Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began in 2014 with annexation of Crimea. The current active phase of the conflict, launched on February 24th, is characterised by the sheer scale of the invasion, the high levels of systematic violence, and Russia’s declared and undeclared objectives. The campaign can be sub-divided into three components: the military, the economic, and the ideological, which I will look at in turn. But I also want to examine what Russia is fighting for and why. Is this a war against Ukraine or over Ukraine?
The military component
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s declared military objective is the “de-militarisation” of Ukraine. However, analysis of the first three weeks of the invasion allows us to establish a number of tactical objectives employed to achieve this aim. These include:
- The systematic destruction or capture of the Ukrainian military hardware, including piloted and unmanned aircraft and air defence systems; battle tanks and armored vehicles; missile and artillery systems; the remaining operational assets of the Ukrainian navy; trucks and other vehicles, which provide the Ukrainian resistance with mobility.
- The systematic destruction of Ukraine’s physical defence infrastructure, which includes centers for communications, command and control, and intelligence and surveillance; military bases and training facilities; ammunition and military equipment depots; and defensive fortifications, particularly in the contested Donbass region.
- The systematic destruction of the country’s oil refineries and fossil fuel deposits with the aim of curtailing the mobility of the Ukrainian resistance force.
- The systematic destruction of Ukraine’s national defence industry (design bureaus, manufacturing enterprises, testing ranges, repair plants).
- The gradual destruction and capture of Ukrainian resistance forces, with a particular emphasis on neutralising its mechanized air-assault capabilities and its special forces units.
- Seizing control over strategically important and sensitive areas of Ukraine with a particular emphasis on the southern and south-eastern parts of the country (the Donbass region), coastal regions and main seaports, naval bases and shipbuilding centres; establishing control over nuclear-power facilities; seizing Ukraine’s major urban centres in the country’s eastern and central regions (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Odessa, Chernihiv, Sumy, and possibly Zaporizhzhia and Dnieper).
- A systematic cyber offensive, which includes influence and deception operations in support of traditional kinetic action across the battlespace.
To date, the Russian military has encountered grave problems meeting these objectives. Nor has it been able to effectively address and overcome these problems in the manner expected of a large modernized force. There are several reasons for this.
First, Russia failed to predict the heroic and ferocious resistance offered by the Ukrainian military. Second, the Kremlin severely miscalculated the operational needs of its own troops—the invading force is simply too small to wage effective high-tempo operations on several fronts across such a massive theater of war. This problem is worsened by Putin’s apparent reluctance to mobilize reinforcements to shore up Russia’s frontline and support units. Third, Moscow seems to have been surprised by the scale and rapidity of the West’s (ongoing and escalating) military assistance to Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the Russian forces continue to advance and conquer territory, albeit at a much slower pace than in the early days of the invasion. The situation may change dramatically in Russia’s favor if the strategically important coastal city of Mariupol falls, and if the Ukrainian operational group in Donbass can be encircled. Ukrainian resistance to the east of the Dnieper River would then be compromised, and Russia would be able to free up a lot of its fighting capacity.
The economic component
The invasion is intended to weaken Ukraine as an economic competitor in a number of areas, including agricultural and steel exports and arms sales. Moscow may also be hoping to take advantage of the occupied parts of Ukraine, from which it’s unlikely to withdraw for the foreseeable future. The Russians may integrate captured industrial facilities into their national production network, and use the rich lands in southern and south-eastern Ukraine to support Russia’s agricultural sector.
Even if the Kremlin agrees to the eventual removal of its occupation forces, it is unlikely to withdraw until a compliant regime has been installed, thereby turning the occupied parts of Ukraine into a de facto Russia’s protectorate.
The ideological component
In the Donbass region, the Russia-Ukraine war is also a civil war, and Russian invading forces there are being supported by pro-Russian separatists (two army corps of some 40,000 active personnel) drawn from parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It is mainly Russia-backed and -supported separatists who are actively involved in the siege of Mariupol and the assault on the city.
Ukraine’s two breakaway regions are considered pivotal to the outbreak of the current conflict, and are likely to play prominent roles in Moscow’s strategy to reshape the war-torn country into a quasi-friendly neighbor. After the expected fall of Mariupol, the Russian military command is likely to redeploy separatist forces to support advances into central Ukraine. Separatists are likely to become responsible for enforcing security inside occupied territories, and their civil bureaucracy may become the backbone of a future occupation administration.
Putin’s promise to “de-Nazify” Ukraine raises another dilemma. It implies that if the Russian conquest succeeds, the occupied population will be forced to undergo a thorough ideological screening and vetting process, which is likely to be long, messy, and controversial. Already, the claim that Ukraine—a country that elected a Jewish president—requires de-Nazification has been widely derided, although that is unlikely to be of much concern to Putin and his regime.
Putin’s internal war
Besides fighting the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has launched an internal propaganda offensive aimed at winning the support of the Russian public. The invasion has presented Putin with domestic challenges and opportunities linked to questions of internal security and regime stability.
The internal challenges arise from the fear that the severe sanctions regime imposed on Russia by the West will trigger social unrest, in the first instance, among the business elites and oligarchs, liberal elements of the political elites (predominantly associated with the economic arm of the government), and the middle and creative classes of the Russian society.
To mitigate these challenges, the Kremlin has resorted to means of societal control including the suppression of public protest and the so-called non-systemic opposition (opposition elements not represented in Russia’s federal or regional representative organizational structures, largely identified with a pro-Western liberal sentiment in the Russian society).
As part of this strategy, the Kremlin has launched a systematic campaign aimed at minimising Western influence inside Russia by throttling access to Western media, including social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe, and other outlets. The imposition of these restrictions is an attempt to impose a “digital Iron Curtain,” similar to that employed by China. Popular domestic opposition media platforms such as the Dozhd (Rain) TV channel and the Echo of Moscow radio station have also been shut down, and several prominent opposition political commentators and media personalities have fled the country fearing harassment or arrest.
This censorship is justified as retaliation for Western restrictions imposed on Russia’s state-owned and -operated media networks such as Sputnik News, Russia Today (RT), Zvezda (the official media outlet of Russia’s Ministry of Defence), and others. But it also allows Moscow to tighten its grip over the national information space. This will allow Putin to shape domestic opinion and mobilise nationalistic and patriotic sentiment more effectively, particularly in view of the looming presidential elections due to be held in 2024.
So far, Putin can claim success on this front. The Russian opposition has been weakened and silenced. According to official opinion polls, Putin’s support among the conservative/nationalist/patriotic public has risen from 64 percent on February 20th, 2022, to 74.5 percent in mid-March. Even if these polls are accurate, there is no guarantee that they will remain that favourable to Putin as a destructive and costly war drags on. But for now, propaganda and coercion have provided the Kremlin with some breathing space at home.
A grim outlook
The bloody Russia-Ukraine war is arguably the largest and most complex inter-state conflict since the end of the Cold War. But Russia’s aggression is not just an act of an undeclared war on a sovereign nation. It can also be viewed as the most dramatic act of a long drama intended by Putin to finally divorce his country from Western civilization.
Whether or not Russia ought to be considered a part of that civilisation has been the subject of many debates, and Putin seems to have had enough. He has now launched two wars—an external war and an internal one—and the West has responded by declaring total economic war on Russia, which has opened up a new front. So far, Moscow has been able to gain some ground domestically but these gains may prove to be fragile.
Militarily, the Russians continue to advance but at a high cost, and the expected time-frame for the active phase of the war seems to be extending—unless the Russian military commits more forces, it will take another two or three months of fighting for them to meet their objectives. Whether or not Russia can maintain a high operational tempo for that long remains an open question.
But the bigger question is how the Kremlin plans to withstand the economic damage being inflicted by the West. It must figure out a way of absorbing this punishment or else the Russian economy will simply collapse, triggering a cascade of social cataclysms inside a nuclear-armed state. A further possibility is that Putin resorts to military escalation in a desperate attempt to cling onto power.
Given the unpredictability of the Russian regime, only time will tell. What is certain, though, is that we have entered a new and extremely dangerous phase of our contemporary history. The future of the world is being decided on the battlefields of Ukraine.