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Big red flag warning! Yours truly is not trying to predict outcomes, since Russia, Ukraine and its US/NATO backers are now in the midst of what Lambert likes to call an overly dynamic situation. But what we’ll attempt to do here is identify boundary conditions for how Russia will conduct its campaign in Ukraine and when it might call it quits.
Remember that Russia generally follows Clausewitz, and Clausewitz sees war as an extension of politics and a means to achieve political aims. That is why, as some commentators pointed out early on, it made perfect sense for Russia to negotiate with Ukraine even as fighting was underway. Thus the breakdown in negotiations and Zelenksy’s outrageous requirements for resuming them1 constrains Russia’s options for achieving a favorable resolution.
But, but, but…you might say if you have a keen appreciation of the military situation. The Russian forces are slowly grinding down the Ukraine forces in Donbass without deploying overwhelming forces, despite the fact that Ukraine has heavily bunkers and its best troops there. And Ukraine has been repeatedly caught out trying to depict as best small and typically fleeting tactical wins as big successful counteroffensives. The latest was just this week, when Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk, claimed Ukraine was ousting Russia from Severodonetsk, just as Zelensky was visiting (cynics thought to prevent desertions). That within days turned into mumble mumble shuffle shuffle that it would be too costly to retake the city. Alexander Mercouris reported that this volte face was widely seen in Ukraine as an admission that the story of the offensive was a fabrication and the reaction on social media was harsh. It appears that the citizenry is increasingly critical of his conduct of the war.
Another part of the big picture is that it’s clear that the weapons deliveries are too slow in coming and too small to make any difference. In many cases, the Western resupply won’t even come close to restoring Ukraine to where it was at the start of the conflict. And even then, with fresh (and more) troops, it has not been able to stop Russian advances.
Many experts also think that the when Russia has taken Lugansk, particularly if it also captures a lot of Ukraine troops in the process, that it will deliver a crippling blow to Ukraine’s morale and potentially also to its battlefield effectiveness. And when Russia no longer has to deal with extended and well defended positions, it could also capture terrain much more quickly. Mind you, Russia’s aim is not to control territory but to destroy Ukraine’s army. However, map-oriented Ukrainians and Western pols would find Russia eating up Ukraine even faster to be disconcerting.
But we warned from the very outset that Russia could win the war and lose the peace. Recall Putin’s objectives:
Securing the independence of Lugansk and Donetsk
Putin also has a bigger aim of creating a new European security order.
It’s not hard to think that Putin hoped to achieve demilitarization (as in an agreement to neutrality) and denazification politically. That’s why it’s short-sighted to view the first phase of the war, when Russia spread itself thinly by sending troops to Chernobyl, Kiev, Kharviv, the South, and Donbass, as a big fail. It may have been executed in a manner that cost too many soldiers’ lives, but it was a convincing enough show of force to bring Ukraine to the negotiating table pronto. Ukraine had made important concessions at the March 30-31 round in Istanbul. A deal was on its way to getting done until the UK and US aggressively intervened.
So unless something significant changes (more on that soon), Russia has what looks to be a high class problem, but what is a potential trap. Russia is going to determine when the war is over. That means it is going to have to decide how much territory to conquer, to hold, and what to do with them administratively. For instance, I suspect from a “try not to annoy the neighbors any more than absolutely necessary” perspective, Russia would rather have had freed parts of Ukraine that were Russia-friendly become a quasi-independent Novorossia. But Russia is having to stabilize the parts of Ukraine that it occupies, and that includes paying salaries to local government officials and pensions, which means converting banks to roubles. That sort of move sets strong expectations that the territory is joining Russia, whether or not that was the original plan.
Why is this a problem? Recall what created this mess in the first place, the stoking of hostilities between ethnic Europeans and ethnic Russians. Putin acknowledged this issue at the start of the special military operation, by saying something to the effect of, “We won;t sta
1 Zelensky not only asked for a ceasefire but for Russia to remove all troops and turn Crimea back over to Ukraine.