Ukraine Essential: Brief Five
Past Week Developments:
- Russian losses have been mounting, with the Russian army lacking troop capacities to launch comprehensive assaults on major cities. Reports that Moscow is seeking military and technical assistance from China confirm that the Kremlin insufficiently planned the invasion and underestimated Ukraine.
- Russia continues its attempts to finalize the land bridge from Crimea to Donbas through a brutal siege of Mariupol. The Russian air forces are systemically targeting Ukraine’s supply routes, military and industrial capacities..
- Peace talks have intensified: unless Russia is defeated, any settlement will require potentially major concessions from Ukraine.
Key Developments to Watch:
- The siege of Mariupol and the Donbas frontline - the risk remains that Ukrainian army units in Donbas could be encircled and cut off from the rest of the country. Peace talks will largely depend on the evolving military situation on the ground.
- Life in Western Ukraine: focal points here include the internal security situation, the situation of internally displaced persons, and the normalization of economic life.
- Fragile state of Ukrainian economy: Western assistance should already be directed towards developing rebuilding plansto foster positive sentiment despite the current precarious climate.
The Russian armed forces (RAF), in the third week of the war, have continued their attempts to complete a land bridge from Crimea to Donbas, pin down Ukrainian troops in the Donbas region, and encircle key cities such as Kyiv, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhzha. Despite significant losses, Russia has maintained its fierce siege of Mariupol, with the city integral to Russia’s plans for the land bridge. The loss of Mariupol would be a significant setback for Ukraine and allow the RAF to regroup and commit additional forces to other efforts throughout the country.
Following initial blunders, the Russian military has improved its logistics management. The reestablishment of a rail connection between Crimea and Ukraine proper has been essential to this progress. The Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF), meanwhile, has continued to disrupt Russian supply routes and defended its hold on major cities including Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv. The unprecedented sharing of US real time intelligence and reconnaissance data has particularly aided Ukraine in targeting Russian armored formations. Russia currently lacks the troop numbers to completely besiege Kyiv, with roads leading into southern Kyiv remaining accessible.
Russia continues to enjoy a relative military advantage and the military initiative more generally. Recent missiles attacks on Western Ukrainian airports further point to some gaps in Ukraine’s air defense in its ability to protect key sites. Russian air dominance has rendered it difficult for the UAF to resupply its troops in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. The slow but steady Russian troop rotation further presents another challenge to Ukraine.
The RAF, however, appears to lack adequate preparation for urban combat. Russian efforts to mobilize fighters from the Middle East is partially aimed at providing fresh forces to assault cities (without any regard to battle casualties). The destruction of civilian infrastructure and communal services, meanwhile, has sought to diminish the morale of Ukrainians positioned in and around key cities. A total of 18 million Ukrainians have been directly impacted by the war including nearly 7 million who have been internally displaced and 3 million who have fled the country. One of Russia’s initial objectives indeed included the political “cleansing” of Ukraine.
Regionalization of the conflict
The war is already impacting neighboring countries and the broader region, with some under pressure by Russia to demonstrate where they stand. Ukrainian sources, most alarmingly, have raised the possibility that Belarus could deploy its troops in Ukraine. Kyiv is undoubtedly enraged that Minsk has permitted Russian troops to use Belarusian territory to mount attacks on Ukraine. These actions make Lukashenka complicit in Russia’s invasion - but sending Belarusian troops would mark a new level of escalation. Belarusian society, that said, opposes the war and the Belarusian army lacks combat experience. The absence of military infrastructure in border areas would further hinder any efforts of Belarusian armed forces. Minsk, on the other hand, still believes that it can serve as a channel of communication with the West and between Russia and Ukraine, regardless whether other governments perceive this ambition as credible.
Concerns are also mounting in Moldova that separatists from Transnistria could be dragged into the fray. Chisinau is also uneasy about refugee flows and the extra burden they are placing on its state budget already under strain due to the gas crisis. Moldova has accepted the largest number of refugees per capita and expects more financial assistance from the EU.
The costs of war
Unprecedented Western sanctions on Russia have delivered a major shock to society. Commentators have indeed dubbed Russia a "no fry zone” following McDonald’s suspension of its operations in the country. The Russian economy is expected to fall by 15% over the next year. Russia, facing 5532 restrictive measures enacted by 41 countries, is now the world's most sanctioned country, surpassing North Korea and Iran.
The mass exodus of Western companies – businesses have mostly suspended their activities rather than completely closing their operations – has created severe problems in logistics and technology access. Rather than straightforwardly aiding Moscow, Beijing appears to be leaning more towards engaging in a careful balancing act following the failure of Russia’s blitzkrieg and Moscow becoming bogged down in a seemingly protracted and expensive war.
An immediate collapse of the Russian economy, nonetheless, is not expected. Despite the partial seizure of its foreign reserves, Moscow still can draw on various buffers. The country is (nearly) self-sustainable in food - due to the Russian countersanctions imposed following the Ukraine crisis in 2014 - and in energy. The effect of sanctions is yet to be seen – Putin’s entourage has rather plodded on and Russian public support appears to be generally holding for the time being. Russian oligarchs are unlikely to influence government decisions, with ordinary Russians (including those supporting the war) not shedding many tears about the woes of the elite. That said, tens of thousands have fled Russia, with the middle class and small and medium enterprises feeling the immediate brunt of the sanctions. Those fleeing, however, rather constitute the backbone of Putin’s domestic opposition.
The costs of the war will be borne not only by Russia but also Ukraine and the world more broadly. A global GDP loss of 1% (or a trillion dollars) is projected. And Europe is more integrated with Russia (than vice versa). The US oil embargo and EU talks to replace Russian gas has driven energy prices to the roof. Gas futures reached $3000 (an absolute record) and crude is close to its historic record ($143). Skyrocketing gas prices have been sparked by market fears that Russian supplies could stop flowing due to a potential ban.
Soaring petrol prices have already spurred unease in parts of Central Europe among vehicle owners. Food prices are also expected to skyrocket given that Russia and Ukraine are the two largest grain producers in the world. Western societies have expressed resolute solidarity towards Ukraine. But fears about an expansion of the war and its consequences on quality of life could weigh on attitudes.
How this ends
The Ukrainian resistance has tarnished the Kremlin’s meticulously crafted myth concerning Russian military might. Moscow has seemingly learned the wrong lessons from the US military campaign in Afghanistan. Washington has admitted that it too underestimated Ukraine’s resistance. Any military and political occupation of Ukraine appears untenable (or would prove prolonged, costly, and bloody).
Ukrainian President Zelensky has become an international hero - his Instagram account has overtaken Kanye West in terms of followers. Ukraine is waging a powerful info war campaign, with Ukrainian sources (both conventional and social media) generating a large amount of content. Most journalists have further elected to remain in Kyiv and continue their work. Organizational capacities remains high - the government is capable of providing civilian defense even in the cyber domain.
Maintaining full control over a country at war and all actions of self-organized groups, that said, is no easy task. The arrangement of humanitarian corridors and the immense number of IDPs in Western Ukraine have placed tremendous demand on supplies and housing. The necessary introduction of large numbers of checkpoints in Western Ukraine have created choke points that limit the flow of supplies and people. The proliferation of weapons and the possible use of these weapons under martial law, meanwhile, has contributed to security challenges in those parts of Ukraine not directly under attack.
Observers noted a shift in Russian objectives over the last week away from regime change and towards a negotiated settlement instead. Three rounds of talks in Belarus have established a direct dialogue between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations, with intensive discussions on-going now also in an online format. The Ukrainian leadership, for its part, has started to talk about a possible compromise. Both delegations have emphasized that progress is being achieved in the talks. But Russia may be unlikely to genuinely pursue a settlement until after it achieves at least partial success (i.e. a land bridge to Crimea and Transnistria). But Ukraine will not accept such an outcome.
While scenarios vary concerning how the war may end, regime change in Kyiv and full control of Ukraine - Moscow’s original objectives - are no longer seen as viable options for the Kremlin. Unless Russia is defeated, any settlement may still require some concessions on the part of Ukraine though. Kyiv, however, comes to the negotiations bolstered by a united and defiant society and an increasingly beleaguered Russia even as Ukraine too endures the dire consequences of war.