Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP)
A swift conflict initiation characterised the war in Ukraine, which started on February 24, 2022. The perception of conflict termination involving the end state of the hostilities, however, is hardly being spoken about.
Russia’s war aims were analysed at the outset as something achievable in a few days. Among these were regime change, the capture of key cities, including the capital Kyiv, full and firm control over the eastern segment of Ukraine, commonly called Donbass, and an effective blockade from the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to convert Ukraine into a virtual landlocked state. The moment the war went beyond the first week it was clear that these aims were quite unachievable.
These were the territorial aspects of conflict termination. The goals have only marginally changed but some stiff Ukrainian resistance and even riposte has prevented their achievement.
A review of some of the characteristics of the war questions whether the retention of the original goals by Russia is a realistic appreciation of the situation or a lot of kite-flying. After 100 days of war fighting, we now find some reasonably genuine information emerging from the military institutions of the neighboring countries around Ukraine, who have a much closer ear to the ground. The Russians initially concentrated in the north, with Kyiv and Kharkiv as the two areas of focus. Having made some initial inroads with high attrition, they were forced to switch east on exterior lines of communication, something never palatable to an attacker. It appeared from our assessment then that they would try to rest their front along the Dnieper River with a rapid advance through Donbass, but a large swathe of territory to the east of the Dnieper has remained under the control of Ukraine. The Russians tried to launch two pincers, with the northern pincer attempting to secure bridgeheads over the River Siwarsky Donezin. The Ukrainians showed their will by infiltrating to target the bridgeheads. Almost three bridgeheads were attempted, and all were beaten back by Ukrainian reserves deployed in the vicinity; Russia suffered fairly heavy casualties here.
The southern pincer about 40 km to the south entered plain open territory where the Ukrainian anti-tank missiles were most effective. The pincer reportedly did not make much headway. The Ukrainians have created seven brigades of troops (all territorial army) but mainly infantry and inducted them from central Ukraine across the Dnieper River. This has strengthened resistance, but the Russians have compensated with extensive use of artillery, air power and missiles. Russian infantry capability remains suspect and it comes in only when the Ukrainians are near breaking point. The Russian armour appears to have shed its initial reticence and is making bolder manoeuvres through deeper penetration despite suffering heavy attrition due to the employment of Javelins and other anti-tank missiles by the Ukrainians.
So, how long can the battlelines remain drawn and military engagements continue. The truth is that $4.6 billion worth of military equipment has come into Ukraine from the United States alone (over $7 billion since 2014). Till now the US has abstained from providing long-range weapons through which Ukraine can attack Russian territory. Escalation beyond the bilateral arena is obviously an issue of concern. The US inventory of supplies includes 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 6,500 Javelin anti-armour systems, 20,000 other anti-armour missiles, 108x155 mm Howitzers, and small arms and ammunition — amounting to over 7,000 weapons and over 50,000,000 rounds. That is a sizable armoury to fight for a couple of months, and with the addition of equipment and weapons from Britain ($1.3 billion) and the European Union ($2 billion), this could stretch.
The issue is not so much about military wherewithal but human will, capability and stamina. It is now being reported that the Russians may have just 10 per cent casualties, the earlier figures having been exaggerated by Nato sources.
That means Russia has high stamina. Much depends on the effects of the economic sanctions.
What are Nato’s proxy war aims? Retaining sovereignty and territory of Ukraine is surely one of them, lest Ukraine be subsumed by the delayed post-Cold War physicality. At the outset of the war, a victory may not have been contemplated, but as Russian failure multiplied this became a distinct possibility and the temptation may have been high. Now with the destruction on the ground, a failing Ukrainian economy, the inability of Ukraine’s farm sector to begin even sowing due to fuel shortages, a bleak future lies ahead for Ukraine. With the blockade of all ports, especially Odessa, there is a major negative effect on the world food supply chains. Britain and a few other nations like Lithuania have tried putting together a coalition to work towards the opening of Odessa. That could be the beginning of some negotiations with graduated efforts towards getting the Russians and the Ukrainians to the table after almost two months.
Are the Russians sensing military victory, and are therefore reluctant to open any lines of communication towards a ceasefire? This war has seen least transparency in information. What is the exact truth on the status of the battlefield? Both sides will conceal the maximum at this stage and so third-party intervention is helpful. The Ukrainians will have to trust Nato and its leaders to stand by its interests. President Vladimir Putin’s ego will have to be catered to and the Russians convinced that further physical victory may just not be possible, with persistence likely to lead to an expansion of the ambit of the war.
Information which has been used more for propaganda and concealing the truth thus far will now need to mutually convey the futility of fighting further and causing more destruction and loss of lives. Unfortunately, reason and rationale least apply in such situations. Mr Putin has even threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Rationality should hardly be expected from that direction. Nato must make amends for its earlier irrationality in pushing Russia into a confrontation. No blame is being apportioned but the continuation of the confrontation has dangerous connotations as desperation sets in, with downturn in world economics and in energy management.
Finally, the unrestricted flow of weaponry into the region has the potential to derail everything else even after some semblance of control is established. The world can hardly afford a weapons-surplus Afghanistan-Pakistan, and now the region bordering the Balkans, at the doorstep of Europe. The supply of more hardware through the open western Ukrainian region, which is devoid of Russian offensive activity, may neutralise Russia’s military superiority, but it is also a source of perpetuating the conflict, rather than terminating it.