On 24 February, a new chapter of the European history began — probably the most dramatic one since the World War 2. Due to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, not only the global security architecture had to be reviewed; the military attack also posed an existential challenge for the west, the kind that hasn’t been heard of of since the sharpest conflicts of the Cold War. However, back then the bipolar world was divided between the Western allies headed by the US, and the USSR together with the Warsaw Pact countries. Today, way more players take part in the war, including such nuclear countries as China, India, Iran, Turkey; and countries of the “global South”, which includes South America and Africa. They are all involved in the acute phase of the confrontation between the West and Russia, which makes a peaceful settlement of the conflict much more difficult, while at the same time threatening to expand hostilities far beyond the Ukrainian borders.
Originally, Moscow’s plans for the “special military operation” (SMO) in Ukraine looked much more optimistic, the entire campaign was supposed to take from 2 or 3 weeks to several months; this is proven by auxiliary evidence: the ceremonial uniform that Russian troops were going to wear for a military parade in Khreshchatyk st., Kyiv, as well as the limited amount of food rations, munition and fuel issued to the troops and lack of proper logistical support1. All of this demonstrates that the Kremlin clearly expected the war to be a blitzkrieg; he was going for a lightning-fast “final solution to the Ukrainian question”2. Notably, many Western intelligence services also entertained such possibility, which led to the decision to evacuate from Kyiv the embassies of the US and the UK, as well as most diplomatic missions, even before the full-scale invasion began3. During the Security Council of Russia meeting in 21 February, all of its members supported the recognition of sovereignty of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), and also criticized Kyiv and its Western allies for breaching the “Minsk agreements”, deploying modern Western arms (missile defense) in Ukraine, as well as Ukraine’s attempted integration with NATO and the EU, which the Kremlin saw as a direct threat to the country’s territorial integrity4.
The SMO was supposed to solve all the accumulated problems quickly and efficiently, strengthen Moscow’s position in the region, and, most importantly, push NATO away from Russia’s “sphere of interest” and back to its 1997 borders, as demanded in the categorical form by Moscow from NATO members, and from the US in particular, in Russia’s so-called “security agreement” project just before the invasion of Ukraine5.
During the fifth month of the full-scale war, hostilities moved from the north-eastern parts of Kyiv Oblast, Chernihiv Oblast, Sumy Oblast and Kharkiv Oblast of Ukraine to Donbas (mostly), as well as southern parts of Kherson Oblast and Mykolaiv Oblast. On 30 June, pressured by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Russian troops were forced to abandon the Snake Island in the Black Sea. Kyiv began actively using HIMARS, M270 (MLRS) and M777 howitzers provided by the US, as well as Ukrainian-made 2S22 Bohdana howitzers6. Moscow referred to its abandonment of the Snake Island as a “gesture of good will”, notwithstanding significant casualties and equipment losses sustained by the Russian army due to high-precision artillery shelling by the Ukrainian Armed Forces7.
Against the backdrop of statements by Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defence of Ukraine, about deoccupation of southern regions of Ukraine, Moscow began to actively fortify the borders of Kherson Oblast and Zaporizhzhia Oblast; on some territories, Russia is about to finish building the third line of defense, which will make the counterattack of the Armed Forces of Ukraine considerably more difficult8. Also, according to Kyrylo Budanov, Chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, the Kremlin is entertaining the idea of annexing occupied territories via “referendums” as early as September 11, the day when elections at various levels are scheduled in Russia. However, Moscow has made no ultimate decision about those territories yet; there is a chance that one or several “people’s republics” like DPR or LPR might be established9. Most likely, the outcome will depend on the situation at the front.
The factor of Western military aid
After the full-scale war began, Ukraine became one of the chief recipients of Western military aid. Before 24 February, aid was limited to light weaponry like portable anti-tank weapons (Stinger, Javelin, and the British NLAW). Just three months later, Kyiv started receiving state of the art weaponry, including multiple rocket launchers, tanks, self-propelled guns, howitzers, heavy artillery, anti-ship missiles, etc. In May, the US Congress approved a $40bn aid package for Ukraine, including $6bn for defense; sending $8.7 worth of US weapons to Ukraine; aid for the United States European Command ($3.9bn); economic aid for Kyiv ($9bn)10.
Other NATO countries followed the US example. The UK provided humanitarian and military aid worth more than $4bn, including M270 MLRS with high precision M31A1 rockets. In early July, London accepted 10 thousand Ukrainian servicemen for basic military training which includes operating modern weaponry provided to the Armed Forces of Ukraine11. On 14 July, Berlin also announced unprecedented military aid for Ukraine, including 900 anti-tank grenade launchers with 3,000 pieces of munition; 14,900 anti-tank mines; 500 Stinger missiles; and, most importantly, 12 Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers that are already being used on the battlefield12.
The leading suppliers of arms to Ukraine are Poland, the Baltic countries, the Czech Republic and Slovenia: they have already supplied modernized tanks like T-72M1 and РТ 91 Twardy; BVP-1 and PBV 501 infantry combat vehicles, BM-21 Grad and RM-70 multiple rocket launchers, AHS Krab, 2S1 Gvozdika howitzers, Mi-24V attack helicopters, as well as air-to-air rockets for MiG-29 and Su-27 planes13.
This aid led to significant losses among the Russian armed forces and slowed down their advance deeper into the territory of Ukraine. According to the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Russian casualties and equipment losses are: 38,140 people, 1,667 tanks, 3,874 armored veicles, 247 multiple rocket launcher, 220 airplanes, 188 helicopters, 162 cruise missiles, 15 ships and motorboats14. Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defense doesn’t report Russian losses.
There was another unpleasant surprise for Moscow: the use of US-made HIMARS multiple rocket launchers to attack command posts, as well as ammunition and fuel depots on Ukrainian territory near Nova Kakhovka, Kherson, Kadiivka, Alchevsk, Uglegorsk, Makiivka, Donetsk. All in all, more than 30 logistic military objects were destroyed from 1 to 15 July, which significantly hindered progress of Russian troops near Donbas, as well as in the southern direction near Kherson and Zaporizhzhia15. The range of HIMARS is 70 km, and, prior to receiving the military equipment, Kyiv pledged not to use it against the Russian territory. At the same time, Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defence of Ukraine, stated that Ukraine is waiting for the West to provide long-range missiles for HIMARS with 300 km range, which will further complicate the military situation for Moscow16.
Thus, when it became clear in mid-April to early May that the “military operation” was entering a protracted phase, Moscow started to take measures. It should be noted that despite active fighting and significant casualties on both sides Putin still hasn’t declared a general mobilization. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, such move would not be profitable politically, as it would raise many questions among the population regarding the successes of the “military operation” in Ukraine, which is supposed to involve active military personnel, as well as law enforcement authorities, including the police, the FSB and the National Guard of Russia.
Secondly, the Kremlin does not rule out the possibility of its army successfully getting to and holding the borders of Donetsk Oblast and Luhansk Oblast, as well as reaching the borders of Kharkiv Oblast, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Kherson Oblast and Mykolaiv Oblast; this was stated by Sergei Shoigu, the minister of defence of Russia, multiple times17.
Thirdly, even if general mobilization is declared, preparing new recruits will require both money and at least 6 months of training, especially for special skills (tank and armored vehicle commanders, pilots, engineers, sappers, IT people and other military professions) – it might take even more time to train them, achieve unit cohesion and then send them into the battlefield.
Fourth, the Kremlin is considering using the “red button” against Kyiv and its Western allies, chiefly Poland and the Baltic states, in case of a military defeat. During a meeting with State Duma fraction leaders, the Russian president Putin said the following: We keep hearing that they want to defeat us on the battlefield… Well, what can I say? Let them try. But they all should know that we haven’t even really started yet. At the same time, we’re ready for peace talks. However, those who refuse talking to us must know that the longer they wait, the harder it will be to eventually come to an agreement with us”18.
At the same time, Moscow is actively increasing hidden mobilization all over the country, forming so-called volunteer battalions out of former servicemen: retirees, employees of private military companies and other military formations. They try to attract recruits with high salaries (starting at $3,000 a month), possibility of short-term contracts starting with 3 months, and corresponding social benefits19. According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US-based think tank, the Kremlin ordered 85% of the federal subjects of Russia (including the annexed Crimea and Sevastopol) to recruit men aged 18 to 50 (up to 60 for certain specialties) with military experience. Such people are offered contracts for a period of 6 months with an immediate one-time payment of 200,000 rubles ($3,400). The monthly pay is, depending on the specialty, from 220,000 to 350,000 thousand rubles ($3,750 – $ 6,000). The plan is to send them to Ukraine on military missions after a monthly military and cohesion training20.
All in all, the Kremlin is planning to enlist roughly 34 thousand servicemen until the end of August if every federal subject of Russia provides at least one battalion (250 to 450 people). Also, “Sobyanin regiment” is being formed in Moscow (Sergey Sobyanin is the mayor of Moscow) that can also enlist residents of other Russian regions; their salaries are supposed to be paid from regional budgets21.
However, even such clandestine mobilization measures can’t fundamentally turn the military situation in Ukraine around. The aforementioned number of mobilized servicemen is now enough to compensate for significant casualties. Also, there’s been an increasing number of deserters, insubordination and ethnic-based conflicts among the Russian servicemen22.
Pressured by Western sanctions, Moscow has to seek allies among other countries that also dislike the West, especially the US. According to the White House, Iran (a country that has been suffering severe limitations due to sanctions for years) is planning to give its drones (UAVs) to Russia for use against Ukraine23. At the same time, Beijing, while not openly supporting Moscow’s hostilities, actively spreads the Kremlin’s false formation through state-owned Chinese media24.
According to the Wall Street Journal investigation, Chinese companies continue exporting dual-use goods to Russia for use in the Ukrainian war. According to China’s customs data, the number of microchips shipped to Russia has increased more than twofold compared to last year: $50m in the first five months of 2022. At the same time, the volume of aluminum oxide exports (used to make metallic aluminum, an essential material for weaponry and airspace branches) grew 400 times compared to last year.
Chinese companies continue supplying their equipment despite serious risks of US sanctions25. It would be impossible without silent support from China. To quote the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the friendship between Russia and China has “no limits”26.
Predictions and estimates
During the fifth month of Russia’s full scale invasion in Ukraine, it’s obvious that it’s a war of attrition that involves more and more participating sides. For now, their role is indirect and is limited to military, financial or political aid to one of the sides. Of course, the West is Kyiv’s key ally; it provides all kids of support, including modern equipment. Without this help, the Armed Forces of Ukraine would hardly achieve any kind of success. On the other hand, macrofinancial aid also allows Kyiv to stay afloat economically, as the country is only able to cover 50% of its expenses from VAT and other revenue sources. Depending on the military situation, the budget deficit at the end of the year will be about $30-40bn. The monthly expenses of the state during wartime is roughly $6.8bn; they’re partially covered by the Western donors and international organizations. As of July, about $20bn of military and humanitarian aid was transferred to Ukraine27. That, however, is clearly not enough.
At the same time, Russian military expenses average $10bn a month, i.e. 5-6% of the GDP a year. High energy carrier prices also provide Moscow with no less that $1bn a day; one third of this sum is used to finance the warfare in Ukraine. According to experts, this amount of money is enough to conduct hostilities for 1.5 – 2 years; this is apparently what the Kremlin is betting on when it attempts to weaken Kyiv and wear out its Western allies28.
According to opinion polls, 57% of respondents living in Russia support the “special military operation”, and the same number of people believes that the military campaign should be continued. The most “militant” people are those older than 60. 72% of them said that they approved of the “special military operation”. At the same time, Putin’s approval rating among Russian citizens is 83%. Although support of the war among young people of 18 to 25 years is relatively low (about 19%), people in this category are not politically active and almost never vote29.
Such statistics allow the Kremlin to receive support among its electoral base by promoting siege mentality and the myth that Russia is fighting not against Kyiv, but rather against the hegemony of the West and NATO that threatens the existence of Russia itself. As Putin stated on 1 February, briefly before the invasion: “A way must be found to ensure safety and protect interests of all participants of this process: Ukraine, European countries and Russia. However, it’s only possible if the documents we proposed (on security assurances) are carefully considered. I hope that this case will continue.”31
As it turned out three weeks later, no compromise was found between Russia and the West. And since blitzkrieg and the plan to quickly capture Kiev failed, Moscow had to urgently restructure and militarize its economy, look for allies and markets for its products around the world, blackmail EU partners by threatening to sabotage energy carrier supplies and create instabilities during winter, which will definitely have political consequences for Europe. Putin himself and his circle do not give up their goals of “returning” and “strengthening” Russian lands to restore “historical justice”.
As long as this concept keeps dominating the Russian elites and being popular enough among Russians, the war in Ukraine will continue with varying degrees of intensity and will most likely be long, as the Kremlin chose the tactic of attrition. The Russian military attacks more and more civilian targets and infrastructure; their goal is to create panic within the society and force it to pressure the Ukrainian government into negotiating. At the same time, the war’s protracted nature will mean the involvement of more and more participants, directly or indirectly, which poses a direct threat of taking the conflict way beyond the borders of Ukraine.
Translated by Nikolay Gorelov