Vladimir Putin’s 9 May ‘Victory Day’ speech surprised most security analysts and political commentators. It was assumed the Russian president would either declare victory in Donbas – whatever the reality on the ground – and continue with the war while quietly looking for a negotiated settlement, or order a state-wide mobilisation and the vigorous pursuit of victory. We got neither.
Instead, Putin re-wrote the war in Ukraine as a response to direct NATO aggression, which he framed in the context of Russia’s victory in The Great Patriotic War of 1941-45.Ukraine was likened to the German Nazis, with the two combining to threaten Russia.
This may seem like nonsense but it helps to provide a convincing picture to many Russians, aided by NATO’s expansion eastwards in the late 1990s, which has continued more recently, and the close military relationship forged between Ukraine and several NATO member states.
While NATO, of course, did not start the war, Putin now faces its powerful alliance. Senior politicians and military members are now openly saying Russia’s military power must be so reduced that it will be too feeble to threaten neighbouring states. That implies the end of his regime – which, to Putin, will be near enough an existential threat, with all the dangers built into that, including the risk of escalation to tactical nuclear weapons. For the Russian president and his advisers, it makes utter sense to see this as a Russia vs NATO war, with all the risky consequences that could follow.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
Putin is now into a long-drawn-out war of attrition, planning to wear down both Ukraine and NATO so that he will at least be able to annex Donbas and connect it with Crimea. Problems abound, with morale so low that elite troops are reluctant to fight, and a recent disastrous attempt at a river crossing in order to take the Luhansk industrial towns of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk.
There are two further problems for Russia; one obvious, the other less so. The first is the sheer level of resources being offered to Ukraine, especially by the United States, the most recent being a $40bn aid package. That alone is more than twice the UK’s entire annual international development programme and is on top of other packages being offered by individual NATO states.
The second comes from within Ukraine, especially the Russian-speaking districts. One of Putin’s miscalculations back in February was that Russia’s intervention would be welcomed right across the country. That was problematic enough, but it’s now clear even many local Russian-speaking municipal leaders are adamantly opposed to ending up in Russia. They most certainly do want a great deal of autonomy, but that is very different from being annexed into Russia.
According to the New York Times, on the first days of the invasion, Oleksandr Vilkul, a member of an influential political family in south-eastern Ukraine, “ordered the region’s mining companies to park heavy equipment on the runway of the city’s airport, thwarting an airborne assault, and on approach roads, slowing tank columns. The tires were then popped and engines disabled…” and “…the city’s steel industry began to turn out tank barriers and plates for armored vests.”
By the third day of the war, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy had appointed Vilkul as military governor of Kryvyi Rih, despite the two having been political opponents in peacetime and the Vilkul family having been thought to hold pro-Russia views.
Overall, while Russia may have been able to take control of substantial parts of Donbas, it has been losing territory near Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv. There, the progress of Ukrainian Army units can be attributed to its ability to organise coordinated multi-unit attacks rather than small individual actions.
Putin’s determination to continue with the conflict for months if not more means Western militaries can avoid being directly involved while all the time learning about Russian weapons, tactics, and morale. Those can be exploited while Russian successes can be met with different tactics and weapons. The aim is to cripple Russia for years to come.
A catastrophic development may be avoided if the war moves slowly from violent stalemate to stagnation,
The danger is that at some stage, perhaps when he has suffered major reversals, Putin will escalate the conflict, perhaps by staging large-scale and highly visible nuclear manoeuvres or threatening a demonstration tactical nuclear burst if some ultimatum is not met. It is worth remembering that on deploying nuclear weapons, NATO and Russia have long had a policy of ‘first use’ if losing a conventional war. Back in the Cold War days, most analysts assumed it would be NATO that would do so, but now the roles are reversed.
Such a catastrophic development may be avoided if the war moves slowly from violent stalemate to stagnation, with each party unable to see a way out. In those circumstances, negotiations may become feasible, and it is here that there is just a little cause for optimism. Some recent wars have come to an end with agreements negotiated, think Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Stable peace may still take years to come, but there is a substantial body of knowledge and experience, much of it with the UN, about how to facilitate solutions.
Depending on the circumstances and recent history, such an end may involve issues such as ceasefire conditions, reconstruction funding, territorial arrangements, security and policing and post-conflict governance, much of it in agreed timeframes that might stretch over many years.
Even such a complex and costly war has potential for resolution. Possibilities are already being studied, not least in some of the few academic centres that work in this area. Their work is particularly important just now, not just because it might help with an eventual settlement but also because it can remind those close to despair that conflicts can be ended short of complete disaster. Meanwhile, a little less rhetoric of impending victory by Western leaders would be no bad thing.
Get our weekly email