Fighting stalls as politics heat up: Will the West hold the line?

June 2, 2022

As usual, we start with an operational update, going clockwise from the north, starting with the most intense situation in Luhansk.

The Russians threw everything but the kitchen sink in their offensive designed to occupy Luhansk Region to its administrative borders. Some information leaked that Putin had given the army until June 1st to accomplish this task, and until July 1st to do the same for Donetsk Region. The key city in Luhansk is Severodonetsk, which the RFA has been assaulting for weeks from three sides while simultaneously attempting to close the cauldron by striking north from Popasna and South from across Siverskyi Donets river. The crossing of the river ended in humiliating disaster as the Ukrainians wiped out an entire battalion, and the initially promising breakout from Popasna also failed to secure the critical road between Bakhmut and Lysychansk, allowing the Ukrainians to rush supplies to their forces in the pocket. The Russians entered the suburbs of Severodonetsk a few days ago, and have now conquered about 2/3 of the city, flattening it in the process. The Ukrainians are resisting fiercely while gradually pulling into Lysychansk across Siverskyi Donets. While the capture of Severodonetsk will be a symbolic victory for Russia (it became the administrative center of Luhansk Region after the separatists captured the city of Luhansk, and it will be the second largest city to fall after Mariupol), it is unclear what strategic value it has for it. The Ukrainians ensconced in fortified positions on the heights of Lysychansk beyond the river will be quite difficult to dislodge, and they will have a clear shot at the Russians in Severodonetsk. Unless the RFA manages what so far it proved incapable of doing — threaten them with encirclement — the Ukrainians are going to keep the last 10% of Luhansk Region for a while. There are signs that the RFA has reached the limits of its offensive operations there already as the intensity of fighting has noticeably decreased. The Russian attacks toward Bakhmut have also been repelled.

This means that Putin’s second goal — the capture of Donetsk Region, where the RFA has been doing much worse than in Luhansk — is unlikely to be accomplished within the timeline above.

RFA’s intense attack in Luhansk required the concentration of significant forces, which the Russians had to amass at the expense of other theaters of the war, namely in the south. The Ukrainians detected that and counter-attacked north of Kherson. Despite Russian claims to have repulsed that attack, the Ukrainians successfully forded Inhulets River at Davydiv Brid (which is now in their hands), pushed the Russians onto the open steppe, and threatened the road to Nova Kakhovka, where the second bridge over the Dnipro River is. The Russians managed to blow up the bridges in Davydiv Brid, so now the Ukrainians have dug into defensive positions on the left bank of the river and have made no further advances. The Russians will have to rush forces there to contain any further break-outs that would threaten their hold of Kherson.

The situation everywhere else along the front lines has stabilized, indicating that both sides are exhausted. The Russians continue to shell with artillery and bomb with airplanes in the North, at Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv, but the Ukrainians are not responding since the strikes are coming from Russia, and Kyiv has been extremely careful not to attack Russia on its own soil directly. (More on that below.) This means they have to rely on their air defenses, which cannot shoot down all missiles although they appear to have been doing well against the planes, with Russia now having lost 2/3 of the fleet it committed to the war.

There are troubling developments in Belarus, with active movement of units toward Brest, which threatens the western border with Ukraine. Putin might really want to drag Belarus into this, perhaps in an effort to break the developing stalemate before the lend/lease starts to deliver arms to Ukraine in industrial quantities. What I cannot understand is what Lukashenko would get from a direct attack on Ukraine. While there is no shortage of hawks in his high command, I am not sure he can afford to do this given the massive unpopularity of such a move among the Belarusians. He announced mobilization exercises, which is even more puzzling since I cannot see him arming his people — they are far more likely to march on Minsk than on Kyiv. Thus far, the Belarusian army has not delivered the machinery they took out of storage to the Russians, which might mean it intends to use it. They have yet to concentrate enough forces for an invasion though, so I estimate that the likelihood of a direct strike on Ukraine from Belarus is about 1 in 3.

Turning now to some international developments, I have been saying that the Kremlin’s desperate need for troops in Ukraine has caused the RFA to denude some of its outposts, and that this might lead to problems there. Well, the problems have begun.

First, the Taliban have attacked Tajikistan positions across the border with Afghanistan. Tajikistan is very dependent on Moscow for military aid, and the Taliban have sensed weakness. The Russians already tried to bribe the Taliban by being a lot more accommodating to their rule after the American withdrawal, but now it appears Putin will have to cough up more concessions. The Taliban are no friend to the Russians and they will extract everything the Kremlin’s weakness would allow. Putin will either have to essentially pay tribute to them to keep them off the Tajik border or face the real possibility of war there. All signs point to lavish bribes for Kabul.

A few weeks ago, the President of South Ossetia announced a referendum on getting annexed by the Russian Federation, and I wondered why in the world the Kremlin would agree to it since doing so would jeopardize its relationship with Georgia (with a relatively pro-Putin government right now despite widespread popular dislike of Russia) just when it needs Tbilisi’s connivance in circumventing sanctions. It appears that the South Ossetians had not cleared their plan with Putin and had misread the situation because now the referendum has been cancelled. I guess Putin had a heart-to-heart with Bibilov.

Armenia reported that Azerbaijan has violated the ceasefire again by initiating some attacks on its positions. Azerbaijan denied any such thing, but clearly the Russians leaving has upset the balance between these two neighbors. With Armenia being the pro-Russian party here, expect Azerbaijan to exploit the opportunity as well, especially as Moscow’s quagmire in Ukraine becomes more evident.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — two fairly close Russian allies — have banned Russian state TV channels. Russian propagandists have attacked Kazakhstan repeatedly over insufficient support for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine (more like no support actually), and the situation became even more tense after the recent CSTO meeting failed to deliver any good news for Putin. Far from strengthening Russia’s hold on the near-abroad, Putin’s policies are driving away even his nominal friends, who do not wish to be dragged into the war and might, in fact, relish some sense of independence as Moscow is completely focused on the war.

Turkey’s Erdogan has launched another attack in Syria designed to widen the 30km security zone that he has insisted on maintaining there — in reality, he is trying to eliminate the Kurds (he calls it an “anti-terror special operation”). He knows very well that the United States is in no position to restrain him even with informal pleas because its entire political capital with Istanbul is invested into getting Finland and Sweden into NATO. Erdogan, not the most subtle of bargainers, is going for broke on this — he will milk the temporary upper hand for everything it’s worth and then some. I think that in the end the NATO question will be more important to Biden, and so the Kurds will be betrayed. Again.

Meanwhile, Russia is struggling to maintain its war effort. The Ministry of Finance said that the special operation is costing the country an arm and a leg — some estimates put it at 21bn rubles per day (that’s about $330 million). Moscow has enjoyed a temporary windfall from its oil and gas sales due to high prices, but collapsing demand in Europe from the various measures the EU is taking to wean itself from dependence on Russian energy is going to make that short-lived. The EU is tightening the noose by proceeding with an oil embargo (with some temporary exceptions for Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria). Denmark and the Netherlands became the next to refuse to pay in rubles for gas, and so Gazprom is turning off the supply for them as well. (Serbia, on the other hand, just negotiated a new 3-year contract at extremely lucrative low rates.) While Russia stepped up its sales to China and India, their combined demand is dwarfed by the EU’s, and so they will not be able to replace the looming losses. And that’s before even accounting for the fact that Moscow has to sell whatever it does to them at a very steep discount. These sanctions take time (and a lot of political effort) to implement but once the EU turns away from Russian on energy, it will be next to impossible for Moscow to regain access to this lucrative market even if the war were to end tomorrow. Putin’s strategy has caused him to go from being a puppet master for the EU to begging someone — anyone — to buy Russian gas and oil. The blackmail worked while there was no unity on resisting it. This is no longer the case, with strong groups in the most important countries pushing for energy independence from Russia. Ironically, Putin’s long investment in creating the energy lever for Europe has failed to pay off just when it was needed most.

There is more domestic criticism in Russia too, usually over prices or the state’s failure to improve local conditions. If people start blaming the “special operation” for this — and they have — maintaining the war effort will become increasingly costly to the Kremlin. You can sense the government’s worry in the policy to throttle YouTube access in Yakutia, and testing blocking VPN and related services. The attempt to control the flow of information is becoming more intense because criticism has been seeping through (it is also evident in intercepted phone calls between RFA soldiers and their relatives back home).

Russia’s military is facing a deepening crisis with manpower. The losses (killed, captured, or missing) have been staggering — by some accounts well over 30,000 already. With no sizeable numbers of foreign mercenaries or volunteers having materialized, the Kremlin has had to replenish the forces in Ukraine by relocating experienced troops from deployment abroad, in frozen conflict zones, or in the interior. The consequences (costs) of doing so have become evident already. Moreover, this is a limited resource that now appears exhausted. The government offered higher wages for signing contracts and has lifted the upper age restriction, but the response has been underwhelming. Without mobilization, the Kremlin has ordered a strict enforcement of the people eligible for the callup and has increased the target yield numbers. Reports from Moscow suggest that the pressure to sign has become palpable.

This leads me to some interesting reports from the DNR (the Donetsk People’s Republic that only Russia recognizes). As I mentioned in my previous post, the Russians have used very aggressive tactics to coerce eligible men to sign up for the military. (Remember that these are the people who the Russians claim to be liberating, so they should be supporting the war wholeheartedly.) The call for volunteers having fallen on deaf ears, the Russians have literally been snatching people off the streets to enlist them irrespective of their occupation or skill with weapons. Most have no training at all. They are told that they would never see active fighting and would be used for support after sufficient training. Instead, they are given crappy weapons, no body armor, and after a week of “training”, they get sent off to hotspots (right now, mostly in Luhansk). Several of these units have refused to fight, having been used as cannon fodder and not been paid for weeks. They demanded that they be allowed to return to Donetsk, arguing that they should not be fighting for a different state — Lugansk People’s Republic in this case — an irony of ironies. I saw several of these videos where the units are essentially in mutiny. Meanwhile, back in DNR, their wives are demanding from the government that their men be permitted to return. I watched this confrontation unfold a few weeks ago.

This now has developed into a crisis for the Russians. There are now reports about armed resistance to Russian orders along with the active refusal to serve on the front. The Russians responded by rounding up several of the wives, and coercing them to record a public video where they confess to having been agents of the Ukrainian intelligence services. They are facing up to 20 years in prison for treasonous activities. All for demanding that their husbands — none of whom are soldiers — not be thrown without training or protection against the Ukrainians.

This bodes ill for the Russians in Donbas. These are the people who chose to remain there despite 8 years of stagnation and mass population exodus during the undeclared war that has been raging there since 2014. While the Ukrainians invested a lot of money in developing the areas under their control, the parts of LNR/DNR that were ruled by the Russians/separatists fell apart. Russia had no interest in economic development there, mostly because its entire strategy was predicated on using the territories to destabilize Kyiv. As a result, a great many people left, either for Ukraine or for Russia, leaving only those who were either true believers or simply could not afford to move. If there was going to be any reservoir of indigenous support for the Russian operations, it would have been among these people. And now the Russians are sending their wives and mothers to prison simply for asking the government to meet its obligations to its citizens.

This brings me to another harebrained scheme concocted by the Kremlin (it is unclear if it has Putin’s ear). According to this plan, deposed President Yanukovych would be declared the legitimate President of “Ukraine”, which will be constituted out of DNR/LNR, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions. Russia would recognize this “Ukraine” as the legitimate successor to the Ukrainian SSR, and will negotiate a federal union with it and Belarus — reversing the 1991 Belovezh Accords, where the three republics agreed to dissolve the USSR — rectifying what most Russian elites consider the disaster of Soviet collapse. The real Ukraine would then be declared in rebellion against the Russian Federation, unleashing the full strength of the Russian mobilization against it.

A truly bizarre scheme, to be sure, but one that reflects the kind of thinking that led to the war. While we might search for proximate cases that triggered the invasion in February 2022, the underlying cause is an irreconcilable conflict between Ukraine’s desire to be independent, and Russia’s total rejection of the consequences of the Soviet collapse. Putin is not an outlier in the belief that Ukraine rightfully belongs to Russia and that Russia was robbed in a moment of weakness. It was only a matter of time that it would reconstitute its proper domain, which includes Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Asian states. Yeltsin at some point contemplated war on Ukraine, and consistently refused to treat it as a legitimate independent state, only bowing down to pressure from the West because he so badly needed its help against domestic counter-reformers and communists/nationalists. Even media darling opposition leader Navalny used to say that Crimea is Russia (he’s much hated in Ukraine. At one point in the early 1990s, the Russians told the Westerners not to bother with embassies in Kyiv because soon they would only need consulates there. It is the consensus of the elites in charge now that Ukraine is not a legitimate state, so Putin was preaching to the choir when he explained the need for the “special operation” back in February.

This attitude explains why the war did not end when the Blitzkrieg failed by early March. Russia is essentially now fighting a different war — instead of attempting to gain control of all Ukraine by decapitation, it aims to conquer as much of it as it can. My understanding is that the minimum is five regions (LNR, DNR, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv), and that they have not given up on the idea of taking Odessa as well. It sounds insane in the context of the ongoing realities on the ground, but this, I think, is the minimum that the “moderates” in the military are striving for. There are no doves in the Kremlin, and Ukraine has no friends there. This is why hoping that Putin’s demise would somehow resolve the conflict is a chimera. The elites do not like the way the war is going, but that does not mean they disagree with its goals, just with the tactics — some thinking that the sneaky cooptation would have worked and others thinking that the special operation should really be an all-out war on Ukraine that would inevitably end in victory.

Whichever camp a Russian member of the elite might be on, one thing is certain: they are fervently working and hoping to split the Western unity on Ukraine. This includes propaganda designed to scare the living daylights from normal people with talk of nuclear strikes, threatening to “demilitarize” NATO, turning on the screws by instigating a global food shortage, and disseminating all sorts of claims about how the West is already disunited, how it is too weak to last long enough, and so on.

These tactics have yielded significant results already. France, Germany, and Italy have behaved so abhorrently and duplicitously already that I have taken to speculate about why they do not want Ukraine to win. The German newspaper Die Zeit did a study of what the government had been sending to Ukraine after its dramatic pledges for heavy weapons back in March, and discovered that from March 30 through May 30, the German government has not delivered any meaningful military aid at all. Not that it sent a little. None at all. The only things they sent were light weapons, ammo, and body armor. Old Europe truly cannot find its way out of a box with instructions — in this case it simply cannot bring itself to confront Russia properly. The European Commission has been doing yeoman’s work on this but there is only so much Ursula von der Leyen can accomplish when Hungary is openly trying to derail anti-Russian policies, while the Franco-German bloc is doing it surreptitiously.

The only consistent friends Ukraine has had have been the US, UK, Poland, the Baltics, and Czechia. And even these wobble occasionally, as Kissinger’s channeling of 19th century Metternich did at Davos, and the Editorial Board of the New York Times did in print recently. Washington, too, has been gripped by some inexplicable fear of Moscow and has been refusing to supply Ukraine with the kind of weapons that can truly make a difference on the battlefield.

The situation must have worried President Biden sufficiently to pen an op-ed in the New York Times just yesterday. The statement is brief, lucid, and to the point — clearly designed to reinforce Western unity and put down talk of letting Putin win a little bit of Ukraine, maybe about a third of it. Let me parse a few important parts of that statement:

“America’s goal is straightforward: We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against future aggression.”

The key here is the second part, which effectively precludes any talk of “demilitarization” of Ukraine. Instead, Ukraine is to retain sufficient military capability to take care of itself.

“I’ve decided that we will provide the Ukrainians with more advanced rocket systems and munitions.”

This refers to the HIMARS (high mobility artillery system for multiple rocket launches) that the Ukrainians desperately need to counter the Russian barrages. The sticking point here is that these systems can fire rockets with different ranges, with the longest-range being about 300 miles — that is, capable of striking all sorts of targets in Russia from Ukraine, just like the Russians are doing right now when they shell Sumy, Kharkiv, and Chernihiv. The Russians went apoplectic when the US started talking about supplying the Ukrainians with these systems (which far exceed in quality the Russian counter-parts that have a quarter of maximum range and fire dumb rockets only) and threatened that it would constitute an open NATO entry into the war. When it became clear that the US is probably going to supply them anyway, they started demanding that the long-range rockets should not be made available. The US government worried sufficiently about that to extract a pledge from Zelenskyy that the Ukrainians would not use the systems to strike targets on Russian soil. It is under that condition that the US will now send the launchers.

This might strike someone as grossly unfair. The Russians feel no compunction in attacking Ukrainian cities from the safety of Russian territory while threatening to go nuclear if the Ukrainians were to attack even military targets on Russian soil. For their part, the Ukrainians have obliged — which is why these attacks have gone without retaliation for so long. In that sense, Washington is still allowing the Kremlin to dictate the rules of engagement, which is not a situation you want to be in during a war. The Ukrainians are paying the price for this sort of timidity, but Biden probably does not have much room to maneuver here given the realities in Western Europe — the fifth columnists and defeatists there will surely seize on any Russian talking point about the US escalating the war “needlessly” to try to derail further aid to Ukraine.

“My principle throughout this crisis has been ‘Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.’ I will not pressure the Ukrainian government — in private or public — to make any territorial concessions.”

This is very important. The Russians, sensing the coming end of Phase II, have started to make negotiation noises, but they want two things: (1) territorial concessions on the basis of uti possidetis — that is, line of control at the time of negotiations, and (2) direct involvement of the US in the talks. The first is the goal of the current war in Ukraine: capture as much territory as possible. The second is to bargain some lifting of sanctions in exchange for a cease-fire. (Kyiv has no authority to negotiate on the sanctions.) Since Zelenskyy’s government is unlikely to agree to any territorial concessions, Biden’s statement has effectively told the Russians not to expect any such gains. As for the sanctions, I very much doubt that there will be any concessions that the Russians would care about.

This is very bad news for a negotiated peace since there is no sweet deal (land and no sanctions) that the West can plausibly offer credibly to the Kremlin. There is simply no inducement to be had for Moscow. Instead, the negotiations could only have a result if one of the side is beaten on the battlefield, and then the deal would be to allow it to avoid more embarrassing defeats rather than to offer any gains.

“We currently see no indication that Russia has intent to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”

Biden has effectively scotched any talk about nukes by just dismissing the threats. I have already explained why the nuclear threats are not credible, so it is very heartening to hear Biden say so.

“Vladimir Putin did not expect this degree of unity or the strength of our response. He was mistaken. If he expects that we will wave or fracture in the months to come, he is equally mistaken.”

This is intended more as a reassurance of doubters and prodding of laggards in NATO and the EU than a statement directed at the Kremlin. (I am sure Putin is well informed about any splits in these organizations.)

It remains to be seen which side will crack first.

3 thoughts on “Fighting stalls as politics heat up: Will the West hold the line?

  1. Great report, thank you. What ever happened to the thousands of Syrian troops who had supposedly volunteered to fight with the Russians in Ukraine?



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