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What will it take for Russia to understand it’s losing the war?

After nine months of fighting Russia has yet to achieve a single war aim through force of arms.

By Lawrence Freedman

One of the perplexing features of the US election process is the time it takes in many states to identify the victors. The fortunes of the competing candidates go up and down as individual counties “drop” the results from the latest batch of votes. Eventually a bold enough pundit decides that even though many votes have yet to be counted they have sufficient knowledge of the trends, the precedents, and the local demographics to declare the victor. Of course the putative losers rarely concede until all paths to victory have been definitively closed and even the likely victors may be cautious, fearful of tempting fate. This business of calling elections is a good example of both prediction with incomplete information and also the natural lag between what is apparent to an informed observer and what will be acknowledged by those directly involved.

“Calling” a war is much more difficult than calling an election. Election predictions are about revealing an outcome that was decided as soon as all the votes were cast; calling a war is about anticipating events yet to happen and choices that have yet to be made. Even those with a good knowledge of the competing forces and the terrain over which they are fighting can be caught out by chance developments such as a change in the weather or an effective tactical innovation. During a war’s course, expectations shift.

Thus in the war in Ukraine early predictions that Russian forces would roll over Ukrainian resistance did not last long. Subsequent assessments of Ukrainian prospects were more optimistic only for them to become more subdued as warnings of a prolonged stalemate accompanied the summer’s brutal, attritional battles. Then confidence grew in an eventual Ukrainian victory as Kyiv took advantage of Himars and other highly capable Western equipment to degrade the Russian logistical and command system before a series of counteroffensives liberated swathes of occupied territory. Nothing has happened since to suggest that Ukraine is at risk of losing the military initiative in the land war. The Russian evacuation of Kherson was evidence that Moscow has yet to find a way of stabilising the front lines to allow time to refresh its demoralised and beleaguered forces, though that remains its intention. Moreover, unlike previous withdrawals that were presented, albeit unconvincingly, as “goodwill” gestures, this one was described from the start as a response to military exigencies.

Nonetheless caution has returned to the assessments with the onset of winter. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has observed that if this leads the fighting to slow down there might be an opportunity for some diplomatic initiatives – an observation that other US officials were quick to play down. The Ukrainian view remains that winter poses no barrier to further offensive operations. General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, has promised that his forces “will fight as long as we have the strength. Our goal is to liberate all Ukrainian land from Russian occupation. We will not stop on this path under any circumstances.” From Ukraine’s perspective, until Russia accepts the inevitability of withdrawal then there is no basis for any durable settlement.

[See also: Jens Stoltenberg: “We will support Ukraine for as long as it takes”]

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Russia persists

Russia’s current negotiating position is to make claims on Ukrainian territory that it does not even occupy. As I argued in a recent piece, Putin is not actively seeking a deal because he has no interest in one that would expose the foolishness and futility of this war. Instead he has stepped up the war effort and is acting as if victory is a real possibility. Russia is now on much more of a war footing, with arms manufacturers trying to produce sufficient equipment to keep its forces in the fight, and drafting available males into the army, despite their huge losses. After the shambles of the initial mobilisation, new structures were put in place in late October so that resources were used more efficiently. A Coordinating Council led by Mikhail Mishustin, the prime minister, oversees two streams of activity, one addressing financing and regulatory issues, the other the supply of arms, equipment and food for military personnel.

Militarily there is little to show for this extra effort other than a more ruthless, and efficient, onslaught against Ukrainian infrastructure. If there is a strategy behind these attacks, other than to express frustration at Ukrainian resilience, it is crudely coercive. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has justified it by reference to Kyiv’s refusal to negotiate (Zelensky has said that he will only negotiate with a Russian leader other than Putin). No hint of compromise accompanies the coercion. Peskov also denies that Kherson has been lost to Russia for good. “It is a subject of the Russian Federation – it is legally fixed and defined. There are no changes and there can be no changes.” Too much is being read into his apparent concession that Moscow is not after regime change in Kyiv. Not only is the promise not new but even to Moscow it would be odd to accuse Zelensky of refusing to negotiate his replacement by a Russophile regime. As it is, Russia still demands the partition of Ukraine. Note also that Konstantin Kosachev, the deputy speaker of the Russian Federation Council, said that “the normalisation of relations between Russia and Ukraine was possible only after a change of power in Kiev since the current regime has no freedom of manoeuvre and is trapped by its own prior actions and ideology”.

There has long been a gap between Russia’s assertion of its war aims and its ability to prosecute the war to achieve them.  The evolution of these aims has only had a tenuous relationship with developments in the fighting, and there has been little consistency. Prior to the war it claimed to be anxious about Ukraine’s potential membership of Nato (which was not then on the cards) and its treatment of the Russian-backed enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk (the threat to which it exaggerated). When the war began Putin spoke of the need for Ukraine’s “demilitarisation and denazification” – which could only mean regime change. Once his forces were pushed away from Kyiv this objective was replaced by a determination to take all of Donetsk and Luhansk if nothing else.

Then in September, after limited progress in achieving this more limited goal, and with growing Ukrainian strength, Putin dramatically upped the stakes by claiming to be annexing Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk along with the already-seized Crimea. None of these provinces are completely occupied, other than Crimea, and since Putin’s announcement his forces have lost ground in Kherson significantly and to a limited degree in Luhansk while failing – so far – in their desperate efforts to take an extra chunk of Donetsk. The loss of Kherson city was a big deal, with the enthusiastic crowds greeting Zelensky somewhat undermining Russian claims of a 90 per cent positive vote for annexation. After nine months of fighting Russia has yet to achieve a single war aim through force of arms.

The decision to withdraw from Kherson was presented as being no more than a prudent military measure, and certainly not one taken by Putin. The official Russian account has its top commander, General Sergei Surovikin, recommending to the defence minister Sergei Shoigu that the troops be withdrawn because of the difficulties of their position and the risk to civilians. Their role was highlighted in a staged conversation released on video between these two sullen Sergeis. Notably the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin supported the decision, despite their past criticisms of the Russian military, in part because they backed the appointment of Surovikin as supreme commander. Perhaps this was also because they do not have a lot to crow about themselves in terms of military breakthroughs. Wagner has been throwing large numbers of men, who have suffered heavy casualties, at the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk with minimal gains.

So even if we conclude on the basis of our knowledge about the competing forces that Russia is losing this war we are further away than ever from a Russian concession. One may never come. Russian forces might continue to be pushed back yet so long as Moscow has any hope that reconstituted forces might be sufficient to re-invade, or that the attacks on the Ukrainian people will catastrophically weaken morale in Kyiv, it will not acknowledge defeat. Nor can Ukraine say that it has won, for there is much more territory to liberate and its population faces a bleak winter with little respite.

[See also: The brutal methods of Russia’s Wagner Group]

How do we know if Russia has lost?

Up to now, therefore, embarrassment in battle has not led to a corresponding scaling down of war aims. At some point continuing retreats may require objectives that have some credibility and do not appear as propagandist bombast. It is also possible that objectives may start to be presented in more defensive terms. It is already the case that the war is routinely presented as being really with Nato (which provides a ready-made excuse for the lack of progress). For Putin the most serious concern, and the one that would make loss unambiguous, would be a serious Ukrainian campaign to retake Crimea, the prize of 2014. Putin regularly speaks of a Ukrainian threat to Crimea, including its ability to block the water supply to the peninsula. In October he expressed outrage about the sabotage of the Kerch Bridge linking it to mainland Russia. This leads to the thought that getting Putin to negotiate seriously may require Crimea to be put at risk. Many in the West have cautioned Ukraine against making Crimea a military priority precisely because it matters so much to Putin, so that a threat here is one of the few contingencies that could lead to nuclear escalation.

If Putin’s main priority is to protect Crimea he still cannot afford too many more retreats elsewhere. To relieve the pressure the hope behind mobilisation was that Russian forces could get into a position to mount fresh offensives. Can it turn the newly mobilised soldiers into an effective fighting force, properly trained and kitted out? Over time Russia might well be able to reconstitute its army, although it should be noted that the one that has been so severely degraded and depleted this year was built up in favourable economic conditions. In the short term there are practical limits on what can be achieved, though it may not be until newly formed units are committed to the war in spring that we can know for sure.

Russia’s defence industries have been tasked with raising their productivity (disrupted by mobilisation) and providing more weapons for the front. What they can do may be patchy. Assessments are not straightforward. It had been thought, for example, that Russia would struggle to continue its regular missile strikes against Ukrainian cities and installations because it was running out of Iskander ballistic and Kalibr cruise missiles. Yet the strikes keep coming. This may be the result of underestimating the initial stocks, or because the estimates were right and Russia is throwing whatever it can at Ukraine for now to achieve the maximum effect, or because it can manufacture more, perhaps because of components stockpiled from before the war, or because it can purchase more from abroad. It has been able to buy cruise missiles from Iran and may also possibly acquire ballistic missiles from Tehran, as well as possibly North Korea, from which it may already be getting artillery shells, according to US intelligence.

What is less clear is whether this rearmament can be replicated in the equipment needed for land offensives. There are reasons to suppose that Russia lacks the resources, including manpower, to raise productivity throughout the defence sector, with the result that in some areas the best that can be done is to modernise obsolete armaments, for example T-62 battle tanks, first introduced in 1961. Meanwhile reports of the treatment of the recently mobilised men at the front suggests that in their case the term “cannon fodder” is more than usually apt.

This reinforces the view that Russia will continue to struggle in the land battle while enjoying much more latitude in mounting strikes against Ukraine’s society and economy. Russia’s new line in southern Ukraine (essential to the defence of Crimea) should be easier to defend, while Ukraine continues to rebuff constant assaults on Bakhmut in Donetsk. That therefore leaves the Svatove-Kreminna section of the front in Luhansk, where Ukrainian troops are making slow but steady progress in an area where they have been hoping for a breakthrough. It might also be worth keeping an eye on the Zaporizhzhia front, where there have been reports of a build-up of Ukrainian forces.

As has been the case from the start of the war, therefore, judgements on who is winning and losing continue to depend on the course of the land battle. But for now Russia lacks a credible concept of victory whereas it is possible to see how Ukraine might prevail, at least to the point of leaving Russia with holdings that are minimal and incoherent, with even Crimea left vulnerable. In addition to the prospect of “losing” Crimea, I remain of the view that one of the few plausible scenarios for a change in the Russian stance would be if General Surovikin judged that his forces were in no position to continue with the war, and looked to arrange some sort of ceasefire/disengagement. He still has the problem that dogged his predecessors: gaining Putin’s agreement to withdraw to more defensible lines even though the process of withdrawing reinforces the impression that Russia is losing.

Other than that, to salvage something from this war Russia continues to rely on the effects of the pain it is causing to the Ukrainian people and the international economy to generate some sort of pressure for concessions from Kyiv. The pain has certainly been stepped up but there has never been a hint that this is doing anything other than intensifying Ukraine’s determination to liberate its territory. Moscow may get some sadistic pleasure from the hurt it can cause but as yet it has got no political benefit.

[See also: The Ukraine war is shifting Europe’s balance of power from west to east]

The international context

The Biden administration, which has been critical to Ukraine’s ability to sustain its military efforts and cope with the severe hit to its economy, also accepts that there is currently no obvious diplomatic solution. It is working to hold together the coalition supporting Kyiv, and address the more sceptical members of the Global South. It therefore gets nervous that belligerent rhetoric from Zelensky leaves him looking unrealistic and insensitive to the concerns of other states. It is a bit much to expect Zelensky to appear reasonable given the intensity of attacks his country faces. Nonetheless, after Washington urged him at least to pretend to be interested in a diplomatic solution, in his virtual speech to the G20 on 15 November he offered a ten-point plan.

The key feature of this plan was that its first steps required Russia to stop its most egregious breaches of international law and most harmful behaviour before moving on to outlining a long-term settlement. These, in headline form, were the ten points:

1.  Russian forces must leave the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to work with Ukrainian personnel to make it safe so that there is no release of radiation.

2.  The grain initiative should be expanded to allow other ports to export grain.

3.  With 40 per cent of Ukrainian energy infrastructure destroyed by Russian missile and drone strikes, improved air defences are required to provide better protection to key installations; Ukraine also needs expert advice and assistance to restore this infrastructure. Most important, Russia could take a first step to demonstrate an interest in peace by abandoning these strikes.

4.  Release of all prisoners and deportees, the “thousands of our people – military and civilians”, in Russian captivity. Zelensky reported that Kyiv had the names of “11,000 children who were forcibly deported to Russia. They are separated from their parents in full knowledge that they have families.”

5.  Implement the UN charter by restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As there can be no toleration of aggression this “is not up to negotiations”.

6.  Withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities.

7.  Justice achieved by establishing a Special Tribunal regarding the crime of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the creation of an international mechanism to compensate for all the damages caused by this war.

8.  A response to the devastating effects on the environment, including forest burned by shelling, land contaminated by unexploded mines and shells, flooded coal mines, burned oil depots and chemical plants, blown up sewage facilities, and innumerable burial sites of slaughtered animals.

9.  Preventing escalation. Ukraine was attacked because it lacked security guarantees and will be vulnerable in the future unless it has “effective security assurances”. Zelensky proposed an “international conference to cement the key elements of the post-war security architecture in the Euro-Atlantic space, including guarantees for Ukraine.”

10.  “When all the antiwar measures are implemented, when security and justice begin to be restored, a document confirming the end of the war should be signed by the parties.”

Zelensky emphasised “that none of the steps above can take long. A month for one step at the most. For some steps, a couple of days are enough.”

Because his audience was the international community rather than Russia, he sought to highlight the country’s suffering and those aspects of Russian behaviour that need to be addressed, while also explaining why it was unreasonable to expect Ukraine to talk to a country that was terrorising its population in so many ways. If Russia had any serious interest in creating the conditions for talks, he argued, the first step would be to stop the terror.

The G20 did not produce a ringing endorsement of Zelensky’s demands but it did illustrate a trend that will worry Putin. The fact that he decided not to attend and sent his hapless foreign minister Sergei Lavrov instead indicated his desire to avoid a situation in which he would be visibly snubbed. Lavrov, in the end, had to acquiesce in a communiqué which made for uncomfortable reading in Moscow.

The host, the Indonesia president Joko Widodo, had long been worried that his desire for a harmonious summit would be put at risk by arguments over Ukraine, which was higher on the Western agenda than his own. He had wanted Putin to come but in the end the Russian president’s absence made agreement easier. The communiqué linked the Western agenda to Widodo’s own, emphasising the harm being done to the international economy and poorer countries by the war. Tellingly, the big countries who had done most to shield Russia from international condemnation – Brazil and South Africa, as well as India and China – were no longer prepared to expend political capital on Russia’s behalf, especially if this caused division in the G20.

Of particular concern to Putin will have been China’s readiness to make it known that President Xi Jinping had not been consulted on the advisability of the war, to emphasise at every opportunity China’s disapproval of any suggestion that nuclear weapons had any role to play, and, most of all, the first tentative signs of an attempt to improve relations with key Western states. In February Xi accepted Putin as his closest international partner. Now he was “reluctant to be grouped alone alongside Russia”.

The final communiqué referred to the UN General Assembly vote deploring Russian aggression and demanding withdrawal. It went on to report that: “Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy – constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting supply chains, heightening energy and food insecurity, and elevating financial stability risks.”

While acknowledging that this was not the place to resolve “security issues” it went on to observe: “It is essential to uphold international law and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability. This includes defending all the Purposes and Principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and adhering to international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and infrastructure in armed conflicts. The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible. The peaceful resolution of conflicts, efforts to address crises, as well as diplomacy and dialogue, are vital. Today’s era must not be of war.”

None of this was directed against Ukraine. Russia’s response, to this as to all other setbacks, was to unleash another barrage of missiles against Ukraine. Putin is not prepared to concede failure in Ukraine but in practice his failures have left him isolated.

All this can be taken as evidence that even those more prepared to give Russia the benefit of the doubt, and point to what they believe to be Nato’s culpability and hypocrisy, see Putin’s war as a lost cause. They can now see what has been apparent to military analysts for some time. Putin’s army is unable to solve his Ukraine problem, and their efforts to do so have only made the situation worse. Nothing can now be done to reset Russo-Ukrainian relations for the long-term in a way that would serve his interests and be at all stable. The gap between his desired ends and available means has grown ever wider over the past nine months. The war was lost long ago. The challenge remains one of getting Putin and his circle to accept this view. If this is to happen there is no alternative to keeping up the military pressure.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. A version of this piece originally appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Letter from Kherson: The war of the villages]

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