The biggest question hovering over the battlefield in Ukraine for the first three or four months of this year is whether the Russian invaders or Ukraine’s defenders will launch a major, and likely premature, offensive. Both belligerents are under different kinds of pressure to do so.
One of the most coherent emerging propaganda lines is meant to prepare Russians for a long-haul conflict.
“Our most important task is to move our industry to a military track as quickly as possible,” pro-war blogger Gherman Kulikovsky wrote on his Telegram channel, which has more than 620,000 subscribers. “A decade of wars awaits us, and these wars will boil up in different parts of the globe. The Special Military Operation [in Ukraine] is only the first hot stage of World War III.”
The Russian case for strategic patience is helped by the somewhat counterintuitive idea that Ukraine’s main financial and military backer, the US, may feel that it benefits, or at least doesn’t suffer too many adverse effects, from a protracted conflict. According to a recent Rand Corporation report entitled “Avoiding a Long War,” the potential benefits of a long conflict for the US include the weakening of Russia as well as decreased dependence of US allies on Russian energy and higher defense spending. These need to be weighed against costs such as an elevated risk of nuclear war, more Ukrainian deaths and adverse economic effects including higher inflation. The report assesses the possibility that Russia might, given time, seize more Ukrainian territory as a “minor” cost.
Depending on how cynical you are — and Putin and his cronies are very cynical — you might conclude that the Biden administration’s calculus discounts the threat of nuclear war, cares little about Ukrainian casualties, prioritizes the weakening of Russia and underestimates its fighting and military industrial potential. Such an assessment would suggest to Putin that he should clench his teeth and dig in.
The counterarguments are psychological in nature, but since in Russia one person takes the final decisions, they are not unimportant.
Any growing perception of Putin’s weakness — both at home and, more importantly, in the non-Western world which he considers his ally in what he frames as an existential battle with the West — creates an element of pressure that he must feel. A string of military defeats last year led the leaders of India and China to show irritation and impatience with Putin; once always late to official meetings, he is now the one forced to wait even for once docile post-Soviet leaders. Asian customers now buy Russian oil at large discounts born of Western embargoes: A barrel of Urals oil is about $31 cheaper than the Brent benchmark, the biggest difference since August. Russia’s reputation as a global power is at its post-Soviet nadir. A weak strongman is an oxymoron.
Ukraine’s Western allies, too, have done their best to light a fire under the Russian strategists who had fallen back on preparing grimly for a long defense of already seized territories. Ukraine has busted through one Western psychological barrier after another, most recently securing supplies of tanks. Now, warplanes are not out of the question, with Poland trying to ram through this new level of Western involvement in the war. That increases the temptation for Gerasimov, the foolhardy planner of the failed initial assault on Ukraine, to act preemptively — and for Putin to endorse such action.
Whether he will do so in the near future is another matter.
Ukrainians have been warning for weeks that a big Russian offensive is coming. The latest such warning comes from the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, who says Russia will attack close to the anniversary of the invasion — simply because the Russian leadership is so thoroughly Soviet that everything they do is linked to significant dates. That notion isn’t grounded in the current conflict’s reality: Rumors have repeatedly circulated that Putin would launch attacks on one anniversary or another, and the attacks never materialized. Ukrainian officials, however, have consistently used talk of an impending Russian offensive to boost their chances of quick Western weapon supplies and to try to sow panic in Russia, where a major boost to military efforts would almost certainly mean a new wave of mobilization.
The Russian military commanders appear to realize they cannot start anything big with the forces they have. In January, regular Russian units tried their luck with tactical offensives near Orikhiv in the southern Zaporizhzhia Region and in parts of the Donetsk Region, but achieved only minor success, running into tough second lines of Ukrainian defenses. Without a decisive advantage in the air and in infantry numbers, Russian generals cannot hope for more. Air superiority has been elusive, though, and the Ukrainian military still has more boots on the ground than the Russian invasion force. The only Russian success in January — the conquest of the salt mining town of Soledar — was achieved by the Wagner private military company, which fed the convicts it had been allowed to draft from prison camps into vicious, bloody frontal assaults on Ukrainian fortifications and city blocks.
Putin’s “partial mobilization” decree from last September is still in force, and while it has no public provision concerning the number of troops to be drafted, it has a classified part that likely allows for multiple call-up waves. Those Russian men who haven’t fled or volunteered are watching the news apprehensively; a popular app for Android phones, called Mobilization 2023, even aggregates mobilization news and tips. So far, however, things have been quiet with no recent reports of a renewed call-up efforts. That’s surprising if a major offensive is in the immediate plans — but an irrational Putin order to launch one with existing forces cannot be ruled out, especially given his past hesitancy to exacerbate the domestic situation by press-ganging too many men into service.
Ukraine, for its part, is under greater pressure than Russia to attack first. Danilov — he of the Russian offensive warnings — has predicted on Facebook that 2023 would be the year of a Ukrainian offensive using newly supplied Western equipment. Ukraine simply cannot afford a protracted war. Every week of the war brings more devastation, and every month, millions of Ukrainian refugees in Europe settle further into their new lives. A full-scale mobilization campaign has been running for months, and, at least on paper, Ukraine’s pool of human resources is far shallower than Russia’s. Western military aid is, in practice, contingent on further victories — Ukrainians can see that by its increased flow after their military successes in the fall of 2022. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s formidable popularity is a finite resource, especially given recent corruption scandals.So, Russian forces on the front lines expect a Ukrainian offensive soon. Pro-war Russian Telegram channels say that Ukrainians are going to try to invade Russia’s Belgorod region. Western military experts write of an imperative to liberate Crimea in order to minimize the risk of another war. That aspirational goal requires a big southern offensive toward Melitopol and Mariupol to cut the “land bridge” from Russia to Crimea seized by the invaders early in the campaign. A successful Ukrainian push in the south would result in the peninsula’s blockade and perhaps make it untenable for Russia.
And yet any Ukrainian offensive would now run into freshly fortified Russian positions, manned by more experienced soldiers. As the attacker always risks greater casualties than the defender, Ukrainians need more certainty in the face of the potential losses.With both sides accumulating resources for an onslaught but hesitant to take the decisive step, the fragile balance on the ground is increasingly unsteady. Something, soon, will have to give.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”
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