The Ukraine war settles into a slow grind to partition

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-2021).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsTerritorial control source: ISW & Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul drew headlines yesterday, but there was almost nothing to see. The war goes on in two main theatres: the fighting in Ukraine itself, and the economic assault on Russia conducted by the Western powers. Russia remains battered but unbeaten. Either something big breaks and one side is the clear victor, or the war will grind on to de-facto partition after both sides are exhausted. This is unlikely to be quick.

Russia drew headlines with the claim that it is scaling down its operations against Kyiv and Chernihiv as a gesture of goodwill. This is obvious nonsense. Intelligence suggests that Russia is withdrawing battered units from the area, but they seem to be replacing them with fresher units, albeit of doubtful quality. Heavy losses and logistical strains have forced them to dial back, but there is no sign that they are ceding territory. The aim of the announcement seems to be twofold: to make a virtue out of necessity for the sake of world propaganda, and to prepare the ground for any Ukrainian counterattacks, which they can label as escalation.

For their part, the Ukrainians aren’t offering much either. They are stepping back from their stated aim of joining NATO. But instead they want security guarantees that add up to much the same thing, except that they have renounced the idea of foreign troops on their soil. There is no sign of any flexibility on Russia’s territorial demands on Crimea and the Donbas. Russia does seem to have stepped back from their demand for regime change, and Ukraine’s exclusion from the European Union. That is progress of a sort, but not enough to get our hopes up.

The peace talks are missing elements that might point to success. They are not being convened by a power with the ability to knock heads together. Turkey is an improvement on the talks held in Belarus, but you need the heft of the USA or China, or preferably both, to force the sides into serious compromise. America is vital to Ukraine’s ongoing resistance, and central to the sanctions regime that is causing Russia such pain. China can put decisive pressure on Russia. But both China and America are posturing on the sidelines and show no interest in moving a peace process along. On the other hand neither of the combatants is yet close to breakdown – so neither will concede defeat in a costly war. Any serious compromise on territory will amount to a defeat of one side or the other.

On the ground we have something of a war of attrition. Russia is slowly strangling Mariupol to death. Ukraine is slowly pushing the Russians back in the north. Russia is clearly suffering from resource constraints. It is struggling to maintain its human resources – and the reinforcements that it is finding are generally of poor quality. Much the same can be said of replacement equipment. Less obvious are any constraints on ammunition supplies. Their method of war once serious resistance is encountered is very demanding of ammunition. Just how far consumption is outstripping production is unclear – the various reports I read on the situation don’t touch on this aspect, as presumably good intelligence is hard to get. However my feeling is that Russia’s scaling back in the north has as much to do with this factor as anything else. One key factor will be whether China can offer a supply of munitions to keep the Russian war machine going.

What could break in Russia’s military campaign? Exhausted units could collapse and retreat. This is more likely in the north, where Russian positions look stretched and vulnerable. It would make sense for them to conduct a physical withdrawal to consolidate – though this could free up Ukrainian troops too. In the south Russian positions look much less exposed, but if their commanders keep trying to push their troops forward, there could be trouble. If ammunition supplies do start to get stretched, some kind of disaster is more likely. If Ukraine is able to build up enough reserves to carry out more than limited counterattacks and insurgency operations, then this will make a big difference.

But Ukraine has its own weaknesses. Military experts suggest that their forces in Donbas could get cut off by advances especially from the south. I don’t have a feeling of the level of danger here – these military experts have often been proved wrong and have spouted their fair share of nonsense. I heard one on the radio saying that attackers usually need a 3:1 advantage in numbers. This number originates from General Bernard Montgomery trying to explain why he made such heavy weather of the battle of El Alamein with a mere 2.5:1 advantage. Numbers required depend completely on the context, and any rule of thumb is nonsense. Ukraine needs a continuing supply of munitions from the West, and could do with more weapons that would allow it to take the offensive – such as aircraft and tanks. Their morale is much higher than that of the Russians, though, and it does look as if they have saved Kyiv.

What of the economic war? This does not look as bad for Russia as it did at first. Loopholes have been found in the sanctions. There have been no bond defaults. They are being helped by Turkey, Israel and the Arab states, as well as China. The rouble is recovering. They are still exporting substantial quantities of gas. Still the civilian economy is taking a bad knock, and doubtless unemployment will rise. The state propaganda machine is all-out building a sense of Russian patriotism which allows its fantastical propaganda to be believed. Dissent is being stamped out. The Russian middle class is taking a big battering, though, and that is leading to a big brain drain. Russia’s s not a robust, self-sufficient economy, and corruption is endemic. Something could break. But there are plenty of examples of countries withstanding sanctions in the long term (Cuba, Iran, Venezuela). This is not what the Russian people signed up to when they voted for Vladimir Putin, but the narrative of victimisation is being developed. A palace coup is possible – as presumably not all of the Russian ruling elite is signed up to Mr Putin’s messianic vision of Russia’s destiny. But the first we would hear of that is the day after it happens.

How about the West’s resolve? The war is taking its toll, but public support is widespread. A life or death struggle of this nature is more engaging than our normal humdrum existence. The main problem is knowing how far the West can go in providing aid to Ukraine without provoking Russia into a military response. Russia’s ground forces are now overstretched, and cannot credibly threaten any NATO country. But they have a strong navy, long range bombers and missiles, and a formidable nuclear capability. Western leaders have managed this risk by defining clear limits to their interventions. This has been criticised by many of the more aggressive commentators, but it heads off the risk of a Russian first strike. Doubtless military options are being considered by Nato planners, and confidence in Western military doctrine and weapons have been given a huge boost by Russia’s struggles. But such options will only be considered if Ukraine is facing military collapse, and would aim to limit the damage.

Where is this war headed? The Ukrainian commentators who suggest the war might end in some form of de-facto partition and cease-fire, like Korea (still technically at war), are on to something. The Russian will eventually be driven out of or withdraw from the north. They will probably extend their territory in Donbas and secure a land bridge to Crimea. Unless something drastic breaks.

UPDATE: 31 March

It is confirmed that Russia has been withdrawing troops in north Ukraine, and not just rotating them. They are not abandoning territory, though, and continue with shelling. My suggestion that consumption of munitions is a limiting factor for Russia is not so far being borne out by the facts – not of low-tech artillery shells anyway. There are claims that Western sanctions applying to advanced electronics is preventing Russia from the production of advanced weapons and munitions, however. If so it is a critical strategic weakness for Russia with important implications.

Weaponisation of everything with Mark Galeotti: Defence & Security Circle meeting Monday

A follower of the blog emailed me to say that this forthcoming meeting of the National Liberal Club’s Defence & Security Circle may be of interest to readers, at 18.30 to 19.30 on Monday 4 April 2022, at the NLC or online. Presenter is Russia expert Mark Galeotti . “Free, fearless and forthright”.

I have Zoom link – so get in touch if this is of interest.

Blaming the West for the war in Ukraine

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-2021).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsTerritorial control source: ISW & Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The month-long war in Ukraine is has entered a new phase. Neither side seems to be in a position to make major advances – but the fighting goes on with longer range weapons, causing continued death and destruction. The misery remains for Ukrainians and there seems to be no end in sight. It is a human catastrophe.

Most of the fighting is now around Mariupol. According to BBC correspondents, this is part of a new Russian strategy which focuses on one major objective at a time. Once this objective is secured, they will move on to the next: Odessa perhaps. This fits with a broader narrative followed by BBC correspondents that Russia has overwhelming resources and progress is simply a matter of time. Personally I am sceptical. It is quite hard for the Russians to replace the sort of resources they need to carry out an effective offensive campaign. After Mariupol, they may be too exhausted to do much more, apart from continued bombardment. A stalemate is likely to continue until something big breaks on one side or the other, militarily or politically. Both sides will seek to cover up their vulnerabilities and it is very hard to predict where the cracks will show first.

Meanwhile, I want to step back and look at the blame game. Two narratives are doing the rounds, suggesting that the war is the West’s fault. These are variations on the general, post-colonial narrative that everything that goes wrong is the responsibility of the Western powers, and especially America; everybody else is a victim. This is based on two ideas: one being that the West is all-powerful, in soft and hard power, and so has the ability to shape events everywhere. The other is a victim narrative, popular amongst developing nations, China and Russia, which seeks to absolve anybody else from blame for anything bad happening, often by digging back to some historical misdeed as an underlying cause. Neither is very convincing, especially in the Ukraine context, and, to be fair, few in the West are blaming anybody other that Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia for breaking the great taboo – using a military campaign to solve a political problem.

Still, seeking to blame yourself for things that go wrong is a better habit than always blaming somebody else. It is much easier to change your own behaviour than to convince anybody else to change theirs. It is worth asking what mistakes Western leaders made that might have spared us this tragedy. So what are the two blame narratives? One, popular on the left, and taken up by Chinese commentators, is that Western leaders disregarded Russia’s prestige and security interests, especially with the westward expansion of Nato and the EU. This forced Mr Putin into his death spiral of paranoia and a desire to rectify Russia’s humiliation. The other narrative is popular on the right: this is that Western leaders ignored the emerging threat from Russia, and were too busy engaging with the country rather than pushing back, allowing Mr Putin to think that he could get away with it. The West’s response to Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008 and Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 are critical aspects of this narrative.

The first point to make is that these two narratives are incompatible. They can only be reconciled by suggesting that Western leaders followed a false middle path – aggressive enough to provoke, but too weak to head off the threat. That is an interesting thought, but we need to look at each of the component narratives a bit more closely first.

There is a case that Western leaders, and in particular George Bush Senior and Helmut Kohl were too aggressive in taking advantage of the collapse of communism. They took the opportunity to cut Russia down to size with a decisiveness and ruthlessness that was too much even for Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, usually referred to as the “Iron Lady” in her confrontational zeal. There is particular criticism of the lack of economic aid as the communist economy collapsed. Instead Russia was flooded by neoconservative economists who urged that nothing should interfere with the operation of market forces in the building of a new economy. Well-connected individuals, and organised crime, took advantage of the power vacuum to make fortunes, while life for most Russians was misery. What Russia really needed was a managed transition to a mixed economy – something the Chinese achieved in the 1980s and 1990s. But the main problem was weak leadership of Russia’s political class – something that was reflected too in other parts of the Soviet Union, not excluding Ukraine. Would Western aid have achieved anything lasting in the absence of such leadership? There is good reason to doubt this – though that is not to say that the Western powers should not have done more.

The next problem came with the breakup of the USSR. This followed the Soviet Union’s internal structure, which did not necessarily make political sense. At the core of each of the USSR’s component republics was an ethnic group distinct from Russia. But that did not necessarily add up to a sensible separate polity. Belarus in particular did not make sense as a separate nation, and Ukraine was dominated by Russian-speakers, even if they might not all call themselves Russians. Never mind: each of these republics became an independent country, while statelets within the Russian federation, such as Chechnya, did not. There was nothing rational about this, but it is hard to see what the West could have done about it, even if it wanted to. The problem was the collapse in authority by the central Soviet state. This then created a dynamic that was very hard to reverse. There was possibly something of a window in the early 2000s when Russia seemed a little less chaotic and better governed than most of the other republics, and might have reunified with Belarus and Ukraine. It is surely true that European and American leaders did not encourage this idea, in order to prevent the new Russian state becoming too powerful. But Russia chose to advance its cause by allying itself with autocrats who were spectacularly corrupt., stoking popular resistance in Ukraine in particular.

But the biggest grievance of Russia’s leadership is the expansion of Nato and the EU that took place at this time. This included most of the old Warsaw Pact countries in Central and Eastern Europe, together with the three former Soviet Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Let us take the EU first. Russian leaders tend to see this as an aggressive expansion of a zone of political and economic interest by West Europe. In a sense they were right – but it was motivated by the wish to consolidate democratic values and strengthen the European economy. It has broadly succeeded in both aims, notwithstanding many problems, notably in Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria with political corruption, and populism in Poland. Funnily enough there have been fewer such problems of integration among the former Soviet republics that joined. All these countries have prospered relative to the former Soviet republics that did not join the EU, for reasons that will be the subject of many an academic study for generations to come. It his hard not to see this expansion of the EU as a brave political move to benefit the peoples of Europe, rather than a provocation to keep Russia in its place.

That case is less easy to make for the expansion of Nato, which Russia challenged at the time. Personally I felt at the time that the admission of former Soviet republics to Nato was a step too far. But the new entrants clearly wanted to be part of the alliance, and it is hard not to argue that the threat from Russia was a real one. The West tried to reassure Russia with an agreement to limit the deployment of forces in the new countries – an agreement that they have broadly honoured until the Ukraine war. It is very hard to portray this expansion of Nato as a military threat to Russia, which doesn’t stop some people from trying. In the far left narrative Nato’s aggressive intent has been shown in its campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. But you really have to have the sort of world view that sees Cuba as a brave democracy in order to give this sort of thinking serious weight. But what Nato and EU expansion clearly presented was a limit to Russia’s ability to expand its own influence, and in particular opportunities for the self-enrichment of Russian elites. And yet it is very hard to subscribe to the principle of democratic consent and accept that Russia has a right to treat these countries as part of a sphere of influence, reminiscent of great power politics pre-1914.

The next step in the provocation narrative is the West’s growing influence in Ukraine. There was, in fact, no real prospect of this country joining either the EU or Nato. Oligarchs had too much influence over the state structures for the former, and ongoing territorial disputes with Russia doomed the latter. But western countries would not rule this out formally. Furthermore they have been very supportive of reforms that would push back the corruption rife in Ukrainian public life, which Russia has seen as an important channel of influence. Ukrainians in general have shown a clear preference for closer ties with the West, especially after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and supported separatists in Donbas, kicking off a nasty war in which many Ukrainians were killed. Before this it was possible to sustain a narrative that Ukrainian politics was a battle between Ukrainian-speaking nationalists in the west, and Russians in the east, with the former only achieving political power through corruption, and using it harass Russian-speakers. The war in the Donbas changed that – though that surely some Ukrainians would still like their country to be part of Russia. But even before the current war, most Russian-speaking Ukrainians looked to the West, and the way they voted in elections clearly demonstrated that.

And that, at heart, is the problem with this Russia-the-victim narrative. The current Russian regime is a bully that believes in subverting the interests of its neighbours to support those of their ruling elite. Do we simply accept this as a matter of realpolitik, or do we push back? And where do we draw the line? Personally I would have drawn a pretty hard line around the borders of the former Soviet Union, and allowed Russia a greater level of influence there, even if it was malign – including an effective veto over Nato membership. But what would the outcome of that have been for the people of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia? The examples of Belarus and Moldova are hardly encouraging. What I find very hard to take is people on the left supporting this Russia-the-victim narrative, using classic arguments of realpolitik. They would have been much better sticking to the high moral ground and comparing the behaviour of Russia to that of Israel, for example. To their credit this is what some of them have done.

Which brings me to woolly-West narrative. This line of reasoning instantly raises hackles with me because it reminds me of Cold War arguments in the 1970s – which I fully subscribed to at first, before moving on. Actually it may have more justification this time. The argument goes that Mr Putin was committed to his confrontational course in the early 2000s, if not before, and nothing was going to shake him from that path. Better to have frozen Russia out earlier, especially after his attack on Georgia in 2008. This may have weakened Russia economically and even militarily. But that would have given Russia little to lose from aggressive military campaigns against its neighbours, with a distinct risk of a nuclear confrontation. The West wanted to present Mr Putin with an alternative path of continued economic integration with the West, leading to greater domestic prosperity. Even so, the passive behaviour of Germany in supporting Russian gas exports while neglecting its military was not a good look.

There is a little bit of truth in both the West-is-to-blame narratives. But the West’s middle path of wary support for emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, combined with not treating Russia as an enemy was a perfectly rational one. It is hard not to see Russia’s troubles as being primarily driven by mistakes and weak leadership within Russia’s ruling elite in the 1980s and 1990s. After this a democratic path was open to its leadership but tackling corruption and building an open economy; or alternatively there was the Chinese model of developing a competitive private economy while tackling corruption in the ruling elite. But Mr Putin chose not to follow either path. Military assertiveness is not the only way to respond to political humiliation, as Germany and Japan have proved. western leaders may well have made mistakes in their management of Russia – but would that have stopped a war like this being started by Russia? That is much harder to say.

Politics trumps reality again in Britain

Maybe it’s one of those aging things, like the policemen getting younger – but to me our country’s political leaders seem to be becoming more overtly political. I thought that of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, who set the trend for leaders since. And now our current prime minister, Boris Johnson, has taken it to a previously unthinkable extreme. This is evident in yesterday’s statement by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor. The politics was blatant; a clear strategy for making the country a better place was not.

Mr Sunak was once a rising star in British politics, but now he look as if he will join the long list of politicians (and others) whose careers have been indelibly tarnished by association with Mr Johnson. Yesterday’s effort did not measure up to the difficult economic situation that so many people in the country face – and he instead focused on a number of core interest groups that the conservatives hope will secure them another general election victory, through their votes or donations. This was all too transparent, and not helped by Mr Sunak’s ridiculous claims, such as that he was a tax-cutting Chancellor.

To be fair, the government’s job in managing the economy is unusually difficult right now. Managing a modern economy is like riding a bronco – it is mostly about responding to collective decisions made by individuals and businesses, inside and outside the country, that can quickly overwhelm the tax and spending measures that are the government’s main tools of control. The government’s difficulties are not really of its own making on this occasion. The root causes are the covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the ongoing challenge of climate change. These have delivered a series of economic shocks of a type that policymakers are completely unused to dealing with. The pandemic delivered a major but temporary shock to demand – and the government won plaudits for its drastic policies, like the furlough scheme to underwrite jobs. But it also dealt a huge blow to world supply chains, and that is what policymakers were unready for. From the 1990s onwards new technologies and globalisation bequeathed a highly flexible system of global supply, which people have taken for granted. Even before the pandemic these changes were going into reverse. As demand recovered from the shock, supply did not recover as quickly – and inflation is the result. The problem emerged in 2021, but policymakers responded with denial – including the politically independent central bankers. Nobody seems to know what to do. The last time anything like this happened was in the 1970s, and that was a very different world.

The government is faced with three big and immediate problems: benefits, public sector pay and help for people on lower incomes. Costs for basics, such as food, fuel and heating are rising much faster than incomes and this is creating widespread hardship. The government’s response is to offer some help to working people on lower incomes (provided they are above the minimum tax threshold), and that is about it. Government services are not being given additional budgets to deal with additional pay demands; benefits are being uplifted by a wholly outdated figure for inflation. Most of the help being offered is in fact an offset to rises in National Insurance contributions (NICs) (by changing the rate of pay at which NICs kick in), rather than an actual cut – though at least this targets lower incomes better than deferring the rises altogether. A summer of hardship lies ahead. The country is facing a big squeeze on living standards, and poorer people will feel this the most.

There are two main constraints to the government using the public purse to alleviate hardship. The first is the balance of supply and demand. If the economy cannot deliver the goods and services paid for by government largesse, then inflation will result, with the potential for a wage-price spiral. That was not a problem in the early phase of the pandemic, when government support was very generous, as private demand plummeted even faster than capacity to supply. It is clearly a problem now, and tricky to offset with tax rises, as these tend to affect demand less if they target the better. The second constraint is on public finances – the government’s ability to raise funds if spending outstrips taxation. It is a lot less clear that this is in fact a problem, though levels of public debt are high, and the Bank of England cannot help out by buying bonds through Quantitive Easing, as it could until recently. Still, solutions have been suggested, such as a windfall tax on oil and gas producers operating in Britain’s North Sea. The case for such a tax is a very strong one, but it is completely contrary to Treasury orthodoxy. This holds that it undermines the climate for business investment. In fact investment in oil and gas production in the UK has been very low. The government may feel that it wants that to change, with businesses investing their windfall profits in increasing production to make up reduced supply from Russia. But the government is hardly waving a big stick in order to get such a response.

I can accept that these constraints, especially the inflation risk, are real. But the crisis on living standards demands the taking of bigger risks with the economy than the government is willing to contemplate. In particular bringing forward increases to benefits for inflation looked like a no-brainer. The government’s thinking on that seems to be guided by pure politics. People on benefits (apart from pensioners) don’t vote Conservative and aren’t likely to. Instead the government is focusing help on people in work, and especially those with some stake in property (it is temporarily reducing property taxes, announced before yesterday’s statement). Pensioners are being spared the increase in NICs (which they are exempt from), and doubtless their incomes will catch up later in the parliament, using the “triple-lock” system of increasing the state pension.

Most remarkable of the measures announced yesterday was Mr Sunak’s plan to cut the rate of income tax in two year’s time. Given the ever-growing pressure on public services, it is hard to see how this can possibly be justified, except as a short-term gimmick for electoral advantage. It leaves me feeling exasperated. I am retired and drawing a generous private-sector pension (I’m not old enough for the state one). I was never going to suffer the increase in NICs, but I’m still going to benefit from the Council tax rebate, the fuel duty rebate, and, if it comes, the reduced rate in income tax. I am not facing any kind of hardship. This just doesn’t seem fair.

Will Mr Johnson get away with it? Labour is better placed to capitalise on the unfairness than it was when led by Jeremy Corbyn, but it is still tricky for them. There a still a broad swathe of conservative voters out there ready to be persuaded that people on benefits have only themselves to blame. But I think that pressure on public services, which now includes demand to increase our armed forces, is going to be very hard for the government to manage. Eventually reality will strike.

But in the short-term I think it will be Mr Sunak who will pay the political price rather than his boss.

Will Ukraine and Russia settle?

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-present).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsTerritorial control source: ISW & Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Much as I predicted last week, the war in Ukraine has ground into a stalemate. Russia has made no significant advances in the last few days, and actually not much in the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile negotiations between the two sides continue. I got rather excited yesterday when the Financial Times published a newsflash suggesting that Russia and Ukraine had agreed a 15-point plan. This sounded promising, but there has been no wider confirmation. The statements coming from Moscow continue to be bleak. Where are we at?

The reporting from the BBC continues to focus on human drama at the expense of any clear perspective on what is happening. This is especially true of Lyse Doucet, reporting from Kyiv. In her reports Russia is “extending its attack” and getting ever closer to the centre of the city. The sound of Russian artillery is louder she says – though I’m not clear how she is distinguishing between the Russian and Ukrainian guns. In fact military experts suggest that the Russians aren’t getting any closer (though they are doubtless consolidating the gains they have already made, and bringing in more forces, perhaps including artillery). Much is made of missile strikes, which are hitting high-rise residential blocks. These weapons are being fired from a distance and appear to be unguided. Precision weapons are expensive and Russia has doubtless run down its stock. This does not look like a decisive strategy. There seems to be a random element in Russian targeting, arising from the use of these long-range and unguided munitions; they are clearly not bothered about hitting civilian structures, but neither is likely that specific structures are being aimed at. This is doubtless true of Mariupol too – Russian hits on a maternity hospital, and then a theatre being used as a shelter, are unlikely to have been singled out for attack, as suggested by the Ukrainian government, and repeated by BBC reporters. But neither are Russians making any effort to avoid them.

The Russian attack has clearly run out of steam. They are desperately trying to find extra troops to feed in, including recruiting Syrian mercenaries. The numbers and types of forces don’t sound decisive, though. This would be an excellent moment for the Ukrainians to launch a serious counteroffensive. But their counterattacks seem to be quite limited. That suggests that they too lack the types of forces to mount decisive attacks – this would be beyond the extensive territorial defence forces that the country has built up so rapidly. Perhaps they are still trying to assemble and train forces able to conduct such operations, or waiting to reinforce their air force. They may be worrying about Russia’s remaining air capability, and its ability to counter any Ukrainian ground operations. This could be one reason for the country’s desperate appeals for Nato to enforce a no-fly zone.

Meanwhile the Russian government seems to be consolidating its hold on domestic politics. They have closed down independent news sources, and provided a steady stream of nonsense to bolster their side of the story. Vladimir Putin seems to be turning on the Russian middle classes, who are attracted to western values, and may have access to to external news sources. He is increasingly branding middle class sceptics as an un-Russian fifth column. This strategy also creates a narrative for resistance to Western sanctions – who wants to support a decadent Western lifestyle? People are naturally patriotic, and Mr Putin’s strategy may well be working. There seems to be little substantive dissent. The Russian public may not have been ready for the war when it started, but as it drags on, they may be as accepting of its consequences as are Ukrainians, with their remarkable rallying to their country.

Russian resilience is to be expected. They do have some weak links, however. They will not easily be able to replace hi-tech imports from the West. This may even affect their advanced weaponry. On the international scene, their Belarusian ally is weaker than Russia. They have not contributed troops directly to the campaign, even though Russia has requested them, apparently. If that country breaks out into serious dissent and unrest, Russia has no spare troops to help President Lukashenko out. These seem long shots though.

But if Russia looks quite secure, that still leaves the question of how it is supposed to win this war. The aim of establishing an occupying army or a puppet regime now look hopeless. So it makes sense to explore what the Ukrainians are willing to concede, so that they can declare victory and pull out. And the Ukrainian government must also be asking how this war is supposed to end. They don’t seem to have sufficient forces to launch a major counteroffensive to send at least one of the four major Russian thrusts back to where they started. So they too have an interest in exploring the options for a settlement.

The starting point is clearly for a ceasefire, and for Russian forces to retreat back to their start lines. That would mean Russia continuing to occupy Crimea and the eastern Donbas. Which leads us to the question of territory. It is conceivable that Ukraine concedes the Russian takeover of Crimea. The Donbas is trickier – Russia, on behalf of its surrogates, claims additional territory there. Some kind of international resolution of these might be a way forward, based on consulting the people that live in these regions. That will be hard amid the rubble of war. A previous attempt at this, the Minsk accords, has failed – there does not seem to have been any enthusiasm for this route forward from either side.

As for political control, Russia will have to drop its stated aim of “de-nazification” – replacing the current Ukrainian government with one that is more amenable. However the Russians demand for the country’s neutrality looks more feasible. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky seems to have conceded staying out of Nato, on the basis that membership was never actually on the cards anyway. Finland, Sweden and Austria have adopted formal neutrality after all. The Russians have also said that Ukraine should not join the EU either. That will be much harder for the Ukrainians to concede. And the EU will be much more willing to accept it as a member than it was before the war – though there are obstacles.

There is also the question of “demilitarisation”, another Russian war aim. That will also be quite hard for the Ukrainians to concede, but it will be necessary for them to show that Ukraine lacks a major offensive capability. Renouncing longer-range weapons could be one part of this.

And what of the wider international community? If the war ends, the sanctions regime against Russia and Belarus needs to be reviewed. But the more that Russia gets, the harder this will be. Clearly there needs to be some kind of negotiation between Nato countries and Russia about deployments of forces in Europe – but Russia’s bargaining position is weak. Nato will insist that the Baltic countries are allowed to strengthen their defences.

We can only hope that something is sorted out and that the war is ended soon. The ongoing negotiations at least offer us a degree of hope.

Russia and Ukraine contemplate an unwinnable war

By Viewsridge – Own work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-present).svg by Rr016Missile attacks source: BNO NewsTerritorial control source: ISW & Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Ukrainian war is an important test of British journalism. I have mainly been following events through the BBC, supplemented by the Financial Times and The Economist – with snatches from elsewhere. This coverage is wildly better than anything coming out of state-controlled media in Russia, for example. But some, especially on the left, feel it is biased. I only get snatches of the frustration from Facebook, as I observe comments on the feed of a contact whom I respect in spite of her engagement with the wilder left. Many of these commenters snatch at anything that throws doubt on the narrative coming out on mainstream media. But the main thing to know about this critique is that it has negligible political impact, and isn’t worth getting worked up about it.

Still, the mainstream coverage is far from perfect. As ever, it is drawn to spectacular pictures and individual stories and loses a lot on perspective. It is hard to know how much damage to civilian areas is “collateral”, in the manner of US and British action in Iraq and Syria, and how much is deliberate targeting of civilians (as has been the case in the Russian-backed campaign in Syria). After days of talking about a devastating bombardment of Kharkiv, for example, I was surprised to see pictures of civilians taking trains and cars out of the city in areas that were clearly undamaged. Kharkiv is a big place, of course, but the BBC seems to be using the same old photos to illustrate its stories of the damage there.

Another niggle is that BBC correspondents have a tendency to talk up the strength and power of the Russian forces. They talk of overwhelming strength, and simply as assume that Russia can deploy this strength to prevail in the long term. Others suggest that Russia can rerun its campaign in Chechnya, or the Russian-led one in Aleppo.

But the situation in Ukraine is very different to Syria or Chechnya. It is a much bigger theatre, and the forces opposed to the Russians are much larger. Russia doesn’t have enough troops. Western experts believe that 95% of the forces brought forward by Russia for this campaign have now been committed. And this was about 75% of Russia’s army. Including reserve forces, Ukraine’s army is more than twice its size, not counting the numbers of civilians (and foreigners) enrolling. But, of course, the Russians are regulars, and better organised, and much better equipped. As the attacker they can choose the battlefield and apply overwhelming strength there. Except, for some reason, they haven’t. Russia has spread its forces across many lines of advance. Russia’s main advantage is in vast quantities of ammunition for longer-range weapons: artillery shells, missiles and bombs. While they must be running down stocks of these, they do manufacture their own, and it is much easier to ramp up production of these than it is to recruit men.

And that is leading into a stalemate. Russian forces are making slow progress: to the east and west of Kyiv, and expanding their bridgehead from Crimea. But it is far from clear whether they have the wherewithal to launch substantive attacks on Kyiv, Odesa or Zaporhizia, which appear to be the targets – though they may be able to overwhelm Mariupol, where things are clearly desperate. Of course I don’t know how much the Russians and Ukrainians are holding back. The Ukrainians might be stretched to breaking point, and vulnerable to a well-placed offensive from Russian forces. Or they might have reserves that they can put into a game-changing counter-offensive, once Russia has committed to its next major push forward. But my guess is that a horrid stalemate is approaching. In many ways that is the worst possible outcome for both Russians and Ukrainians.

What can the Russian regime do? It is apparently trying to scrape together some extra forces, including the recruitment of foreign mercenaries. It could start calling up conscripts and reservists. Vladimir Putin has apparently ruled that out today – but what worth are his promises? He can simply ratchet up the narrative about the existential threat to Russia from the West. But such a measure would have a huge political cost, given that he has done little to prepare the Russian public for a major war against fellow Slavs. Alongside Western sanctions taking effect, taking away that easy access to the West and western consumerism which seems to be so important to Russia’s middle and upper classes.

The war is increasingly looking unwinnable from both sides. Russia is a first-rank power militarily, but not economically. It will find it hard to sustain an all-out economic war with the West, even with the qualified support of China (who will want to limit the damage to their own economic relations with the West) without huge damage. It lacks the manpower required to win the sort of people’s war that the conflict is becoming. Russia has a strong national identity to call on, but the threat to its people from Ukraine is abstract, while that to Ukrainians from Russia is all too real. Ukraine, meanwhile is in the process of forging its own national identity. One thing we don’t know is how much support there is for joining up with Russia within Ukraine. There is doubtless some, but the mainstream media is not reporting it at all – as doubtless people with that view are keeping their heads down. But what is clear is that most Russian-speaking Ukrainians now identify as Ukrainian and not Russian. With continued support from the West it looks as if they can sustain the war for a long while yet. They can dig deeper into their own human resources than Russia can.

Which leads to the question of what will Russia’s break-point be? Vladimir Putin has backed himself into a corner. He may have downplayed the level of military commitment to the Russian people, but he has given them maximal objectives – to ‘de-nazify” and demilitarise Ukraine – not simply to ‘liberate’ the Donbas region and secure recognition for Crimea. It looks impossible for him to declare victory and get out. And that surely means that the only way to stop the war is to remove him from power. That would require some form of putsch. For that, the situation in Russia would have to become intolerable. How far away is that? That is another thing I cannot know. But as somebody who is steeped in Russia’s intelligence services, Mr Putin has surely payed a lot of attention to his personal security.

All of which leaves us with a grim outlook of months more killing and suffering. We thought that Europe had learned enough of the futility of war. It is heartbreaking to see that we are having to learn this all over again.