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 stay where we aren’t wanted.”
Russia can’t place overmuch hope in those who loathe Russian over-lordship fleeing and never returning. At least in western Ukraine, many refugees have come back or are coming and going. From NPR at the end of May:
In February and March, refugees waited for hours or days there to cross into Poland. Now, the flow has reversed. The long lines are on the Polish side of the border filled with people waiting to cross into Ukraine.
Anna Kobernyk and her friends have been waiting in a van for six hours, parked in a line of vehicles almost 10 miles long….
Weeks after the war began, the Medyka border crossing was filled with refugees leaving Ukraine. People wept, afraid that they were departing their country forever, not knowing if they would even have a country to return to.
Now, even though there is still death and fighting in Ukraine’s south and east, the scene here at the Polish border has lost the panic and fear it once had….
Violetta Naboka and her 14-year-old daughter have spent the last two months living with Polish strangers who, she says, treated them like family.
“These people really love Ukraine,” she says. “I’m very happy because I really want to [return] to my house, to my husband, to my mother, to my dog Brooklyn.”…
On the vehicle path of the border, double-decker buses idle bumper to bumper, waiting for the border guard to signal when it’s their turn to cross the border.
The signs on their dashboards say they’ve begun their journeys in Poland, Germany, Italy, and places even farther west.
Some of the destination cities are Kyiv, Lviv, and Ivano-Frankivsk — all in Ukraine.
A second complicating factor is for Russia to widen the war beyond the Special Military Operation would require the approval of the Duma. I am not sure of how Putin conceptualized the justification for some of the occupations outside Donbass, like in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Given that Zelensky threatened to acquire and use nuclear weapons, Russia could justify securing nuclear plants (Zaporizhzhia has a large one). An argument for Kherson was to blow up the dam that was denying Crimea its fresh water supply and retain the area until some sort of lasting arrangement was made. But if you are looking to the niceties of Russia invoking UN Article 51 to defend its new besties, the independent republics of Lugansk and Donetsk, this is pushing the envelope.
Getting the needed authorization to expand the war is tricky because it is guaranteed to inflame opinion in the West. And Putin would need a real reason, not so much for them but to give China, India, Turkey, and the Saudis a strong basis for continuing to defy the West and not criticize or sanction Russia. It can’t be “Wellie, we need to take more of Ukraine because they aren’t trustworthy.”
Even if Russia didn’t have to contend with the politically charged dynamics of widening the war beyond Donbass, there’s also the practical argument of where to stop. If Russia wants to convert areas that are pretty likely to be natively friendly, one strategy regularly discussed would be to take the entire Black Sea coast. That would have the advantage of placating the more hawkish factions in Russia that see taking Odessa as important. Even though this would still leave a lot of Ukraine to its own devices, it would be hostage to Russia for sea access, which might give Russia enough of the upper hand.2
Ukraine repeatedly trumping up charges against Russia with respect to those supposedly blockaded ports (actually blockaded by Ukraine) might conceivably be used by Russia as a pretext to take Odessa, that the only way to clear that port and prevent it from being remined is to take the city.
Others of a more maximalist view suggest taking Ukraine up to the Dnieper, which has a certain logic except that Kiev straddles the river. I personally see taking the West of Ukraine as exactly the sort of mess the West hopes Russia will walk into. I can’t imagine the locals would be happy. Subduing a resentful population (even absent actual insurgency) is toxic to the occupier.
John Helmer reports that Russia is working really hard to put the partition cat among the pigeons:
And what if the war ends in the US and NATO alliance retreat to Lvov; after which the Polish government will notify NATO HQ it is reviving its treaty claim to the Galician territory of the Ukraine; the chancellery in Berlin will then inform Brussels it requires the return of the ancient Danzig Corridor and Breslau, Polish territories currently called Gdansk, Wroclaw, and the Ziemie Odzyskane; and the Hungarian government will follow suit with the announcement of the recovery of historical Kárpátalja (Transcarpathia), the Zarkarpatska oblast of the Ukraine?
These were the spoils of the World War II settlement between the US and the Soviet Union in 1945-46. The territorial reversion claims aren’t new. What is new is that the US and the NATO alliance, plus the Galician regime still ruling between Kiev and Lvov, also in Ottawa, have aimed to change the terms of the post-war settlement by continuing the war eastward on to the territory of Russia itself, all the way to regime change in Moscow.
That is what Russia says it is fighting now to defend itself against. As Russian officials have been hinting in recent days, the foreign and defence ministries and the intelligence services are currently discussing in the Kremlin Security Council whether Russia’s long-term security on its western front may be best served by terms of a Ukrainian settlement in which the German, Polish, and Hungarian territorial claims are recognised.
Despite Zelensky’s intransigence and the US and EU unwillingness to even consider concessions, some important things are breaking Russia’s way. The first is the fact that Ukraine is losing is becoming harder and harder to cover up, and more and more media outlets are staring to report on its poor prospects, not just not winning but even preventing further territorial losses.
Second is that the sanctions blowback is already imperiling governments. Boris Johnson’s days are numbered. The proximate cause is the dramatic fall in living standards in the UK. Some of that is due to Brexit, although the British press is loath to admit it. Some is due to global supply chain woes. But UK business leaders were surprisingly noisy about warning of food and fuel price jumps and shortages underway and getting even worse this winter. The Estonian government fell, and they so hate Russia that no one there would acknowledge sanctions blowback played a role. Estonia’s annual inflation rate in May was 20%.
Macron is worried about losing his party’s majority in parliament in next month’s elections. Scholz’s leadership looked wobbly even before Germany’s inflation numbers got scary (producer price index increases of over 30%) as industrial production fell. And as we’ve discussed, Italy hasn’t been all that keen about backing Ukraine.
But the biggest break has come from Turkey. Russia looked to have worsened its long-term position with Sweden and Finland wanting to join NATO and having been expected to be approved this June. But that’s gone off the rails. NATO entry requires unanimous approval of all members. Turkey is arguably the most important NATO member by virtue of location and having the second biggest NATO army.
NATO completely dissed Turkey by not pre-consulting them. Turkey objects vigorously to Sweden and Finland entering because both, mainly Sweden, are too friendly to Kurds. Sweden has a representative office in Kurdistan. Turkey has said it wants a Swedish parliament member, Amineh Kakabaveh, who was a former guerrilla and is now a key swing vote, to be extradited. And Turkey has hardened its position when there’s no indication that that NATO or the EU have offered Turkey any bribes to get it to climb down. So NATO looks set to suffer a big embarrassment, and Sweden and Finland will have given up their vaunted neutrality and not gotten anything in return.
A final, and odd piece of the equation. It appears there are negotiations of some sort happening between Ukraine and Russia. I can’t find the original story in Izvestia, but it was reported by Alex Christaforu yesterday and also mentioned by Stratfor. Izvestia reported that Russia and Ukraine had agreed to terms of a peace deal in March but Boris Johnson scuttled them (some colorful detail on that).
Mind you, I don’t think the March deal would have gotten done because the US and NATO would not have given the needed security guarantees, but the US and UK were pretty pissy about their rejections.
However, the interesting bit is the claim that there were negotiations on now. Dimitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s press officer, gave an ambiguous denial. Per Christaforu, starting at 1:10, there are talks underway now that would set a ceasefire with Ukraine to be neutral with various states would serve as guarantors. But the big new change would be that Ukraine would accept the status quo, in terms of Russian areas of control, as ceded territory. That means Ukraine would give up parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.
Christaforu discussed that Peskov issued a muddy denial.
What Happened: Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov denied a report by Russian state-owned daily Izvestia suggesting that if paused Russian-Ukrainian negotiations resumed, Russia would not discuss returning the Russian-occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to Ukraine, RBC reported June 8. Pro-Russia authorities in the regions have proposed holding referendums on joining Russia by the end of 2022.
Why It Matters: Peskov’s statement leaves open the possibility that newly seized areas of Ukraine, which create a corridor between the Donbas and Crimea, could be returned to Ukraine in negotiations, but Russia has critical strategic reasons not to do so, making the region’s inclusion in a future deal unlikely. Moscow will leave open the option of doing so in hopes of getting Kyiv to agree to a Minsk-style agreement on Russia’s terms. But Ukraine is unlikely to agree to this because it would involve significant Russian control over Kyiv’s foreign and domestic policy. Declaring an intent to annex would also reduce the Kremlin’s ability to maneuver in negotiations with the West and Ukraine on issues like sanctions removal.
Apparently a lot of Russians weren’t happy at the idea of Russia stopping its campaign before it had captured Odessa, when as you can see from Stratfor, even the idea of Russia keeping Kherson and Zaporizhzhia is too hot for Ukraine and some of its Western allies to handle right now.
In other words, this means there is no bargaining overlap since Putin would be unlikely to stick his neck out that far beyond what men and women in the street would accept. But the flip side is that this suggests that Ukraine privately is making significant suggestions, in stark contrast to Zelensky taking such an extreme posture as to make talks impossible. So what gives?
We may know in due course, but this development, even if these talks are more at the feeler stage, is proof that Zelensky is losing power. Recall that there has already been some chatter about a possible military coup. And it is hardly uncommon for the senior officials of a leader on the ropes to start negotiating with the other side, both out of the best interests of their country and to improve their odds of survival. One of the most famous historical examples was Talleyrand. Talleyrand had resigned as Foreign Minister in 1807 over his opposition to Napoleon’s continued conquests and treatment of some of the subdued territories, but retained a senior post in Napoleon’s government. Talleyrand started working as much with France’s opponents Russia and Austria as for France, but even when Napoleon got wind of Talleyrand’s duplicity, he gave Talleyrand a spectacular public dressing down rather than removing him from government or incarcerating him. The trust Talleyrand had built with Tsar Alexander and Metternich was instrumental in Talleyrand succeeding in negotiating that France be allowed to keep its pre-war borders.
Even though some historians depict Talleyrand as a traitor, he anticipated their reaction: “I never betrayed a government before it betrayed itself.”
So that is a long winded way of saying that Zelensky may not have altered his stance, but that instead he is no longer driving the train. And it may also be that some in the Ukraine government are also trying to get the UK’s and US’s hands off the wheel. It may be too early for that to happen, but if they keep trying to shore up Zelensky when his own senior staff (and the military) are turning against him, they could find they bet on the wrong horse. Again, I’m not saying this is a likely outcome, but the fact that it is even conceivable is a big change in the state of play.
1 Zelensky not only asked for a ceasefire but for Russia to remove all troops and turn Crimea back over to Ukraine.
2 I don’t have time to look, but another territorial problem are the oil and gas pipelines that transit Ukraine. Ukraine has demonstrated it can’t be trusted with them…but what to do about that?