War Update: fighting toward uti possidetis or Ukrainian victory

May 23, 2022

The Russian offensives have run out of steam, again.

In the north, their counter-attack in the area around Kharkiv bogged down at Ternova. This still leaves the crucial transport hub of Vovchansk in Russian hands, so the Ukrainians are likely trying to restart their own attack to capture it.

In the center, the Russians are still attacking in all directions from Popasna, but have been unable to improve their positions in the last day or so, most likely because the Ukrainians rushed reinforcements to stem their advance. The strategic road from Bakhmut to Severodonetsk remains open but is within range of Russian artillery, which makes it harder to use. The Russians are amassing forces south of Izuym, likely for a renewed push on Slovyansk. This town has some symbolic importance, being the first to be captured by the Russia-backed separatists in 2014, under the command of the infamous Igor Girkin/Strelkov, who ordered extra-judicial executions of Ukrainians there, setting the tone for the war in Donbas for years to come. (Currently, Girkin spends his time on YouTube and Telegram, blasting Putin’s inept conduct of the war, the “betrayal” of Donbas heroes like himself, and arguing that Russia can conquer all of Ukraine if only it were competently led. There is a lot of speculation about who is protecting him — he’s a former FSB officer — because he certainly would not have been allowed to live unless he was sounding the opinion of some faction within the group of siloviki.) The Ukrainians have fallen back toward Svyatohirsk, while the Russians have captured Drobisheve north of Lyman. The fighting is intense, but it is not yet clear what the Russians are really intending there.

Severodonetsk remains a huge problem for Ukraine as the RFA and its Donbas units have broken into the suburbs north of the center. The city is now assaulted from three sides, and the Russians are trying to close the circle from the west to turn it into a second Mariupol. There are about 10,000 citizens (out of prewar population of 100,000 still remaining although why, I have no idea — they had been urged to leave for weeks), and the travel is increasingly perilous because the road to Bakhmut is no longer safe. The Russians destroyed an important bridge and, in an amusing retribution, the Ukrainians blew up the 2S4 Tyul’pan responsible for it after seeing a Russian journalist reporting on location about it. The Ukrainian high command has not ordered the withdrawal from Severodonetsk, which tells me they are still assessing that the Russians will not be able to complete the encirclement. With the attacks from Popasna slowing down considerably, there might be some cause for optimism there. The problem is that the Russians are throwing everything they got in this operation, and they are rushing reinforcements toward Popasna. One huge problem for Ukraine is that Russians have rail access to Popasna through areas controlled by them/separatists for years. The big difference in their success here compared to elsewhere is precisely the rail — if the Ukrainians manage to knock it out, the Russians will quickly bog down here as well because they do not have the capacity to reinforce their advance battalions by truck.

In the south, Mariupol is now completely in Russian hands, with 90% of the city in ruins. Over 2,500 Ukrainian troops were ordered to surrender by the High Command and are now in captivity. So far, the bloodthirsty calls of various hotheads in the Duma to execute Azov members have not come to fruition. As I have argued before, the POWs are safe as long as the Russians have any hope to negotiate an end to the war — executing any of them would effectively foreclose any such possibility.

The Russian Black Sea fleet — or at least its submarines — have now left Sevastopol and are being used to launch missile strikes. However, there has been no development toward an amphibious assault on Odessa. If anything, the Russians are busy fortifying the area south of Zaporizhzhia and around Kherson, in preparation for the expected Ukrainian summer offensive. They are massing forces there and while it is possible that they can renew a push toward Zaporizhzhia, thus far the situation has been stable. It looks like the RFA will try to hold the land bridge to Crimea at all costs.

Transnistria remains stable — the only development there is that the President of Moldova has openly called for the Russian forces to leave it. So far, nothing has happened.

Belarus is again a problem. Following the last meeting with Putin, Lukashenko appears to have received a dose of spine-stiffener and now Belorussian forces are moving toward the border with Ukraine, along with RFA units, including Iskander missle launchers. There are reports of increasing intel-gathering along the border as well. The risks of an intervention by Belarus seem to have increased. Offsetting this, however, is the fact that Russia is not doing better than before in the war, that Lukashenko is reportedly exploring the possibility of getting out of some sanctions (decoupling from Russia in the sanctions regime would not be possible if he intervenes directly), that the Belorussian battalion in Ukraine has grown to become a regiment (so an open entry might end up in a call for Lukashenko’s military to switch sides), and that public opinion is squarely against an intervention. So, it is unclear what benefit Minsk would have from joining the war openly. In other words, I still think that the likelihood of Belarus entering the war is not very high, but because it cannot be discounted completely, the Ukrainians must detach forces to cover the border there, which detracts from their effort elsewhere. It is likely that this is the intention of the tireless maneuvers by the Belorussians.

As I’ve been saying all along, the Russians are maneuvering to end this phase of the war in clear control of the southern land bridge, and the regions of Kherson and Luhansk (they do not seem to have the strength to gain full control of Donetsk region to its administrative borders). They will use the lines of furthest advance in any negotiations like they did in the Minsk Agreements. The calls in Western Europe to “not humiliate Putin” have escalated, also predictably, with the New York Times penning a shameful editorial along those lines, with dire warnings that Biden should tell the Ukrainians that there are limits to American aid. To all of these, I would just echo McConnell’s statement in the Senate — as expensive and risky it is to support an Ukrainian victory, it would be far more expensive and riskier to allow an Ukrainian defeat. For their part, the Ukrainian government has vowed that there will be no “Minsk III” and that it would continue to fight until all Russian forces are expelled from its territory. (Their position on Crimea is a bit ambiguous but they do seem to exclude any settlement that would leave Kherson, the land bridge, or Donbas in Russian hands.) In this, Kyiv has unequivocal support from the US, UK, Poland, and the Baltics. It seems that Biden has been able to bring enough pressure on Germany to get Scholz to release some of the weapons the Ukrainians need, but Macron continues to be himself and keeps pouring cold water on Ukrainian aspirations to join the EU (not to mention the fact that France’s biggest contribution so far seem to be electronics produced in 2022 that have somehow found their way into Russian military equipment despite the sanctions).

I must confess that I am starting to suspect that the governments of France, Germany, and Italy do not actually want to see Ukraine victorious. I am not quite sure to explain why but it might have something to do with the fact that if Russia is defeated in Ukraine, it will be pushed back into Asia, fulfilling Zbigniew Brzezinski’s lifelong dream. Its hold on Belarus would be weakened, and it is not out of the question that Lukashenko’s days will be over in short order. (Not to mention Central Asia, which will start breaking away from Russia, and Tajikistan probably ending in a war with Afghanistan — the Taliban have sensed weakness with the withdrawal of Russian troops and have escalated their attacks across the border.) All of this boils down to a lot of instability and unpredictability in the region, and — as I have argued before — the possibility that the Russian Federation itself will fall apart cannot be entirely discounted. The old game of “we do not like Russia but we like instability even less” might be involved in their calculations again. It’s a dangerous gamble to place your bets with a known evil (Putin and his coterie of imperialists) because you are afraid of things that have not happened. Recall that similar concerns plagued the US administration when the USSR was collapsing, and while initially Washington tried to — ironically — prevent that from happening, in the end they let the process unfold unimpeded and poured resources into helping avoid the worst-case scenario. Such a strategy might be appropriate now as well.

The saving grace here comes from two sources: unequivocal US/UK support for Ukraine that is buttressed by Poland and the Baltics, whose governments are constantly naming and shaming European laggards, and the publics in Western Europe, which are squarely on the Ukrainian side. The latter is providing the context for political challengers to the ruling parties, and — if the recent elections in Nordrhein-Westfalen in Germany are any indication (and they are) — the ones that push for more help for Ukraine find direct electoral support against lagging incumbents. This might be why Scholz, recently chastised by the stinging electoral defeat in Germany’s most populous state, requested a list of arms and supplies from the defense industry (which is pushing to send more, and heavy, weapons to Ukraine) and promised to send everything in the immediate future.

As an academic, I find it interesting how and when the UN norm against violent revision of state borders gets enforced. In previous instances involving Russia, the norm was honored in the breach. With the Kremlin providing some plausible pretext that allowed all interested parties to pretend that the norm had not been violated, the Western governments allowed themselves only tepid reactions in the form of sanctions. Most of these conflicts were never declared, and many remained “frozen” with de facto Russian control without de jure recognition. There is every reason to believe that had Putin limited the invasion to the Donbas region, the reaction would have been the same. Had the Kyiv government fallen or fled into exile, the reaction would have been the same as well. But with the Ukrainians resisting, it was the Western publics that stiffened the spine of many politicians, which in turn created pressure on the ruling elites to change their tune. Suddenly, the UN norm was “activated” and the rhetoric involved creates its own momentum to support Ukraine until the violation has been rectified. In other words, the Macronizing calls to accommodate Putin somehow are not supported by the publics, and as a result the governments are finding themselves having to stick with Ukraine until Kyiv decides to make peace, and on what terms.

This was (at least to me) unexpected. Western publics are generally extraordinarily uninterested in foreign policy, and multiple studies show that Americans do not vote on the basis of their government’s foreign policy performance. In that sense, it is good that Washington has developed a consensus that it is in US’s interested to prevent the defeat of Ukraine — no public pressure would have likely materialized to demand it. This is very much in line with what one would have expected. But the situation in Western Europe is different — there are frequent demonstrations in support of Ukraine and they involve fairly large numbers of people. Contrary to much armchair theorizing about pacific and timid citizens who are always opposed to war, we can see the other side of democracy, when the public demands a more aggressive policy from its government. While there are no calls to get involved directly in a shooting war with Russia (yet), there is a clear decision to aid Ukraine by any means necessary short of such involvement even though doing that runs the risk of escalation (possibly to nuclear weapons) and even though the Russian retaliation would ensure that such behavior would be quite costly to them (through the gas and oil blackmail). It is not obvious to me how long such resolve would hold out, but the longer it does, the harder it will be for governments that have been forced to take certain steps with respect to Ukraine and their dependence on Russian resources to reverse course. As I said, policy creates its own momentum.

It is, then, interesting that the calls for letting Russia have some piece of Ukraine have increased just when Russia’s internal situation has started to deteriorate. In a sense, these governments seem to be realizing that they are embarking on a one way political journey that will commit them to see this war through, meaning that they are likely to deal with one of two unpleasant scenarios — a war with Russia or the collapse of the Russian regime. The calls have an air of desperation to them, just like the shows of Russian propagandists who are finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the reality of the war.

Public support for the “special operation” has decreased, and even though this by itself will not do anything (it can probably go all the way down to 0% and it will would not deter the hawks), it is indicative of information starting to reach previously undecided citizens. The audience at a concert in St. Petersburg chanted “Fuck the war!” and the police did not do anything. A famous performer told his audience that “Patriotism does not mean kissing Putin’s ass” (to rapturous applause) and now the Russian courts have to decide whether this constitutes fake news of some sort.

One of the things that will doubtless upset a lot of Russians is the fact that the Kremlin is pouring a lot of resources into restoring the areas under its control (including sending an entire plant!) instead of spending these resources within Russia itself. People just cannot understand why Russia has to fix roads in Ukraine while they are left to drive on roads with potholes that make one wonder whether NATO bombed them. If there are any potentially destabilizing moods in Russia, it will be these — over prices and domestic issues — rather than opposition to the war itself, that will matter.

Another sign of trouble are more high-profile defections from the Kremlin propaganda line. A Governor saying openly that the sanctions have destroyed the country’s logistical capacity, comes to mind. As does the resignation of one of the diplomats from the permanent Russian mission in Geneva (complete with an open letter that blasted the war and the Russian diplomatic corps).

Russia is banking on negotiating on the basis of the time-honored principle of uti possidetis, meaning that it will be allowed to keep the territory under its control at the time of the conclusion of a peace treaty. After all, this is basically what happened with the Minsk Agreements. I happen to think that the Kremlin is mistaken. The new political reality is that the UN norm forbidding violent revision of borders has been “activated”, which means Western governments will find it extraordinarily difficult not to back Ukraine if Kyiv decides to reject any such compromises. If that is the case, the West has an obvious strategy to push for a full Ukrainian victory on the ground.

One thought on “War Update: fighting toward uti possidetis or Ukrainian victory

  1. “But with the Ukrainians resisting, it was the Western publics that stiffened the spine of many politicians, which in turn created pressure on the ruling elites to change their tune.”

    Strong agree.

    (Difference is, I expected that.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s