Briefing No 10 4/2022 – Ukraine, from flash war to frozen war

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Briefing No 10 4/2022 – Ukraine, from flash war to frozen war

by FRANCESCO BECHIS

The Russian war in Ukraine has turned into a great cemetery of plans and predictions. Since Moscow’s tanks crossed the Ukrainian borders on the night of 24 February, the course of events has followed a far from the predictable trajectory. The ‘special operation’ ordered by Vladimir Putin has been described as a sudden event: this is not the case. For months, American and Western intelligence had been warning about a Russian invasion plan of Ukraine that was considered impending, certain, irrevocable. With surprising timing, the dispatches of American and European 007s have been confirmed by the Kremlin’s war of aggression against Kyiv. And yet, as in every conflict, several factors have escaped the probabilistic calculations of both the Western intelligence agencies and, in particular, the military command in Red Square.

Moscow’s blunders

It is no mystery – certainly not to the Russian government – that since 2014, the year of Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas, the Ukrainian armed forces have been significantly reinforced. However, only a few could have imagined before 24 February that the resilience of the Ukrainian army and population would be able to slow down, at times stop and reject, the advance of one of the world’s largest land armies. More than a month after the start of hostilities, it is now clear that the Russians have made some assessment mistakes.

The invasion has crushed any remaining sympathy for Moscow in Ukraine

The first: assuming that in the east of the country, i.e. the part of the Donbas still administered by the Ukrainians, the coasts on the Sea of Azov and cities such as Kharkiv or Mariupol, the Red Army would meet less resistance from the local population. The events of the last month have proved the opposite. The invasion, the culmination of an eight-year war with its neighbour, has crushed the residual sympathy for Moscow in an area of Ukraine that has, in the recent past, known a strong Russian influence in its customs, language and political tendencies.

The blitzkrieg’s failure

The second: is believing to have a tactical and military superiority over the adversary. Such an advantage was to justify a lightning operation to get inside the capital and remove the government of Volodymir Zelensky and the high military command and then install a satellite government of Moscow. The fact that these were the Kremlin’s initial plans is now testified by dozens of Russian intelligence documents and, even before that, by Putin’s continuously reiterated intention to “denazify” Ukraine. However, the flash war failed. Under bombing fire and the pressure of Russian troops from the Belarusian border to the north and east, the capital Kyiv has resisted the attack. And the plan for an assault on the heart of the city, facilitated by gangs of “saboteurs” positioned in the neighbourhoods for months and continuously neutralised by the Ukrainian secret services, fell through in the first days of the military operations when a platoon of Russian paratroopers tried in vain to take and maintain control of the strategic airport of Gostomel, at the city gate.

Moscow underestimated the western reaction

The third major mistake made by the Russian government was to underestimate the Western reaction. The obstructionism of some European governments and political parties notoriously symbiotic with the Kremlin this time was not enough to nullify the unity of the transatlantic front, demonstrated by an unprecedented series of sanctions against Moscow adopted by the EU and Joe Biden’s United States. The exclusion of several Russian banks from the Swift payments system, the freezing of foreign reserves in the Russian Central Bank, and the gradual cutting off of energy supplies from Russia, among other measures, give the pulse of what is at stake. Combined with the fourth factor in the war – the Zelensky factor, the Ukrainian President who, thanks to his acknowledged charisma, continues to lead the resistance in the forefront and to unite the Western front with an uninterrupted diplomatic marathon – these events explain why, a month after the encroachment, the Russian government was forced to announce a sudden change of strategy. How reliable is still to be proven.

The scenarios on the ground

March 25th can be considered a key date for the conflict. It was the day when the Russian Ministry of Defence announced ‘phase 2’. No more denazification and renunciation of the capture of the capital. A new, multiplied effort to take control of the eastern and southern parts of the country and reunite Donbas with Crimea. The new strategy was kicked off by a Russian military leadership press conference led by General Sergei Rudskoy. In the following hours, sources in Russian intelligence indicated that May 9th, the symbolic date of the anniversary of the end of the Second World War, is the day on which Moscow plans to end the invasion of Ukraine. These rumours have yet to be verified and are reasonably doubted in Kyiv. However, what is real is, at first sight, the reorganisation of Russian troops in Ukraine. In the days following Moscow’s announcement, thanks to a series of targeted counter-offensives by the Ukrainian forces, the Russian army began a slow retreat from the areas around Kyiv and the Chernobyl nuclear plant, moving eastwards. According to the Ukrainian government and European 007s, this could be a strategic retreat to regain strength and attempt a second, decisive assault on the capital.

A phase of standstill

However, there is no doubt that the war is at a standstill on the ground. More than a month after the start of the war, it is still being debated whether the Russian forces have really gained air supremacy, the key to the conflict. What is certain is that the Ukrainian armed forces have suffered heavy losses, both in troops and equipment. In the first weeks, the tactical bombing of the Russian air force seriously affected the military depots and the focal points of Ukrainian heavy industry, limiting the country’s ability to renew its army and supply it with the necessary equipment. At the moment, the emerging scenario is that of an intensification of the war in the East, particularly in Mariupol, the seat of the feared Ukrainian Azov Battalion, a city devastated by Russian raids with severe civilian losses and a population still held hostage in the rubble.

A new phase of hostilities on the coast is not to be excluded. For Ukraine, losing any outlet to the sea may prove too high to pay. For this reason, Odessa, a city that has so far been spared from the most intense phase of the Russian bombing, could become the new front line. In the meantime, negotiations are progressing slowly. The meetings between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations have not broken the impasse on a compromise that would favour, if not peace, at least a “ceasefire”. Among the issues to be solved, the most complex is Ukraine’s neutrality as requested by Moscow and, on the other hand, the guarantees Kyiv asks of its European allies in case of new aggression. If the stalemate continues, the risk of a frozen and prolonged conflict in Eastern Europe would quickly arise.

The other front in the Ukraine war: diplomacy

A month of conflict on the diplomatic front has failed to meet expectations and predictions on the military front. The unity of the ‘anti-Russian coalition’ – as Zelensky called it – has basically prevailed. Some of the Ukrainian requests, such as the deployment of fighter jets or the establishment of a no-fly zone, have met with the explicit refusal of NATO in the justified fear that such initiatives could transform the war into a larger-scale conflict with unpredictable outcomes. Some fractures are beginning to appear on the transatlantic front. In the United States, President Biden, the unquestionable leading actor in the international isolation in which the Russian government has been plunged, is suffering a clear drop in domestic support that is likely to impact the mid-term elections this autumn. In Europe, growing discontent with the high price paid for the war is gaining ground. From the high cost of fuel to the rise in the price of essential goods, the restrictions are likely to undermine the unity of Western reaction, giving impetus and arguments to governments and parties intent on reopening a channel with Moscow soon. Such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary, which has remained essentially neutral. Or Italy, where the debate on rearmament and the need to invest more resources in defence divides the parties in the government coalition led by Mario Draghi.

War in Ukraine, the role of China

In the background, there is uncertainty over the real intentions of the only global player capable of changing the fate of the conflict: Xi Jinping’s China. Right from the early stages of the war, the Chinese government has defended the Russian cause, accusing NATO of provoking Moscow’s reaction. However, it has not accepted the requests for direct support for military intervention. The deterrence of American and European sanctions, with the risk of plunging China into a vortex of international isolation just like Russia’s – a too high price for a globalised economy like China’s – has so far had its effects. However, it has not been enough to push Beijing into a clear position, which it has continually refused, most recently at the EU-China summit on 1 April, which ended in a standoff. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey remains the most convincing among the other reliable mediators. Turkey is a member of NATO and boasts interests and convergences with Russia from North Africa to the Middle East. The diplomatic mediation challenge remains in Ankara’s hands in the Chinese absence. Provided that it is diplomacy and not missiles that will decide the war’s outcome.

This content is also available in: Italian

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