Russia basically revised its strategic agenda regarding Ukraine midway through this war. Moscow’s initial agenda aimed to control the whole of Ukraine politically and economically, integrating Ukrainian territory and resources with those of Russia (alongside Belarus) into an anti-Western bloc and springboard. Stunned by Ukraine’s defense on the battlefield, Russia has adopted a different agenda—namely, slicing off and annexing Ukrainian territories to Russia while devastating the economy and demography of the remainder of the country.
Both the first and the second versions are Russian answers to Ukraine’s movement away from the “Russian world” into Europe. To reverse that trend, Russia would either try to bring the whole of Ukraine back under Russian control or, if that failed, slice up Ukrainian territories as far as militarily possible, turning the remainder into a depopulated disaster zone. If Russia cannot reintegrate Ukrainian territory and resources with its own, it would at least deny them to presumed rival powers, namely by seizing some Ukrainian territories while destroying the wherewithal of the remaining state. Both of these strategic options have turned out to involve kinetic war (see EDM, March 9, 13).
Between those two extreme options, Russia offered a compromise to Ukraine and the West between 2014 and 2021—the heyday of Russia’s hybrid war, but still short of the kinetic dimension at that time. Russia’s hybrid solution for Ukraine was: mainland Ukraine (without Russian-annexed Crimea) would remain nominally whole but decentralized into dysfunctionality via the Minsk “agreements,” open to Russian political and cultural influences and perpetually nonaligned between Russia and the West. The Kremlin canceled this intermediate option in February 2022, frustrated by Ukraine’s lack of submissiveness and emboldened by the West’s own readiness for a compromise.
Faced, from the autumn of 2022 onward, with a stalemate on the battlefield, Russia has switched to the two-pronged strategy of territorial annexations in southeastern Ukraine and the devastation of the Ukrainian heartland. This strategy relies on several forms of horizontal escalation: destruction or forcible appropriation of Ukrainian economic infrastructure, assets and resources; forcible depopulation of Ukraine (both in the occupied and unoccupied territories); and a de facto naval blockade restricting Ukraine’s export-import trade.
Russia is resorting to these forms of horizontal escalation, capitalizing on superior force unmatched by Western assistance to Ukraine. This mismatch allows Russia to re-calibrate escalation levels in pursuit of opportunity goals with destructive consequences for Ukraine, both immediate and enduring. These relate to:
(1) Depriving Ukraine of Its Economic Potential—The Russian-annexed territories contain pre-2014 Ukraine’s most important economic resources: Donbas coal, the main export-oriented metallurgical and chemical industries, prime agricultural lands, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Black Sea offshore oil and gas deposits, as well as irreplaceable port terminals. Russia, meanwhile, systematically attacks the energy and transport networks as well as housing stock in Ukraine’s free territory with missile strikes from forward positions in the occupied territories. The damage to Ukraine in terms of declining gross domestic product (GDP), mounting national debt, the losses of its credit rating and investments and the losses in its population are likely incalculable at this stage and certainly growing. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin (apparently trying to answer Washington’s “we shall outlast you” position), Russian GDP declined by 2.1 percent in 2022, while Ukraine’s declined by more than 40 percent (TASS, March 14).
(2) Depopulating Ukraine—According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 8,108,448 Ukrainian refugee arrivals were recorded across Europe (excluding Russia) as of March 7. Some have returned home, while relatively small numbers have moved beyond Europe. However, 4,890,639 are currently registered to receive protection under the European Union’s Temporary Protection Directive (TPD, activated for Ukrainians in March 2022) or similar national protection programs for Ukrainians in some European countries (Data.unhcr.org, accessed March 12). The European Commission quotes roughly the same number—more than four million—of “forced migrants” from Ukraine on EU territory only (less than Europe-wide) who receive TPD benefits. By the European Commission’s count, however, a total of some 16 million Ukrainians arrived in the EU from the beginning of the war onward, with some 11 million having, in the meantime, returned to Ukraine, about one million moving on to other destinations and more than four million (see above) remaining on EU territory (Ukrinform, March 15).
Russia, meanwhile, is currently hosting more than 5.4 million persons (including 744,000 children) who arrived from Ukraine between February 2022 and March 2023 (TASS, March 13). Russia references them as “refugees,” but many have undoubtedly been cajoled into moving to Russia, mostly from the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Ukraine pose a distinct, though related problem. The International Organization for Migration estimates the number of IDPs in Ukraine at 5,352,000 (“tracked IDPs”) as of January 23 (Dtm.iom.int, accessed March 10). Ukraine’s total population loss, therefore, amounts to some 9.5 million (to Europe and Russia combined) plus the burden of IDPs, all while the war wages on.
(3) Stranglehold on Ukraine’s Maritime Trade—Having annexed Crimea in 2014, Russia has imposed a stranglehold on Ukrainian and international shipping to and from Ukraine’s maritime ports since the start of the war in February 2022. Russian naval forces fully blockade the Sea of Azov and some Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea while allowing limited and conditional access to the three ports in and around Odesa. These Russian measures have deeply slashed Ukraine’s hitherto booming exports of grain and other agricultural products. Moscow allows a part of the export flow to continue in return for being relieved of certain international sanctions that are more or less related to the agricultural sector. Russia’s restrictive measures have also forced Ukraine to re-route some of its agricultural exports to river and overland itineraries, substantially raising transportation costs and cutting into revenues (Ekonomychna Pravda, February 28). Moreover, Russia’s territorial annexations have deprived Ukraine of at least 20 percent of its arable land (namely, top-quality soil), according to Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi (Kyiv Independent, February 27).
The cumulative results of Russian bombing campaigns, territorial annexations, asset seizures, foreign trade restrictions and forcible depopulation is to compromise the basis of viable Ukrainian statehood for a long time to come. This is the likely outcome, if Western powers with their aggregate resources outclassing Russia’s world, nevertheless, allow Russia to win its war against Ukraine and them.