Thoughts from Kyiv — 22 March

When will the war end? This (or a variant) is the most common question I am asked lately by western journalists and by international friends. The only person able to answer that question authoritatively is Vladimir Putin, and I am certainly not his psychotherapist, but here are some thoughts.

Yesterday, according to rumors that are circulating in social media, the Russian president held an online meeting with his Defense Minister (Shoygu), Chief of Defense Staff (Gerasimov), National Security Council Secretary (Patrushev) and FSB Head (Bortnikov). Apparently, when Gerasimov reported to his boss that personnel losses sustained by the Russian army in Ukraine were “significant”, Putin interrupted stating that nothing of significance had yet been lost. It appears that during this meeting Putin stated his readiness to lose up to 50 thousand soldiers in this war. Again, according to the unconfirmed report, the meeting ended with the Russian President ordering “victory” (i.e. capitulation of Ukraine to be achieved) by 7 May.

As I stated in a previous post, latest opinion polls in Ukraine show 93% of respondents prepared to continue fighting until Russia has withdrawn its forces from all of Ukraine. The day that happens, the war will be over.

The date 7 May is significant for several reasons: firstly, it is Putin’s inauguration day. His first inauguration as President of Russia occurred 7 May 2000. He held the office until 7 May 2008 when Dmitriy Medvedev formally replaced his boss for four years (Putin was Prime Minister 2008–2012) until the next inauguration on 7 May 2012. Putin’s fourth term as President of the Russian Federation began on 7 May 2018.

Also, 7 May is two days shy of May 9 — Victory Day. Whereas the civilized world remembers the horrors of World War II on May 8, in Russia, the tradition of marking “victory” in that war (not remembrance) continued after the collapse of the USSR. Indeed, the pomp and ceremony associated with this day (including the requisite military parade on Red Square) has been augmented under Putin.

If the rumors are true, then the Russian leader plans to celebrate “victory” in Ukraine as part of this year’s Victory Day celebrations. The only problem with this plan is that there is not going to be a victory in Ukraine.

The best that Putin can hope for is for Mariupol to fall during the next week, and that he will be able to shift some of his forces from attacking that city to the assault on Kyiv. At most, this reinforcement will involve 3 or 4 Battalion-Tactical Groups (no more than 5000 men) which is unlikely to be enough to make a significant difference. The rest of Russia’s forces in the south will have to stay there to maintain control over the very hostile local population.

Theoretically, reserves from other regions of Russia could be thrown into battle in Ukraine (including conscripts) but given the performance of the Russian “first echelon” (supposedly their best troops), it is doubtful that such a move would cause serious problems for the defenders of Kyiv. Russia has seemingly endless amounts of military equipment on offer, but tanks, APC’s, Grad MLRS, etc. need qualified and motivated troops to operate them. And that’s a problem.

The option of enticing the Belarusian army into the fray is also a non-starter. The Belarusians are refusing to fight in Ukraine. A Syrian/Lebanese/Iranian contingent is reportedly on the way, but their motivation to fight and die in Ukraine for Putin is likely to be equally low.

Given the morale problems experienced by the Russian army around Kyiv, and their fatigue, even if Russian supply problems can be resolved, and some reinforcements inserted, any potential renewed ground invasion of Ukraine’s capital is unlikely to be any more successful than what we’ve seen since 24 February.

Bellingcat’s Christo Groziev optimistically stated today that Russia has sufficient resources to wage war only until the end of this week. I’d like to believe him, but I fear that this assessment is based on an overly humanist evaluation of the Kremlin. If people don’t matter (including both Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civillians), then resources may be stretched further.

With a halted ground assault, Russia’s commanders will continue their current strategy of indiscriminate bombing and destruction of Ukraine’s cities. Their military goal seems to involve weakening defenses by trapping civilians in urban areas (no humanitarian corridors for evacuation allowed). Civilians consume food, fuel and resources that potentially could be used to nourish defenders. According to this doctrine, in time, attrition should result in a loss of will and ability to fight.

The Russian strategy only works if a city can be surrounded and cut off from external supply. That has occurred in Mariupol, and after almost 3 weeks of siege, the battle (and human catastrophe) may soon be in its closing act. However, Kharkiv is not surrounded. Kyiv is far from being surrounded. Kryvyi Rih in the south is impossible to surround (it’s 126 km in length). Even Chernihiv and Sumy in the north, which (theoretically) were on the verge of being surrounded several weeks ago, are receiving supplies and continue to resist.

Given the dire strategic situation that Russia’s commanders find themselves in, Putin’s order (if real) that “victory” is to be secured by May 7 will be impossible to fulfil. That is likely to become evident even to the Kremlin (and to its leader sitting in his bunker in the Urals) within 2–3 weeks. During this timeframe we will probably see one more attempted (and failed) “push” on Kyiv, and a great deal more bombardment of Ukraine’s cities by missiles and airstrikes. The humanitarian catastrophe will continue.

When Putin finally realizes that the ground war is lost, he will escalate. I have written about this prospect before and will not repeat myself here. The “escalation moment” is likely come before the middle of April — in time for Easter. Previously I was convinced escalation would come sooner, but clearly the Russian military command is convinced that a miraculous ground victory may yet be achieved.

Now a few words on the “peace talks” and the chatter around the possible “neutrality” of Ukraine and other supposed “concessions” being discussed (seemingly seriously in a variety of “expert” milieus.

Firstly, the current “negotiations” (daily conversations between representatives of the Ukrainian and Russian presidential administrations) cannot possibly lead to a lasting peace because Putin is not directly involved. Russia is an authoritarian hierarchy where key decisions — e.g. to wage war and to end war — depend exclusively on the decisions of one man.

Secondly, lasting peace between Russia and Ukraine will only be possible after Putin’s removal from office. Cease fires may be negotiated by Putin, but these will be temporary. The Russian president has made it manifestly clear that he does not recognize Ukraine’s right to exist (in any “status” — neutral or otherwise). Therefore, he will not agree to any “peace” that allows for the continued existence of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainians want to exist. That does not leave much room for compromise (quote taken from Kyiv-native Golda Meir).

Thirdly, the goal of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not to prevent NATO enlargement eastward. Putin’s purpose is to finally “solve the Ukrainian question” (a new incarnation of the “final solution”). Ukraine’s future status as a (non)member of any alliance does not serve that end. Its discussion is a diversion from the main theme of the war.

As I stated in a previous post, latest opinion polls in Ukraine show 93% of respondents prepared to continue fighting until Russia has withdrawn its forces from all of Ukraine. The day that happens, the war will be over.

Until then, we have a war to win!

Author: Mychailo Wynnyckyj, Social Scientist, Public Intellectual. Academic Development Officer, Professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Illustration: Olga Protasova, plasticine panel fragment

Programme Directors: Julia Ovcharenko and Demyan Om Dyakiv Slavitski


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