- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
Last week marked a grim milestone: 100 days since Russian forces invaded Ukraine on 24 February. By the standards of most wars in history, 100 days is but a fleeting moment in time. Yet, it is long enough to give the lie to the Kremlin’s illusions of a quick and easy victory over Ukrainians who would supposedly welcome their Russian invaders as liberators from fascist oppression with open arms. One hundred days is also long enough for us to conclude that there will be no clear winner or loser anytime soon, as both Ukrainians and Russians become bogged down in a war of attrition.
The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, warned in Washington last week that the conflict could drag on for years. Although he added, along with most other Western leaders in recent days, that there would eventually need to be a peace negotiation to end the fighting – rather than the outright victory of either side. He suggested that with Moscow now in control of 21% of Ukraine’s territory, compared with 7% before 24 February, Kyiv has little interest in that negotiation happening now. Western leaders are united in saying that it is Ukraine’s decision when to end the war and sue for peace. Given Zelensky’s stated war aim is to liberate all Ukrainian territory, or at least return to the status quo prior to 24 February, we seem destined for a long drawn-out, low–intensity conflict. One that will unfold across well-defended and entrenched lines, even if the current high-density, high-casualty conflict fizzles out in the weeks ahead.
For most of the first 100 days of the war, we have been treated to a narrative that helped us – at least in part – come to terms with the enormity of the shock and horror of Russia’s invasion of its neighbour. This narrative stressed plucky Ukrainian citizens rushing to enlist in the army and valiant Europeans, either in the EU front line states bordering Ukraine or farther west, opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees or collecting food and supplies and driving them east, as far as Ukraine itself. As the ‘Ukrainian David’ fought back against the ‘Russian Goliath’, we applauded from the sidelines as the Ukrainian army inflicted significant losses on a Russian invasion force that seemed poorly prepared, trained and motivated. As international sanctions piled up against the Putin regime and the Russian economy, and NATO and the EU both stood united and full of resolve, we quickly concluded that Putin had badly miscalculated in invading Ukraine, and that mounting Russian losses and military failures would soon make his regime wobble, and perhaps even collapse.
Like all black and white narratives, it was too facile and simplistic, and bound to suffer a major reality check sooner rather than later
This rosy narrative held for the first two months of the war, through March and April. Yet, like all black and white narratives, it was too facile and simplistic, and bound to suffer a major reality check sooner rather than later. Over the course of May, the reality check arrived with the Russian army on the advance in the Donbas and inflicting significant losses and damage on Ukrainian forces. President Zelensky acknowledged the daily death toll of 100 Ukrainian soldiers, and these are coming from the ranks of the battle–hardened Ukrainian units that have defended Luhansk and Donetsk against Russian armed separatists since 2014. Judging by the ratios of modern warfare, 100 military deaths a day normally means another 400 or so wounded. Some of these soldiers may be able to return to the front line quickly, but many will not and they will require long-term medical care, yet another strain on the Ukrainian economy and society.
President Zelensky also ordered his forces to retreat from exposed positions around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk before being encircled and destroyed by the advancing Russians. These retreats have proved controversial in Ukraine after Zelensky promoted the rallying cry of heroic resistance, not ceding an inch of Ukrainian territory. We saw the cost of this strategy when 2,000 to 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers, mainly in the Azov Battalion, were holed up in the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol before being forced to surrender. Keeping them there far too long may have been an inspiring act of defiance by Kyiv, but it had no impact on the course of the war as most Russian soldiers were able to leave Mariupol for other fronts long before the siege ended. Russia then enjoyed the propaganda victory and morale booster of the mass surrender. Many of the Azov Battalion prisoners of war, deemed to be fascists by Moscow, will be put on trial as war criminals rather than exchanged in prisoner swaps. In seizing Mariupol, Russia has acquired a valuable Black Sea port from which it has begun to export illegally seized grain to Turkey and Syria and plundered Ukrainian industrial goods and equipment back to Russia.
Since the fall of Mariupol, the Kremlin has enjoyed a couple of good weeks. It has consolidated its control over the Luhansk region and is now pushing north against Donetsk. The fall of Severodonetsk would open the route towards Kramatorsk and its important rail junction and then on to Sloviansk with the prospect of full Russian control over the Donbas. Putin could either stop there, on the basis that the conquest of the Donbas was his true war aim and that this area, close to Russia, populated by Russian speakers and with pro-Moscow separatists in control of the police and security services, can be more easily absorbed into the Russian Federation than other parts of Ukraine. However, with the wind in his sails and the Ukrainian army badly depleted, he could decide to push on and go back to his earlier aim of capturing Kharkiv or even Kyiv and toppling Zelensky and his government.
At all events, Russia has learned from its initial setbacks in March and April. It is avoiding open battle against the Ukrainians and making maximum use of its superiority in artillery, rockets and cluster munitions to shell Ukrainian towns and soldiers from a distance. It is avoiding scattering its forces along multiple fronts, with all the attendant supply chain problems, and using instead overwhelming force against single, local objectives at a time. As in the past, Russian shelling is indiscriminate and targets civilians as much as military units. It is highly destructive of infrastructure and buildings to the degree that we wonder what strategic use a 90% ruined city like Mariupol or Severodonetsk can possibly be to Moscow.
In allowing Ukraine to export Russian grain, and grain stolen from Ukraine by the Russian forces, […] Putin would deprive himself of an important lever to obtain sanctions relief and also allow Kyiv to earn much-needed foreign currency to ease its own dire economic situation
Yet, this is not a war for Russia’s gain but rather for Ukraine’s punishment and loss. What counts for Russia is not cities but territory, cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea coast, taking away its agricultural land and mining industries, and creating more separatist mini-republics and Russian-controlled enclaves that will be a perpetual thorn in the side of the future, rump Ukrainian state. Already the rouble is circulating as an alternative currency in Kherson, and Russian passports are being distributed in the Russian-occupied areas. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has not ruled out that these new territories can join Russia in the future if that is their choice, and if indeed Moscow would ever allow them to freely express it. Kyiv is fearing a replay of the phoney referendum that Putin organised in Crimea in March 2014 before annexing the peninsula to Russia.
At the same time, the Kremlin has gone on an international propaganda offensive, taking advantage of the fact that many countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East have sat resolutely on the fence, refusing to condemn Moscow for its aggression and seeing war, rather than the perpetrator of war, as the ultimate evil; and peace, in whatever the form and at whatever the price, as the immediate objective. Receiving the President of the African Union, Macky Sall of Senegal, as well as the head of the African Union Commission,Moussa Faki Mahamat of Morocco,in Sochi last week, Putin rolled out the new Russian narrative. He offered to resume Russian grain exports to Africa once sanctions on Russian shipping and the restrictions on commercial insurance are lifted. He blamed Ukrainian mining of its Black Sea ports for the halt to grain shipments from the Black Sea, while giving no guarantee that he would not attack ports remaining in Ukrainian hands, like Odessa, if Ukraine removes those mines. He blamed the continuation of the conflict on Western arms deliveries to Ukraine rather than on Russia’s own military offensive. Macky Sall came away from the meeting declaring that he was highly satisfied with Putin’s assurances. And yet, the Russian leader did not give the green light to a United Nations plan for a maritime humanitarian corridor, policed by military escort vessels, to be set up in the Black Sea to enable the 20mn tonnes of grain stuck in Ukrainian silos to be brought to market.
It is now up to President Erdoğan of Turkey, who aspires to act as mediator in the conflict, to try to broker a deal when he receives the visit this week in Ankara of the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. Given the worsening food situation across the globe, Putin will be under pressure to lift the Black Sea blockade; but in allowing Ukraine to export Russian grain, and grain stolen from Ukraine by the Russian forces, and ease, even if only temporarily, the pressures on food supplies, Putin would deprive himself of an important lever to obtain sanctions relief and also allow Kyiv to earn much-needed foreign currency to ease its own dire economic situation. So, he may prefer no deal to a deal and export Russian grain to his own allies and partners selectively instead.
The battle of who blinks first in the sanctions contest will be an affair of endurance and tenacity
Russia has also remained defiant in the face of international sanctions. The irony of the war is that by raising gas and oil prices, the sanctions have given a boost to Russia while hurting it at the same time. Last week, the Russian Finance Ministry announced that this year alone, Moscow has earned $14bn extra on its oil and gas sales simply due to the price increases. Since 24 February, the Kremlin has received nearly €50bn from the EU countries for its oil and gas, which replenishes Putin’s war chest and allows him to repair and replace his weaponry, as well as buy social peace by increasing state salaries and pensions by 10%, as Putin did last week. Russia has also announced that it will confiscate foreign-owned assets and investments to the extent that its own assets overseas, including $300bn of Central Bank reserves, are confiscated by Western countries at the forefront of sanctions. Russia will obviously hide the effect of sanctions at home while playing up the effects they are having on Western economies – something now being referred to as ‘Putinflation’. Putin may well believe that his Western opponents have reached the limit of what they can impose as further sanctions against Moscow.
The sanctions thus far will certainly hurt severely a Russian economy in free fall with a 7% GDP loss and 15% inflation, but sanctions take a long time to work fully as the countries targeted use up their reserves, and unemployment and shortages of goods and services start to bite. Putin may be calculating that in a race against time, the EU and other countries will start to lift the sanctions before they begin to inflict irreversible damage on the Russian economy. He has also seen these past weeks that it is becoming harder for the democracies to come up with new packages of sanctions, as individual countries break the consensus and managing voters angry at the soaring cost of living becomes more politically delicate. In the EU, Hungary, supported by Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, lobbied against an embargo on Russian oil. The EU imports 27% of its oil from Russia so a full and immediate embargo,removing 2.2mn barrels of oil and 1.7mn petrochemical products each day from EU-Russia trade, would have inflicted significant damage on the Russian economy. Yet this goal was not achieved even after weeks of tough negotiations.
Russian oil delivered by pipelines rather than ships will continue to flow, at least for the next few years. A gas embargo, which really would deliver the knockout blow to the Russian war economy, is not on the cards given the opposition of major EU states such as Germany and Italy. Indeed, if they import less Russian oil, they may need to import more Russian gas, at least until new sources of supply from outside Europe or the eastern Mediterranean can be brought on stream. So, like the military battle on the ground or the battle for the hearts and minds of hungry populations in the developing countries, the battle of who blinks first in the sanctions contest will be an affair of endurance and tenacity.
If Kyiv cannot convince NATO that its defence begins in Ukraine and that a Ukrainian defeat would be catastrophic for NATO’s own security, it risks seeing Ukraine fatigue spread among its Western supporters and the vital military and economic aid gradually dry up
Does all this mean that Russia is now winning its war in Ukraine or at least gaining the upper hand? The answer is no, or at least not yet. But what we are seeing is that the tactical factors that dominated the first weeks of the war – poor Russian preparations, spirited Ukrainian resistance led by Zelensky and massive media support to Ukraine– are now inevitably giving way to the strategic factors that ultimately decide the outcome of all wars.
Russia can rely on its massively greater resources, which allow it to absorb great losses and still stay in the fight. It has an enormous advantage as a major energy and grain supplier that is willing to exploit the dependency of others in order to constrain their reactions. It also gets the upper hand by destabilising Ukraine by virtue of its geographical proximity and manipulation of Russian separatists and sympathisers in Ukraine itself, not forgetting its penetration of Belarus to the north and ability to control Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea in the south. Adding to the imbalance is Ukraine’s massive dependency on Western military and financial support – a dependency that is not likely to diminish and could indeed even become greater as the war goes on.
Ukraine is also facing a central strategic paradox, as did the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. Its only chance of survival depends upon its capacity to convincingly frame the conflict as a wider struggle of values: rule of law versus the law of the jungle; democracy versus authoritarianism; self-determination versus spheres of great power influence. So it means dragging NATO and the US progressively into the conflict at precisely the time when they are determined to stay out of it for fear of escalation vis-à-vis Russia. Yet, if Kyiv cannot convince NATO that its defence begins in Ukraine and that a Ukrainian defeat would be catastrophic for NATO’s own security, it risks seeing Ukraine fatigue spread among its Western supporters and the vital military and economic aid gradually dry up.
In short, Ukraine has far fewer levers to control its destiny than Russia. It is in the hands of others. All that Kyiv can do is to plead the case that it is worth supporting, it is making that support count on the battlefield and all its Western neighbours and partners will gain from a Ukrainian success. In other words, short-term pain for long-term gain. But how far ahead are Western politicians, facing immediate crises and challenges, willing to look?
In truth, the West made a mistake in not supplying Kyiv with these heavy weapons
The strategic balance of forces suggests that Russia should prevail over time although more through the meat grinder approach than by dint of tactical brilliance. Yet, as De Gaulle famously observed: to lose a battle is not to lose the war. Equally, a few good weeks for Russia does not mean that it has broken the Ukrainian resistance and can now sweep across the country unmolested. Strategic factors in war are more difficult to turn around than the tactical factors, but the West still has it in its hands to ensure a Russian military defeat and Ukraine’s survival as a functioning, democratic state. But only with a greater sense of urgency and more consistency in translating fine words and promises into action than it showed during the first 100 days of the conflict.
First and foremost, the Ukrainian military position must be shored up in the Donbas. If Putin’s new, more limited objective in the war is to seize the Donbas, then the best way of getting Russians to question the purpose and wisdom of the Russian invasion is to deny the Kremlin even this scaled-down objective. This means giving the Ukrainians more heavy weapons, particularly long–range artillery, as well as multiple launch rocket systems and drones with more range, targeting capacity and firepower than the Turkish TB2s that Ukraine has been relying on up to now. With long–range strikes, the Ukraine forces can prevent the Russians from concentrating and push their artillery back from urban areas.
In truth, the West made a mistake in not supplying Kyiv with these heavy weapons, including Harpoon anti-ship missiles, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and air defence missiles immediately after the Russians decided to retreat from around Kyiv in late April. With these long-range strikes, the Ukrainian army could have prevented the Russians from regrouping and could have attacked their supply lines and transport. Depriving the Russians of their artillery option would force them into open battle with Ukraine and thereby increase Russian losses. The fact that Moscow has opened its army to 40–year–olds and is using old equipment to replace its losses, such as T 62/64 or T72 tanks, shows that its army is under strain and potentially vulnerable.
But better late than never. Last week, the US announced that it was giving Kyiv a new package of $700mn taken from the overall $40bn allocation that Congress recently approved for assistance to Ukraine. This package includes the High Mobility Artillery and Rocket System (HIMARS) that Ukraine has long been calling for. HIMARS has a range of 80km and is GPS directed. Its range and accuracy are a distinct threat to Russian units as could be seen in the immediate howls of protest that the HIMARS decision elicited from Moscow. The US also agreed to supply Ukraine with the Grey Eagle army drone that can stay in the air for 30 hours and fires the highly effective Hellfire missile. The UK too announced that it is sending M270 medium range howitzers with US authorisation.
If the West cannot marry its diplomatic track with its military efforts and comes to see the two as fundamentally antagonistic, it will fail Ukraine and fail its own long-term security as well
Still, these weapons are coming late to the battle, and it will take some weeks before the Ukrainians are fully trained to use them. They are also in small numbers. For instance, the US is giving Kyiv initially only four HIMARS launch batteries with six rockets in each. Larger quantities must follow to make a difference. Meanwhile, Russia will no doubt double down with its offensive before the new weapons reach the Ukrainian frontline and will try to interdict the Ukrainian rail network or attack arms depots to impede the deliveries. The Biden administration initially ruled against supplying HIMARS, for fear that Ukraine would use the system to attack targets over the border in Russia, before having a change of heart; but again, valuable time was lost. This effort cannot fall solely on the shoulders of the US. Europeans have to do more too.
Die Welt revealed last week that Berlin has only delivered to Ukraine two modest arms packages so far, despite the fact that Germany is the world’s fourth largest arms exporter. German arms take months to deliver given the government’s complex bureaucracy. Thus, the Guepard tank-mounted air defence system promised months ago will be delivered only in July. Berlin often gives the impression that it is happier backfilling, giving Leopard tanks to the Czechs to replace T72 tanks that Prague has sent to Ukraine, rather than sending weapons to Ukraine directly. Yet at least in Germany, there is a coalition in government and a vociferous parliament and media able to exert pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Social Democrats to do more. This resulted last week in Berlin announcing that it will supply modern IRIS air defence rockets and associated radar to Ukraine.
Similar political pressures do not seem to be in much evidence in France or Italy. Both countries have been far more discreet about the military aid they are providing Kyiv and have focused more on supporting items, such as light weapons and base equipment, rather than complete weapons systems. Public and media opinion has been more reserved and preoccupied with the domestic economy. Both Paris and Rome have ambitions to play the diplomatic role. President Macron has maintained his regular phone calls with Putin, and Rome has come up with a multi-stage peace plan, beginning with humanitarian steps and moving on to a ceasefire and political negotiation. So both Paris and Rome undoubtedly believe that too much activism on the weapons front would undermine their status as possible peacemakers. Yet, as Frederick the Great of Prussia famously put it: “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” If the West cannot marry its diplomatic track with its military efforts and comes to see the two as fundamentally antagonistic, it will fail Ukraine and fail its own long-term security as well.
The European Commission has come up with a multi-year plan for an exit strategy from Russian gas
The next way to get back in the driving seat is to solve the energy issue. Zelensky and his ministers will understandably call for the EU to move quickly to an embargo on Russian gas following the partial oil ban. Some EU countries, like Lithuania, have already freed themselves completely from Russian gas by diversifying to liquefied natural gas (LNG) and other suppliers such as Norway. Yet the EU still derives 40% of its gas supplies from Russia and this figure is as high as 55% for Germany and Italy. So, expectations have to be realistic because EU leaders need to balance geopolitical goals like reducing their exposure to Russian leverage or blackmail with the need to keep factories open and homes heated, while avoiding blackouts or rationing this coming winter.
The gas dossier calls not for an embargo that could split the EU at the very moment when its united front against Russia and ability to implement its six sanctions packages are its greatest weapon, but for a step-by-step approach to diversify supplies, increase gas storage, build more interconnectors and boost the share of renewables in the EU energy mix. The European Commission has come up with a multi-year plan for an exit strategy from Russian gas. Greece last week launched its new LNG terminal, following Lithuania, Croatia and Poland. Germany has plans to build three LNG terminals and has pushed ahead with wind farms.
Diversification may not always be comfortable for EU leaders who have to substitute courting Putin with courting the Gulf petro-monarchies. But sometimes the lesser evil has to be accepted to avoid the greater. Last week, Saudi Arabia announced that it was going to increase its oil production, thereby taking some of the heat out of the energy market. Putin may also give the EU a helping hand. Gazprom has stopped supplying gas to EU countries like Finland or the Netherlands that have refused to pay for their gas in roubles and open rouble accounts at the Gazprombank. In accelerating the EU’s energy transition, Russia may be shooting itself in the foot in the long run. Oil is transported in tankers that can be easily switched from one port or customer to another. Gas travels through pipelines, which are expensive to build and cannot be relocated. Already, the war in Ukraine has probably lost Gazprom at least $8bn in construction costs for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Germany has not so far certified for use and which will probably not be operated given the opposition elsewhere in the EU and the US.
Of course, an EU strategy to exit Russian gas will not help the Ukrainian army to repel Russia immediately; but if the war drags on as predicted, it will overtime put the Kremlin in a financial squeeze, forcing Putin to choose between funding the military operation or maintaining social peace at home through state subsidies to hard–pressed consumers and bailouts for Russian banks and companies hit by sanctions. This suggests that the West has an interest in a long conflict in Ukraine – provided it can be stabilised and the cost in human and financial terms contained – to give time for new weapons to restore the balance of power on the battlefield and to make it harder for the Kremlin to regenerate its military forces.
[The G7, the World Bank, IMF and the humanitarian agencies under the UN] need to be associated with an EU-NATO media operations centre as part of a wider international public diplomacy effort
Finally, the EU and NATO member states need to step up their international diplomacy to counter the Russian strategy of putting all the blame on the West for the wider repercussions of the Ukraine conflict. A more concerted communication strategy is badly needed. During the Kosovo conflict in 1999, NATO set up an international media operations centre in Brussels that coordinated messaging across the Atlantic and rebutted the propaganda and disinformation operations of the Milosevic regime. It organised daily press conferences and media briefings to ensure that the Western narrative justifying the NATO air campaign against Serbia was effectively communicated. Something similar is needed today to communicate the EU and NATO assistance to Ukraine and to maintain public support for the long-term, once the initial outpouring of public sympathy for Ukraine inevitably lapses. Otherwise, the communication strategy will be fragmented and haphazard, depending on the occasional announcement by a government or the visit of a Western leader to Kyiv. Once media coverage is no longer automatic, it will need to be actively stimulated by a properly organised strategic communications campaign.
By contrast, Russia is maintaining its 24/7 PR offensive with increasing success. Putting sanctions on the operations of Russian media companies, as the EU did last week in its sixth sanctions package in response to Russian clampdowns on EU media companies such as Deutsche Welle, can help blunt the Kremlin’s propaganda machine; but it will have little impact on the rest of the world where the contest for the hearts and minds is being waged. Moreover, we all know that effective strategic communications require visible actions. The West has to be seen doing its utmost to lift the grain blockade in the Black Sea and helping the developing countries with their food and energy supply problems.
The focus here is on the G7, the World Bank, IMF and the humanitarian agencies under the UN. These institutions need to be associated with an EU-NATO media operations centre as part of a wider international public diplomacy effort to underscore how an aggressive war, and not the response to it, is the primary cause of the disruption to the food, energy and humanitarian relief supply chains on which millions across the globe depend. Allowing aggressive war to triumph in the name of ‘business as usual’ would not solve the current supply chain and distribution crises, but only exacerbate them as more instability follows and nations focus on their own security and domestic needs rather than the security and well-being of others elsewhere. This is indeed the argument that the West needs to communicate much better – to get the fence sitters to rally behind it and insist as much as the Western democracies on a just and durable peace in Ukraine rather than a temporary and illusory ceasefire.
A prolongation of the Ukraine conflict […] looks not only inevitable but also in the West’s longer–term interest
In conclusion, the EU and NATO will need to consider in due course how to bring both Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table, using a package of carrots and sticks to act as an incentive. They will need to define carefully the moment when the chances for an optimal peace are at their highest and both sides are ready to negotiate seriously with a similar interest in halting the conflict and agreeing to the parameters of a more stable and trusting long-term relationship. In short, when they have more to gain than to lose from a peace underwritten by international guarantees and freely accepted obligations by both Kyiv and Moscow.
The criterion for success has to be that the West emerges from the war in Ukraine considerably stronger and Russia considerably weaker than when they went into it. We are still far from that objective being met. The three conditions set out in this analysis – more Ukrainian military victories, cutting Russia off from its energy weapon and financial lifeline, and the weakening of Russia’s influence throughout the developing world – all have a long way to go, and will need more time to get right. This is why a prolongation of the Ukraine conflict, rather than throwing in the towel now that Russia is pulling ahead, looks not only inevitable but also in the West’s longer–term interest.
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