Russia-Ukraine war: impossible to win, impossible to compromise
Serhey Bohdan's scenario
ANALYTICS 07 February 2023 - 11:25
Against the background of the renewed advance of Russian troops near Bakhmut in recent days, CIA Director William Burns announced on February 3 that these six months will be decisive for the entire war. However, the balance of what has been achieved and the future prospects of the war look gloomy for Ukraine, Russia, and the entire European continent.
Lessons from Napoleon
The Russian government made a number of mistakes that predetermined the failure of the military campaign it launched. They can be boiled down to the fundamental problem of underestimating the agency and viability of Ukraine as a state. After that, even ingenious military plans would have been doomed to failure. The classic of military thought (a Prussian officer who joined the Russian army to fight Napoleon) Carl von Clausewitz noted that in the multi-level nature of any war (technical, tactical-operational, strategic, political - in that sequence), gain at one level does not automatically translate into gain at another, but at the heart of every war, there is a policy that should be based on when planning operations. Napoleon, who hated Clausewitz, consistently ignored this point: an example is his disastrous campaigns from Spain to Russia.
There are no Napoleons in the Kremlin today, but the problem is similar: things have gone disastrously wrong with their politics from the start. It was hard to believe, but judging from the statements of experts close to the Russian government, they really did not believe that Ukraine as a state could count on the loyalty and legitimacy of its people. They are serious about the "artificiality" of the Ukrainian (and not only) nation, created and "inflated" by the Bolsheviks. This implied a bet on the split of Ukrainians and their willingness to collaborate.
Secondly, Russian experts saw Ukraine as a failed state, a corrupt state, capable of doing anything only with the help and direction of the West. Moscow expected Ukrainian officials and the military to defect and stop obeying Kyiv as soon as war broke out. The expectation was that the Ukrainian state would collapse as hostilities unfolded.
These attitudes explain Russia's strategy and tactics in the war.
On the strategic level, the Kremlin was not looking for serious partners on the ground in Ukraine at all - this was evident from the way local public figures and activists were eliminated and marginalised in the separatist entities in Donbas in the 2010s.
On a tactical level, the consequences were not slow to show themselves either. Until autumn, Moscow did not mobilise at all: this predetermined the impossibility of full-fledged military operations, but fit in with the logic that these few troops were enough to collapse Ukraine.
Having started the war with an offensive with minimal forces against the Ukrainian capital, the Kremlin clearly expected that if the slightest danger emerged, the Ukrainian government would flee, local authorities would cease to function or would switch to the Russian side, and the Ukrainian military would offer no resistance, while the West would have no time to intervene in the situation. These calculations proved wrong - the Ukrainian government and army repelled the offensive on their own and without Western arms, and by spring they had driven Russian troops out of the north of the country.
In the south of Ukraine, the situation was more successful for the Russian Federation, with Russian troops breaking through and widening the land corridor between Russia and Crimea - which was, in fact, one of Moscow's primary objectives in this war. But by late summer the offensive had stalled at the approaches to Nikolaev, and Russian forces were unable to achieve their second strategic objective - denying Ukraine access to the sea and then joining Russian and pro-Russian forces in Moldovan Transdniestria.
In the third area of the Russian offensive - eastern Ukraine, i.e. Donbas - Russian forces were able to take control of new territory, but quickly became mired in low-movement fighting - not surprising, given the Ukrainians' longstanding preparation for defence in this area. As a result, the Russian Federation gradually switched to tactics to grind down the AFU while retaining its own personnel as much as possible. But the AFU proved to be a hard nut to crack and Moscow had already had to resort to partial mobilisation in the autumn, amid stagnation on the frontlines and the lifting of restrictions on Western arms deliveries to Ukraine.
In September, Ukraine mounted a swift and successful counter-offensive at Kharkiv, then retook the town of Liman and its surroundings in Donbas. In November, Russian forces abandoned the city of Kherson and the surrounding area and retreated in an orderly manner, maintaining a land corridor to Crimea. Near Bakhmut, Russian forces had been advancing slowly since the summer, turning the area into a similar "Verdun meat grinder" to that of World War I.
Since October, a "war of cities" has been underway - the Russian Federation has begun destroying critical civilian infrastructure, while Ukraine, on a much smaller scale, has started regularly attacking neighbouring Russian regions - 272 attacks on the Bryansk region of the Russian Federation alone by 1 February! Since the summer, there have been signs of Ukraine's transition to more asymmetric forms of warfare, including sabotage of the Russian home front, including against critical military facilities. In December, the Ukrainian military struck airfields in the Saratov and Ryazan regions of the Russian Federation where strategic bombers are based. One of the airfields was even hit twice.
By the end of the year, the Russian-Ukrainian war had finally lost momentum. This did not help to reduce the degree of its bloodshed; it appears that Ukrainian and Russian army losses have already exceeded one hundred thousand soldiers on each side.
Can Kyiv rely on the West?
In mid-January, CIA chief William Burns held secret talks in Kyiv with the Ukrainian leadership. President Zelensky was reportedly concerned about how much longer his country would be able to receive Western aid and Burns warned that "at some point it will be harder to get help".
In December, the US parliament approved an allocation of $45bn for aid to Ukraine, enough to last until mid-summer or somewhat more. Moreover, there are different signals from the US side as well. Of course, there is no evidence that the rumours are true that the Americans have offered Moscow 20% of Ukrainian territory, but the latter has refused. However, the fact that the CIA director himself speculated in January that Russia was in no mood to negotiate on Ukraine, and the White House sent a new ambassador to Moscow, indicate Washington's desire to keep "all options" on the table, contrary to tales of its own principled approach.
Kyiv seems to have nothing to worry about. A week ago Western countries promised to transfer 321 heavy tanks to Kyiv. In addition, new air defence systems, missile and artillery armaments etc. were promised. - including the Patriot surface-to-air missile system. Given that Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhniy said in December that he needed 300 tanks, 700 infantry fighting vehicles and 500 howitzers to reach the February 23 lines, this news look like important move by the West finally deciding to launch a serious strike against Russia. In some cases, Western countries have promised to supply non-new types of armaments, but on the Russian side, they are also likely to be confronted with not the most modern equipment - it appears that Moscow is keeping it in the Western Military District to cover key regions of Russia.
Sceptics were not slow to point out that deliveries of advanced Western weapons might be delayed for a long time, with abundant quotations from Western and Ukrainian statements about possible delays. Of course, the delivery of such a large volume of new weapons is a complex and lengthy affair. But it should be borne in mind that both the Western establishment and the Western media have long switched to a war footing and many statements and actions are made in this vein. Preparations for the handover probably started before the current public discussions started.
Generally speaking, the Ukrainians will receive these weapons. But will it become a game changer? To begin with, it makes sense to link its transfer to more modest defensive aims rather than some kind of ambition to push Putin back beyond his 2013 borders. Jürgen Trittin, an influential German politician and founding member of the Greens, has criticised the "weapons euphoria" of his own party and the country's current leadership. According to Trittin, the supply of Leopards to Kyiv is due to "dire need" and the danger that the Ukrainian defence will simply be crushed.
Further, the success of the Ukrainian army shows no obvious correlation with the receipt of Western weapons. Under the onslaught of Russian forces on three sides at the start of the campaign, the Ukrainian army survived without them. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell admitted last January that he found it difficult to answer the Ukrainian government's question about the EU's willingness to provide military assistance at all.
There is a second reason why we should not expect a turning point in the war. Does Western equipment itself have such a significant advantage on the battlefield? As for armoured vehicles, the experience of the Syrian war has shown that with skilful and brave handling of anti-tank weapons Western armoured vehicles can be beaten even by not the newest Russian designs. As for air defence, there are even more examples of failures of Western equipment, including recent ones - from Saudi Arabia to South Korea. That is why the West emphasises the "backwardness" of the equipment transferred to Kiev - because if it turns out that Western weapons do not guarantee victory, then there is a danger of serious damage to perceptions of the triumph of Western technology on the battlefield.
0.0% or everyone needs one victory so far
Could the West do more? On the face of it, yes, it has managed time after time to violate Russian red lines on military assistance to Kyiv without much consequence. But cracks in the Western bloc have appeared, and quite a few of them. For the past month, Poland has been publicly squabbling with Germany, threatening Berlin that it would give Ukraine its German-made tanks, ignoring all arms transfer schemes to third countries. At the same time, Warsaw made a scandal out of the deployment of German anti-aircraft gunners on Polish territory at the end of the year. Hungary, on the other hand, tried in mid-January to block the seventh tranche (€1.5 billion) allocated by the EU from the European Peace Facility to buy arms for Ukraine. To this should be added disagreement between Turkey and the more radical EU-NATO states, most notably over the admission of Finland and Sweden into NATO. Ankara supports Ukraine in self-defence in deed, not in loud rhetoric, but is not inclined to contribute to the escalation of war.
The West was waiting to see what would happen - and if Ukraine "crumbled" like Poland under a German attack in September 1939, the West could de facto stand aside. As it did in 1939 - having started only the so-called "strange war" (in German - "sitting war" or "sitzkrieg") against Hitler. The latter, by the way, had every chance of culminating in a treaty between Hitler and the Western powers, but circumstances were different. The Kremlin probably hoped for something similar - a blitzkrieg in Ukraine, a spectacular shaking of Western arms followed by a "treaty". But the Ukrainian army held out. And the Kremlin had to switch to a new scenario.
The economic conflict between European countries and the U.S. also continues. During a January visit to Spain, French President Macron lamented that although European countries and economies have been hit hardest by the Russian-Ukrainian war and the associated energy price hikes, the EU does not help European businesses with the same preferences and benefits that the US and Canada provide to their businesses. According to Macron, this threatens Europe with "de-industrialization," with Washington unceremoniously poaching European companies.
The escalation of these contradictions is a logical process against the backdrop of the effects of the war on global players. Inflation in the Eurozone fell slightly in January but still stood at an impressive 8.5% and, what's more, economists have doubts about the sustainability of this trend. In its battle against inflation, the European Central Bank is expected to raise interest rates by a further 50 basis points in February, setting a new record. And according to figures published this week, EU GDP growth was 0.0% in the fourth quarter of 2022 and this is the lowest since the start of 2021.
Rising public debt in the USA has become a key topic for American politics this week as there is talk of a likely government default as early as June, and now there is talk of cutting health and pension insurance costs for its own citizens!
At the recent Davos Economic Forum, IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva emphasised that global economic growth of 2.7% expected this year will be one of the slowest growth rates in the last twenty years, down only twice: in 2008 (global financial crisis) and in 2020 (pandemic). The Fund attributes the slowdown of the global economy to high inflation, rising interest rates and the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war. Need I remind you that the first two reasons also stem largely from the latter?
The economic problems of the West are largely ignored - due to the discursive hegemony of the collective West in the media, certain topics manage to be "drowned" in routine, as are questions of the relationship between the economic situation and the geopolitical choice of elites in favour of confrontation between the West and Russia. Thanks to the virtual elimination of left-wing parties through bans in Eastern Europe and marginalisation in Western Europe, only marginalised people talk about these topics. But the problem has not gone away and, according to statistics, public protests in the West tripled last year. The trend is continuing, with 4.1 million demonstrators in European countries last month - 12 times as many as in January last year, or even more. They are linked to falling living standards, and while the western media avoids linking this to war, ordinary citizens are seeing the correlation more and more clearly.
By sacrificing economic development and risking political stability, the West has achieved little so far (all serious victories have been at the expense of Ukrainian fighters, not lauded foreign aid). Not only has the Russian blitzkrieg failed, so has the West's plan to strangle Russia with sanctions. In its January review, the IMF predicted Russia's economy to grow by 0.3% in 2023 after declining by 2.2% in the previous year. Back in October, the fund believed Russia's GDP would fall by 3.4% in 2022 and another 2.3% in 2023. Interestingly, the new estimate is even more optimistic than the forecasts of the Russian authorities (the Ministry of Economic Development expects a decrease of 0.8%, the Bank of Russia - 1-4%).
Another important point to note is that while the sanctions seriously affect Russia's development but cannot paralyse Russia, the West itself is experiencing serious consequences of the break with Moscow due to the Russia-Ukraine war, although the war itself and its consequences have not yet hit the West to the full extent. Yes, Germany has lost cheap energy, has handed over a lot of money and equipment to Kyiv, and received almost 1 million 400 thousand Ukrainian refugees - how much is that? Judging by prices and socio-political trends - yes, the effects are being felt everywhere. But on the other hand, compared to what Turkey experienced in the 2010s from neighbouring wars and corresponding refugee flows, Germany has not "seen war" yet. What will happen to the EU if its countries have to face more serious consequences?
To summarise, the balance of the first year of the war indicates both the capacity of the parties to fight each other for a long time and their unwillingness to compromise in the near future. As for the ability to fight each other, the resources of huge Russia are balanced by the human resources and the will of the largest European country, Ukraine, behind which are the resources of the most powerful NATO-EU bloc.
In this stalemate, Russia and the West can stay for years, but cannot compromise. They cannot, because having invested so seriously in a confrontation with each other, it is impossible to walk away from the battlefield without disastrous consequences within their own countries. Anything short of victory means a risk of collapse for them. The Russian Federation claims its sphere of influence and the ability to set its own rules - otherwise, war cannot be justified domestically. The West needs Russian resources - and not at the old low prices, but even lower, or practically for free - the latter can be framed as reparations in the style of the Versailles Treaty of a century ago. Ukraine has no choice but to manoeuvre between the superpowers and their regional allies, paying the highest price for the war, which it is unlikely to be compensated for. Just as the Afghans did not receive it for their sacrifices against the USSR, the Vietnamese did not receive it for their sacrifices against the USA and so did many other peoples who found themselves in the millstones of world imperialist politics.
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