Opinion

23 April, 06:31 PM

Putin's next move?

Timothy Ash

UK Economist, covering Emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa.

It feels like Putin is going back to Plan B, or C, which is scaling back his ambitions for Ukraine, from taking the whole of the country, to taking Donbas, and securing a land bridge to Crimea – hence the importance of Mariupol, which is on the way.

This comes after huge military defeats in the Battle of Kyiv and the Battle of Snake Island, the latter of which saw the quite incredible sight of the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Flagship, the Moskva. As one Twitter blogger put it, the Russian navy suffered the loss of its flagship by a country that in effect has no navy. It reminds me a bit of the Cod Wars – actually even worse, that’s when Iceland beat the Royal Navy in the 1970s, albeit they never actually sunk a British ship.

Russia has still actually not taken the whole Mariupol, as Russian forces have not yet taken the Azovstal steel plant, with around 2,000 Ukrainian troops still holed up there. The Russian side seems to have decided to just steer around Azovstal for the time-being, sell it as though they have taken all of Mariupol, and then siege/bomb remaining Ukrainians forces out of Azovstal.

Russia will now aim to concentrate its forces on the Battle of Donbas, which could well prove to be the defining battle in this conflict, or at least one of them – the Battle of Kyiv was likely instrumental in ensuring that Putin could not take the whole of Ukraine. The Battle of Donbas will likely determine whether Russia can capture and hold significant additional elements of Ukrainian territory.

It seems that Putin is aiming to secure victory in the Battle of Donbas by the May 9 Day Parade in Moscow.

First things first, there is a big question whether Russian forces will be able to secure a win in Donbas by May 9. So far in terms of tactics, equipment and troop morale/fighting capability, Russia has massively underperformed – and Ukrainians outperformed in equal if not greater measure.

In Donbas though Russia is able to concentrate much greater weight of forces, and benefits from shorter supply lines. But it is ranged against the best of the Ukrainian armed forces – perhaps as many as 40,000 defenders in well prepared defensive positions.

And now the West is really stepping up arms deliveries. On this latter note, the rubicon has been crossed in terms of the West’s willingness to provide heavy weapons to Ukraine – with S300s, artillery, tanks, APCs, SAMs, and likely even Mig29s, now on their way to Ukraine – albeit the question is whether they can reach the Donbas theatre in time to make a difference.

Russia will likely try to deploy over-whelming firepower against Ukrainian forces in Donbas – huge artillery, and missile strikes against their positions, likely then followed by a largescale frontal advance to break their lines. Can they succeed? Will Ukrainian forces now get surrounded in a pincer move in Donbas? Time will tell. But recent experience suggests that the Ukrainian troops are no pushovers – just look at Azovstal.

Second, but lets just imagine that Putin now gets his wish, and that he wins the Battle of Donbas, so secures the bulk of Donbas, and also his land corridor thru to Crimea. He can sell this as some kind of win. He will argue that he has freed the Russian-inclined (not in reality if recent opinion polls are to be believed but that is the narrative being sold by Moscow) population in Donbas, secured supply routes to Crimea, and by taking the bulk of Ukrainian ports, he will have crippled the rest of Ukraine economically.

I guess if he quickly wins in Donbas (not a given) he could use the threat of further military advances, say back on to Kyiv from the South, to force concessions from Kyiv and then look to impose a peace treaty on the Zelensky government.  But even then I do not see the above as much of a win because even if Ukraine loses the Battle of Donbas, it still has significant forces left to mount a spirited defense in a possible second Battle for Kyiv. And likely Russian forces will be significantly eroded again after any Battle in Donbas.

And ultimately, any such peace deal enforced after a Battle of Donbas, is unlikely to bring many real wins for Putin, indeed herein highlighting:

a) He might have secured most of Donbas, but most of the population will have left, and will be unlikely to return, while he will have devasted its economy, and the rebuild costs will be enormous while with Russia likely beset by sanctions for years to come Russia will be in no fit state to fund any such reconstruction.

b) It is hard to see Ukraine accepting any peace deal willingly which leaves Donbas and the land corridor in Russian hands. This likely will have more the feel of a temporary ceasefire, akin to Minsk 1 and Minsk 2. And given that any Russian gains will have been secured only by trampling over Ukrainian sovereignty, international law, and after committing large-scale war crimes, even genocide against Ukraine, I cannot see Western sanctions easily lifted. Indeed, most will remain in place.

Meanwhile, Russia has marked itself out as an enemy of the West, even a threat to the West, and absolutely an unreliable partner in trade, particularly in the sphere of energy and commodities. So whatever the outcome of this war, the West will continue to diversify trade away from Russia particularly in the sphere of energy. So the Russian economy will remain beset by sanctions, and trade ties and flows with the West will collapse. Its economy will stagnate, and its resources to rebuild Donbas et al will be limited. Russia will be in economic decline for decades to come.

c) Its tempting to view the Russo-Ukraine war in light of the Korean war – and indeed, any peace deal reached which sees Russia take large chunks of Ukrainian territory, will leave a sense of a divided country. Instead of a North and South Korea, there will be a West and East Ukraine. The West will be massively financed and armed by the West, and the east will be a proxy Russian state. Western or Free Ukraine could be hugely successful with a dynamism released/observed by the war, likely an EU accession angle and huge Western financing. It could be Ukraine’s South Korea or State of Israel moment.

But the government in Kyiv will be massively backed by the West as a bulwark against future Russian expansion. This means that it will get the best conventional military kit to be able to defend itself and the West in effect – Ukraine will be the new front line for the West in the battle with Russia. Unlike the Korean war though, Russia will end up in the position of North Korea – sanctioned and an international pariah.

I can see a good future for the rest of Ukraine, remaining under control of the Zelensky administration in Kyiv. But for territory in Russian control, and indeed Russia the outlook is bleak now for many generations to come.

d) Moscow sold the case for war as one to de-militarise Ukraine, but the end result will likely be a battle-hardened and confident Ukraine, knowing that it can defeat the Russian military in a fair fight, where it gets proper kit.

Russian intervention has hence achieved the very thing it aimed to avoid – a militarised and successful Ukraine, able to defend itself against Russian aggression.

And the result of this war will be that Ukraine does indeed get a decent kit to be able to defend itself. Whether or not Ukraine is a NATO member, or has a NATO membership perspective, will be irrelevant. It will be a NATO ally, and actually able to defend itself, against Russia.

e) It now seems almost inevitable that Sweden and Finland will join NATO, and that NATO will further forward deploy troops Eastwards to defend against the Russian threat. NATO will increase defense spending very significantly, and Russia will be forced into a new arms race with the West, which it simply can never win. Rather as the Reagan/Thatcher arms expansions in the early 1980s ultimately bankrupted the USSR, the same fate surely awaits Putin’s Russia. And Putin’s intervention in Ukraine will likely be akin to the Soviet Union’s failed military intervention in Afghanistan in the late 1970s – again draining Moscow’s economic resources for little to no gain.

f) Russian military kit has performed so poorly in this war who is going to want to buy it? I would think that the likes of Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, China and India, who were previously lining up to buy Russian military kit, will now be having second thoughts. So this will be a disaster for Russia’s arms industry, exports and again the economy.

f) And therein, China surely now will be questioning the real value of the strategic relationship with Russia – Putin now seems more of a liability in China’s relations with the West, than an asset. Indeed, herein, even look at how the Pakistan military seems to have quickly dumped Imran Khan as he made the strategic blunder of showing up in Moscow on February 24, and appearing too close to Putin. Putin is now an international pariah.

Net-net here, I can see a route to a potential peace deal, but it still requires Russia to win the Battle for Donbas, which is not a given. This war could still drag on for a very long time – and what is notable is that peace talks seem to be going nowhere. The West is just set on ensuring Putin loses which means continuing to arm/finance Ukraine.

I guess the question needs to be asked still what happens if Putin fails to win the Battle for Donbas, as all the above assumes he eventually does, and then a peace/ceasefire deal is eventually imposed. What happens if Putin loses again in Donbas? Does he then seek to escalate via chemical, biological or nuclear weapons? I guess FM Lavrov summed it up this week by saying Russia has no intention YET to use unconventional military options. Yet, being the operative word. But if Putin fails to win quickly in Donbas, I think he would resort to a battlefield nuclear weapon, and/or the bombing of Western arms convoys to Ukraine.

This column was first published by Substack. NV is republishing it with permission from the author. 

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