Before Decisive Battles, Russia’s War Against Ukraine Reaches a Political Culmination
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 30
As the one-year mark approaches, the Russo-Ukrainian war shows little movement along the battle lines but plenty of action along the political dimension, which may be approaching a culmination point. First came the meeting of Ukraine’s key supporters in the Ramstein format; then the meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense ministers, to which Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov was invited; and, over the long weekend, the 2023 Munich Security Conference, which started with a virtual presentation by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Kommersant, February 17). Countering this political offensive, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his postponed address to the Federal Assembly on February 21 and asserted, among other things, that “Western elites have become a symbol of total, unprincipled lies” (Kremlin.ru, February 21).
Again and again, Putin reiterates that his decision to invade Ukraine was not a blunder of historic proportions but a necessary pre-emptive strike against the hostile West. Yet, even the shrewdest of mainstream Moscow commentators cannot make this false argument convincing (Russiancouncil.ru, February 13). Putin also continues to maintain that his “special military operation” (“war” is still banned from the official discourse) is going according to plan, which determines the Russian military’s continuation of self-defeating offensive operations in Donbas (Svoboda.org, February 15). The Russian winter offensive has exposed a profound degeneration of the high command, which is unable to design a feasible strategic plan and keeps ordering newly mobilized troops to attack fortified Ukrainian position no matter the casualties (see EDM, February 15; The Insider, February 17). Russian commentators perceive the decimation of the Wagner gangs recruited from the prison population as perfectly acceptable, but the destruction of naval infantry brigades by long-distance and remarkably high-precision Ukrainian strikes have enraged even the war-mongering bloggers (TopWar.ru, February 14).
Presenting the miniscule tactical gains around Bakhmut as proof of regaining the strategic initiative, the Kremlin is hoping to enforce the perspective of a long war on the unenthusiastic but subdued populace (see EDM, February 6). Such a conflict demands a total mobilization of the resource-extracting and rent-harvesting economy for military needs, and the “technocrats” in the Russian government are apparently reluctant to inform their boss about the limitations of such an effort (see EDM, October 31, 2022; Novayagazeta.eu, February 17). The crisis in the Russian economy, in fact, runs much deeper than mere contractions of revenues in the state budget caused by declining profits from oil exports. But the sharp distortions are hidden by the carefully doctored government-released statistics (Re:Russia.net, February 8). The defense-industrial complex, for that matter, is loaded with well-funded orders, but the breakdown of many import-oriented supply chains has curtailed the production of critical weapon systems (Riddle.io, February 17). Greeting Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Moscow on February 17, Putin was eager to brag about the project for joint production of the Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet. Nevertheless, as this subsonic aircraft was developed in the mid-1970s, the plan for restarting the old-fashioned production line might prove to be far-fetched (Kommersant, February 17).
Many Western experts and politicians have accepted the prospect of a protracted war. But Zelenskyy made a bold argument against such notions, suggesting that the next Munich conference could be devoted to postwar reconstruction and rebuilding the European security system (RBC, February 17). This proposal might appear to be a flight of strategic imagination, but it is in fact underpinned by the assumption that the Ukrainian army is preparing a series of counteroffensives in the coming months (Novayagazeta.eu, February 14). Had the Russian forces fortified the defensive lines, it would have been difficult for the Ukrainian troops to break through, but the persistent and costly attempts to gain ground in Donbas have produced multiple weak points in the Russian combat order (TopWar.ru, February 12). Newly trained Ukrainian brigades equipped with M1 Abrams, Challenger 2, and Leopard 2 main battle tanks should be ready for action by late spring. They will strike at Russia’s vulnerabilities and force the exhausted Russian forces to retreat and run to avoid becoming encircled by Ukrainian units (Meduza, January 27). Time becomes a critical factor in executing this strategy. As a result, Zelenskyy is now asking for more expediency in the delivery of promised armor, and even German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reproached European allies for delays in making good on their commitments to supply Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine (RIA Novosti, February 17).
This emphasis on winning the battles of the coming weeks and months makes the consideration of upgrading the Ukrainian Air Force with F-16 fighters less urgent. Thus, the discussions in the Ramstein format were focused accordingly, which surprised many Russian commentators (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 16). Speculations about divisions and even quarrels among the NATO allies are eagerly amplified in Russia, but the very possibility of Ukrainian forces staging a major counteroffensive is rejected off-hand, which could lead to more painful shocks domestically from forthcoming setbacks on the battlefield (Svobodnaya pressa, February 16). The proposition on ever-deepening contention and discord in the Western coalition remains an article of faith for the Kremlin, which cannot accept the repeatedly demonstrated fact that its aggression, instead of rupturing transatlantic unity, has helped NATO gain renewed energy and accept new members, as well as forge a new determination within the European Union’s foreign and security policy (Republic.ru, February 16). This trend gained a new impetus at the Munich conference, where consensus-building progressed from the commitment to ensure Ukraine’s victory to the agreement that peace with Russia would be possible only when establishing Moscow’s responsibility for crimes against humanity (Svoboda.org, February 17).
The discussion in Munich about engaging with a postwar Russia were not held entirely without this undeniably European state, even if its rulers are working furiously on denying and destroying its European identity. Several familiar opposition figures were present, and they now represent not only the “Russia-in-exile,” which has gained many hundreds of thousands of new refugees, but also many hundreds of brave anti-war protesters who are being thrown behind bars (Meduza, February 1). Russia’s defeat will be delivered by means of Ukrainian defiance and Western solidarity, but the difficult work of internalizing this defeat can only be done by the Russians themselves. Putin’s failure in mobilizing the country behind his delusional and criminal aggression cannot be hidden by the planned public show following his address to the discredited parliament. Russia is bracing not for a long war but for a sudden breakdown, which may bring many new risks and still remains the best hope for a revival.