As V Day takes place across Europe, the symbolism of this day is taking on a new meaning, for people across the continent. On the one hand, Putin looks to position the special operation as being to defeat Ukrainian fascists, whilst in Ukraine, the parallels with history are clear, the war is existential, for the right to be an independent nation against a neighboring aggressor which seeks to occupy with force.
Nonetheless, increasingly rhetoric is taking second place to reality. On that basis, what we are seeing is:
- Russia won’t negotiate on its core objectives and is prepared to use brute force to win, even if that means heavy losses
- There is no clear negotiated middle ground that allows for a win-win, similarly, there are question marks on whether the Russians would even negotiate in good faith
- The Ukrainian people are prepared to fight to the death, won’t compromise on core principles, and can’t easily be beaten
- Russia is also now in an economic war with the west which has significant implications for not just them but the global economy
- It could be six months to a year before we see a meaningful conclusion
With that, as discussed in a previous post, the Russian core objectives are:
- Take control of Kherson, so to ensure water access for Crimea
- Secure the sea of Azov, by conquering all port cities (Melitopol, Berdyansk, Mariupol) across the sealine
- Secure the entire black sea as well to restrict Ukrainian access to the water. Essential for supply lines and to starve exports (Mykolaiv, Odessa)
- Take control of Kharkiv and the surrounding cities (Sumy) as the regions with the highest ethnic Russian populations
- Secure the entire oblasts for Luhansk and Donetsk so they can be fully independent
On that basis, in terms of a status report, what we see is that 73 days in, Kherson, Melitopol, and Berdyansk have been conquered already, whereas Mariupol is mostly under Russian control. Mykolaiv has been targeted but the invading force has been repelled, for now, meaning Odessa is also safe, whereas the loss of the Moskva is a humiliation for the Russian navy. Finally, interestingly, the Ukrainian army is now launching a counteroffensive to push back from Kharkiv where the Russian army is on the back foot. So a mixed scorecard all things considered.
Putin’s gambit has been that he can just overpower the Ukrainians with brute force and wear them down over time, by sieging their cities using artillery and bombing until they implode from within. At that point the army marches in, plants a flag, and puts friendly administrators in power, kidnapping existing officials if necessary. This negates their weakness, the lack of training of their troops, and plays to their strengths, i.e. the size of their firepower. Mariupol is a testament to that. Once a city then surrenders, the army is moved on to the next target.
However, this approach is coming at a heavy cost. Even if Putin is less concerned about the loss of life, the loss of weaponry is stark. So everyone has now seen the memes involving Russian tanks and Ukrainian tractors, jokes aside, it is now estimated that Ukraine has more tanks than it did at the beginning of the war. In contrast, out of a total of approx 12,000, it is estimated Russia has lost up to 1200.
Regarding the Russian losses, while 10% of their tanks may not sound too much, then also consider that due to the sanctions that have been imposed, the Russians can not currently secure the parts needed to manufacture new tanks. The same applies to all Russian military hardware. Even if Russia finds a way through its partnership with China to substitute some aspects of the technology it needs for manufacturing military hardware, over time it will lose. Put another way, at the current rate of losses, Russia would have lost 50% of its tanks in 12 months. This is a staggering amount, especially if combined with the fact that over time the Russians lose the ability to bomb from the skies, as the Ukrainians become more proficient in starstreak and other anti-aircraft systems.
Also, sanctions are biting the Russian economy. Outside the obvious impacts seen, in terms of the military-industrial complex, it will take time for the real impact to be seen. Going back to what I touched on earlier regarding manufacturing, there is a critical issue in Russia in terms of dependency on western technology. Similarly, there are real problems regarding the STEM-based economy, in terms of the ability of the next generation to build out the solutions needed. In the Soviet Union, Engineers were at the forefront, today they are underpaid, undervalued, and if highly skilled have probably already moved abroad. What this means is that, despite assertions to the contrary, Russia can not afford to have continued sanctions and function normally. It doesn’t have the IP or expertise to have an autonomous industry. For now, Putin can gloss over this, but the longer the war runs, the more evident this truth will become.
As a result, what is clear is that Putin will be unable to achieve what he craved, which is an overwhelming victory. Instead, at best, he probably needs to lock in gains made as fast as possible and make them the basis of a negotiated settlement. However, in order to ensure gains made aren’t lost in the here and now, they need reinforcements. Hence Russian troops in Syria are now being redeployed and there are now talks of full mobilization.
With this in mind, the Ukrainians understand the only way to win is to stay in the battle with everything that entails and do whatever they can to prevent the Russians from locking in land gains. Therefore they stand resolute and are clear that they won’t accept any negotiated settlement that is a diktat. Zelenskyy has even said any settlement would be subject to a referendum.
Similarly, in the here and now there are questions as to whether the Russians even negotiate in good faith, as seen by the shelling of humanitarian corridors despite assurances to the contrary, or the poisoning of the Ukrainian negotiating team. Therefore the only thing that matters for the Ukrainians is to continue to have the support of the west, hence the continued diplomatic efforts made to secure additional weaponry, along with extending sanctions on Russia.
Therefore as long as the Ukrainians continue to get western support, and as long as the west maintains sanctions, there will come a point where the Russians are forced back. In both cases, the horrors of the war crimes committed mean this is a safe bet and for the Ukrainians, given the sacrifices made, there is no reason to stop now. WWII teaches us that in a longer war, the winner is the nation that is able to outperform the other in manufacturing, for everything from tanks to missiles, bullets, and even spare parts. With the west now acting to resupply Ukraine, it is hard to see how Russia can compete and unless they can finish this war quickly, it is harder to see how they win.
In summary, as the war moves into this final phase of attrition, expect long-range artillery supplied by the west under Ukrainian control to fire into Russia, destroying depots and re-supply points along with railways, hence providing logistical support to front line troops will become increasingly hard. Similarly, while Putin may not concern himself with the body count, the generals themselves will feel pressure as the death count mounts. Already it is estimated there are 25,000 dead and up to 50,000 injured and unable to fight. Therefore it is my belief Russia probably run out of steam in the next six months at which point, regardless of the political will, their military will just stop being able to compete. For the Russian leadership, in that instance, it would be much easier to say they are at war with NATO and look to have a creditable draw (after all no Russian territory would have been lost), than admit they have been unable to conquer Ukraine. From a propaganda perspective, therefore, regardless of anything else, I expect in this next phase, the language used by the Kremlin to emphasize western assistance and the fact that with that, Russia is in effect at war with NATO. This then means that should there need to be a need to withdraw, they can do so on this pretext. Hence this is why Liz Truss is stating the war should not end until Ukraine has won back Lukansk, Donestsk and Crimea. So there is no doubt Russia had a humiliating defeat, which creates a groundswell movement against the leadership. Otherwise, at that point even if Putin is deposed, the danger for the west is that his replacement is someone more hardline than him. For example, Nikolai Patrushev is alleged to be taking over whilst Putin undergoes surgery, where he is a hardliner, who shares Putin’s paranoia about the west. What happens then? Russia retreats, rearms, and re-invades later? The risk of inaction now is greater than the risk of escalation. Russia must not only lose but be seen to lose within the country, where the hardliners are discredited and a new Government is formed which looks to make reparations for these actions. Only then can Europe have peace again.
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