Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 10 April 2023

 

As Ukraine prepares its spring offensive, Russia goes from defeat to defeat

Ukrainian military personel fire a Soviet-era Grad multiple rocket launcher at Russian positions in the Kharkiv area in Ukraine in February. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)
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There hasn’t been much movement on the front lines of Ukraine since Ukrainian forces liberated the city of Kherson in early November. It’s easy to conclude that the war is at a stalemate pending the outcome of Ukraine’s widely expected spring offensive — which would benefit from even more Western support than it has been getting. While there might be an element of truth to that assumption, it also masks a lot of developments in the past five months that have been positive for Ukraine and negative for Russia.

One of Vladimir Putin’s pseudo-justifications for his war of aggression was the supposed fear that Ukraine would join NATO. That was never likely (and still isn’t). But, as a result of his invasion, Finland just joined NATO, and Sweden should be close behind. Not only does Finland have Europe’s largest artillery force, but it also recently agreed to combine its warplanes with those of Norway, Denmark and Sweden in a joint operating force. The Nordic partners have 250 front-line combat aircraft, instantly creating a new military superpower in northern Europe. Thanks, Vlad, for making NATO stronger than ever.

So, too, Putin has no one but himself to blame for his recent indictment on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court. That won’t have any immediate impact, but it’s not the kind of thing anyone wants on his résumé. At a minimum, it further delegitimizes Putin and hampers his travel to avoid arrest. Someday, like Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, he could even wind up on trial for his crimes.

Putin tried to show that he was not isolated by hosting Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow last month. But, beyond the photo op, Putin did not get much out of the meeting: Xi did not agree (at least publicly) to supply weapons to Russia or even to build another gas pipeline from Russia to China. China’s ambassador to the European Union just said that China’s “no limits” friendship with Russia — proclaimed last year by Xi and Putin — is “nothing but rhetoric.”

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By contrast, the support that Ukraine has received from more than 50 donor nations is much more than just rhetorical. All that aid has turned Ukraine, during the past year, into one of the strongest military powers in Europe. Putin hoped to use a cutoff of Russian gas supplies to force the Europeans to stop supporting Ukraine. The Russian gambit failed; Europe adjusted to the cutoff and hasn’t wavered in its support of Ukraine.

Ukraine has not only been winning the battle for international support. It has also won another critical and underappreciated victory in recent months in its battle to keep the lights and heat on.

In early October, frustrated that Russia’s advance on the ground had stopped, Putin began targeting Ukrainian electrical and heating infrastructure with missile and drone strikes. The Russian strategy was to make life so unbearable for Ukrainians that they would sue for peace. It didn’t work, thanks to all the air defenses, generators and spare parts sent by the West and all the dedication shown by Ukrainian air-defense and electrical-repair crews. Now spring is arriving, the lights are still on, and, according to one recent poll, 97 percent of Ukrainians still believe they will win the war. Ukraine is even exporting electricity once again.

Russia’s piecemeal offensive in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine hasn’t gone any better than its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. A three-week battle for control of the coal-mining town of Vuhledar ended in disaster for the Russians. Repeatedly ambushed by skillful Ukrainian defenders, the lumbering Russian columns had to pull back after losing an estimated 130 tanks and armored personnel carriers and 5,000 soldiers killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Russia has suffered even heavier losses of personnel — mostly prisoners and mercenaries from the Wagner Group — in its suicidal, human wave attacks on the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. After more than eight months of fighting, the Russians have moved into the city center and are beginning to envelop Bakhmut on the flanks, but these advances have come at staggering cost. Western intelligence agencies estimated last month that Russia had lost 20,000 to 30,000 killed and wounded in the Bakhmut meat-grinder, making this the bloodiest battle in Europe since World War II.

For 21 days in March, a U.S. official told me, the Russian advance actually stalled altogether. Last week it resumed. The Russians eventually might force the defenders out — but to what end? Bakhmut has little strategic significance and, this official told me, Russian forces are so exhausted they cannot advance past Bakhmut. A Ukrainian military spokesman claims that Bakhmut is Wagner’s “last stand.”

“Russia’s much-ballyhooed Winter Offensive amounted to just more Russian casualties and revealed the lack of operational capabilities, depth and imagination on the Russian side,” retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, told me. “The Ukrainians certainly suffered a lot of casualties during this time, but I think they’ve managed to prevent Russia from gaining any successes while simultaneously building up their own capabilities in preparation for a coming counteroffensive.”

That offensive will be undertaken by troops who have been training not only in Ukraine but also in Germany and Poland for combined arms warfare utilizing Western tanks and armored fighting vehicles. They will not have an easy road ahead of them. Offensive operations are inherently more difficult than defensive operations, and the Russians have had months to build multiple lines of fortifications across southern Ukraine and Crimea. One of Putin’s few successes in the past six months was the mobilization of 300,000 draftees. Those are low-quality troops who lack the training or equipment for maneuver warfare, but they can staff static defensive positions across Russian-occupied territory.

Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, cautioned me “that the expectations on the Ukrainians to pull off a miracle counteroffensive are very high, but the capabilities we have provided are not enough to meet those expectations. Putin doesn’t care how many soldiers and equipment he has to throw at this, so unless there is a significant breakthrough in the U.S. to provide jets and long-range missile systems, we need to lower expectations of what the Ukrainians will be able to achieve with the Western weapons they have.”

Her point is well taken; it’s shameful that it took the West so long to supply modern armored vehicles and that it still hasn’t supplied Western fighter aircraft or longer-range rockets. But U.S. officials remain hopeful that the better-trained, better-equipped, better-motivated Ukrainians can sever the Russian “land bridge” between Crimea and Donbas. “That would send an important signal to the Russians,” one U.S. official told me, “that this war is not going well and not worth continuing.”

To be sure, Putin is not giving any indication that he will sue for peace anytime soon. He still hopes to outlast the West, and he leads a vast country with a lot of staying power. No one can yet see how or when this conflict will end. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the central facts revealed by the war: namely, the skill of the Ukrainians and the ineptitude of the Russians.

“It’s been an unbroken string of bad news for Putin and Russian forces,” Hodges told me, “and I see no bright lights on the horizon.” Perhaps that’s why, after a hiatus of a few months, Putin has returned to nuclear saber-rattling — this time by announcing plans to deploy tactical nukes in Belarus. That’s not a sign that he is planning to actually use nukes. It’s a sign that he’s trapped in a quagmire and doesn’t know what to do next.

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