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Russia at a crossroads after Ukrainian offensives

Moscow is facing a choice on whether it should escalate the war; Western leaders should seize the opportunity to end it diplomatically.

Analysis | Europe

Ukraine’s success in routing Russian forces near Kharkiv in northern Ukraine represents another crucial turning point in the war. Both sides now face critical decisions.

Russia must decide whether to abandon its fiction of a “special military operation” and commit to full-scale war, a path that will unquestionably lead to higher risks and more devastation for both countries. The NATO-Ukraine alliance must determine whether to take advantage of this moment to seek a favorable negotiated settlement from a position of strength, or else run the risks of an even more intense conflict.

In early April, it became clear that Moscow’s initial strategy — a direct thrust toward Kyiv in the hope that the Ukrainian government would collapse — had failed. Russian forces regrouped to eastern Ukraine to pursue a new strategy of attempting to capture and hold territory there. The success of Ukrainian counterattacks shows grave weaknesses in that strategy as well.

Russia’s initial invasion force of 200,000, since weakened by significant casualties, is simply too small to hold an immense line of almost 1,000 kilometers in Eastern Ukraine, stretching from Ukraine’s northern border with Russia to the Black Sea in the south. Russia can amass enough forces to resist Ukrainian thrusts in some areas, as they did in fighting off the Ukrainian assault on Kherson. But, as shown in the rapid collapse of their forces around Kharkiv, this is not possible everywhere. Indeed, it appears many Russian forces in the region were Rosgvardia national guard who are essentially police forces not trained for front-line military combat.

These manpower shortages pose a fundamental question. Is Russia’s strategy of fighting a limited war, a “special military operation,” without full military conscription or society-wide mobilization practical in the long run? Or will the Kremlin now need to fully mobilize the military and put the civilian economy on a war footing? As described in a recent New York Times article on civilian life in Moscow, Russian civilians have been mostly shielded from the material consequences of the war, and the lack of a large military draft has meant that the reality of casualties have not hit home for many. 

It’s somewhat mysterious why Putin is choosing to fight the war with only a fraction of Russia’s potential combat power. At the start of the war, it was explicable based on his apparent belief that the Ukrainian government would collapse in the face of a single sharp military thrust. Six months later, no one can hold this belief, as NATO-backed Ukraine is obviously a formidable military foe. 

With its civilian economy supported by foreign aid (U.S. aid alone is running at an annual rate equivalent to Ukraine’s pre-war GDP), Ukraine can afford to put much of its male population into the war effort. Fully mobilized, it can field more manpower than a partially committed Russia. In terms of military equipment, Ukraine is supported by the U.S. and NATO nations with a combined GDP some 20 times the size of Russia’s. This is not a conflict that Russia can clearly win without a far greater commitment.

One interpretation is that politically, Putin cannot afford to demand the sacrifices necessary for full mobilization. Seeing their children drafted for what they may regard as a war of choice, Russian families might no longer support him, and he would have to share more power with other elites whose help would be critical to an expanded military effort. From a Western perspective, this is an optimistic view. It implies that internal Russian support for the war is soft, and pushing harder may cause Putin’s regime to collapse. Whether this is true or not, it’s certainly clear that demanding a greater war effort carries political risks for Putin.

But it may be too much to hope that the Russian people, famous for their historical capacity to endure great hardship, will turn on their leaders if the war intensifies. The criticism Putin has faced so far instead appears to be from his right — conservative Russian nationalists demanding an intensification of the war effort. 

Putin noted ominously in a speech to Russian political leaders in July that “we hear they want to defeat us on the battlefield. Well, what can I say? Let them try….[E]veryone should know that, by and large, we have not started anything in earnest yet.” This suggests many more steps on the escalation ladder as Russian forces start to buckle. Indeed, the new wave of strikes by Russian forces in recent days on critical Ukrainian infrastructure, such as the power grid and dams, is one example of such escalation, which is likely to increase the suffering of the Ukrainian people.    

The critical issue is what escalation could bring as NATO and the United States continue to pour resources into Ukraine and Ukrainian offensives roll on. Will Russia sharply ramp up its military resources by mobilizing reserves and making a greater effort to convert civilian industry to wartime use? So far, the Kremlin appears to be rejecting right-wing calls for full mobilization, something that either speaks to the political risks of doing so or to some belief that they can stabilize their military situation in Ukraine using existing forces. A full mobilization would expand what is already the largest European war since the Second World War and signal that Russia views the conflict as existential.

But what’s most disturbing is what might lie beyond conventional escalation. Some are already warning that if Russia escalates to more destructive tactics in Ukraine then NATO forces could directly enter the conflict. If a NATO-supported Ukraine is able to press into Crimea, which Russia considers its own territory, will nuclear escalation become a possibility?

As a new report from the Costs of War project at Brown University points out, it is precisely the weakness of Russian conventional forces relative to NATO that leads it to rely heavily on nuclear weapons, a reliance that will only be amplified by conventional military defeat. Moscow has already hinted at nuclear threats several times during this conflict. The world may have become desensitized to this possibility, both due to Russia’s previous rattling of its nuclear saber and the immense risks it would run by resorting to nuclear weapons, which would trigger an even greater international backlash and deepen its isolation. But the costs of nuclear conflict would be so high that the risk must be taken seriously. 

But on the NATO side, battlefield success should also open additional diplomatic possibilities to pursue a settlement that preserves Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. As existential risks to the Russian state become clearer, Putin is likely to be more amenable to face-saving compromise even if it involves disgorging Ukrainian territories occupied since February. Conversely, pressing the battlefield advantage without any diplomatic overtures whatsoever will press Russia further into a corner, with unpredictable consequences. 

Unless and until a settlement is made, Russia will retain the capacity to play spoiler in Ukraine and effectively prevent any economic reconstruction of the country — as illustrated by its recent infrastructure strikes. An intensified war, even one which Russia is losing, will mean continuing destruction and a spreading zone of chaos. As Washington commenters are already suggesting, this is an opportune moment to open the door to diplomacy.  

Editorial credit: Shag 7799 / Shutterstock.com
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