Nine months into the Ukraine conflict: four factors will decide the outcome

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defense at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The great Prussian military theorist, Clausewitz, taught us that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Once we get past the initial skirmishes and the belligerents learn how to survive their early setbacks, warfare becomes a contest of political wills. It is not just about who has the best soldiers and weapons, but who has the most resilient society and the best capacity to mobilise all the resources of the nation and the people it embraces. Staying the course the longest and grinding down the adversary, rather than inflicting a decisive military defeat in a single battle, are normally what ultimately determines who wins and who loses. The will to fight on and the belief that overtime the balance of force will swing in your favour can prove more important than the sheer ability to fight. As Napoleon famously put it: “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” Inspired leadership and the will to resist and stand up to war’s privations and sacrifices can compensate for inferior equipment and less battle-hardened soldiers.

The war in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion on 24 February has now been going on for nine months. This is time enough for all sides to show us how much they are invested in this conflict and what their strategies are to win. We have also a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses in relation to each other and which side is able to adapt fastest and best to the changing character of the war. Four factors are now driving the course of the conflict and increasingly influencing each other as part of a dynamic interplay. Yet it is still too soon for historians to say with confidence which factor will get the upper hand and prove decisive.

In the first place is the resilience of Ukrainian society and the will to resist. This may have been as surprising for Ukraine’s Western partners as for the Kremlin. When Putin sent his ‘little green men’ into Crimea in March 2014, there was little Ukrainian resistance. What struck Western analysts was the ease with which Moscow was able to take down the Ukrainian telecommunications network, seize government buildings, gain control over all broadcasting, and take over Ukrainian oil rigs and military and commercial shipping in the Black Sea. It was as if Kyiv had never anticipated this hybrid attack, did not know how to recognise the warning signs that it was coming and had made no plans for a response, whether civilian or military. Many Ukrainian sailors and commanders connected to the Black Sea Fleet deserted to the Russian side.

All this must have convinced Putin and his entourage that Ukraine was indeed a dysfunctional state, undermined by corruption and polarised politics and with little state authority. Divided between Russian speakers in the east and Ukrainian speakers in the west, and undermined by years of Russian hybrid warfare campaigns including massive cyber-attacks on its electricity grid and financial and transport sectors, the Kremlin view of Ukraine was that it was a failed state ripe for the plucking. President Zelensky, elected on an anti-corruption ticket as ‘the Servant of the People’ but financed by an oligarch, was beginning to haemorrhage support. Even to Western eyes it seemed that Ukraine had managed to preserve its democracy since independence in 1991 but had achieved little else.

Putin was no doubt counting on Europe’s energy dependency on Russian oil and gas to finance his war machine

Yet war has united Ukrainians in ways that peace never could. Whatever their differences, they want to live in Ukraine, not Russia. War has transformed Zelensky, perhaps surprisingly, into a motivational war leader, as skilled at raising support in North America and Europe as in maintaining the morale of his hard-pressed population. The Russians have also committed the two cardinal sins of warfare. First, they have used brutal tactics, such as annexing four Ukrainian provinces or 18% of Ukrainian territory on the basis of four phoney referendums, and they have committed numerous massacres of civilians as well as carried out torture on Ukrainian prisoners of war. At the same time, they have lost numerous battles and been pushed back in a way that makes further Russian advances unthinkable. So Ukrainian outrage at Russian cruelty combines with growing national self-confidence to reject any notion of a compromise peace based on territorial concessions or compromise over war crimes trials or the payment of war reparations. The consequence will be that post-war, Ukrainian-Russian relations will lose the connectivity of close language, family and business ties that ensured some degree of mutual dialogue and recognition after the collapse of the Soviet Union. No doubt Kyiv and Moscow will have a Cold War and armed peace relationship for several years to come, even in a post-Putin scenario.

Yet for the time being, relations between Ukraine and the West are in a virtuous circle. The more advanced weapons the West gives to Ukraine, the more victories Kyiv can achieve on the battlefield; and the more military successes Ukraine has, the more Western countries are motivated to supply even more weapons in the conviction that this help is paying off. Ukraine faces a paradox. Unlike Russia, it is wholly dependent on foreign finance and equipment to survive. This could be a major vulnerability if Kyiv’s foreign partners begin to experience war weariness. Yet Ukraine’s vulnerabilities have encouraged legions of foreign companies and private individuals with computer or other technical and weapons skills to come to Ukraine’s defence. Over 1,000 companies have voluntarily imposed sanctions against Moscow. When Russia hacked the Ukrainian VIASAT terminals, Elon Musk came to the rescue by offering his Starlink system to restore Ukraine’s access to the internet. Meanwhile Western NGOs have helped address the humanitarian situation and Western governments have sent forensic teams to help Kyiv collect evidence on war crimes and atrocities. This international aid means that the Ukrainian economy and military can keep going while the impact of sanctions makes it hard for Russia to import vital electronic components for its missile production lines.

Western support for Ukraine has also held up surprisingly well. Judging by past precedent – for instance, the Russian invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 – Putin had every reason to believe that the international reaction to yet another Russian incursion into one of its neighbours would be half-hearted and short-lived. The major powers advocating engagement with Russia would prevail over the objections of the small and medium-sized powers of central and eastern Europe pushing for sterner measures against the Kremlin. Putin was no doubt counting on Europe’s energy dependency on Russian oil and gas to finance his war machine and to use it as a lever to convince European Union countries to ease the sanctions and force Ukraine to bow to Russia’s war aims, including regime change in Kyiv.

After the war in Ukraine, it will be harder for Russia to use energy blackmail against Europe in the future

Yet nine months into the conflict, the United States, the United Kingdom and the EU, together with their partners in the Western camp, have remained steadfast. The Ukrainian army has not only been equipped with NATO’s most sophisticated weapons, such as long-range artillery, air defence, anti-ship missiles and drones, but also trained in the US, the UK and various locations in eastern Europe. The US has organised a contact group of over 40 countries to match Ukraine’s military needs with available Western supplies and is now proposing to establish at Wiesbaden a full command to run the Ukraine train and equip programmes. The US alone has spent around $15bn so far on weapons transfers to Ukraine and this massive contribution has put pressure on European countries, like France and Germany, to provide not just surplus stocks of old weapons but more modern equipment as well. US intelligence on the movements of Russian forces has also proved critical in enabling Ukrainian commanders to launch deep strikes against Russian troop concentrations and transport and logistics links. US leadership of the alliance on this issue, and the bipartisan support it has enjoyed in both houses of Congress, is something that we have not seen in Europe since the end of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Of course, the Western involvement on the side of Kyiv, short of an actual NATO military force on the ground in Ukraine, has played into the Kremlin’s narrative that it is defending Russia against an existential threat from the West. Yet given that Western restraint in the past has not produced an equivalent restraint by Russia but precisely the opposite, the international backers of Ukraine undoubtedly feel that they have nothing to lose. The conviction that Russia has to lose in Ukraine if there is to be any chance of a future peace in Europe has not only taken hold in hawkish capitals, such as Washington or London, but in more dovish places like Berlin, Paris, Rome and Madrid as well. Again, Putin has been his own worst enemy by lying to his Western interlocutors about his intentions in Ukraine, using brutal tactics against civilians and threatening NATO. The strengthening of the alliance with higher defence budgets and more deployments of NATO troops on its eastern flank, together with the impending membership of Finland and Sweden, can hardly constitute the enhancement of Russia’s strategic position that Putin was seeking.

The same goes for Putin’s use of the energy weapon. The shut-off of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline has inflicted real pain on countries heavily dependent on Russian gas such as Germany and Italy. The gas price in Europe has gone up 250% since the beginning of the year and made inflation and the cost of living the number one political issue in Europe. With the need to reduce household gas consumption and the risk of electricity blackouts, getting through this winter will be hard. OPEC oil production cuts to the tune of 2mn barrels a day are not helping the situation either. Yet Europe is adjusting. The volume of Russian gas bought by Germany has gone from almost 50% to 12%. European gas storage tanks are almost full and the EU has helped to finance new pipelines and interconnectors bringing Norwegian gas via Denmark to Poland or from Greece to Bulgaria. New liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals are coming on stream and nuclear power stations are having their service lives extended. Not all of this is good for the environment, especially if more coal is burned or more investment in new oil and gas extraction takes money away from renewables. But the EU countries are learning to work better together on energy, for instance, in discussing a cap on the gas price. They are diversifying their supply and forcing Russia to seek new buyers for its fossil fuels in China, India or Turkey. After the war in Ukraine, it will be harder for Russia to use energy blackmail against Europe in the future.

As a psychological instrument of intimidation and fear, there is nothing better than a nuclear weapon

While the West has remained remarkably united, cracks have started to appear in Russian society. For months Putin enjoyed almost 80% public support for his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine even according to reliable polling organisations like Levada. Yet this is starting to fracture as the rising casualty figure – estimated by NATO to be around 70,000 Russian soldiers killed or wounded – can no longer be hidden from the Russian population. Over 300,000 Russian men have fled the country to evade conscription; this is more than the Russian troops that have been deployed in Ukraine, and there have been more street protests and demonstrations. Even the normally subservient and hyper-nationalist Russian media is starting to criticise the performance of Russian generals and question the Kremlin’s strategy. The commanders of the Western Military District and the logistics division were removed last week; the more frequent firings of Russian generals suggests that the Kremlin acknowledges that things are going badly. There are perceptions of unfairness as a disproportionate number of Russians from the northern Caucasus have been called up while middle class university students in Moscow and Saint Petersburg have been spared. At many Russian conscription stations up to half of those reporting for duty have been sent home because they are physically unfit. It is doubtful that those conscripted will receive adequate training or weapons before they are sent to Ukraine raising questions as to how effective Putin’s partial mobilisation will be.

Admittedly Russia is lapsing into totalitarianism and it is difficult to assess how much pressure the average Russian citizen or dissenting members of Putin’s elite will be able to put on the Kremlin to change course. Yet we know from the Soviet Union that when even totalitarian societies can develop cracks and vulnerabilities when they are engaged in unpopular wars. So we could be in for some surprises; but at least it is much harder for Putin now to stick to his standard line that the sanctions against Russia are the result of Western vindictiveness and have nothing to do with his invasion of Ukraine.

Finally, we must contend with Putin’s readiness to escalate even where this harms Russia’s own economy, as evidenced in the sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea. Escalation is a well-known principle of military strategy. Richard Nixon had his ‘Mad Man’ theory whereby he tried to convince the North Vietnamese that he was willing to launch mass bombing of industrial targets and transport links to push his adversary back to the Stone Age if Hanoi refused to negotiate a “Peace with Honour” to allow the US to end its involvement in Vietnam. Putin is now trying to frighten us with the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. As a psychological instrument of intimidation and fear, there is nothing better than a nuclear weapon. Yet actually using one is as risky as it would be reckless. The Ukrainians would be even more determined to fight on and the outrage that a nuclear strike would engender on the global scene will isolate Russia even more. It will be difficult for countries like China, India, South Africa or Brazil to remain sitting on the fence. The West would supply Ukraine with even more advanced weaponry. The radiation cloud produced by a nuclear explosion could either blow back into Russia, contaminating Putin’s own fellow citizens, or into a NATO country thereby inducing the alliance to activate its Article 5 collective defence clause against Russia. This could then pull an isolated Russia into a general war against a numerous and powerful coalition of Western countries. At the very least those Western countries are likely to respond to Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon – breaking a taboo on nuclear strikes that has held since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 – with something more kinetic than the simple reinforcement of sanctions.

This is not the time for the West to wobble but not to become triumphant or complacent either

So the conclusion from this analysis is in four parts.

First, and to reprise the celebrated World War Two poster: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. The Western strategy of supporting Ukraine is working. Ukraine is becoming stronger and Russia is becoming weaker. The West is also accomplishing a long-delayed decoupling from Russia, which will make it less vulnerable to Russian hybrid warfare tactics and bullying in the long term. A weaker Russia having suffered a reversal in Ukraine should also make China a more cautious actor on the global stage.

Yet the West must not overplay its hand and needlessly provoke Russia. NATO must remain strictly defensive. Last week, following Putin’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, Zelensky was pushing for Ukraine to be admitted into NATO via an accelerated membership process, similar to Finland and Sweden. Yet this is not the right time to do this. It would play into Putin’s narrative that all the fault lies in NATO enlargement and Ukraine still has to do its homework when it comes to fighting corruption and reforming its economy. These are things that can only be accomplished once the war is over. If Ukraine is brought into NATO now, so would Georgia need to be too as it also has the promise of eventual NATO membership. This would greatly complicate the task of NATO planners when they already have their hands full reinforcing NATO’s eastern flanks and integrating Finland and Sweden. So for the time being it is enough to repeat that NATO’s door remains open.

The second conclusion would be to help Ukraine to capture the southern city of Kherson before the winter sets in and the fighting winds down. Kherson is a major city and its loss would be a big psychological blow to the Kremlin. It would make Russia give up any hope of advancing along the Black Sea coast to Odessa and put Ukraine in a good position to recapture its economically vital ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk in the spring.

Third, the EU has to complete its work on the energy union and avoid a situation where it relapses into an easy dependency on Russian fossil fuels once the crisis has passed.

Fourth, and finally, the NATO allies need to signal convincingly to the Kremlin that Russia would have massively more to lose than to gain from the reckless use of a nuclear weapon, even a low yield tactical one.

This is not the time for the West to wobble but not to become triumphant or complacent either. Even if the Ukrainians are getting the upper hand, there is still a long slog ahead.


The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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