Ukraine: What Happens Next?
It’s been seven months since Russia invaded Ukraine (February 24). It’s turned into a remake of David vs. Goliath.
1. Russia is losing the war: At the beginning of the invasion, most observers believed that Russia would overwhelm Ukraine. That didn’t happen. After months of conflict, the war reached a tipping point with the Ukrainian liberation of Kharkiv Oblast (province). Now it appears to be only a matter of time until Ukraine pushes out all the Russian invaders.
There are multiple reasons why Russia is losing. The first is that the Ukrainians have out-fought the Russians; the Ukrainian soldiers are highly motivated and the Russians are not. The second reason is that the Russia military has been “hollowed out” because Russia is a kleptocracy and Putin and his cronies have siphoned funds, that should have gone to defense, for their own purposes. In all facets of the Russian invasion we see indications that the invasion was underfunded, and terribly managed.
Russian soldiers are poorly trained. There is inadequate communication between front-line troops and battlefield commanders. The Russian generals have made many bad tactical decisions; for example to invade the Donbas region in the spring while the ground was very wet. The Russian supply infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Russians seemingly have no capability of repairing vehicles that break down in the field. Because of the EU sanctions, Russia cannot obtain critical parts it needs to repair or replace its equipment. (While Russia has shown the capability to build prototypes of advanced weapons, they cannot manufacture them.) Ukraine used NATO High-Mobility Artillery Rocket systems (HIMARS) to destroy Russian arms depots and supply lines. In many parts of occupied Ukraine, Russian troops are running low on food, gasoline, and weapons.
The Russian military is a mess. Russian military power was over-rated.
2. Russia is headed for a major defeat. The war is being fought in four eastern Ukrainian oblasts: Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk — from south to north. (Ukraine recently liberated the Kharkiv Oblast — adjacent to Donetsk and Luhansk.)
Russia was duped into massing troops in Kherson Oblast, particularly around the capitol city of Kherson. Instead of attacking Kherson, Ukrainian forces moved rapidly into the eastern sector of Kharkiv Oblast and recaptured it. Now they’ve moved into Donetsk Oblast and liberated the city of Lyman. Meanwhile in the south, Ukrainian forces have advanced to the key city of Kherson and seem close to trapping thousands of Russian troops in the section of Kherson Oblast that is west of Dnipro river. (These troops are perilously short of food, gasoline, and ammunition.)
When Kherson Oblast falls, Russian forces will be forced to retreat into Crimea — historically part of Ukraine, but occupied by Russia since 2014.
3. Putin is not ready to accept a loss. Even as it appears obvious that Russia has lost its war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin remains intransigent. His desperation has driven him to three ill-considered actions:
First, Putin announced the annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine: aspects of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk Oblasts (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/23/russia-referendum-occupied-ukraine-annexation/? ) to declare this Ukrainian territory as part of Russia. Thereafter, we will claim that any Ukrainian attacks in the region are an attack on Russia itself. He’s intentionally expanding the scope of the war.
Second, Putin declared an additional mobilization of Russian forces. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/21/putin-speech-annexation-ukraine-russia/?) He called up 300,000 reserves to join the forces already in Ukraine. (Russia has about 2 million reserves.)
Third, Putin issued new nuclear threats. (In a televised address, Putin said, “I’m not bluffing,” about the possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.) Russian forces control the Ukrainian nuclear facility at Zaporizhzhia; it’s the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and the 10th largest in the world. Putin will use this facility as a threat and (possibly) bring tactical nuclear weapons into the newly “annexed” areas of Ukraine.
Adding 300,000 reserves will not help the Russian effort in Ukraine. The Russian problem is not manpower; their problem is mismanagement of the war effort. That’s a problem that goes all the way up the chain of command and ends with Putin. Putin is a terrible manager and, therefore, a loser.
At some point, Ukrainian forces will push far enough into Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk Oblasts that Putin will be tempted to use tactical nuclear weapons — perhaps this will be precipitated by the fall of the city of Kherson.
4. Russians have committed atrocities. It’s one thing to be incompetent and quite another thing to be a brutal loser. Russia’s conduct of the war has outraged the western world. Russian troops appear to have no respect for civilized norms. Most recently we learned of a massacre at Ilium in the Kharkiv Oblast. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/16/ukraine-mass-grave-with-440-bodies-discovered-in-recaptured-izium-says-police-chief)
5. Putin is murdering his opponents. For months we have been reading stories about the “mysterious” deaths of high-level Russians who have dared to criticize Vladimir Putin. (https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/08/26/dan-rapoport-putin-critic-was-it-suicide-00053836) Typically, they fall from tall buildings. (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2022/9/21/2124313/-Another-Russian-dies-from-Tall-Building-Syndrome?)
Putin is taking extreme action to silence Russians who disagree with him.
5. Winter is coming. This isn’t a war that will be ended with a peace conference where dignitaries sign agreements. This is an ugly conflict that threatens to get even uglier.
In the next three months, it’s likely that Ukrainian forces will retake most of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk. (Unless, of course, the unthinkable happens and Putin uses nuclear weapons.) By December, the Ukrainian HIMARS will be able to reach all of Crimea, and possibly the Russian Navy which has been hiding in the Black Sea on the south side of the Crimean peninsula.
In response, Russia will cut off all fossil fuel deliveries to the EU. There will be severe economic consequences.
6. China as peacemaker. In his prescient dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell imagined the planet being governed by three totalitarian states: Oceania (the Americas, Australia, and South Africa), Eurasia (the EU and Russia), and Eastasia (China). There were shifting alliances between the three powers.
With regard to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, there are four geo-political stances: NATO (North America and the EU), Russia, China, and neutral states, such as Brazil. If Russia/Putin threatens the use of tactical nuclear weapons, it’s reasonable to expect NATO to form an alliance to stop this. The question is what will China do?
China is helping fund Putin’s war by buying fossil fuel from Russia. China can stop Putin from using tactical nuclear weapons by threatening reprisals. Will Chairman Xi do this?
Hold on tight.
Photo Attribution: Scott Dworkin on Twitter