Today is February 24th, 2023. One year ago, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, in what was until then considered an unthinkable act of aggression.
The level of violence that we now see on a daily basis has been unknown in the developed world for generations. Those in the West who have some knowledge of organized industrial violence at this scale are either dead or dying. And just as the violence inherent in conflict often radicalizes previously ordinary people to commit war crimes, so too are we unprepared for what opening this Pandora’s Box will bring.
The last time (early November) that I wrote one of these updates, I felt rather confident in the future path of this war. Not so anymore. Although the war on the ground has not changed much, everything around it has changed. And the coming maelstrom will change a great deal, as it has been changed by the evolving geopolitical climate.
I. A Not-So-Phoney War
On my last update on the war, Ukraine was on the cusp of liberating Kherson — a feat of arms accomplished just days later. A strategic and symbolic victory for Ukrainian forces, Russia has now been pushed back beyond the Dnipro River, and has lost the only regional capital it has conquered thus far.
Since then, the lines have actually changed very little on the ground. The focus has shifted from battles of movement and manuever to grinding trench warfare, World War I style. The center of this new attritional warfare is the meatgrinder of Bakhmut, where hundreds on both sides are dying each week. Short of equipment and training but long on manpower, Russia has resorted to throwing wave upon wave of ex-prison convicts at Ukranian positions, with some units reporting casualty rates as high as 80%.
Russia has had some success in Bakhmut, a town of minor strategic significance, but huge propaganda value due to the weight of forces arrayed against each other and the blood already spilled over it. Despite the risk of encirclement, due to this symbolic value, Ukraine is reportedly sending in reinforcements against American advice. Nonetheless, analysts expect Russia to take the town sometime in March or April, which would represent a significant coup not for Russia’s military campaign as a whole, but for Yevgeny Prigozhin’s shadowy Wagner Group.
The reason is simple — at other points along the line of contact, such as Vuhledar and Kreminna, Russia’s assaults have failed. If Wagner’s efforts succeed, as they likely will, Wagner will be able to claim it is the only effective fighting force in Russia. This is significant, as Wagner is not formally an element of the Russian military. It is essentially a private army under the command of Yevgeny Prigozhin, ex-convict and Putin’s one-time caterer.
Something is happening in Moscow, and nobody is exactly sure what. The new prominence of the Wagner Group, and by extension, Prigozhin, is deeply concerning, as it upends the traditional power structures of the Putin regime. Prigozhin was already a significant player in the Kremlin’s game of musical chairs, entrusted with some of the Kremlin’s most delicate and discreet operations, such as its 2016 interference in the US presidential election, and its semi-covert activities in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali, and elsewhere. But his rise to prominence started in July, when he started recruiting inmates from Russia’s penal system in exchange for pardons — if they survived their six-month term in Ukraine.
In doing so, Prigozhin challenged several prominent agencies within Russia — the FSB, the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor General, and the Federal Penitentiary Service among them — and won. And with its ranks swelled, Wagner was able to send wave after wave of cannon fodder at Ukranian lines in Bakhmut, unlike the regular army, earning Russia its only success in Ukraine since the disastrous withdrawals from Kharkiv and Kherson in the fall. In this, Prigozhin has become, in the eyes of ordinary Russians, and especially the hardline hawks, the only element of Russia’s forces capable of delivering victory in Ukraine.
This has enabled Prigozhin to challenge Russia’s military leadership (all Putin appointees), publicly accusing them of treason and incompetence. The fact that this rift exists out in the open is an absolute first for contemporary Russian politics— a popular hero has arisen, to some extent an organizing figure for Russian politics other than Putin. Note that he has thus far declared absolute loyalty to Putin, as his position is not nearly strong enough to stand apart from him. But the balance of power is shifting in the Kremlin — some senior officials have been half-jokingly suggesting that now is the right time to swear allegiance to Prigozhin.
Despite recent moves by Putin and his man in the armed forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, to limit Prigozhin’s influence by reducing his press coverage and starving Wagner of resources, he maintains a popular following unheard of for a politician not named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. As recently as February 20th, he exercised this popular support by appealing to the public to help save Wagner’s fighters from “shell hunger” — successfully demanding that Russian command send more ammunition to Wagner.
What happens with Prigozhin — whether he has the ability or will to succeed Putin, and whether Putin can successfully contain his amibitions — is anyone’s guess. As Winston Churchill put it, “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.” But regardless of whether Putin or Prigozhin come out on top, given both are hawks and face structural incentives to continue the war, the Russian state appears geared towards escalation — the subject to which we now turn our attention.
Despite the stalemate on the front lines, like two boxers warily circling each other, both Russia and Ukraine are readying for new offensives. As the ground thaws, offensive operations become possible again — and both sides will spring into action.
Both Russia and Ukraine have spent the last months readying for these new offensives. On Russia’s part, bereft of significant support from its friend “with no limits”, China, it has sought to re-arm domestically, rebuilding its shattered forces by de-mothballing its massive stockpiles of Cold War-era equipment and training up many of the 220,000 reservists called up for service last September. However, none of these moves help resolve the fundamental problems that Russia faces: incompetence, poor doctrine and training, poor or no equipment, and inter-service rivalry.
Interestingly, Iran has emerged as Russia’s most significant arms supplier. Russia and Iran have established a mutual and reciprocal arms supply and technological transfer pipeline, with each other now the most significant source of arms. Russia has receieved circa 1,700 Iranian drones and potentially ballistic missiles in support of its campaign against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. In exchange, Iran, it appears, is readying to receive modern Su-35 jets and advanced S-400 air defence systems from Russia.
However, while these Iranian arms are strategic in their ability to degrade Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and demoralize the Ukrainian people, this campaign, as we have seen, appears to have failed, a combination of the strong Ukranian will to resist as well as the many air defence systems sent by varied Western allies. More importantly, in light of the imminent spring offensives, they do not substantially aid Russia’s battlefield effort.
For its part, Ukraine has been very actively canvassing Western capitals for support, to substantial success. Since December, Ukraine has secured commitments from the West of significant numbers of infantry fighting vehicles, main battle tanks, further arms and ammunition, as well as a Patriot missile battery. These commitments are highly significant in both replacing Ukraine’s battlefield losses and augmenting its offensive capabilities by providing it with modern, high-quality Western military equipment that can help counter Russian numerical superiority, as well as building a combined arms capability, widely considered the cornerstone of modern warfare. (Note, however, that thus far, Ukraine has not been able to convince Western capitals to provide fighter jets, whether of Western or Soviet origin— for now.)
Taken together, these reinforcements could have the capacity to help Ukraine push Russia out of occupied Ukrainian territory. Specifically, Ukraine is expected to drive southwards to Melitopol on the Black Sea coast, cutting Russian forces in two, and isolating Russian forces in Crimea, considered a strategic prize for Ukraine. However, the fate of Ukraine’s offensive is up in the air. Firstly, Western equipment needs time to arrive on the battlefield, and Ukranian crews must be trained to operate them. For instance, the US M1A2 Abrams tank is not expected to arrive on the battlefield until the fall, at the earliest. Secondly, the fact that Ukraine will receive its arms later in the year means that Russia has a strong incentive to attack earlier in the year, potentially further degrading Ukraine’s capabilities and forcing them to throw donated Western arms into battle to hold the line before units are fully capable of operating them. Finally, since its withdrawal from Kherson, Russia has been busy building lines upon lines of defences, attempting to blunt the impact of Ukraine’s expected offensive. As offense typically requires a 3:1 local force advantage against a spirited defense, it is unclear whether Ukraine can successfully breach Russia’s defence in depth.
As for Russia, its spring offensive is expected to come in the east, in the regions of Donbas and Luhansk, potentially trapping Ukrainian forces in a pincer movement to the west. However, its ability to substantially accomplish these operational goals is questioned by many analysts. Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, recently suggested on February 13th that Russia’s offensive had already started, but despite moving on the offensive, Russian forces have met stiff resistance, such as in its efforts around the town of Vuhledar, where in a single day up to 500 men may have been killed and 40 tanks lost, with nothing to show for it.
Russia therefore seems to be severely in need of support at this crucial juncture in the war. The question on everyone’s mind at this moment is therefore whether China will provide military assistance to Russia. Thus far, China has been the largest player absent from the confrontation in Ukraine, desiring to support its “friend with no limits” but wary of secondary sanctions from the US and EU should it do so, which would seriously affect China’s trade relationships, given the EU and US are China’s top two export markets.
As a result, China has largely stayed on the sidelines, maintaining its traditional trade relationships with the West, but also discreetly buying Russian oil and allowing Russia to buy non-military supplies. However, there are signs that China may be considering changing this approach. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on February 19th that there was evidence China was strongly considering providing “material support” to Russia.
Will China actually send military aid? China would stand to gain if Russia wins — it would vindicate China and Russia’s declarations of a multipolar challenge to US hegemony, and would spare China the embarrassment of seeing its friend “with no limits” fail miserably in Ukraine. However, EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell has said that China would cross a “red line” if it did so — a significant declaration. This is to some extent a credible threat, as if China were able to provide sufficient aid such that Russia is able to break through Ukrainian lines and change the course of the war in Russia’s favor, this would be an absolutely unacceptable threat to European security and interests. However, if China sends aid short of that threshold, at least initially, and gradually raises the threshold, as the US and EU initially did in Ukraine, this threat becomes less credible as it is not clear that European leaders would be able garner enough support to follow through on a “red line” level of retaliation given incremental assistance levels.
That being said, the potential impact of Chinese military aid is riddled with unknowns. Chinese military aid, which is more interoperable with Russia’s arsenal (stemming from their shared Communist bloc history) than NATO aid is for Ukraine’s largely Soviet-era arsenal, would definitely have an impact on Russian battlefield capability. Will Chinese military equipment be effective under battlefield conditions?— a pertinent question, since China has not deployed its military in combat since 1979. Is China willing to commit enough aid to Russia that it regains the strategic initiative? Would China respond to an increase in NATO arms flows to Ukraine with escalation of its own? And would any amount of aid enough to reverse Russia’s systemic weaknesses within its armed forces?
Moreover, China does stand to lose a great deal from aiding Russia. China has so far claimed to be a neutral arbiter in the conflict, a stance that has kept the larger world order short of the stark dividing lines that characterized the Cold War, and now, the relationship between Russia and the West. If China were to join the fight, a decoupling would take place, though not quite as aggressive as the West’s against Russia, cleaving the world order into two. In this space, China loses the strategic flexibility it has enjoyed in the post-Cold War era, able to put some distance between Europe and America due to their differing strategic goals. China would also sacrifice, over a period of time, a large portion of its substantial European and American export markets, requiring a shift towards new export markets (not entirely certain to be feasible) or a drastic increase in domestic consumption — a difficult prospect for an economy suffering from a massive debt crisis and a substantial demographic challenge far into the future.
As such, many observers believe China will not send military aid to Russia. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has repeatedly claimed, in response to Secretary Blinken’s remarks, that China will not send military aid to Russia. Assuming this is the case, then why consider this strategy? It’s possible that China is just mapping what would happen in the event it supplied aid to Russia. Or, alternatively, China is trying to put pressure on the West to moderate its flow of aid to Ukraine, lest China get involved as well — a subtle way of aiding Russia without actually doing so.
In any case, the Chinese response to Putin’s war remains a matter of concern, not only due to its possible effects on the battlefield, but because it would completely reshape the international order. Drawing such stark dividing lines in the global geopolitical order would find nearly every major power involved in what essentially constitutes a proxy World War III, with disastrous potentially destabilizing and escalatory effects on all concerned. This is not a situation to be taken lightly, and hopefully one that Beijing, with its traditionally high weight on a stable international order, will not be willing to countenance.
200,000 dead and wounded for Russia. 100,000 military casualties for Ukraine, and a further 10,000 civilians killed. This war is only in its first year, and already it has produced such carnage and bloodshed.
Conventional military doctrine emphasizes two key elements as determinants of military outcomes: will and resources. Thus far, it is clear that Ukraine’s will to fight remains quite high. After all, this is a war of national liberation for Ukraine. However, there are doubts whether this will continue at as high a level. It is concievable, if not probable, that Ukraine’s public will tire of continued conflict as we moved into the second year and beyond of this conflict, with this probability going up with time. Furthermore, as Ukraine pushes further into the pro-Russian Donbas and Luhansk regions, its military effort could stall amid resistance (or at minimum, non-cooperation) from locals, further sapping its reservoir of popular support. But for the time being, we can safely assume Ukrainian support for continued hostilities against the Russian aggressor.
On the other hand, the Russian public is not quite as mobilized as in Ukraine. Most of the public has been dragged unconsciously into the war, implicitly supporting it by buying into the Kremlin’s narrative of an anti-Russian conspiracy by the “collective West”, even if few actively give it their endorsement. Putin has spent a great deal of effort normalizing the ‘special military operation’ and preparing the Russian public for a long, drawn-out conflict. However, the ‘partial mobilization’ in September has sapped Putin’s support to some extent, as it has brought ordinary Russians into the war. As Russian manpower becomes further stretched, potentially requiring future drafts, and the impact of sanctions continue to deepen their bite, it remains to be seen if their collective impact on popular opinion will be able to overturn to some extent the implicitly pro-war sentiments expressed by most of the general public.
Concerning resources, as I wrote in November, this war has become an industrial war, with the outcome substantially dependent on the industrial capabilities of the West and Russia (and now potentially China). Unlike Ukraine, Russia is in full command of its industrial capabilities — its Soviet-inherited defense industries, founded on the premise of autarky, are well able to continue producing for the long haul. Ukraine, however, is dependent on the West for its industry capacity — a strength as well as an point of vulnerability.
The West has far greater industrial capacities than Russia — by something like a factor of 13 times, if measured by GDP. However, this is contingent on whether the West will continue to support continued aid to Ukraine. So far the West has moved in unison, but cracks have appeared, most notably in the acrimony over sending modern main battle tanks to Ukraine. Germany had to be dragged more or less kicking and screaming by the United States into allowing Poland, Spain, Sweden, and others to re-export their Leopard 2s (German arms typically come with a clause that prohibits re-export without Berlin’s permission), in an unusually public spat that involved Poland threatening to violate its re-export clause if Berlin continued to refuse.
In light of the likely difficulties the alliance will face in the future, and the already eroding (yet still strong) public support for Ukraine in the United States and elsewhere, senior Biden administration officials have begun to moderate Ukrainian expectations of further military aid. As one official put it, “we will continue to try to impress upon them that we can’t do anything and everything forever. ‘As long as it takes’ pertains to the amount of conflict. It doesn’t pertain to the amount of assistance.”
To some extent, this obviates the difficult questions raised by how this war should end. As a recent RAND paper discusses, the costs of further conflict could outweigh the benefits. However, this paper assumes that the United States and other Western governments have complete control over when and how they would like the war to end. However, shifts in popular opinion may force their hand sooner than they would otherwise prefer.
Russia’s strategy is to simply wait it out until the West loses the will to continue supplying Ukraine. However, if Russia’s capabilities remain more or less as they are now (and do not degrade, as they likely will over time), their poor showing (thus far) on the offensive in the east suggest that given current rates of Western material support (i.e. before the tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and other newly acquired equipment arrive), the line of contact can be roughly held. The race is on, therefore, to maintain consensus both among the Western alliance and within individual states for this level of support or higher.
If this is indeed feasible, then what ought to be done? As discussed in my last update, regardless of whether Prigozhin or Putin wins the Kremlin power struggle, the Russian state’s war footing will likely continue. Thus, the only real lever that the West has to control the trajectory of the conflict is aid to Kyiv.
Therefore, in controlling the level of aid to Ukraine, Washington and other Western governments must keep in mind their strategic priorities. While weakening Russia is certainly an important goal, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, the United States’ two most important strategic goals are 1) avoiding a direct conflict between Russia and NATO, and 2) containing the war within Ukraine. An escalation and expansion of the war is certainly not worth the benefits, given the massive uncertainties that such a conflict might generate.
As discussed in my last update, I argue that Putin is unlikely to use nuclear weapons (tactical or strategic) or dirty bombs due to the weight of the nuclear taboo and the likely responses of all key actors (both those involved in Ukraine and those not), unless it concerns a direct threat to the integrity of Russia. This rules out nuclear escalation for most Ukrainian offensive action within its borders. However, what is most concerning about Ukraine’s offensive this year is the likelihood that it might feasibly lead to retaking Crimea. Given the importance it holds to the Putin regime, and that it and much of the Russian people consider it an integral part of Russia, it is quite probable that any move to retake the peninsula would result in a nuclear response, and quite likely one that involves strategic nuclear weapons.
In addition, a growing concern in Western capitals is that Russia will face state collapse and regional fragmentation. Russia has been severely weakened, the argument goes, and the ethnic minorities that have thus far borne the brunt of Russia’s war effort will not quietly return to impoverished regions to be treated as second-class citizens. Instead, they could potentially choose to take up arms against the Russian state, igniting separatist sentiment across Russia’s twenty-one different ethnic republics, initating a brutal civil war across a continent-sized state bordering the EU, China, and the United States.
This outcome, however, is still unlikely. State fragmentation requires a prolonged period of state weakness. However weak the Russian state emerges, it will not be too weak to wrest back Chechnya in a Third Battle of Grozny, and a region as essential to Russia’s economy and strategic position like Sakha will not be let go under any circumstances. It will be bloody, but Moscow will prevail. What is concerning, however, is if Putin, seeing a rise in separatist sentiment domestically, understands that the war in Ukraine is threatening Russia’s domestic stability, and considers this an existential threat to his regime meriting a nuclear response.
Any sign Putin has reached either threshold for nuclear use has to be taken extremely seriously; negotiations should begin immediately upon such indications, regardless of Ukrainian wishes. But short of that, what should the war’s trajectory look like? Given both sides’ willingness to fight for the foreseeable future, a tacit understanding of a frozen conflict, or at best, an armistice, instead of a negotiated settlement, seem like the only feasible outcomes. But when, and on what terms, should such an agreement come?
There are few, if any, strategic objectives or partnerships shared between the West and Russia, with Russia’s non-compliance and suspension of the New START treaty on February 21st. More importantly, the war has fundamentally polarized the mode of confrontation between East and West. The West views Russia as the implacable enemy, a return to (or even a surpassing of) Cold War conceptions of the threatening Russian bear; Russia, in turn, views the West as a gang of unholy satanists out to get Russia. This makes further cooperation on strategic priorities nearly impossible for either side. But despite the West’s long-run view that Russia is the enemy, the consensus in support of Ukraine might degrade, not because Russia is no longer as threatening, but because Ukraine’s struggle is not the West’s struggle per se. Most Americans view the Taliban as the enemy, but few in America would advocate sending aid (or at least, aid at the levels that America has previously sent to Afghanistan), simply because it is not percieved as America’s fight.
In considering pathways for the end of the war, Western governments must gauge the level of support that the West will be able to supply Ukraine given the constraint of public opinion. Yet this does not simply mean donating tanks and Javelin missiles. Equally, if not more important, is that Ukraine must win the peace. War is a terribly complex phenomenon, wreaking havoc on lives, economies, and societies. Ukraine’s public has rallied around the Ukranian flag in a way that few expected, a new patriotism unlike the general political apathy seen in much of the post-Soviet sphere. However, structural problems remain, and new ones have emerged. Corruption remains endemic in Ukraine, and the concentration of economic power in the hands of a select few oligarchs poses a continual risk to economic prosperity, socio-economic equity, and the democratic political process. More importantly, Ukraine’s economy contracted by 30% in 2022, amid an exodus of refugees, lost territory in the east, mass conscription, and persistent Russian bombing of key infrastructure. While exceeding expectations, Ukraine’s government is now dependent on Western financing to stay afloat, and a difficult reconstruction awaits.
Given the price they have paid in blood for their country, Ukraine’s newly mobilized populace demands and deserves more than just more of the same. Zelensky’s government has taken steps in this direction, with its recent anticorruption crackdown in late January. However, Ukraine will need substantial Western aid if it is to rebuild in a sufficiently timely fashion; a new Marshall Aid program will be necessary. Otherwise, a dissatisfied and frustrated populace with a high degree of militarization may well create serious domestic instability, much like Germany in the post-Great War era, posing a risk to European security if Russia is able to take advantage of this disarray to invade again.
The longer this war drags on, the more damage Ukraine’s economy will take, and the less support there will be in the West for continued aid, either military or economic, to Ukraine. But this lies in tension with the strategic goal of weakening Russia such that it cannot menace its neighbors or threaten broader Western interests, which is advanced with every day that it remains mired in this conflict, and which ultimately will be crucial in Europe and the wider world order, both if Ukraine is able to rebuild quickly and (especially) if it is not.
Finding the optimal balance between these goals is no easy feat. In order to end the war, both Ukraine and Russia must be convinced that a stalemate has set in, which no further effort (given available resources — which is what the West controls) can change. Given Russian intransigence, this will likely be years in the making, just as a cease-fire in Korea came two years after a stalemate was established and three years after the start of the war. However, one thing is clear. In order to hasten the end of the war on favorable terms, the West should immediately deliver as much support as it can (to front-load, if you will). This would both put Ukraine in an improved position when the stalemate comes, and increase the rate of depletion and degradation of Russian capabilities, and therefore moving forward the Russian decision to accept that a stalemate has occurred. In addition, it would best maximize the chances that the Western consensus in support of Ukraine will hold such that Ukraine will receive what it needs to both win the war and win the peace.
This will be not be easy, not least because several members of the transatlantic alliance are reluctant to do so, given their historical inclinations and their domestic bases of support. But the task remains, to conclude this bloody war as swiftly and advantageously as possible. For both the fate of millions of Ukrainians as well as world order lies in the balance.
One year has passed since this terrible war began. Since that fateful February morning, Ukraine has fought valiantly and successfully against the Russian onslaught. But we must be cognizant of the fact that the fight continues and will continue for much longer, with military, social, and financial costs for all actors concerned — and where necessary, we must bear these costs. As Winston Churchill remarked after the Second Battle of El Alamein:
Now this is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill — November 10th, 1942