The war grinds on while Russia’s near-abroad erupts in turmoil

June 20, 2022

It has been several days since my last update, so it’s time for some analysis of the war in Ukraine and its global repercussions. As usual, we begin with an operational update, starting from the North, with Kharkiv. Unfortunately, the RFA has made some small advances toward the city, which has now brought it fully within artillery range. As a result, Kharkiv is again under near constant Russian shelling. The Ukrainian government is advising parents to think about evacuating the children. There is no danger that the city itself will be taken, but the Russians are hitting it both from within Ukrainian territory and from Belogorod Oblast in Russia, where the Ukrainians cannot retaliate.

In Luhansk, the RFA took the village of Metolkine to the south of Severodonetsk but is yet to establish control of the city. The aerial bombing and artillery strikes on Lysychansk are constant. Yesterday, Zelenskyy made a secret visit to the defenders of Lysychansk, and the VSU is holding firm there. Putin’s new deadline for taking all of Luhansk to the administrative border is June 26, but the Ukrainians have not been surrounded yet, and are fighting fiercely. The RFA multi-directional attacks from Popasna have yet to take the road from Bakhmut but the Russians are now sufficiently close to it that the VSU cannot use it for supplying Lysychansk. The Ukrainians say that they have other ways of getting there. Observers expect Severodonetsk to fall within days, but they have been expecting this for weeks, and the Ukrainian General Staff has not ordered a retreat yet, so they expect to last a while longer.

The Russian attack south of Izyum toward Slovyansk has stalled a bit, in part because they had to regroup and in part because of the Ukrainian counter-attack from the West, which aimed at interrupting their preparations. The expectation is that the RFA will try for Slovyansk very soon again.

The good news for Ukraine from the south keep coming. The VSU broke the first line of Russian fortifications (they have completed two and are building a third now), and have made several advances in Kherson region. I did not expect the Russian defensive line to fall so quickly, so they really must have denuded this area of troops in order to reinforce the ones in Donbas. The VSU is mostly content to widen its possessions here, possibly in preparation for the real offensive later in the summer. One military target for both the Ukrainians and the Russians might be the Nova Kakhovka dam — its destruction would flood the left bank of the Dnipro River (where the Russians currently are), make it difficult to supply the forces on the other side of the river, and cut off the water supply to Crimea (emptying the reservoir would lower the water level so much that the canal from which Crimea receives its water will dry up). On the other hand, the Russians might want to destroy that to prevent the Ukrainian advance later on. For now, the Ukrainians are too far to make any of this relevant, but it is a thing to watch for.

Speaking of Crimea, when the Russians took it in 2014, they also appropriated two gas rigs in the Black Sea, which they have been using ever since much to Ukraine’s consternation. The Ukrainians finally destroyed at least one of them (although I think both were hit) with missiles, probably the newly arrived Harpoons they used a couple of days ago to sink the Russian tugboat off Snake Island. The Russians were livid and have vowed to retaliate by striking “decision centers”. There were also reports that the Ukrainians have attacked the Russians on Snake Island, but I have not seem official confirmation, which could mean that the attacks were not successful (doubtful) or, more likely, that reporters mistook the hits on the rigs for hits on the island. At any rate, the Harpoons have sent the Russian Black Sea fleet scurrying out of range, and has forced them to reevaluate their naval policy, switching to submarines. These are diesel-powered, which means they have to surface a couple of times per day to charge, which makes them potentially vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. The upshot is that while Russians can continue to fire missiles from the submarines, they cannot land an amphibious force, which means Odessa remains safe from conquest.

The situation in Transnistria remained calm, which cannot be said of the Moldovan capital Chishinau, where the Russians have unleashed the familiar script of a hybrid war. With the EU indicating that both Moldova and Ukraine are going to become Candidate Members this weekend, pro-Russian demonstrators gathered to protest against the government in general and President Maia Sandu in particular. Ostensibly, it was against the government restrictions on Russian-language media, but people spotted the familiar hooligan-provocateurs who attempted to create chaos and start clashes with the security services. So far, the scenario has not worked, but expect more Russian meddling in Moldova as the country starts slipping from Moscow’s control like Ukraine is doing.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko is still casting about for a pretext to invade (or excuse not to invade) Ukraine. After claiming that Belarus had to prevent the Polish takeover of West Ukraine (I guess they do not like the Poles talking about having no border with Ukraine soon), he has now settled on the preposterous idea that Ukraine has plans to attack the Mazyr Oil Refinery, the largest in Belarus. This time he did not bring maps to show where these imaginary attacks would be coming from. The Ukrainians are waiting to see what happens when the exercise period for mobilization ends — whether the troops will be sent home or kept at the border. Most Ukrainian analysts seem to think that Lukashenko does not have the forces for a proper invasion. I am, on the other hand, worried because Putin is set to travel to Minsk at the end of this month, the first time in three years. Cannot be just to sip tea with Lukashenko — it will probably be the last demand for Belarus to choose sides openly.

Belarus is also rapidly becoming critical to Russia because of the developments in Kaliningrad. Recall that this Russian exclave on the Baltic, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, has been a source of mutual concern for a while. The Russians took it by conquests after WWII and have since built quite the naval base there. They caused a lot of controversy when they moved Iskander missile launchers there, and they are not gong to abandon it. The problem is that Lithuania suddenly cut off all surface traffic to the region, saying that it was in violation of the sanctions.

The Russians went ballistic, so to speak (bad metaphor in the current context). They started talking about revoking Russia’s recognition of Lithuania’s independence, and threatening the Baltic states as if their adventures in Ukraine gave them any confidence in their martial abilities. Lithuania is also going to be the first target in any takeover of the Baltics, where the Russians will try to connect to Kaliningrad from Belarus to cut off the Baltics from Poland and the West. It’s a crazy notion that they would start a new war — and this one with a member of NATO — while they are having so much trouble on the first one, but here we are, pondering the seemingly impossible again.

So Lukashenko is finding himself increasingly hemmed in by imperial designs from the East and unyielding policies from the West, which really hampers his “multivector” game. (This would be the balancing act all Russian neighbors are carefully playing, trying to cozy up to Russia without becoming vassal states to it and dealing with the West as much as possible without triggering a Russian intervention. This is the policy four Ukrainian presidents followed, some of them more closely to Moscow — which is what Lukashenko has bet on — but all trying to maintain independence. That policy ended in disaster in 2014, and Lukashenko’s well might do so as well.)

Another state in the Russian orbit that is pursuing multivector policies is Kazakhstan, except theirs is with China on the other side rather than the EU. Recall that in January, the clan clash between Tokayev (the current President) and Nazarbayev (the previous one) escalated to the point that Tokayev called in CSTO troops, which duly arrived (with Russians the most numerous among them). The fighting ended soon, but Tokayev faced a lot of domestic criticism for inviting foreigners to solve a domestic dispute. So now Kazakhstan has started to separate itself from Russia over Ukraine. The government took a series of steps, none of which would have been to Putin’s liking, and some of which must have been a great irritant. First, Kazakhstan announced that it would not help Russia circumvent the sanctions regime out of fear of secondary sanctions. Then, Tokayev criticized the Russian media and some politicians for irresponsible and hostile reporting on Kazakhstan, warning that this cannot end well. (This elicited a rare apology from propagandist Simonyan, who promised to do better.) But then Tokayev dropped a bombshell, when he calmly — and seated right next to Putin — told everyone that Kazakhstan will not recognize the independence of any quasi-states like DNR/LNR, or any of Russia’s other creations like South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He prefaced this with a careful nod to Beijing, indicating that it was the same policy, which prevented Kazakhstan from recognizing Taiwan, hinting where China’s sympathies lie (i.e., not in foreign powers recognizing the independence of parts of others). By all accounts, Putin was livid about this public snub (you can see it in his face when he was listening to it), and has ordered Patrushev to find a way to punish Kazakhstan. The Russian social media was soon flooded with warnings to Kazakhstan, that it was a fake nation created by the USSR (read: Russia), that it had Russian lands, that it had to be careful or else… in short, the usual repertoir of Kremlin bullying. The Russians also stopped the transport of Kazakh oil, although they claimed it was for technical reasons. The report about a Kazakh retaliation in the form of arresting 1,700 Russian wagons of coal, a report circulated by the Russian media, turned out to be false. What is real, however, is that Tokayev will give a speech in a couple of days in the BRICS+ format at the personal invitation of China’s President Xi. In other words, whatever punishment Putin might have fantasized about will now have to be put on ice since China looms large behind Kazakhstan, and might well have been the reason for Tokayev’s brazen behavior. For good measure, Tokayev went on TV and rejected Russian claims to have “saved” his regime in January (he insisted it was the CSTO), and warned against such “savior” talk because Kazakhstan does not intend to bow to anyone in “gratitude”.

Tokayev does have a dilemma though because there’s a strong Russian presence in northern Kazakhstan, with a lot of sympathy for Russia — although who knows that has happened to it since February — and a somewhat hostile attitude toward China. In other words, both grounds to do a “Crimea scenario” in Kazakhstan, and a strong deterrent to even thinking about such a thing. It is unlikely that China would allow Putin to bully Kazakhstan. In other words, there is at least one direction where Putin’s imperial project will certainly not be going the way of Nicholas I there.

What might go the way of Nicholas I (who died of pneumonia in the middle of the Crimean War) is this fall, with notable jockeying for positions among Russian elites coming in the open. The struggle for Putin’s succession is underway. Patrushev has been advancing his son as candidate — and as part of this policy has been supporting an aggressive stance toward the war in Ukraine, arguing for mobilization and a rapid conclusion of the military operation. So far, his attempts to get Putin to mobilize Russia (or at least the border regions) have been rebuffed, mostly with the argument that it is unnecessary because the special operation can achieve its current aims without such a drastic move that is bound to be unpopular at home. The counter to these siloviki seems to be coalescing around oligarchs like Deripaska who control the largest companies and the state administrative apparatus. These are more likely to seek a quick negotiated exit from the war in return for easing of the sanctions regime. It is too early to tell what’s going on but the expectation is that it will all come to a head in late fall/early winter, and it will all depend on how the war in Ukraine is going at the time, and what is happening with the Russian economy.

The Russian economy, meanwhile, is dealing with the last months of running on fumes. On the one hand, the rouble’s initial crash after the war began not only reversed, but now the rouble is as strong against the dollar as it has never been before. This is to Nabiullina’s credit — the Central Bank moved immediately and aggressively to prevent capital flight, obliging exporters to convert 50% of their incomes to roubles, not allowing taking capital out of the country (an especially acute problem for all those Western companies that tried to liquidate their assets in Russia), and instituting various other measures to artificially keep up the demand for roubles. Moreover, with the war sending commodity and energy prices in the stratosphere, demand for Russian exports went up, further strengthening the rouble. With no demand for dollars, Euros, pounds sterling, or yen (nothing to buy because of sanctions), the was no downward pressure on the rouble to counter this. As a result, just as the economy developed a series of problems, the rouble went sky high.

The Russian media has been touting the “demise of the dollar” and similar nonsense while ignoring the very real domestic problems. It’s one thing to steal MacDonald’s recipes and sell them and the new “Tasty and Period” moniker (am I the only one who finds this “Tasty. Period.” name threatening?), but it’s quite another to build machinery that requires Western tech or components to operate. Thus far, the Russian businesses have mostly managed to continue on existing inventory, but this is about to run dry. They have fanned out across the world in desperate attempts to secure alternative suppliers (import substitution, no matter how attractive to politicians, is very costly, difficult, and slow), and have done some “parallel imports” that have (thus far) not run afoul of the sanctions regime. Nobody knows whether they would be able to continue to do so. The government for the most part has just been urging everyone not to fire anyone (and pandemic-era rules have made it very difficult to remove people), and so Russia has a mushrooming hidden unemployment, whereby people are nominally still on their jobs, but work at reduced hours (for reduced pay) or not at all.

The government can use some of the massive influx of income from its exports of gas and oil (among other things) to shore up incomes, but of course they are not doing enough. For one, the war in Ukraine is costing the Kremlin an arm and a leg, so it needs the money. But then there’s the political project of securing the gains there, and this means an expensive reconstruction, and continued financing of the puppet statelets of DNR/LNR and whatever other entities Moscow creates there. All of this will come from the pockets of Russian taxpayers, who are already seeing their impoverished regions pledging to support various townships in Donbas. This sort of thing is going to make patriotism sound especially hollow very quickly, as people start asking why their government is sending their jobs to Ukraine and sinking vast amounts of money there instead of local development.

The Ukrainian economy is in a free fall, and in desperate need of shoring up. The upcoming announcement that Ukraine will finally become a Candidate for EU membership is going to be sweetened by the 6 billion Euro pledge in developmental assistance. This is going to come on top of the massive amounts committed by the US. (The irony is that it was the threat to default that seems to have convinced then-President Yanukovych to abandon the Association Agreement with the EU in favor of alignment with Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union that gave Ukraine $15 billion back in 2014 — the fateful move that precipitated Euromaidan and led to the current war.)

The Ukrainians are busy de-Russifying their country, from removing monuments, renaming streets, banning political parties with links or sympathies to the Kremlin, and outlawing songs or movies in Russian. It’s an understandable impulse and one does need to start thinking what post-war Ukraine will look like.

I, for one, think that there will be “post-war Ukraine” to speak of. Not in the sense that Ukraine will not exist — it surely will, and very likely it will recover most of the territories lost to the Russians right now. What I mean is that while a non-democratic Russia is on its border — as it will be, for a very, very long time — “post-war” will not be possible. There will always be a state of war, maybe frozen maybe unacknowledged, but no real peace. It will be like Israel and the Arab states and the Palestinians. Ukraine is likely to be living under a cloud for the foreseeable future, which means it will become a nation at arms, where peace is constantly maintained with a threat of retaliation. I cannot recall a single instance where Russia has not come back to try to conquer what it has once considered its own. This is the history that propels Poland’s and the Baltic states’ near total commitment to Ukraine right now. They know they are next on the list. And this is how Ukraine will have to define itself — European in every aspect except the peace of mind that permitted the West to behave as if war was an instrument of the past.

The solution would have to be some sort of collective security arrangement — if not NATO, then some guarantee by US/UK and the East European states — possibly with American and British bases on Ukrainian soil. Before anyone howls about “provoking” or “threatening” the Russians, pause for a moment to consider how the policy of appeasing them has worked so far. Until the Europeans realize that the only way to deal with Russia — and its constant imperial ambitions — is by erecting a defense that Moscow would find too dangerous to probe or try to overcome, nobody in Europe will be safe.

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