Ukraine: the Western powers need to move onto front foot

By Viewsridge РOwn 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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115506141

This is likely to be my last post for three weeks as I take some time out. I still want to talk about Ukraine, though some other interesting issues are bubbling up, especially in economics. Never mind, Ukraine is front and centre at the moment for any European.

Since my last post, Russia has completed a withdrawal in northern Ukraine, including its advances on Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy. It retains its positions near Kharkiv and continues to shell the city. It has also, for now, abandoned its advance on Odesa in the south west. It is concentrating on Donbas in the east and Mariupol in the south. There is talk that they are gathering strength for a major offensive in Donbas. Meanwhile the world is shocked by the behaviour of Russian troops in the areas they have now abandoned in the north. “Genocide” is a much-used word, notably by the Ukrainian government. I don’t think what has been happening merits that word – but claims by some authorised media in Russia that the Ukrainian national identity is an artificial construct do add weight to the claim. But it is without doubt that the actions of Russian troops amount to war crimes, even though I think a lot of it is reckless disregard rather than deliberate targeting.

It all contributes to the propaganda war being used to sustain public support for the conflict. Both sides can claim success. In the West Russian disinformation has been overwhelmed – some people are picking it up, but nobody with political heft. What had been a rather successful part of Russian political outreach is in tatters. The only clouds so far as Western propagandists are concerned are younger people in the US, who are notably more sceptical according to a poll in the Economist, and Hungary, where the sceptical government led by Viktor Orban has just won another term in power, partly thanks to a campaign suggesting that the country should not join the war. But in Russia, hopes in the West that there would be a public backlash have been dashed. The public had not been prepared for the war, but the authorities have made up for lost time. They have developed their own powerful narrative of victimhood, denied claims of heavy losses and bad conduct, and successfully shut down all alternative news sources. There is something of a parallel with Ukraine itself – there the Russian attack has rallied Ukrainians into a show of patriotism, from what had been a rather sceptical public. The Russian government is successfully using Western sanctions to achieve something like the same effect. Their main risk is the suppression of news about what is really happening – but once feelings of identity and patriotism are stirred up, facts are little obstacle. After all supporters of Donald Trump still think that he won the presidential election in 2020. There is something of a backlash amongst middle class Russians, but they are unable to organise – the most important consequence is a brain-drain.

Outside the West and Russia, the results of the propaganda war is mixed. Russia has been able to play on anti-Western sentiment, resulting from such things as the Gulf War. By and large more neutral governments aren’t falling for Russian disinformation – but they is a large well of scepticism over the motives of the West. It is not hard to make a claim of hypocrisy.

Still, while Russia has successfully rallied public support, it has two big problems. The first is the state of its armed forces. These were never as strong as most people thought, including Western experts, doubtless as a result of the endemic corruption that is the hallmark of the Russian state. The disastrous early phase of the campaign has inflicted devastating losses, leaving what remains as damaged and suffering poor morale. It is much harder to keep the front-line forces in the same information bubble as the general public. It will be a struggle to regroup for the next phase of the campaign. The second big problem is logistics. Western sanctions may not have turned the Russian public against their government, as initially hoped, but they have weakened the capacity of the Russian state to make war. Of course it is hard to get decent information on this. The Ukrainian government is publishing a lot of details about the difficulties the Russians are experiencing – but it is hard to know how much weight to put on these. To my mind, one important issue is the supply of artillery shells, so critical the Russian way of war. But I suspect that this is somewhere they could get surreptitious support from China.

But Ukraine does not seem to be in a strong position to exploit Russian weakness, and retake territory which Russia wants to defend.. There is very little decent information this – but the Ukrainian government is now focusing its efforts on getting more munitions, as well as increasing sanctions on Russia. Demands for a no-fly zone are now less audible. This is putting pressure on the Western powers. For them there is an invisible but vital line in the type of support they are able to offer without escalation. This line needs to be examined harder, but the thinking is unclear, probably deliberately. What sort of escalation do they fear? The obvious one concerns gas supplies – but Russia surely needs the currency. Military attacks on the West would surely provoke the sort of further escalation that the Russians don’t want. Of course with the threat of nuclear weapons, any move has to be thought through carefully – but surely the boundaries could be pushed? Two issues occur to me. One is the supply of more types of weapons. Better anti-aircraft defences might be one area; armoured vehicles to allow Ukrainian troops to move around under artillery fire would be another (the use of armoured vehicles in front-line combat is another matter, as they look very vulnerable to modern weapons). A second issue concerns Transnistria, the Russian-controlled enclave in Moldova. This presents a threat to Odesa, but it is also very vulnerable. Western governments need to make it very clear that any attempt to use its bases there to attack Ukrainian territory would be unacceptable and result in military action and blockade. This would make it visible to the Russian government that their war is diminishing its global status and ability to hang on to its outposts.

Why should the West want to take more risks? Because Russia’s new battle plan presents a real threat. A spectacular advance in Donbas by Russia looks unlikely, but a grinding, slow one is a real threat, and could keep the war going for a lot longer. Ukraine needs to have the capacity to retake territory in order the convince Russia that continuing the war is not in its interests.

And at some point also, the West will need to get serious about making peace – as that is the only realistic way this war will end. But for that to work, Russia’s military efforts must be weakened further. And to achieve that the West will have to try harder.