The word “war” is presently banned in the official Russian discourse on Ukraine, but in fact the “special military operation,” launched on President Vladimir Putin’s order in the early morning hours of February 24, includes several wars fought in different domains. The massive re-invasion of Ukraine constitutes clearly the most kinetic aspect; however, at the highest level, Putin imagines he is engaging in a multi-dimensional set of contestations with the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union to reshape the European and even global security order (Russiancouncil.ru, March 2). This inflamed ambition has overruled all remotely realistic assessments of Russia’s own strength or the enemy’s weaknesses, so that none of these fast-moving wars are going well for the Kremlin.
The diplomatic offensive has registered the most crushing defeat at the United Nations General Assembly, where members approved the resolution condemning the Russian aggression, with only five votes against (Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea), while China showed its disapproval by abstaining (Izvestiya, March 2). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to explain away this fiasco by accusing the US of resorting to blackmail. But it is rather difficult to believe that states like India, Iran or South Africa (notable among 35 abstentions) could succumb to blackmailing (RIA Novosti, March 3).
Russia has stuck to its strategy of forcefully pressing its clearly unacceptable security demands. Yet that unyielding diplomatic assault has been premised on the belief that Western unity cannot withstand the threat of war with pronounced nuclear overtones (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 28). The nuclear risks, indeed, climbed higher with the Russian attack on the Zaporizhzha nuclear plant last Friday (March 4), which Moscow tried to present as Ukrainian sabotage (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 4). But during the extraordinary meetings of NATO foreign ministers and the EU Foreign Affairs Council, the Euro-Atlantic community did not buckle, strongly condemning Russia’s reckless operations. Thus, Lavrov’s expressed hopes that “our Western partners” would soon overcome their “hysteria” find no supporting evidence (TASS, March 3).
Instead of plunging the West into disarray, Russian aggression has produced a powerful unifying momentum, consolidated by US leadership and augmented by remarkable shifts in the security policies of many European states, first of all Germany (Rosbalt, March 3). The EU has found resolve to unleash total economic war against its main supplier of natural gas, and Russia is taking far heavier losses than it had budgeted for. The government previously performed some stress tests in anticipation of interruptions in the SWIFT system of financial transactions, but Moscow was clearly not remotely ready for the massive punishment it is now experiencing. Its fiscal counter-measures have proven ineffectual and misdirected (Kommersant, March 3).
Moscow’s working assumption was that the accumulated financial reserves (much of it in foreign currencies) would suffice to neutralize the immediate damage (see EDM, February 22), but those funds have largely been frozen by the SWIFT ban. Moreover, the breakdown of crucial supply chains cannot be compensated for by emergency funding, while the coffers have been depleted by well-targeted sanctions (Publico.ru, March 3). It is not the mid- or long-term effects of Western economic blows that are shaking the Russian government, but their immediate impacts, most of which are unexpectedly shocking and impossible to mitigate through trade with China (Republic.ru, March 3). Russian domestic air traffic is set to be grounded because leasing agreements are being canceled and the fleet of Boeings and Airbuses cannot be serviced (Kommersant, March 5). Western companies are closing their businesses in Russia, so Muscovites rushed in great numbers to make their last purchases at the IKEA hypermarkets, which exacerbated the public run on the banks (Novaya Gazeta, March 4).
Supply shortages and sharply falling incomes are inevitably influencing domestic support for the war. The maximum-volume propaganda campaign fails to gin up much pro-war fervor because even the harshest measures against dissent cannot obfuscate the daily encounters with grim reality (Rosbalt, March 3). Unsurprisingly, most Russian independent media platforms either closed or were forced to curtail coverage of the military campaign; what was remarkable was the authorities’ delay in introducing severe censorship, thus leaving the flow of news in the crucial first days of the invasion unaffected (Republic.ru, March 4). That public shock of discovering the truth about the war cannot be undone. Moscow has effectively lost the information war not only in the international arena but also at home, as public opinion keeps absorbing the news about expulsions of Russian teams from major sporting events and the expanding cultural boycott of Russia (Kommersant, March 3).
After many “hybrid” operations targeting various Western vulnerabilities with such innovative tools as “REvil” hackers or “Wagner” mercenaries, Moscow has found itself on the receiving end of a multi-pronged “hybrid war”; Russia’s counter-strikes, like the closure of its airspace for transit flights to Asia, tend to backfire (Meduza, March 4). What must be particularly painful for Putin, is that his personal war against Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has yielded a disaster that no amount of adulation from his courtiers can hide. Inexperienced as he is, the commander of the Ukrainian resistance has grown into a heroic leader, who can speak truth to his nation and address the European Parliament with demands for greater support—and receive a standing ovation for that (News.ru, March 2).
In contrast, Putin’s reputation as a calculating schemer has plummeted not only because of his blatant lies and historical absurdities but also because of the starkly exposed incompetence in planning and executing the military campaign, guided by his blind belief in Ukraine’s inability to defend its sovereignty (ThePage.ua, March 2, originally published but no longer available at Moscow Echo). Even Russian mainstream military commentators in Moscow begin to concede, carefully and elliptically, that the long-prepared blitzkrieg has failed, and in the protracted conflict, Ukraine is gaining strength while time is not working in Russia’s favor (see EDM, Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, March 3). Putin’s reassurances that the invasion goes “according to plan” depart from the reality of a stalled offensive and brutal bombardments. He is increasingly acting as someone cornered, with no good options left (Kommersant, March 5; Svoboda.org, March 2).
In the coming days, the deeper the Russian troops remain stuck in the mud, out of fuel outside Kyiv, or locked in the quagmire of street-fighting in Kharkiv’s suburbs, the less will Moscow be able to threaten NATO with escalation in other theaters, for instance, in the Baltic. And in turn, China’s leadership will surely be decreasingly interested in rescuing its hapless “strategic partner.” Ukraine’s courage and ability to absorb a few more local setbacks in the hopes of eventual victory are not in doubt; Russia’s capacity to survive the looming disaster of defeat increasingly is.