rubicon with his strike on Ukraine, Putin has done something far more damaging than starting a bloody war: he has broken the taboo and has shown that the Western order can be challenged. Hence Boris Johnson’s insistence that “Putin must fail”: the British prime minister understands that anything other than a clear-cut Russian defeat in Ukraine will deal a mortal blow to the vital aura of inevitability of the Western project, as Brexit arguably did to the EU.
Add to all this a massive reported increase in Putin’s popularity in Russia, coupled with a complete destruction of all remaining liberties including a free press, and what is there for Putin to really regret? And if he doesn’t regret anything, why would he want peace and a “normalisation” of relations with the West – even if that were to ever be on offer – when he has now put in motion such a vast project, long in preparation, to finally lead an international revolt against the Western order?
But none of this matters and all is lost for Putin if he fails militarily in Ukraine. Everything depends on the course of the war; he absolutely cannot afford to “lose” in any sense of the word. This is an important thing for Western policy-makers to understand as they push the limits of their support for Ukraine. As we enter the sixth week of the war there is much of that happening, with Western allies emboldened by an analytic consensus that Putin’s campaign has already been a costly fiasco and his armies are on the backfoot. Recent Russian retreats from around Kiev and other places are taken to indicate an admission of failure.
It is worth noting that this narrative is emanating from a Western strategic and analytic community which has given ample proof over the past twenty-odd years of its incompetence, generally speaking (there are of course exceptions). Many of the high-profile commentators today are the same people who either argued for or led us into the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (including the humiliating retreat last year); who were involved in the botched interventions in Libya and Syria which spawned civil wars and new generations of terrorists; who were completely surprised by Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and by the rise of ISIL; and whose arguments, policies and decisions, at a strategic level, enabled China’s rise and now comprehensively failed to deter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Considering the post-9/11 record of Western policy-makers and strategists, their definitive pronouncements this time around should be taken with a pinch of salt.
An alternative – but unpopular – reading of the Ukraine campaign so far would firstly take issue with the widespread assumption that Putin hoped to take Kiev and wrap up the war in a few days. It didn’t happen, so that is taken as evidence of failure. But the fact is that we don’t know what the General Staff’s original plan was; the “two days to Kiev” theory is inferred from early – and botched – airborne assaults and an unsupported armoured dash towards the city. (It is worth remembering that Putin himself, in 2014 when the Ukrainian army was but a shadow of what is today, said that he could be in Kiev “in two weeks” if he wanted to; it’s unclear why he would now think it could be done in two days.)
More likely, this form of blitzkrieg was only plan A: using operational surprise to secure key advantages or even, with some luck, trigger a wider Ukrainian panic or collapse. It failed – though it’s not clear how close it was to success, for example at Hostomel airport – not least because surprising your own troops with real attack orders and not allowing them to prepare psychologically can backfire, as it seems to have happened here. But Russia also had a plan B in case the first didn’t work: this is why all the other Russian armies were deployed there and reinforced with troops from all over the country to begin with.
The main campaign that followed – recently referred to by the Russian Defence Ministry as the “first stage” of the “special operation” – has seen the Russians attack on a number of axes and taking large chunks of Ukrainian territory: roughly the size of England, in total. Apart from Kherson and Melitopol, no sizeable cities were captured: Kiev, Chernigov, Sumy, Kharkov and Nikolayev remained semi-encircled, while Mariupol was besieged but not conquered. Again, this is seen as evidence of Russian failure but the same people who make this claim also acknowledge that the number of Russian troops sent to take cities with populations of hundreds of thousands or millions was wholly inadequate to the supposed task. The limited performance of Russia’s air force, which didn’t gain full control of the skies and flew comparatively few close air support sorties, was also seen as a failure.
Observers like the Institute for the Study of War found it hard to explain such rookie operational “errors” from a Russian General Staff with a longstanding reputation for excellence precisely in operational art, and with significant recent and successful campaigning experience – particularly in air operations – in Syria.
On the other hand, analysts on our side are often prisoners of Western military doctrine and judge battlefield performance through the prism of the Western way of warfare: heavy reliance on airpower to clear the way for ground forces, very sophisticated combined operations and extremely high concern for limiting own casualties, knowing that even one dead soldier becomes a national event in Western countries. So might it be that our side is misjudging what the Russians are doing, by applying a somewhat inadequate analytical framework to Moscow’s campaign? In Russian doctrine, for example, the air force has a secondary role and establishing air supremacy is not necessarily a vital objective. The advance of ground forces is primarily supported by artillery not airpower. Even so, it is a fact that the Russians did significantly degrade Ukrainian air defences, fighter fleet, and infrastructure, and seem to be operating rather freely in the east over the Donbas.
To understand the theatre-level operational realities, it is worth trying to look at this campaign from a Russian point of view, informed by what we know of Russian military history, psychology and strategic culture. By Putin’s and his Defence Ministry’s own account, and from what we know from open sources, the largest and best-equipped part of Ukraine’s armed forces were and are located in the east, on the Donbas front. Their destruction has now been officially acknowledged as Russia’s top goal, but it likely was the strategic priority from the start given that one of Putin’s stated campaign objectives was the “demilitarisation” of Ukraine. This cannot be accomplished without destroying the opponent’s main military force. Putin’s other goal, “de-nazification”, would also be served directly by a victory in the Donbas, through the elimination of Ukraine’s openly neo-Nazi armed formations like Azov, S14, Right Sector or Aidar which are deployed in the Donbas and especially in Mariupol.
But if Donbas was the big prize for Putin, why disperse his forces and attack on all the other fronts as well? The clues are in the military facts on the ground. On the southern front, the Russian breakout from Crimea was highly successful and secured the much-discussed landbridge to the Donbas complete with a significant buffer zone out to Kherson. The attack on Nikolayev was never properly resourced, and the Russian force was further split in order to probe further north and also north-east towards Krivoy Rog. The bulk of the original Crimean group of forces went east to assist at Mariupol and north-east to put pressure on Ukraine’s Donbas army’s right flank. As for Kharkov, this heavily-defended area protects the other flank of those forces. The Russians didn’t attempt to storm the city – Ukraine’s second largest – but tried to bypass it, with some success towards Izium. Meantime, the LNR and DNR “rebel armies”, with regular Russian forces support, made slow but steady progress on the main Donbas frontline – acknowledged as the most heavily fortified in Europe since the Western front in the First World War.
When considered closely and in their entirety, therefore, it is hard to find any obvious mistakes in Russia’s operations in eastern and southern Ukraine. On the contrary, by any traditional measure this looks like a successful – albeit costly – campaign that is still on course to achieving its objectives of consolidating the Crimea landbridge and grinding the main Ukrainian army down in the Donbas. Russia’s progress has been slow – especially in the east – but steady and relentless.
As regards operations in northern Ukraine, all Russian efforts have been designed to support the move on Kiev on three axes: north-south along both sides of the Dnieper river (via Chernobyl and Chernigov areas), and from the northeast broadly via Konotop. The Russians had to engage Ukrainian positions at Sumy because it threatens the flank of that third axis of their Kiev offensive. But Sumy, like Chernigov, held out and pinned down a significant portion of the Russian forces that were supposed to take part in surrounding the capital, allowing the Ukrainians to hold off the invaders at the gates of Kiev in the Brovary area. Meanwhile the Russians also got stuck on the western side of the Dnieper, partly because of fierce Ukrainian resistance but also because of the much more difficult local geography, complete with unfordable rivers, flooded plains and limited supply lines – as the story of the notorious long convoy showed.
Unlike on the Crimean, Donbas or Kharkov fronts, the Russian operations in the north really did fail in their ostensible objective of placing Kiev under siege. But two caveats are in order. Firstly, it’s not entirely clear if Russian forces intend to withdraw completely back into Belarus; if they retain bridgeheads over the difficult Pripet river in the Chernobyl area, they could in theory reignite their offensive on Kiev later on. The Russian retreat on the Chernigov front also appears incomplete so far.
Secondly, it is not entirely clear how Kiev fit in Putin’s war plan and therefore how much of a strategic setback this is. Was it essential to take Kiev quickly or was it just “worth a try”? Was a full siege on the cards, or was it a diversion? The attempt at a “decapitation attack” on Zelensky’s government and the dash to Kiev in the first few days of the war certainly indicates a genuine Russian ambition to collapse Ukraine’s resistance at a stroke amid the initial shock and confusion. But whether the failure of this coup de main means that the Russians would then inevitably want to storm or lay full siege to the city, as opposed to just threaten it in order to pin down Ukrainian troops there, is debatable.
As many have observed, the available Russian forces in the north were wholly insufficient for encircling – let alone assaulting – a vast, three million people metropolis like Kiev which is about three times the size of Birmingham. That is, unless the Russian General Staff was completely deluded and thought the Ukrainians would fold and not try to defend their capital. But as already explained a Russian intelligence failure on such a scale is almost impossible to envisage, although it is very likely their pre-war assessments of Ukrainian resistance were erroneous on many levels – particularly tactical – to a significant degree.
Furthermore, the idea that Kiev was Russia’s main strategic goal of the campaign conflicts with all the other arguments mentioned above which point to Donbas as the number one priority. They cannot both be true: pursuing two equally important strategic objectives at the same time in the face of a numerically superior adversary is an elementary mistake. But if one of those offensives is in fact a feint to draw enemy forces away from the other, the situation appears in a very different light.
This might seem like an overly generous interpretation of what might indeed have simply been a miscalculation by the Russian General Staff which they are now hastening to correct. Nonetheless, there are arguments for it. Looking at Russia’s northern campaign – once the initial blitz on Kiev failed – as a theatre-level diversionary operation is well in keeping with the concept of maskirovka (military deception) which enjoys a high profile in Russian doctrine. But whether or not this really was Russia’s operational intent is less important because in practice the result was the same: the threat to Kiev – similarly to Russia’s amphibious threat to Odessa – ensured that the Ukrainians had to focus many of their reserves on the capital and the key southern port rather than reinforce the Donbas.
Looking at the evidence and at operational maps, it is difficult to conclude with any degree of certainty that the Russian campaign is failing given the amount of Ukrainian territory it has occupied and given that it is still on course to defeat the Ukrainian army in the Donbas. But one other understanding of “failure” that is often highlighted in Western commentary relates to the material cost endured by Putin’s forces. This derives very much from the Ukrainians’ own prowess and valour, and the equipment and NATO support – especially in air and space-derived ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) data. But it also comes from a long list of tactical mistakes by the Russian side, leading to large and well documented losses. Armour advancing unsupported along exposed routes, vulnerable supply transports driving recklessly through contested territory and being ambushed as a result, unsecured communications and poor unit coordination, little use of electronic warfare (jammers) and so on. Whatever they may have gained so far, the argument goes, the Russians have paid a high price for it, while the Ukrainians have shown they can continue to bleed them heavily.
All this is true, but a couple of important points must be kept in mind. Even if the higher estimates of Russian manpower and equipment losses – which originate from Ukrainian sources – are to be believed, they only constitute a fraction of Moscow’s total military capability, including reserves. There is plenty more capability that Putin can still bring to the fight. And crucially, the Russian way of warfare has always been casualty-intensive; the notion that war involves horrific loses is deeply seared – and stoically accepted – in the Russian consciousness in a way that the Western mind cannot comprehend.
No other country in the world ever experienced kind of hecatombs and destruction suffered by Russia, including what is today Ukraine, during the Great Patriotic War. It is hard to understand, but when Putin let loose the dogs of war Russia moved to an entirely different paradigm. And the longer the war lasts, the more the Russian population will circle the wagons and mobilise in patriotic support for it. Historically, with Russia – as with Ukraine, arguably – losses and hardship have a hardening rather than a demoralising effect. Conversely, the sense of approaching victory gives rise not to magnanimity but to excess.
As to tactical failures, the Russians were relatively quick to address them. About a week into the war, convoys started to receive escorts, reconnaissance improved and so on. By Western standards, however, the Russian army remains and will likely remain to a large extent incompetent at the unit and individual level. It has always been thus in their military history: the Russian war machine was never efficient or well-run, but a rather blunt instrument. Its advance is messy and highly destructive – both to itself and the enemy – but its troops can survive and fight for a long time in the most shocking conditions. The psychology of the Russian soldier, well known to any student of the Second World War in particular, is far removed from that of his Western counterparts, especially when pushed to the extremes. The cognitive dissonance here is best exemplified by Western talk about how Russian casualties on the order of 5-10% render a unit “combat ineffective” or how much “rest” troops need after combat on the frontlines. Putin’s generals might disagree: their benchmark is Stalingrad, which taught them a different lesson about how much a soldier can really endure as long as he has the means to fight.
So as he looks at the overall military picture at the start of April 2022, Vladimir Putin likely doesn’t feel his war is failing at all. His perspective is different from ours, particularly when it comes to cost-benefit calculations. The blood price and equipment losses will not concern him: there is more he can throw into the Ukrainian meat grinder. Yes, his best standing armies have been hit hard and many of those experienced troops and officers are irreplaceable; the next waves of recruits won’t be as good. But Ukraine has the same problem and besides, this is how the Soviet Union won against the Germans. Putin will be aware of Stalin’s dictum that “quantity has a quality all of its own”.
Military capability aside, in operational terms Putin’s campaign can only be called a failure if particular (Western) standards and assumptions are used, such as taking Kiev quickly or occupying the whole country in a few weeks. The ruler of Kremlin, who has overseen more military campaigns in his career as commander-in-chief than anyone alive today, and all of them effectively successful – a very relevant point here – will have likely been more realistic about his own timetables and goals. He knows that even the Wehrmacht and the Red Army together needed over a month to conquer Poland (which was about half the size of today’s Ukraine) and even in 2003 the US-led forces with their unparalleled capabilities and technology took some three weeks to subdue Iraq.
In any event, objectively speaking the Russian campaign in Ukraine has so far achieved a number of important results. It has occupied significant territory including strategic locations in the south and north; it has destroyed much of Ukraine’s military infrastructure from air bases and air defence assets, to defence industrial targets to fuel and ammunition depots; it has also destroyed Ukraine’s naval capability and, likely, much of its armoured force (hence Zelensky’s request for tanks). Operationally, Mariupol is almost taken and Russian forces are poised to dislodge – if not entrap – Ukrainian forces in the Donbas. Unfortunately for the brave Ukrainians, Putin is unlikely to conclude that his campaign is failing militarily at this point – Kiev or not.
If Putin doesn’t see the war as a mistake, if he doesn’t have any regrets – but on the contrary, perhaps even welcomes the disconnect from the West – and if he doesn’t think Russia is failing militarily in Ukraine, what, then, are the prospects for peace? How can this war end, and what is the way forward?
On Putin’s part, based on the present analysis, we can only realistically expect the continued prosecution of the war in its current parameters. All other things being equal – that is, in absence of any further escalation or interventions from external parties – Putin’s armies are likely to press on advancing and destroying Ukrainian forces, cities, infrastructure, everything with any military value or required by Russian military logic.
In terms of military objectives, they likely range as far as the taking of Odessa and the link-up with Transnistria, and maybe even – eventually – the destruction of Kiev. An advance to the Dnieper is almost certainly part of the plan; the defeat of Ukraine’s army of the Donbas in the coming weeks – which is not inevitable but still likely – would collapse Ukraine’s entire eastern defensive line. Kharkov and Sumy could then be isolated like Mariupol. It is a dark prospect but it’s not clear what other adequately equipped reserves the Ukrainians could send to counter-attack or keep the supply lines to Kharkov open.
But all this will take time. And there is an important question here as to whether time is on Russia’s or Ukraine’s side, particularly if the conflict becomes a war of attrition as it almost certainly will. There is a fundamental asymmetry in that the war is being conducted on Ukraine’s territory, so all non-military costs of destruction are exclusively affecting the victim. The country’s economy is already projected to fall by 35% in 2022, and we are only over a month into this war. The longer it goes on, the more completely dependent Kiev will become on its Western allies for economic and especially military assistance. The Ukrainian burden will press increasingly heavy on the strained finances of Western countries which are already dealing with the post-Covid recovery, high inflation, high energy prices, and indeed the costs of caring for Ukraine’s own refugees. How long this can be sustained politically and materially by the West is anyone’s guess.
The only way out of this for Ukraine is to either defeat the Russian armed forces in the field and force their retreat from Ukrainian territory; or to accept Putin’s peace terms as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett advised in the early days of the war. There is increasingly little room for anything in between. Even if the Ukrainians degrade the enemy’s military capacity to the point where Russia cannot advance any further and the frontline stabilises, they will still have to go on the offensive to reconquer lost lands: but with what?
As for peace, the internal politics of Ukraine – especially with the mass-arming of the civilian population – mean than any direct and formal territorial concessions to Russia, whether in the Donbas or Crimea are out of the question after all these sacrifices and bloodshed. Anyone proposing this, even Zelensky, would be considered a traitor by the war-hardened and well-armed ultranationalist factions; it’s a classic problem in such circumstances, with many historical precedents. Conversely, Putin cannot accept anything less than a clear-cut deal that can be implemented immediately; the experience of Minsk II will have taught him (given what we know of his mindset) that any agreement that trades current military advantage for future promises cannot be trusted, so he is unlikely to agree to any referendum proposals by Zelensky – certainly not while the Russian army can still fight. And then he’s got nuclear weapons.
The tragedy of this war is completed by the cynical notion, pushed by many influential figures, that a victory against Russia requires turning Ukraine into a new Afghanistan, with reference to the insurgency that defeated the Red Army in the 1980s. This misunderstands not only the operational and terrain differences between Afghanistan and Ukraine; but also the human and cultural aspects at play. It is also worth pointing out that the Russians have now occupied cities like Kherson and Melitopol in the south for weeks and there has been no sign of any serious armed insurgency. A further question would be how would that insurgency in an occupied Ukraine be supplied, considering that it would border Russia on almost all sides especially if Odessa is taken? Finally, the example of Chechnya is worth considering closely: the likely lesson that Putin drew from it is not only that you can defeat such an insurgency – and the Chechens are some of the world’s hardest fighters – but that twenty years later the former guerrillas will be more than happy to fight on your side.
As Western policy-makers consider their options faced with this strategic predicament and humanitarian emergency in Ukraine, more realism and extremely careful and multi-dimensional analysis is required. There must be a clear recognition that mistakes in this kind of assessment – of things like Ukraine’s ability to “win” or of Russia’s potential to “give up” – carry a horrific price in blood and treasure. At worst – an unlikely, but not impossible scenario – Ukraine can end up as a landlocked, devastated country: a kind of Palestinian Gaza, completely reliant on the charity of foreign friends for its economic survival, and fighting a never-ending war or insurgency to reclaim its lost lands.
This vision is too harrowing to contemplate, but it is irresponsible not to as long as it remains a risk, however remote; it must be avoided at all costs. At the other end of the spectrum, is the prospect of Ukraine’s armed forces ejecting the Russian military completely from the Donbas and Crimea more realistic, instead? This is the key question for the West. If the answer is negative, and the likely military outcome falls somewhere in between these two extremes, wouldn’t that already be worse than the Minsk II deal that was on the table before the war, and even than what seems to be on the table now in the Istanbul talks (essentially, Ukrainian neutrality and formalising the loss of Donbas and Crimea)?
The hope must be that Putin will fold. All evidence, past and present, suggests that is a long shot both on account of his record and mindset, and on account of how the Russia-West confrontation is going. This is about much more than just the Ukraine war. Putin is engaged – together with China, we must not forget – in a struggle to remake world order. He is not interested in peace with the West, but he could potentially be forced into a wider settlement on favourable terms to us, that we can still shape from a position of strength and that would allow us to wait out his remaining time in power. But that requires a clear policy decision with buy-in from all key Western players.
We need better assessments of the situation, more honesty – and, crucially, better strategy. Nothing is over until it’s over; many seemingly-desperate situations in history have been turned around by sheer grit and force of will, and cunning. At the moment, however, we are only reinforcing past mistakes and putting idealism and politics before the hard-headed realism and ruthlessness that we need to deal with unforgiving enemies abroad – as well as virtue-signalling, self-obsessed and historically-illiterate friends at home.
3 April 2022