May 19, 2022
As I have written previously, phase II of the war — the “Easter Offensive” of the Russians — is all but over. The Ukrainians have liberated most of the area around Kharkiv — and, apparently, the Russian commander in charge of taking that city has been dismissed — with some of the retreating forces digging in and others moving to reinforce the central grouping in Luhansk. The situation around Kherson and the southern corridor is without change with the exception of strategically unimportant but otherwise useful to Moscow final capture of Mariupol (more on that below). The main fight is still around Severdonetsk, where the Russians have been making steady gains with tremendous losses (on both sides). The break in the Ukrainian defenses around Popasna has now been widened to about 4km, and the Russians might be able to drive further north to complete the small encirclement in Luhansk region. While possible, it still appears uncertain that they would succeed — at least the Ukrainian high command has not given their forces there orders to retreat (it might, of course, not be feasible anymore of the highway to Bakhmut has come within range of the forces from Popasna. There are Belarussian forces constantly maneuvering near the border with Ukraine but it appears their goal is to force the Ukrainians to detach forces to cover them. Similarly with Transnistria although President Sandu just called for the Russians to leave Moldova (there have been calls like that before but this is the first time when the opposition to it seems weaker). In the Black Sea, the Russians are still trying to secure Snake Island, and have been using their fleet to bombard cities from afar. An amphibious landing seems just as far out of reach as it has been since the sinking of Moskva.
Both sides are quite exhausted and the best possible scenario for the Russians at the end of phase II appears to be as follows:
- North (Kharkiv): complete defeat and withdrawal. The Russians were also forced to abandon their original plans to break from Izyum to Kramatorsk, which is why they are now focusing further East toward Lysychansk.
- Center-East: bloody and slow moving Russian advance, with maximum gain the administrative border of Luhansk region. This would be a significant setback to the Ukrainians, whose armies have been fighting, outnumbered and outgunned, there for weeks.
- South: Mariupol taken after last of Azovstal defenders surrender, completing the corridor to Crimea. The city will, apparently, be given over to Kadyrov to administer and “rebuild” — it’s an astounding prize akin to the medieval right to sack a city upon conquering it — in this case, Kadyrov and his coterie of Tik Tok poseurs and rapists will make out literally like bandits because the enormous sums earmarked for reconstruction will flow through their hands. Expect Kadyrov to use this to solidify his rule in Chechnya, much to the consternation of nationalists there.
The surrender of the defenders of Azovstal is not complete as of this writing. About 300 soldiers, 50 of them badly wounded, have walked out in an apparent deal worked out between Kyiv and the Kremlin to exchange them for Russian POWs. The ultras in Russia started howling immediately about betrayals and the need to kill all Nazis. Two knuckleheads in the Duma argued that they should legislate that it is illegal to exchange any such prisoners and that they death penalty should be reintroduced. The highest court has also been asked to declare the Azov Regiment a terrorist organization. Seeing that Azov is a member of the regular armed forces of Ukraine, this amounts to a post-hoc attempt to reclassify them as irregulars rather than POWs, which would allow Russia to do basically what it wants with them.
There are two problems with this. First, the defenders are not all, or even majority, Azov Regiment members. There are all sorts of soldiers there: marines, territorial defenses, etc. The Russians would somehow have to argue that those in Azov are specifically guilty of something. I am sure they will try, which is probably why they have said that they are going to interrogate the captives. The second problem is more substantial: if they were to retroactively de-classify them as POWs and then harm them, I am pretty sure any chance of a negotiated settlement is going to fly out the window. The chances for that are slim but, as I explain below, the entire Russian strategy right now hinges upon that. As long as there is a prospect of such a settlement/cease-fire, I do not believe the Russians will harm any POWs openly. Now that the International Red Cross has registered all the names of the surrendering Ukrainians, it will be difficult to keep this under wraps. It is also worth noting that there are a lot more, potentially hundreds more, defenders still in Azovstal.
The bottom line is that in the South, the Russians are finally close to achieving their objective to get that land corridor to Crimea although all of that gain except Mariupol was secured during the initial phase of the war. In the second phase, they have scored the tactical victory of taking the city — and even then not completely — and gotten a bargaining chip in the Ukrainian POWs that the entire country desperately wants to see free.
- South-West / Black Sea: even if the Russians secure Snake Island, a goal that still eludes them, the do not have the ability to land forces to threaten Odessa, in part because they are so busy holding the line for Kherson. Any attempt to land without sufficient cover and reinforcement from land would end in a lot of dead bodies on the beaches. Transnistria is still a question although the Ukrainians are monitoring it very closely. It looks like phase II will end essentially in the shape things are in now.
On the Ukrainian side, there are both good and bad news as well:
- The best news have been the liberation of the areas around Kharkiv, the stalemate at Kherson, the dogged defense of the Luhansk pocket, the annihilation of nearly 100 vehicles and about 1,000 soldiers at Bilohorivka, and generally denying the Russians any significant victory.
- The surrender of the Mariupol defenders was ordered by the High Command, and makes perfect sense no matter how painful it is to see. These soldiers did the impossible: they held out against superior forces and withering fire for weeks, tying up Russian troops much needed for the push toward the Dnipro River and north, with the result that the Russian objectives had to be repeatedly scaled down to their present state. Ordering them to die for nothing but symbolic reasons makes no sense, and I am glad Kyiv decided otherwise. Whether the Russians keep their end of the informal deal remains to be seen but there are good reasons to believe that they will (more below).
- The setbacks have included remaining vulnerability of cities even as far west as Lviv to Russian missiles, the massive destruction of infrastructure, the theft of grain, the blocking of exports, the scarcity of oil, and the deteriorating economy.
- Some of this bad news will be offset by the EU just approving a financial aid package worth EUR 18bn, the US approving lend/lease through September worth $40bn, and Poland giving Ukraine 25,000 tons of petrol to meet immediate needs.
- The economic outlook for Ukraine remains dire. The government just extended the state of emergency and the mobilization, which means a large number of people will not be in gainful employment. The hope is that Western aid will be able to plug most of the financial hole, at least for the time being.
Where does this leave us? It seems clear now that Putin has been forced to reconcile with the limited aims enunciated, to everyone’s surprise, in mid March by the military. I have also heard that several weeks ago some officers from the General Staff delivered a blunt report to him, saying that his initial military objectives for phase II would not be achieved and that he had to think about winding down the war before the dilapidation of the Russian army to the point that it would not be able to discharge its duties to protect Russia. Putin is said to have dismissed the report but did not punish the officers, whose attitude was so out of step with his. Recent events suggest that this faction has gain more traction: the appearance of Colonel Khodarenok on state TV (in one of the premier propaganda programs — Skabeeva’s show).
Khodarenok, one should recall, voiced strong opposition to the war back on February 3, in an article called “The Forecasts of Bloodthirsty Pundits: On Enthusiastic Hawks and Rushing Cuckoos.” In it, he correctly foresaw that Ukrainian would resist fiercely, that the war will be long and bloody, that the West would implement a lend/lease, and so on. He was forced to recant this (which he did, on TV), but he now resurfaced with a blunt and honest assessment of the war, right on prime time. In it, he asserted that the war has been going badly, that Russia has been isolated and, effectively, fighting the entire world, that this talk about nukes needs to stop, and that the government must find ways to end the war quickly.
Now, do not for a moment imagine that Khodarenok — and the people he represents, for he would never have been able to say this unless there was a strong faction behind that statement — is some sort of friend to Ukraine or just wants peace. He is as nationalist as they come, and many in that group (which appears to be concentrated in the military) are even imperialists to boot. He, however, is a professional who can assess the military situation without the rosy lens of civilians and armchair generals. So when I say that this faction seems to have the upper hand for now (having wrested it from the FSB faction that wants to conquer all Ukraine), I do not mean to suggest that they wish to just end the war on any terms. It is the strategy of this faction that is being executed right now, and they seem to be utterly convinced that they can accomplish their goals successfully.
And what are their goals? The situation on the ground makes them rather transparent: take as much land as you can hope to annex as possible, reach defensible positions, fortify there, and sit tight while the diplomats do their work. The diplomats will offer cease-fire and “Minsk III” to negotiate peace in exchange for Russian gains, which include: the recognition of Crimea and the land corridor to it, plus the independence or annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kherson. The military faction absolutely needs some of these gains (at minimum, the land corridor — I think they might be willing to sell out Kherson and the “republic”-wannabes in Donbas) in order to survive politically. They will fight tooth and nail to get that.
The Russians have already activated all their assets in the West — it is astonishing how quickly they are burning through them by asking them to reveal themselves with open advocacy of the Russian position, which itself is an indicator of desperation. You have the usual suspects in Macron and Scholz, whom I already discussed, but also politicians in Italy, Hungary (Orban), Bulgaria (Socialists, nationalists, and President Radev), and Croatia (President Milanović). The fifth-columnists in the US are busy either voting against aid for Ukraine (11 GOP Senators, including Paul, whom McCain already called a Russian asset years ago) or penning articles about giving up Ukrainian territory (with some far-fetched analogies to South Korea and West Germany, courtesy of Ignatius in the WaPo) or appeasing Putin (with some far-fetched ideas about not investigating war crimes for fear offending the Russians, courtesy of Haas). As usual, the pundits are sounding very wise and somber, trying to impress their audience with some “above the fray” impartiality. But their arguments are about as air-tight as that other one against NATO expansion, and just as vapid and pernicious.
The reality is really simple. The Ukrainians will not give up their territory. Whether it takes them 6 months or a decade, they will not stop. We can either shorten this war by giving them the means to accomplish this sooner or prolong the agony by denying them the aid until they either collapse — letting Russia have its ambitions fulfilled and saddling us with having to deal with the aftermath of a resurgent Russian imperialism amidst a debacle in the West — or they win but without us, at which point we will have both a revanchist Russia and a resentful Ukraine, both on the bodies of tens of thousands more Ukrainians that will perish in that fight.
The people who imagine Mink III really should be writing fantasy novels (not even science fiction) because they believe in magic. If Russia is allowed to gobble up Ukrainian territory now, Putin’s gamble will be vindicated (for the regime will sell any gain as a total victory of Russia over the unified West), and it will break apart the West just as fast as the invasion consolidated it. The victory will take the wind out of the sails of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, and Swedes who are banking on NATO for their safety. (No pious references to Article V will help one here — the terrible secret is that this article has never been tested, and if Ukraine is permitted to fall, whatever dubious credibility it has will be even further in doubt.) How long do you think Bulgaria will remain as member of NATO or the EU if the fifth columnists there take the upper hand, emboldened by Russia’s victory? How long before all the Marxists come out of retirement to explain to us the evils of capitalism? How long before nationalists start pointing to this as a triumph over weak democracies? I will not even both to talk about the inferences that China would draw from this. You can also expect solidification of pro-Putin regimes in the entire Russian periphery from Europe to the Far East. The problem with people like Ignatius and Haas is that they seem unable to comprehend the stakes for which we are supporting Ukraine right now. Or perhaps unwilling to do so.
The good news is that Ukraine has been winning the information war in the West, and the publics are solidly on Ukraine’s side. Politicians have seized on this to gain power, as the recent triumph of the Greens in the elections in Rheinland-Westphalia over Scholz’s party show (the Greens have been at the forefront of demanding aid for Ukraine and criticizing the Chancellor for his vacillating policies). The hope is that in the Western democracies the publics can provide the spine for the political elites that are either too intimidated or too bribed by the Russians to do anything. Otherwise, it will be yet another Anglo-Saxon cooperation with “new Europe” to help Ukraine, and I am not sure that we can pull it off without the Europeans.
What should we watch out for, then? First, since the current Russian strategy is entirely predicated on a successful cease-fire, we should expect that their assets in the West would try to pressure the Ukrainians to negotiate. (If I were in Kyiv, I would be looking for any excuses not to do it.) Second, the Russians will not harm the POWs as long as there is hope in a cease-fire. Third, the likelihood of nuclear weapons is very low as long as the Ukrainians are unable to defeat them on the ground. And if the Ukrainians do defeat them on the ground, then I think the likelihood will go to nil for the simple reason that this would be the end of Putin’s regime, and it is highly unlikely that all five people who need to press buttons in the chain of command will actually do so when they realized there will be no one to protect them from the consequences. Fourth, the Russians will continue to mobilize and send reinforcements. Right now, they are paying exorbitant salaries to contract soldiers from the poor regions and seem to be getting quite a few to line up. But there is quite a bit of resistance, which means that the hidden mobilization might not be sufficient. If they are involved in negotiations and the Ukrainians press against them, the Russians might declare open mobilization to protect the “motherland” or some nonsense using annexations as pretext to declare Ukrainian attacks as being against Russia. Or they just engineer some Ukrainian “terrorist” attacks — there are plenty of options here. Time is not really on Ukraine’s side, which appears to be exactly the opposite of what the Western press seems to think.
So a lot of what happens next must depend on the battlefield. The Russian strategy might succeed if the Ukrainian economy or unified Western support collapse before the Russian economy or unity in the political elites do. As long as there is prospect for success based on conquered territories, I think the likelihood of some sort of action against Putin is extremely low, and since the Russian economy can probably wobble along for years, the sanctions themselves will not be sufficient pressure to change the policy. Not when the survival of the regime is at stake.
In other words, everything is going to depend on whether the Ukrainians will be able to launch a successful counter-offensive this summer. They cannot wait too long because the Russians are also regrouping, reinforcing, and digging in. Their fortifications around the land bridge in the South will probably be very difficult to overcome, especially because the Russians control the Black Sea. Without an air force than can clear the skies, I am not even sure that the Ukrainians can attempt a counter-offensive. It does not matter how many advanced tanks and artillery they get — to push the Russians out, they will have to attack and if they do this without air cover, they will suffer a fate very similar to that of the Russians… and the Ukrainians can scarcely afford the casualties. The implication is that the West must supply Ukraine with fighter jets if we want them to win.
Bottom line: without significant military aid that is specifically designed to help the Ukrainians defeat the occupying Russian forces, the conflict will stalemate into a positional war of attrition, which would give Russia time to work its magic on the West until it succeeds in splintering it. The more time that Ukrainians do not win, the more time for “impartial observers” to find more reasons not to help Ukraine, which will practically ensure Russian victory.
As Margaret Thatcher told President H. W. Bush after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, “now is not the time to go wobbly.” I sure hope people are proffering the same advice to Putin’s appeasers right now.