Ukrainian victory is close

Having spent the last few weeks in Ukraine, I was fortunate enough to be staying at the Intercontinental Kyiv, during the YES conference and was able to speak to people about the war. With that, it became increasingly obvious that there is a clear scenario where they can win within 15 months and where they take back Crimea, as a part of it.

 

Some context:

 

  • It is estimated there are currently 420,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine, where this number is being boosted by conscription happening across the poorer regions of Russia, along with Mercenaries being brought in from locations such as Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America, not to mention Ukrainians in the occupied territories being made to fight for Russia too.

 

  • Every day, approx 500 Russian soldiers are either killed or injured in action, resulting in them being unable to fight. On that basis, in a year, the Ukrainians can take out 180,000 which means before the Russians conscript further, it is already 2.5 years more of fighting. The Ukrainians don’t have the human capital for these kinds of losses. In contrast to Russia, the people who fight for Ukraine are their youth, and once you discount the ineligible, unwilling etc., they are already struggling to replace those KIA. On the streets of Lviv, military recruiters have been known to target young men on the street and issue them conscription papers. Not widely talked about, but it is happening.

 

  • For Putin, life is cheap, so the KIA stats will matter less, than the loss of land. For Ukraine the opposite arguably is true. They can afford to temporarily concede positions, but can’t afford to lose experienced soldiers. Hence in the first phase of the war, Ukraine ceded land to protect against casualties. Now they are on the offensive, the KIA ratios start to level out, meaning, for the Ukrainian army to want to drive out Russia through attritional warfare, it will mean at least 420,000 dead before any further conscription by the Russians and at least another 2.5 years of fighting. Put simply, it is not viable. The West will not continue to support Ukraine in the manner required, for that long and the Ukrainians can’t afford that death count. At least that is what Putin thinks.

 

  • Hence now we are seeing the Ukrainians widening conscription to include women with a background in medicine & pharmacology. Why? When a soldier is injured on the battlefield, how quickly they get expert medical attention (e.g. tourniquets etc.) can be the difference between amputation so becoming an invalid, and a recovery cycle where they can return to fight. Already there are 20,000 approx. people who have lost limbs due to this war, and it is estimated that could go up by another 50,000. Minimizing loss of life is critical for Ukraine to be effective. Just as important is returning injured in action back to the front lines, quickly.

 

  • Similarly, Western military support now going up by another level. The F-16s will be flying by Feb. ATACMS are likely to be supplied too. Not to mention mine busters etc. F-16s allow for real-time targeting. For context, the challenge with artillery is the gunners need to know where to fire, before doing so. For an F-16 pilot, they don’t need to know where to fly before they take off, they decide once airborne. What this means is the defensive lines become infinitely harder to hold, as the missiles that can be fired for F-16s can flush out troops from even the most well-fortified positions.

 

  • Also, assuming the Ukrainians take Tokmak, through ATACMS, they can operate precision fire across the region to the point where supply line convoys are impossible to maintain. And once the supply lines fall, that means the Russian soldiers can no longer be re-armed with ammo, food, or anything really. The Mine busters which have also now been authorized will help with the advance to Tokmak. How long will the army stand, when faced with F-16s, ATACMS, HIMARS, and with supply lines cut off?

 

 

So what’s the game plan?

 

  • Crimea is everything. Given the Russians had taken it in 2014, they have had over eight years to fortify it. It is also of strategic importance due to the deep sea port, along with the natural resources. If the Ukrainians can drive the Russians out of Crimea, it will send a message to the world, that Ukraine can win. Already the Ukrainians have had some big wins, including taking back Boyko Towers, one of the oil & gas rigs in the Black Sea. That combined with the attacks on the Russian Navy, along with the Kersch Bridge, means the Russians are slowly losing control of the Black Sea, and with it, any ability to prevent Ukrainian shipping from happening. Taking back Crimea though, also means Ukraine has the territorial right of claim on the resources too, which will be all-important for the rebuild of the country.

 

  • Assuming the Ukrainian military is backed up by F-16s, Storm Shadows, Mine busters, HIMARS, ATACMS etc. it is hard to see how the Russians can effectively defend Crimea. It is a war where the technology on one side, is so superior to the other, that to stand your ground is to die. Other than Russians shouting about Nuclear weapons, which would only result in a full-on NATO response, there will be nothing they can do to be routed. Expect this offensive to begin in mid-February at a time when the ground is at its coldest, and the winter is harshest, where supply lines to front-line Russian troops have been eradicated. Morale will be at an all-time low, and then the precision missiles will start firing.

 

  • In the meantime, Ukraine will keep firing drones at Moscow. This will act as not just a disturbance, but a serious disruption, as every time the airspace is shut down, it acts to remind the people of the war. Similarly, for those in positions of authority, it reminds them of the risks associated with the war.

 

  • By September 2024, Crimea will be under Ukrainian control again therefore is a hard target for the Biden administration, as they need for the final lap of the US presidential election, where floating voters are making their final decision on how to vote, to sell Biden as being someone who stood up for the American dream. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, against the old foe, Russia, who had employed every tactic imaginable, to conquer Ukraine and helped them not just defend themselves, but take back land that was theirs. This is the campaign Biden wants to fight, so he can create a clear differential between him and Trump, positioning Trump as being an appeaser of a Dictator, and as a result, a supporter of a man who instructed an army to commit genocide. But for that to be effective, Ukraine has to be winning, because Americans first and foremost, like to back winners…

 

  • Assuming Ukraine then takes back Crimea by September 2024, the autumn campaign becomes increasingly procedural. Russian troops, hearing about what has happened in Crimea, and how the Western forces are decimating their own, understand that to stand their ground is to die, and turn on themselves and would rather face Chechnyan soldiers there to shoot down people deserting, than guaranteed death from a precision missile from a F-16. Last summer we saw how fast Ukraine can retake land when the Russians are on the run. Expect the same next Autumn.

 

  • With that, keep the pressure on the oligarchs, so they feel the financial pain of war and understand that as long as this war continues, and as long as Putin is in power, there is no way back to normality. As the Russian economy starts to implode under the weight of sanctions, this is starting to hurt across society. GDP per capita has dropped from $1200 per person to $600 since 2014. That has a real impact. Already certain oligarchs are asking to raise sanctions by disassociating themselves with the regime. Putin for a long time had a simple truce with the oligarchs, Leave me be and I will leave you to make money. He has broken his side of the bargain, What price the oligarchs revolt? Putin overcame one revolt, through negotiation, but people would have seen how he broke his word shortly after. If there is another revolt, it will be organized to take Putin out, and there will be no way for him to negotiate out.

 

 

So where does the plan go wrong?

 

 

  • A counter-offensive in the east: The challenge here will be that in pursuit of Crimean victory, the Ukrainian army over-commit and left themselves exposed in the east. This is what Putin is gambling on. A classic sucker punch, counterattack and take land which forces the Ukrainian army to pull back to protect its eastern flank. The Russian army is already attempting this, up to now without success, but with a larger army, could be successful.

 

  • A counter-offensive from Belarus to Kyiv: Whilst unlikely, right now, it has to be priced in. The Wagner group has been relocated to Belarus and is now being incorporated into the Russian Army. It is estimated there are between 50,000-60,000 troops that can invade from the north, between Wagner and the Belarusian Army. Whilst Lukashenko has been at pains to not be drawn into the war, his position has become weakened, as his allies have ‘disappeared.’ Similarly, his survival politically increasingly depends on the Kremlin. If Russia seriously thinks Crimea could be at risk, I don’t doubt there will be pressure on Belarus to launch a counter-offensive from the north, to force Ukraine to recall troops. Whether or not it happens is another matter.

 

  • Russia uses nuclear weapons: Probably unlikely. If Russia uses any form of nuclear weapons, it will lose any support they have in the global political community. They have been making efforts to curry favor across the BRICS and global south generally. Using Nuclear weapons would risk them becoming a pariah and would result in a counter-strike involving Western forces, the like of which has not been seen since Iraq. Similarly, the West would then apply pressure on sanctions to the point that no one would be able to trade with them, without being sanctioned themselves. No country bar possibly Iran, Venezuela, or North Korea would risk that.

 

  • January Congressional Budget meeting: Republicans control Congress, and with that, all spending. Whilst there are Republicans who support Ukraine, there are those who don’t, and given it is an election year, McCarthy will be loath to do anything to split his party. That being said, as long as there is a clear strategy for a victory for Ukraine, that should trump everything. However, regardless of who wins the Presidential election next, it is safe to assume, that military support for Ukraine in 2025 will not be there from the USA, at least while countries like Germany continue with defense spending under 2% of GDP.

 

  • Winter 2023/24: In many ways, the fact last year was so mild, was a blessing for the Ukrainian nation. However, it would be foolish to assume the same will happen this winter. And winters in Ukraine can be cold. The power system in Ukraine has less capacity than a year ago already, due to the dam being destroyed, along with other power stations. Insofar that there has been a diversification of power supply, to the point where even office buildings now have their generators (including the one for my company, in our office in Ukraine) the challenge is, that the people across the country without this back up of missile shields and generators, start to resent the elites, who have protected themselves and don’t do enough for them and become susceptible to Russian propaganda. In simple terms, the nation fractures from within. This is a question, but to give Zelenskyy credit, what he has done better than anything, is act as a voice for his people. So I don’t think this winter will break the Ukrainian resistance. Just harden it.

 

  • Elon Musk: It is now reported that he decided to withdraw Starlink services in Crimean space, which meant that a sneak attack on the Russian navy failed. Whilst he has now negotiated a new military contract with the Pentagon, he remains the single most important civilian in terms of his influence in this war. And as becomes apparent, the Russians have direct access to him, as he was pressured into switching off Starlink already. He is the joker in the pack, the variable no one can predict. But whose ability to influence proceedings is beyond doubt. Could Russia target Starlink satellites and take them out of action? Nonetheless, now he has his Pentagon contract, I can’t see him reneging.

 

 

In summary, I wrote in a previous blog about the parallels between this conflict, and the Korean War and it is perhaps ironic, that one of the most important countries right now, is South Korea. The conflict from 70 years ago and the fact no peace treaty was ever signed, meant they have had to keep high levels of armaments on hand, at all times, in case of another conflict. And them sending artillery to Ukraine now, when the West has in effect, started to run out of its stocks, has been the difference in enabling Ukraine to push on. Then when looking at the Korean War, it was the third year when the Allies explosively took back land, but it is worth noting, that only happened, once they had air power. I expect the same from February.

 

The West is surprisingly united. We remember the Second World War through our schools and history. We remember appeasement. We remember, that in 1938 Hitler invaded Austria, and declared an Anschluss. The West stood by as after all, the Austrians were German-speaking and it was not their sphere of influence. We remember that within a year, he was invading Poland.

 

Now Poland is again under the spotlight. The Suwałki Gap divides Kaliningrad from Russia, and is the land bridge connecting Poland to the Baltics. Senior Russian military officials are on record as saying, after Ukraine, the Baltics, which starts there. Hence Poland is now increasing their army, to become the largest land force in Europe, and is subsidizing industry so they have armaments being produced, now. NATO are doing training exercises in the Baltics on how to protect the Suwalki gap. In short, NATO is gearing up for war.

 

Hence we can say Putin’s gamble has failed. He thought that the West would not care about Ukraine. He has been proven wrong. It is up to the West now, to prove it decisively, so Ukraine not just wins, but do so in a way where there is never again a chance of Russia invading another sovereign country. There has been concern about whether Russia should be allowed to fail too hard, and that the collapse of the Russian Federation would be too destabilizing. Equally, just before the Empires fall, they become their most militaristic, as the inner circle becomes so corrupt that the only way for those below to enrich themselves is through conquest.

 

Hence, the West should focus on the fact that next month, supporters of 41 regions within the Russian Federation, will meet in London, as part of ‘the Free Nations of Post Russia Forum.’ They see Russia’s collapse as inevitable and only look to minimize the disruption, help with securing nuclear arsenals, and economic stabilization. And in truth, the Russian empire is now over, it is just a function of timing. The West needs to start planning for it now, so when it falls, we don’t end up with a collapse akin to Yugoslavia. As on a landmass the size of Russia, which is nuclear-powered, the potential for destruction is… mind-boggling.

 

Could this be Putin’s legacy? The last Tsar of Russia, the one who brought Russia as we know it, to an end? Whatever happens, his invasion of Ukraine will go down in history as the biggest military miscalculation of the decade, if not the century, and one that Russia will pay for, for many years to come.

Wagner marches on Moscow – what next?

In a dramatic 24 hours, Prigozhin has led Wagner to first of all take control of Rostov (the nerve centre of the Russian military command for Ukrainian operations), then taken his militia north to march on Moscow, where they have already reached Voronezh (halfway.) Putin has replied in a bellicose fashion, suggesting this will escalate further, which can only bode well for the Ukrainian nation.

In terms of what has triggered this, empirical history can be instructive.

Indeed, in “Rise and Fall of the great Empires,” Andrew Taylor profiled why collapse can happen, where sometimes it does so with surprising speed. One of the most significant factors he talks about is when the empire consumes more than it generates, at which point it can only sustain itself by conquering new lands and acquiring its resources.

However, if the cost of acquiring the new land and keeping the peace becomes higher than the benefit of the resources extracted, the empire risks implosion. With that, just this week, Prigozhin confirmed Russia started the war for no reason other than to acquire Ukrainian resources for the benefit of the Russian oligarchs. And it is also important to note that within Russia, criticism of the war is rooted not in the morality of the invasion but in its ineffectiveness. The imperial mindset is embedded in the echelons of power.

Otherwise, we are in unchartered territory. Up to now, Prigozhin had avoided openly criticizing Putin, but it seems now, nothing is off the table.

Already it is being reported that, amongst others, Medvedev and his family have fled Moscow, where this is reportedly the busiest day of the year for private aircraft in the city, with Turkey and UAE seeming to be the primary end destinations. Even Putin reportedly has left the capital. In the meantime, trenches are being dug in the Moscow region, and barricades and other defensive structures are being prepared. The key point to watch is whether the Wagner offensive can get past the Oka river.

By the same token, one would expect that, whereas in Southern Russia, the Army has been waving Wagner past, as they get closer to Moscow, the military will start to push back. Up to now, it is only attack helicopters that have been engaging, where reportedly Wagner has succeeded in destroying one already.

Factor Wagner has committed a sizeable contingent, reportedly 25,000 troops, including AAMs and Heavy Arms where they are battle-hardened troops, many of which have done multiple tours, not just in Ukraine, but in other theatres also, whereas the vast majority of Russian troops will be ill-trained, low paid reservists. Can troops currently in the east or in other areas be redeployed in time? doubtful, meaning the Russian Army could well be caught out.

With that in mind, Russian Senior Military officials have been making pleas to Wagner, to not act disloyally, but then consider the typical profile of a Wagnerite Commander as a trained official with extensive military experience, who was dismissed for one reason or another. They are more likely to be loyal to Prigozhin than anyone else. The same with convict troops, which Russian officials were happy to use as cannon fodder. In contrast, Prigozhin has raged against the senseless loss of life of his soldiers, and the lack of support they have been given, meaning they are also likely to be loyal to him first, seeing him as their true protector.

So assuming he is able to reach Moscow (which seems possible), what happens then? Well, to quote Mao DeZong “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and whoever has the dominant military force will have the power to dictate what happens next in Russia.

So looking at scenarios, what could happen next?
  1. A grand bargain between Putin and Prigozhin, where he is made Chief of the Armed Forces and has everyone else reporting to him. Honestly, this is possibly the one outcome for Ukraine that is worse than what has been happening. Please note, Prigozhin in having control of Rostov, is still authorizing Russian attack operations onto Ukraine, with the proviso that Wagner personnel are involved in a leadership function on every contingent, across land and air. Prigozhin sees himself as the saviour of the nation and this could give him the legitimacy he craves where given his hands-on understanding of the war, he would be a far tougher adversary for the Ukrainian military than Gerasimov. Hence this showdown now, in many ways could be perceived as a showdown between Gerasimov and Prigozhin on who gets to lead the Russian Army. Putin is notorious for stepping back and letting his court fight between them for the top jobs. Now the fight could be happening on the Moscow city borders with tanks and troops…
  2. Putin refuses to negotiate, Prigozhin fails to win quickly, and the Russian Military slowly grounds Wagner down as battalions arrive from different parts of the country and encircle them. Putin is weakened, both in terms of his political position, but realistically given his control through the security forces, probably not fatally. However, the disruption caused to the Ukrainian front by no longer having access to Wagner forces, along with the lack of cohesiveness, means that morale on the front lines hit all-time lows. Ukraine capitalizes by pushing hard. The internal strife in Russia also acts to bolster international support for Ukraine, as it becomes clear that this war for the Ukrainians is really very winnable, but the time is now. Suddenly F-16s become available potentially. etc.
  3. Putin refuses to negotiate, Prigozhin fails to win quickly, but Wagner slowly grounds down the Russian army. Along the way the Russian state is forced to recall troops from Ukraine out of necessity, at that point, the country is in civil war and all bets are off. this is the most chaotic scenario and is the one that nuclear strategists will be most concerned about. For starters, Prigozhin has an extensive reach within the country and his voice is heard. He is currently positioning himself as a patriot, who is fighting in defence of the country and the people, that they are being lied to, that the deaths are far higher than what people are being told, and that the deaths of their sons are solely to line the pockets of the oligarchs in Moscow, to enrich themselves on Ukrainian resources. Across the federation people hear his voice and turn away from Putin and his cronies. This has the potential to lead to a breakup of the Russian federation, which could mean that suddenly lots of unstable governments form, who have all control of their own nuclear arsenals.
  4. Putin refuses to negotiate; Prigozhin seizes Moscow quickly and starts to take the levers of power in Moscow and appoints himself as the new leader of the country. In this scenario, a bloodless coup, one would expect Prigozhin to recall troops from Ukraine in order to consolidate his power in the country, also to legitimise his new government with the west. A strongman in Russia who plays ball with the west is arguably preferable to Putins regime.

Which of these scenarios is most likely is anyone’s guess. But given only one of the four is arguably worse for Ukraine, overall, the Ukrainian people should see current events as playing in their favour, for now. The next 48 hours will be important in determining what happens next.

 

 

It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

So the Russians finally did what the Ukrainians had feared they would. They blew up the Kakhovka dam, which in one fell swoop has caused ecological devastation on a scale unparalleled since Chornobyl, which in an ironic twist of fate, also happened in Ukraine. The sheer callous nature of the Putinist regime means that the majority of flooding is taking place on territory under their control, consigning those under Russian rule to be at best homeless, and at worst dead. However, this will only stiffen the resolve of the Ukrainian nation to drive the Russians out, and it will make a negotiated settlement increasingly hard. No room for apologists when the Russians are prepared to do this, just for the purpose of slowing down the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

So what next?

  • It is estimated that the Russian Army is decimated with even the elite legions made up of up to 80% conscripts.
  • The Russian Air Force remains a threat but does not press its numerical advantage, maybe due to a lack of qualified pilots. Hence they mainly focus on long-range bombing runs.
  • The main threat seems to come from missile strikes and drone attacks, however, the implementation of PATRIOT amidst other AAMs has rendered them mostly impotent.
  • Nonetheless, the Russian troops have fortified heavily, perhaps in the hope of securing a frozen conflict. Arguably that is Putin’s best possible outcome as things stand, both sides wear each other down, where the Russians are able to hold fortified positions and lock in territorial gains, with facts on the ground.

Indeed, the best parallel for this war may end up being the Korean War of 1950-53. For students of history, they will know that the war began when North Korea invaded the south and in the first instance made huge territorial gains, even capturing Seoul. An American-inspired response resulted in the South pushing back and in the end winning back the land lost before an armistice was signed. However, that took 3 years, where in simple terms it can be segmented into three phases. Phase 1, North Korea makes big territorial gains. Phase 2 South Korea stabilizes the front lines with Western aid. Phase 3 South Korea pushes back. Interestingly, the Korean War itself was a war of attrition on the ground. Where the war was ultimately won was in the air. North Korea became one of the most bombed countries in history, where along the way there were 3 million fatalities, with all the major cities ending up being impacted.

What insight can this give us about the Rus/Ukr war?

Up to now, airpower has not been a big factor in this war. Expect that to change soon. Across the west F-16s are being prepared to be sent. From Australia to the USA, the signs are that they will be given a significant number where already, Ukrainian pilots are being trained. As that happens, the only element in which Russia has had an advantage up to now will evaporate. In the here and now, the ground offensive will no doubt make some gains. However, without air support, tanks will be heavily exposed, hence expect the real counter-offensive not to be now, but when the air power is in place. In the immediate, therefore, expect the Ukrainian army to make incursions, but not to commit fully anywhere, until they have the airpower ready.

In the meantime though Ukraine is getting ever better at building its own long-range suicide drones. The strike in Moscow is just the beginning. Expect this to ramp up as Ukraine gets mobilized. Similarly, all the Russian territories bordering Ukraine will become ever more dangerous. This will act to prick the bubble of Putin’s propaganda, that all is well. Quite the opposite. Following the pattern of the Korean War, this war is about to escalate where already Ukraine has stabilized its front lines, fortified its positions, and is now operating with technologies 20+ years ahead of Russia and with an Army motivated and ready. I don’t expect Russia to be driven out of Ukraine this year, but soon enough they will be. As long as the West holds its course supporting Ukraine, this outcome is inevitable. And in the process, I doubt Russia as we know it, will continue. We just must remember the lessons of Versailles when it comes to forming a new peace settlement.

How do Ukrainians in Ukraine feel about the war?

Having just returned from a week in Ukraine, the change in attitude from the people I saw, is noticeable since my last visit, last September.

First, the fact that winter has passed has meant instead of fear and apprehension there is a knowledge that no matter what, they can endure, regardless of what the Russians do. While winter had its own challenges, people would need to reorganize their working day around when they would have power. When they did have power, they would need to ensure all devices were charging. People were thankful that this past winter was significantly more mild than usual and mostly, they adapted to the reality. For people with jobs, working, the work itself provided an escape from the challenges of their reality.

With that, there is a commonality in viewpoint, that there can be no deal with the devil. Peace now will only invite another attack from Putin later. Everyone I spoke to knows someone who has gone to war. Some know people who have died too. The deaths can not be in vain. There is a commonality in frustration though. Why can’t the West do more? After all, doesn’t the West realise Putin won’t stop with Ukraine? There is a lot of talk about the need for F-16s. The anti-air missile systems defending the cities are about to run out of ammunition, and the fact that they are Soviet systems means that when they do, Ukraine will be heavily exposed to Russian bombers. The current forecast is that Ukrainian AAM systems could be out of ammo by July and then what? Patriot systems are coming through, but not enough to replace what is there already.

Everyone I spoke to, when asked if there was a deal around trading Crimea for long-term peace, rejected this as an idea. Point blank, Crimea is Ukrainian land, and there is no deal that can be done around it. This is instructive, for those in the West who think that the way out of this is for there to be a deal over Crimea will not find anyone in Ukraine, who will accept that. I couldn’t. And history tells us, a peace deal that is not broadly acceptable amongst the populace is not going to be possible to implement.

People I spoke to, both in Lviv and Kyiv, saw themselves as European and looked to the West for their future. Indeed, the way that Ukrainian people have moved to stop speaking Russian is a testament to that. When I first went to Ukraine in 2011, speaking Russian was in most parts of the country, the default mode of communication. Now it is a rarity. Instead, English proficiency is on the up and people see their futures as being a part of the EU.

There is a quiet anticipation of the proposed spring offensive, about to take place. Ukrainians understand that while they won’t be able to land a knockout blow with this upcoming campaign, it is important to ensure that there is a noticeable victory if they are to continue to be able to effectively lobby the West for ongoing financial and military aid. What a good campaign would constitute as is something that produced a variety of responses. Equally, there was consensus that being able to take back part of the coastline along the Sea of Azov and end the Russian land bridge to Crimea, would be a great achievement, and would send a powerful message to the West, and Russia, that their army is worth supporting.

With that, there is an acknowledgment that the war has a long way to go. That Russia is not going to give up or go away. That Ukraine needs to hang on and fight for every inch. Similarly, there is a general consensus, that it is better to keep fighting in the pursuit of winning back land for many years than sign a bad deal this year and the longer the war goes on, the more likely it is that Ukraine can win as long as the West continues to support them.

Putin needs Chinese military support. Could he get it?

For Putin, the facts on the ground will make grim reading. Over 100,000 soldiers killed, possibly double that injured. New recruits are being incorporated into existing battalions just to cover for those KIA and IIA. Over half of the battle-ready tanks have been destroyed, and evidence suggests the Russians have nearly run out of missiles too, with perhaps enough remaining for two or three barrages at most. Perhaps most importantly, the latest intelligence suggests that the artillery rounds will all be used up by March at the current rate, which overall would mean the Russian army is completely impotent.

The Russians have already raided Belarus for their artillery shells in inventory and without significant support with their military campaign, at best can hope to freeze the conflict on the ground. However, smart tech involving drones and precision missiles means that trenches are less effective than they once were, and as winter sets in, there is a real danger of frostbite and malnutrition for front-line troops. Indeed, unless Putin does something remarkable, the Russians risk being routed in 2023.

Hence the recent announcement of a Chinese state visit to Russia is noteworthy. Up to now, China has sought to walk a fine line, by only supporting Russia in aspects which won’t trigger sanctions. However, if China could be convinced to support Russia militarily, with say artillery shells, tanks, and drones, this would mean the newly enlisted soldiers currently in training, would have proper military support upon being deployed.

The Chinese typically play a self-interested game and openly taking on the west has rarely seemed a good strategy. What has changed which means they may now decide to support Putin?
  • For China, they know that in the event they look to take back Taiwan, any of the financial penalties the west has placed on Russia will be placed on them, and given the mood music in China indicates their willingness to force a reunification, already they will be planning for a western response. Testing their military systems in a proxy war in Ukraine is an excellent way to assess how effectively Taiwan’s defensive systems could withstand a Chinese assault.
  • Putin is so desperate for aid, the cost incurred by western penalties could be offset by long-term guaranteed rates for oil and gas and other raw materials, well below market prices, which could help to stimulate Chinese industry. The Chinese economy has slowed down since COVID – this could be a booster.
  • Finally and perhaps most importantly China has finally ended lockdown. The impact of the world cup in China was to make people question why their lockdowns continued if life was returning to normality elsewhere. The truth is, that SINOVAC has proven to be largely ineffective as a vaccine against later versions of COVID, meaning that the death rate could be staggeringly high. There is a danger that this in itself becomes destabilizing in China. But Russia has the SPUTNIK vaccine, (allegedly created through stealing the IP that led to the Astrazeneca vaccine) which does work.
With that, could Russia offer China a grand bargain? Unlimited sputnik vaccines combined with reduced oil & gas prices in return for military assistance?

Almost definitely, reading between the lines, this is the deal on the table. The question is if China wants to risk joining forces with Russia at this stage, with everything that would entail. By spring, when the state visit happens, Russia will be at a point where if it doesn’t get significant support, the war effort could collapse, so don’t be surprised if China does come to their aid, albeit at a significant price. If China does start supporting the Russian war effort, expect it to be akin to how NATO currently supports Ukraine.

In terms of how that could change the course of the war? That will then depend on the western response. Suffice it to say, this war is far from over and for Putin, his gambit is to push the west to still be having to support Ukraine when winter hits in December 2023, as by that point, reserves will be used up and the impact of this war will really start to bite on the domestic economies of Europe. As the cold hits next winter, he will believe that will be the point when western support for Ukraine finally dries up and he is able to enforce terms that suit him. But to get to that point, he needs Chinese support.

Could Belarus invade Ukraine this winter?

“There are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where the events that happen change life for decades”

The sudden death of Vladimir Makei, the Belarusian foreign secretary, indicates a power struggle behind the scenes in Belarus. Reports of how he died remain speculative, equally the suggestion is that foul play was involved. Makei had been stridently opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and just as importantly, prior to the war had believed the future for Belarus was to practice equidistance between the west and Russia and had been a key figure in trying to improve relations. He was also a well respected official within the administration with significant influence on policy.

As one of Lukashenka’s key lieutenants, there is also evidence he was opposed to the acceleration of the act of union between Belarus and Russia, first signed in 2000 and had been seeking to block any further integration. However, with the onset of war, the voices calling for the acceleration of the act of union have increased. For now Lukashenka stands in the way of doing this, however, if he was to be replaced by a more pliant leader, (Stanislav Zas has been mooted), the following steps could be implemented quite quickly. Eliminating Makei means that a leading figure who would have been a lightening rod for those within the country wanting Belarus to stay out of the war as much as possible and made leader to ensure this, has been eliminated. Indeed, as recently as July 1 of this year, Putin himself had stated the unprecedented sanctions and pressure being applied by the West was accelerating the unification of Belarus into Russia. Similarly, students of history will know, that Belarus when translated means “White Russians.”

In the same way, for the Russian military, they can no longer afford to have Belarus in tacit support. They need the Belarusian army to be fully integrated so they can open up a third front, on Ukraine’s western border, where this needs to be as soon as possible, whilst reservists are being trained up, to prevent the Ukrainians from obtaining any further gains. This is straight out of the ‘seige of Leningrad’ Russian military playbook where a flanking army encircled the Germans, cutting off their supply lines and forced them to surrender. In the same way, for the Russian military planners, to be able to invade via the west, seal the border with Poland and prevent resupply is becoming increasingly necessary.

The Russian economy is now pivoting to a war footing, equally the west is yet to do so, where for context, the latest reports suggest that the Ukraine is using on a daily basis, four times more artillery shells than the entire amount being manufactured in the USA. Russia whilst struggling has historically always retained a large stockpile of munitions, something NATO has seemingly failed to do. This has led to concerns amongst European countries that supplying Ukraine any more than they have done will lead to insufficient munitions in reserve.

Meanwhile Putin is coming under increasing pressure domestically. Famously it was the mothers of the fallen soldiers who were pivotal in leading the protests that led to the fall of the USSR towards the end of the Afghanistan war. Putin as a student of history will know this and will be conscious that the mobilisation of troops whilst necessary to maintain the pressure on the front lines, has led to increased questions being asked of his regime. His staged meeting with Mothers of fallen soldiers is testament to that. That combined with further waves of sanctions being targeted at an ever widening circle of Russian business people with Kremlin connections and there is with that, a real danger of regime change, especially as rumours of his ill health circulate.

For the Ukrainians, simply surviving is to a certain extent winning and whilst winter is now upon the country, every day that passes, is one closer to spring. Western allies are slowly ramping up their arms manufacturing and there is an acknowledgement across all NATO capitals that Ukraine can’t be allowed to lose. However, the cost of war is high for all the west and increasingly there are voices emerging who suggest that a deal with Russia is the only way to end the war and this winter could be the time to strike such an accord.

Therefore for Putin, the plan for victory is becoming increasingly clear. He no longer expects to take over all of Ukraine, nor does he require regime change in the country. Victory could be as simple as formalising a treaty that locks in the land gains obtained since 2014. (Crimea, Sea of Azov Coastline, Luhansk and Donestsk) At that point while the cost of the war could be defined as a high price, assuming the West ratifies the deal and acknowledges the new territories as Russian, there would then be a pathway to slowly de-escalating, removing sanctions and returning to a more normal equilibrium. Hence the current mobilisation is designed to fortify, where only the Wagner Group are pushing west.

In the background, the increased move by Putin to make this a war of cultural identity and the fight to preserve the values of the nation, has meant that the average Russian is now being bombarded by propaganda not just by the state and media but by the Church as well. A total war by an increasingly totalitarian state. Hence there are now rumours of a million plus men being called up to military service in spring in Russia if the war is not won by then.

However, while the west continues to support Ukraine militarily, bringing them to the negotiating table is nigh-on impossible. Hence the lessons of Leningrad and the relevance of Belarus. A full on assault of Kyiv from the north is probably now impossible. The border north of the capital has been heavily mined and fortified. However, an invading army sent to Rivne and from there to even as far as Lviv, if successful would act to seal the border and prevent further military re-supply. In the meantime, the continued bombings of Ukraine act to both force the EU to supply the Ukraine with power driving up domestic prices, and use up expensive AAM missile systems so Russian Aircraft can operate with impunity.

At that point, the Ukrainians would have no choice but to negotiate. That would be the plan anyway. Even if unsuccessful, it would act to tie up the Ukrainian army and put them on the defensive, increasing the chance of stalemate, which would lead to the increased prominence of voices stating that an outright Ukrainian victory is not possible, and they should negotiate a settlement with Russia.

Can Ukraine resist? At this point, the West would be wise to remember the maxim attributed to Putin himself, “escalate to de-escalate.” Russia is already domestically reporting that it is at war with NATO, so arguably, this winter before the next wave of conscripts arrive, now is the time to fully engage. If the red line that NATO is operating on is that no NATO armed forces should enter Ukraine, at the very least they can:

  • Organise advanced AAM systems to create complete security against missile strikes
  • Supply longer range artillery systems to force Russian munitions hubs every further back
  • Start training Ukrainian forces in advanced drone weaponry, so they can be targeted towards the front line where Russian fortifications are most built up

Indeed, in fairness, these things are all slowly happening and the positive is that Western Governments are remaining remarkably united in their support of Ukraine. Assuming that continues, Ukraine’s victory is inevitable. What that means for Russia is another question.

Can the West stomach a long war?

Across Europe, the first real pain points of the Ukraine war are starting to be felt, as inflation rockets, in part caused by energy prices. Already in the USA, certain Republicans are said to favour pulling financial aid and focusing on the domestic economy instead. All the while, winter has yet to start and Putin is a long way from either giving up or being deposed. Remember, it is the hawks he fears the most and from their perspective, the failure of Russia is that they have been too weak or they would have won already. Hence the introduction of Khomchak. With his introduction, Russia is signalling their mindset is that victory is not negotiable. Equally for Russia to win, they need to make it so the west will no longer support Ukraine, due to the sheer cost of the war. How could this be achieved?

 

  • The drone war is a good start. Each kamikaze drone costs approx. 20k USD, whereas the missiles needed to take them down are up to 100x more expensive. Insofar that Ukrainian AAMs are taking down 80%+, 20% are getting through and the west is needing to make decisions on replacing the batteries.

 

  • Increase the infrastructure damage. This does two things. First of all, it increases the number of refugees, it also means that the west needs to send energy to Ukraine (as they lose their own capacity)

 

  • Work with partners to increase commodity prices (e.g. Oil and OPEC+)

 

This is the Russian equivalent of sanctions. Making it more expensive for the West as a function of supporting Ukraine. Then factor, the longer the war drags on, the greater the cost and political pressure as a result. For example, while the EU worked to fill their reserves to be able to get through this winter if the war continues into next autumn, what then? Whilst there are discussions around importing LNG from Qatar and the USA, this product is already mostly locked in by Asia. Not to mention it is significantly more expensive. When you then consider the recession looming for much of the west, supporting Ukraine is likely to become increasingly politically challenging as voters apply pressure for policies that are domestically prioritised. Already Hungary have announced no plans to change its gas supplier, arguing that the current policy is not viable. How long before the German industry starts making the same demands?

 

On top of that, there is a lot the Russians can still do to escalate which could cause the west to blink. Such policies include:

 

  • Severing deep-sea cables between Europe, the UK and USA. Impossible to prove but would be highly effective in damaging commerce. See the recent incident in the Shetland islands over the last few days, officially this was marked as done by a fishing boat, but given the cable was damaged in two locations quite far from each other, that doesn’t necessarily stack up.

 

  • Destroying the Kherson Dam. This would mean fresh water would be able to flow through to Crimea without constraint, it would also show the Russian intent to escalate without regard for life or damage to others. Not to mention the impact on energy for the region.

 

  • Deploying a tactical nuke into the black sea near Odesa would create a radioactive tidal wave, making whole swathes of coastline unliveable. Unthinkable for the west, but if this was done, how would the west respond? No doubt the warning from the Russians would be that was a warning, Kherson is Russian, continue and we will do this again.

 

With that, there is no doubt that the Ukrainian nation has the will to win, but only with Western support. Equally to back Ukraine to win needs to be an all-in mindset, so to use a poker metaphor, unless the western allies are prepared to back Ukraine all the way and show they are, Putin will keep escalating and the longer the war goes on, the more in his favour the dial swings.

 

Therefore what could the west do to take the initiative and prevent that?

 

  • Supply Ukraine with all state-of-the-art weaponry requested including long-range artillery systems, so garrisons and supply dumps can be targeted from distance.
  • Start placing sanctions on countries found to be trading / collaborating with Russia in any capacity. In effect polarises the world into either supporting Russia or supporting Ukraine.
  • Create an air corridor to Lviv, through extensive AAM systems. This then allows for commercial flights (which can be underwritten by Gov’t, and backed by NATO.) This then means the West can fly in supplies faster and easier. It also sends a message to Russia, that the air corridor could be expanded further to cover Kyiv and that any actions the Russians take will be handled accordingly.

 

The sting in the tail is the 8,000 troops in Belarus amassing at the border. Whether they would seek to do another surgical strike on Kyiv is a moot question, assume they will. So perhaps the best solution for the west would be to declare the whole country a no-fly zone, including drones. When this was first discussed, it was perhaps too early, but now it is possibly the only way the west can avoid an escalation on Putin’s terms, which would be far more damaging. The Russians are merciless, ruthless and solely focused on doing whatever it takes to secure victory. In order for Ukraine to win, therefore, the west must stop reacting and start escalating to take back the initiative.

Are we witnessing the beginning of the new Crimean War?

As the Ukrainian army advances and takes back its territory from the retreating Russian forces, Putin will soon need to make a choice about how to respond. The recent decision to mobilize, whilst declaring the annexed territories as Russia has given him a few more options.

For starters, those on military service can now be sent to fight in the war, as constitutionally they are on Russian soil. Similarly, the action last year, to accelerate the move to people adopting Russian citizenship within Crimea by only allowing those with passports to have land claims and state aid has meant that there is now a large number of people who may have taken the passport for practical reasons, who may now be enlisted to fight against the country of their birth.

Indeed, while the occupied oblasts across the Donbas and Kherson have importance, none is as strategically significant as Crimea due to its warm water deep sea port, natural gas resources, and being a beachhead into Ukraine. It has also had the greatest Russification over the years, to the point when in 1991 when there was a referendum on independence; while most oblasts voted 80/90% be independent, Crimea was only 55% in favor. Now with a further eight years of Russification, it is not even clear what the outcome of a legitimate referendum could be.

What does this mean?

Putin knows that to lose Kherson or the Donbas while annoying does not in itself threaten his position, but to lose Crimea would be incredibly problematic. With that, what I expect to see happen is that as the Ukrainian army advances, Russian forces pull back into Crimea and do everything they can to freeze the border, both militarily and diplomatically.

In terms of what that means, probably the only way Russia can hold Crimea is to militarize it, so populate it with upwards of 300,000 soldiers while making the whole region a battleground, with fortifications at every mile. The gambit is to make Crimea impossible to conquer. Already troops are pulling back from Melitopol into Crimea; no doubt there are reinforcements coming from the East as well.

At the same time, the Russians will continue to apply pressure through energy. The most recent announcement that OPEC+ will cut production by 2m barrels a day shows the fact Russia has friends, even if the West remains supporting Ukraine. At every point, the agenda will be to increase the pain of the war and wait for the democratic tide to change, to Governments who are more amenable to making peace.

After all, already leading Republicans are openly calling for an end to funding for Ukraine. Similarly, across Europe, Russia has allies who will speak on its behalf. With that, once we remember that the Ukrainians can only win this war with western military and financial support, we also understand that it is not Ukraine alone who will decide when it is time to stop fighting.

Equally, for Ukraine, the cost of this war has been immense. Current estimates are up to 500 BN USD in the costs to repair the destroyed infrastructure and the war hasn’t even ended yet. Who pays for that? Russia won’t, voluntarily anyway, and while there are suggestions about using funds frozen from them for Ukraine, there is no legal basis for that currently. At the same time, the EU needs a reliable energy partner. Ukraine wants to be in the EU and if it can take back Crimea and have peace with Russia, it can afford to not only rebuild its country but become an economic superpower of the block.

Perhaps this is what Russia fears the most. A resurgent Ukraine with extensive natural gas would make Russia irrelevant as far as German industry is concerned. And for the French, for whom the EU has always been about amplifying their own foreign policy objectives, if Ukraine is integrated in this way, it means the block as a whole is more powerful than ever before, in every way.

As a result of all this, what we can expect to see over the next few months is for the Ukrainian Army to take back its land across the Donbas and Kherson, where the Russians will pull back into Crimea and militarize. For the Ukrainians to then win militarily becomes ever harder and a diplomatic solution that involves Russia keeping Crimea is unlikely to be accepted. This is why it could be that this war has a long way to go yet.

The irony is that since 2014 there has been no fighting in Crimea, which was central to why this war started in the first place. Yet as the war ends across the rest of the country, it will come to Crimea and the people there will have a choice to make. Take up arms for Ukraine or for Russia. What they decide could well determine the Crimean end game.

What are the implications of the Russian mobilisation announcement?

With Russia driven out of the Kharkiv oblast, the defeat on the battlefield is so humiliating for Putin, that it is perhaps unsurprising that he has responded in the way he has. After all, his only other options were to retreat (not likely) or continue to slowly lose (equally non-viable.) Escalate to De-Escalate therefore seems to be the solution. But how far could he realistically escalate? What does the announcement mean for the war in Ukraine?

 

  • Nuclear War

 

Headline-grabbing yes. Probable, no. First of all, Putin is not solely in control of nuclear weapons. Secondly, given the atrocities the Ukrainian nation has been through, it is unlikely a singular strike would force a withdrawal by them, instead it would need to be multiple times. It’s also hard to imagine India or other countries being allowed to sit on the fence as well if Russia did this. The Russian economy is being kept alive at the moment by countries ignoring or circumventing western sanctions. If they started using nuclear weapons, they would be so isolated the country itself would possibly implode from within due to the economic and political pressure. Nonetheless, there’s a small risk of a singular strike on a strategic target, e.g. Kyiv in spite or the western border to make logistics harder, but not for the purpose of bombing to win the war itself and even a singular strike would carry substantial risk.

 

  • Propaganda Wars

 

Expect the propaganda to now go into overdrive. The Ukrainian people unlawfully deposed an elected President, Yanukovych, in 2014 and replaced him with a Nazi Gov’t, which amongst other things, would forbid Russian people from speaking Russian in the East and would treat them as second-class citizens. Russia is only acting to protect Russians from these Nazis. Or, Ukraine was pursuing membership of NATO to mean there would be hostile western weaponry on their border, which despite warnings was continued, therefore Russia needed to act pre-emptively. Or finally, Russia is not losing to Ukraine, but to NATO, therefore the only way the Russian nation can defend its people within Ukraine is by mobilising. Why does this matter? Well, Russia in order to mobilise needs a justification of why the special operation has not worked so far, why it is a just cause and why mobilisation is needed.

 

  • Scorched Earth

 

In the short term, expect the Russians to have an indiscriminate approach to targeting civilian infrastructure and to escalate their scorched earth policies. Cities are notoriously hard to seize, so the objective would be to flatten them, and make them unlivable, so for defending troops, there is nothing to defend. The one area for concern here will be the lack of precision missiles the Russians have left, equally, they have almost unlimited artillery shells so there is nothing to prevent them from doing this.

 

  • Mobilisation

 

Already this has begun and there are rumours that Russia seeks to mobilise 1m troops. How effective this army would be is up for debate, given the challenges associated with arming and equipping soldiers already in Ukraine. The Russian strategy here suggests their plan is to occupy the various regions with so many troops that it acts to freeze the conflict and establish facts on the ground. Equally, it is estimated it could take at least three to six months before any troops mobilised could make a meaningful difference to the front line. Hence why for Ukraine, this period now is critical. 

 

  • Brain Drain

 

Russian men between 18-50 who could now be conscripted are fleeing. The economic impact of this is not to be underestimated. People who could be contributing to growing the Russian economy are now going to be leaving and looking to make a new life in other countries where for as long as this regime remains, they will not return. Russia will only be impacted negatively by this.

 

  • The Economic War will only help China

 

The Russians talked about the economic war that the west is placing upon them, well with this announcement, the impact will be to make it even harder for any western companies remaining to operate. The impact of this escalation will mean that pro-Russian politicians in Hungary, Italy or Germany will find it significantly harder to dilute the sanctions put in place, where the EU will now accelerate moving to a post-Russian energy framework. While Russia is moving to supply China with gas, the Chinese will exploit Russia’s isolation to secure preferential terms. While in the short term this is a footnote, longer term this could be a significant event geo-politically if China is able to secure discounted energy rates as it looks to build its own domestic industry.

 

  • Belarus to be pulled in, a new Kyiv front in spring

 

As Russia organises more troops, if the war is still continuing then, it is conceivable that there is a push by the Russian Army through Belarus to target Kyiv again. Even if this proves unsuccessful, the nature of this front would act to weaken defences elsewhere in defence of the capital. The danger for Belarus in this would be that they would risk having the same level of sanctions imposed as are on Russia at the moment. Lukashenko remains in power only through force and the war there is even more unpopular than in Russia, therefore it could be that he declines to support Russia in this way. Equally, unless he does that, it is logical that Russia should seek to target Kyiv again as they scale up their army again.

 

Finally, the most important point is, that as a result of the combination of the mobilisation and the planned referenda, while Putin remains in power, a negotiated settlement now seems impossible. There is no way a democratically elected leader of Ukraine could now negotiate peace which would mean giving away upwards of 20% of its territory, along with the associated natural resources. Equally, Putin’s move here acts to preclude any negotiation on the subject. “My way or nukes,” seems to be the message. This means we are now entering a situation of polarisation where increasingly there can only be four outcomes:

 

  • The West gives up supporting Ukraine, Russian territorial ambitions are met and a peace accord is signed on Russian terms.

 

  • The West continues supporting Ukraine, the mobilisation acts to freeze the conflict, and Putin remains in power

 

  • The West continues supporting Ukraine, Russia is pushed out over time, and Putin is deposed by an equally hawkish Gov’t

 

  • The West continues supporting Ukraine, Russia is pushed out over time, and Putin is deposed by a more moderate Gov’t

 

Which of these is the most likely is for people individually to assess for themselves, equally for the Ukrainian nation what is critical is the continued support of the West, as it is only with that, they can stay in the fight. Hence why Putin is doing everything he can now to make supporting Ukraine as expensive as possible. Here is hoping for a mild winter.

Why Kherson matters

As the Ukrainian army commences its counter-offensive in Kherson, this could be the battle that changes the course of the war. Why is Kherson so significant?

  • Crimea has no source of freshwater itself, it comes from Kherson. For the Russians therefore to hold Crimea, they need to hold Kherson too, as otherwise if there is a drought, the region will destabilize.
  • Kherson is the breadbasket of the country, where the best quality land for farming is. Approximately 20% of Ukraine’s agriculture is within the Kherson region. Similarly, by taking back Kherson, it will mean Ukraine can start shipping grain again at the level it was before.
  • Kherson is the gateway to the Black Sea, both to the East and West. If the Ukrainians retake Kherson it means there is little chance of Odesa falling. Similarly, if the Ukrainians retake Kherson, it significantly improves their chances of taking back the coastline along the Sea of Azov. Or at the very least fortifying along the river allowing troops to be redeployed to other areas.
  • In the context of the war, it will also send a message to the west, that with continued support, Ukraine can drive Russia back to its borders. In the USA, there is an election coming up in a few months, where there are voices already asking why so much is being spent on a country in another continent. If the Ukrainians can show they are winning, it will make it much easier for the next tranche of funding and military support to get approved.
  • Similarly, for Putin, given the amount of prominence given to Kherson in the Russian media, it would be a humiliation for the Russian army if they were driven out and could lead to passive anti-war sentiment in the country becoming more proactive. Within the army already morale is going to be an issue, as newly enlisted soldiers are thrown into the front line with limited training or equipment.

 

In the here and now, given the Russian army garrisoned in the city is reliant on pontoon bridges to resupply, the big question is how they can avoid defeat. There is evidence emerging of Chechen troops stationed along the riverfront with orders to shoot any Russian soldiers trying to head east. That will not prevent mass surrender though.

 

If Ukraine does then take Kherson, what next? Arguably the most plausible scenario is the Ukrainian army looks to consolidate within the oblast, resulting in Crimea then being cut off for winter. From there, the target would be to destroy the Kurch Bridge. Do that, and the peninsula is probably impossible to hold. This will probably lead to the most dangerous and unpredictable phase of the war, given the Russian leadership’s stance toward Crimea.


However, for Ukraine, the prize is worth it. Take back Crimea and with that, have the territorial rights to the off-shore gas which is waiting to be extracted. The fields that exist there are almost as extensive as what Norway has, at a time when Russia has proven it is no longer a reliable energy supplier, and the EU and Germany need one more than anything. For Ukraine, a fast track to EU membership may hinge on them winning back Crimea.