On February 24, Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to conduct what he referred to as a “special military operation,” a code word for a large invasion of Ukraine. Two weeks later, the Russian military has fallen far short of expectations, owing in large part to the heroism and perseverance of the Ukrainian army.
The war could last weeks or longer, claiming further lives in addition to the thousands already perished. The Kremlin has made maximalist demands in exchange for a cease-fire and has reacted negatively when Kyiv indicated a willingness to compromise. The critical question is whether Putin would consent to a genuine negotiation or will he continue with his war of choice.
Two weeks of conflict
Putin justified the invasion by claiming that the people of Donbas in eastern Ukraine had been subjected to “humiliation and genocide;” Russia aimed to “denazify Ukraine” after neo-Nazis seized control in Kyiv; and Ukraine had gone “as far as aspire to obtain nuclear weapons.” The lie that Kyiv sought nuclear weapons was especially pernicious; in the 1990s, Ukraine gave up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, which it inherited from the Soviet Union, in large part because Russia committed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and refrain from using force against it.
Russian forces made incursions into Ukrainian territory from a variety of directions. Russian soldiers have made headway in the south over the last two weeks, seizing Kherson and isolating Mariupol. The Russians, on the other hand, have encountered greater difficulties in the north. Ukrainians repelled an attempt to seize Kyiv quickly and fought valiantly in defence of Chernihiv and Kharkiv.
The conflict has claimed a high number of lives. As of March 9, the United Nations estimated that over 500 civilians had been killed (a figure that is almost certainly an underestimate) and approximately 2.1 million refugees had fled the country, numbers that are growing daily, especially as the Russian military continues to conduct indiscriminate artillery and rocket attacks on major cities. Russia has also borne a cost as a result of the war. On March 2, the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that approximately 500 Russian servicemen had been killed in combat. On March 8, the Pentagon assessed that the war had killed between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian soldiers, albeit with “poor confidence.”
If the Kremlin was taken aback by its military’s underperformance and the Ukrainians’ steadfastness, it was equally taken aback by the Western reaction. NATO has made thousands of troops available in the Baltic nations, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and a number of other countries, including Switzerland, Singapore, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, imposed significant financial and other sanctions on Russia, including on its central bank. The ruble collapsed, and the central bank increased its key lending rate to 20%, anticipating a jump in inflation. President Joe Biden declared on March 8 that the United States would prohibit the purchase of Russian oil, natural gas, and coal.
Perhaps most startling to the Kremlin were the developments in Germany, which erased five decades of policy toward Russia in a matter of days. Berlin halted construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline; altered a policy of not selling guns to conflict zones in order to supply Ukraine with weapons; and significantly increased defence spending. Germany will meet NATO’s agreed-upon objective of 2% of gross domestic product devoted to defence in its next budget (rather than years later) and add a one-time boost of 100 billion euros for military demands, more than double the country’s defence spending in 2021.
The future of the war
Russian military activities appear to be geared at annexing the majority, if not the entirety, of Ukraine east of a line extending from Kyiv in the north to Odesa on the Black Sea. Russian ground soldiers have not yet crossed into the country’s western third. Russian soldiers in the north appear to be assembling in preparation for an attack on Kyiv.
According to one experienced expert, the Russian military’s current operations plan is “bizarre” and does not capitalise on Russian advantages. Having said that, the Russian military has bulk and numbers in Ukraine, with approximately 125 battalion tactical units. If mass and numbers are the deciding factors in this war, Russia will triumph.
This begs the question of Putin’s political objectives. Putin, presumably, wants to install a pro-Russian administration if the Russians beat the Ukrainian troops and seize Kyiv. Sustaining such regime, on the other hand, would almost definitely need Russian military and security forces occupation. They would encounter an angry, nationalistic, and, in many cases, armed populace – which would resist. Such an employment may be a significant drain on a Russia that is economically disadvantaged.
However, conflicts are more than a matter of numbers. Ukrainians appear to be highly motivated and resolute, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has developed into a very inspirational wartime leader. For the time being, Russia’s victory remains a “if,” not a “when.” If the Ukrainians continue to resist, one possible consequence is a stalemate, with neither side able to dislodge the other. If Russian military costs continue to mount, the Kremlin retains the option — though Putin is unlikely to exercise it — of calling it quits and returning home, possibly proclaiming victory.
A settlement reached through negotiation?
On March 7, the Kremlin’s press secretary laid out a series of demands for Ukraine to halt military operations, agree to neutrality and incorporate it into its constitution, accept Crimea as part of Russia, and recognise the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” in Donbas. Unspoken but virtually probably on the agenda is the formation of a new government in Kyiv and a preceding demand for demilitarisation.
It’s difficult to see the Zelenskyy government agreeing to these demands, which may amount to nothing more than a cease-fire. (If it does, many Ukrainians are likely to continue fighting.) Nonetheless, on March 8, Zelenskyy indicated that he may abandon his push for NATO membership and was willing to “compromise” on Donbas. He stated that he would not accept ultimatums and urged Moscow to engage in genuine discussion.
The Kremlin did not respond well to Zelenskyy’s remarks. There was no outcome from a meeting in Turkey on March 10 between Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. If Moscow demonstrated genuine willingness in engaging in meaningful negotiations with Kyiv, the US and NATO might also renew their offers to negotiate arms limitation, risk reduction, and transparency measures that would make a genuine contribution to European security, including Russia’s. Additionally, the West could state unequivocally that if Russian forces leave Ukraine, sanctions would be lifted (though the West may retain some penalties to assure Moscow’s compliance).
Thus, a settlement attempt may go in three directions: a dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow, a discussion of security measures for Europe, and a discussion of sanctions removal. Nonetheless, those tracks are certain to fail in the absence of a paradigm shift in the Kremlin’s attitude.
Will Putin reconsider his goals? On his current trajectory, a military “success” appears to involve years or decades of occupation of a hostile, anti-Russian Ukraine, political isolation from the majority of the globe, and economic sanctions that will ruin Russia’s economy. One might believe that there must be a better solution.
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