The contraction of Russia’s war aims in Eastern Ukraine, March through June

The contraction of Russia’s war aims in Eastern Ukraine, March through June

May 15, 2022

All three of the western encirclement attempts failed, and now the Russians are throwing everything they have into the last-ditch attempt to finish the conquest of Luhansk region (they control about 90% of it already). They seem to have abandoned — for now — the idea of getting to the administrative border of Donetsk Region to the south. In fact, from what I understand, the are trying to strike more directly north from Popasna rather than westward as indicated by the arrow, so that they can take Lysychansk and Severodonetsk.

While the world is transfixed on Mariupol, this here is where the most fierce, and decisive, fighting is occurring, and both sides are taking heavy casualties. The Russians desperately need this victory so they can enter Phase III of the war — positional defense of occupied territories — with some semblance of an accomplished goal that Putin can sell domestically.

To the north, the Ukrainians have pushed the Russians away from Kharkiv, reaching in some instances the border with Russia. Meanwhile, the “Ukrainian” strikes on Belgorod are now almost a daily occurrence. Kharkiv is cautiously coming back to life but the danger hasn’t passed: the Russians are digging in there as well, trying to stem the Ukrainian advance.

The Phase III of the war is going to start in 7-10 days, it appears. As I said earlier, it will likely be positional, with Russians defending their gains and the Ukrainians attempting to organize an assault that would liberate the territories they lost (not just since the start of the February invasion, but since 2014). It’s notable that a lot of the Russian conquest was basically without Ukrainian resistance when it happened at the outset.

The attrition warfare will have several “races”.

First, the economic race. The Russian economy is groaning under Western sanctions but Putin still makes millions of dollars daily from exports of oil and gas, and this income will not decrease appreciably over the short term. Russia can continue to sustain the war effort at least through early fall without serious deprivations in the major cities.

The Ukrainian economy has been shattered, and the situation is getting worse daily because of incessant Russian shelling. The UN estimates that within a year, 90% of Ukrainians would reach poverty levels. The West must step in to replenish the Ukrainian economy immediately. The $40bn package that McConnel promises would be adopted by the Senate on the 18th (one day before the deadline) has quite a bit set aside for financial and economic assistance. I hope it’s enough to tide the Ukrainians over.

The second race is political: will Western unity collapse before Putin’s supporters start an internecine war for dominance in the Kremlin? One thing that the Russians will do immediately upon digging in at their location of furthest reach will be to start talking cease-fire and peace negotiations. They already have the ears of Macron and Scholz, and there might be pressure on the Ukrainians to talk. Zelenskyy will, of course, talk — one must not appear to willfully reject potential peace agreements no matter how impossible I think they might be. The Russians will surely demand (a) recognition of Crimea, (b) recognition of the LNR/DNR, (c) recognition of Kherson, (d) acceptance of the land corridor in the South, which includes ceding Mariupol, and these are probably their minimal terms.

The Ukrainians will not agree to these, and this is where Western unity will be tested. Some will doubtless argue that some territorial losses are a fair price for peace and security. To this, I only have to say that there will never be peace for Ukraine if Russia is permitted any gains from this war. And not just Ukraine — if Putin walks away with a chunk of Ukraine and Crimea+, it will be a victory for him. And it will just be a matter of time before the Russians regroup and come back to finish what they started. This will pit the Anglo-Saxon bulwark against Russia (US/UK, with enthusiastic support from Poland and the Baltic states) against the central European condominium of France/Germany/Italy, with the support of Hungary and, possibly, Turkey.

If the Europeans stay the course, the Russian gamble will be in shambles, and the likelihood that Putin will not survive it will grow exponentially. If they fold, they will give him a new lease on life politically. I think the chances are that the West will hold, but then again, I have been wrong about things before.

The Russians are perhaps betting that prolonging the war will actually help them. With lend/lease, it must be clear to them that the Ukrainian army will keep getting better, so they must be banking on something else. Economic strangulation of Ukraine, collapse of Western support, and a potentially intimidating mobilization (hidden still) in Russia.

Or they might be just playing the card they dealt themselves and have no real plan except hoping for a miracle.

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