When the “special military operation” began, it was clear that the Russian leadership believed that it could basically make a show of force, send the message in all directions, and achieve its main goals through a political negotiation that would ensure the security of the areas he wanted to bring under control and incorporate into Russian territory and obtain guarantees that from now on Ukraine would not be the spearhead of the West’s pressure on Russia.
This strategy ran into both Ukrainian resistance and pressure from Western countries who did not want a relatively short compromise that would further upgrade Russia’s position. This was seen in the collapse of the first negotiations in Istanbul and led to the escalation of the war and the gradual changes in Russian planning. (please read the analysis entitled “NATO’s Message to Russia: “whatever new you bring to the front, we will respond with ours stronger“)
At the same time, Western aid in equipment, training and intelligence to Ukraine was escalated, and a Western line was outlined that had as its horizon the defeat of Russia and – if possible – even the political collapse of the “Putin system”.
The Russian response was partial mobilization and the attempt to form a line of confrontation where the costs would be lower and at the same time the possibility of aggressive actions, mainly in Donbas, would be easier. At the same time, a systematic destruction of the Ukrainian infrastructure, military first and then political, began – and is still continuing – in an attempt to force the Ukrainian side to capitulate.
This tactic combined with some tactical deployments on the part of the Russian side led to a stabilization of the fronts and a renewed attempt to occupy critical positions, especially in the Donbass.
The West’s insistence on Russian defeat
The balance that has been established and the fact that Russia appears to have the ability to continue a systematic war of attrition has brought both the Ukrainian government and Western governments to face the question of next moves.
Although the ceasefire scenario appears to have been considered in behind-the-scenes talks, it was felt that this at this time would mean that Russia would be somewhat of a winner by retaining a significant portion of Ukrainian territory. Neither Ukrainians nor Western governments could accept this.
But the problem is that since Russia decided to go to war and not just a “special military operation”, through partial mobilization (which can be expanded at any time) and redeployment of its forces, the Ukrainian side found itself in an unfavorable position, as it could no longer rely mainly on its main advantage, which was the ability to mobilize a large number of conscripts who were even fighting for their homeland.
Instead, the key again became the type of weaponry, i.e. getting the Ukrainian side even more effective weaponry. Except that necessarily meant even more Western aid.
This also explains the particular importance that has been attached to Ukraine acquiring tanks of relatively more advanced technology (and larger) than those it currently possesses, as it is believed that these would allow for much more effective counterattacks and operations within the settlements that constitute the act and the only really fortified positions within the morphology of the battlefield. However, this also means that this war is not going to stop anytime soon.
The real difficulty of Russia
This war shapes a radically new landscape for Russia. By this we are not referring so much to the way in which the imminent collapse of Russia or the depletion of its stockpiles of armaments are often announced in the Western media, facts that are far from reality. The main difficulty for Russia lies in the very concept of its victory and what it entails.
As noted, the war in Ukraine marks the first time Russia has been involved in a major military conflict without having alliances with the West, unlike in both world wars of the 20th century. Not only does it have no allies in the West, it does not even have intermediate interlocutors and “mediators”, as even traditionally neutral countries in Europe take sides with the Western line.
Russia can count on the fact that a very large part of the global South has refused to go along with Western sanctions and this has certainly helped, primarily in keeping Russia’s economic record good. But this does not mean active alliances. Even the association with China concerns the horizon of a possible Eurasian convergence in the future between two countries that have clashed in the past, while good relations with India hardly define an alliance. Only with Iran can one see the kind of support that actually corresponds to an alliance.
At the same time, Russia has to manage the territories it now has under its control. This not only concerns the ability to defend them against the expected continuous Ukrainian counter-attacks, but also the possibility that in some areas the Russian forces will be treated as occupying forces.
The corresponding difficulty also exists for the issue of the “de-Naziization” of Ukraine. And this is because the objective here has always been twofold: on the one hand, the dismantling of Ukraine’s military infrastructure, on the other hand, a “regime change”, that is, ensuring that the government of Kiev would follow a policy of neutrality and certainly not aggressive towards Russia. And if the part concerning the military infrastructure seems possible in the context of a war of attrition, it is obvious that it will be very difficult for a government with such a direction to emerge in Ukraine. This means that even if a “contact line” is stabilized and there is a cease-fire, this will be a highly institutionalized and volatile border, with constant “flare-ups” and new heated conflicts. Accordingly, one can reasonably assume that individual actions against Russia or even a kind of “insurgency” will continue for a long time. After all, the regions that will remain on Ukrainian territory will be characterized by very strong nationalism, attachment to the West and can be a springboard for overt or covert Western operations against Russia.
This means that Russia will be faced not just with the demands of a military conflict – for which it appears to be quite prepared – but with an entirely new geopolitical landscape, new for its leadership, new for and for its economic elites. A landscape without political and economic relations with the West, without stable alliances and with a basic compensation the wider appeal of aspects of the Russian reading of reality in large parts of the global South.
This will require a more complete reorientation, a more complete ability to rely mainly on its own forces, and obviously a constant alternation of “cold” and “hot” confrontations on various open fronts, while the West will continue in one way or another to try to downgrade its position, starting with the very fact that it will prolong the conflicts long enough, increasing the aid, significantly delaying the possibility of a cease-fire.
And that means that even if Russia succeeds on the battlefields in avoiding the defeat that the West and the Ukrainian government would like to impose on them, the treaty and the landscape that Putin and his successor will have to face next time will look like a “fragile victory”.