Ukraine War’s First Anniversary and Beyond
Russian T-90M Proryv (Breakthrough) main battle tank in action on the Donbass front lines recently
The first anniversary of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine falls on February 24. The Russian strategy of attrition war has not yet produced the desired political outcome but has been a success nonetheless.
The delusional “westernist” notions of the Moscow elite that Russia can be a dialogue partner of the West have dissipated thoroughly, with ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunning disclosure recently that the West’s negotiations with Russia regarding the Minsk Agreement were an “attempt to give Ukraine time” and that Kiev had used it “to become stronger.”
Moscow reacted with bitterness and a sense of humiliation that the Russian ruling elite were taken for a ride. This awareness impacts the Ukraine conflict as it enters the second year. Thus, the annexation of the four regions of Ukraine — Donetsk and Lugansk [Donbass], Zaporozhye, Kherson oblasts — and Crimea, accounting for around one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, is a fait accompli now, and Kiev’s recognition of it is a pre-requisite for any future peace talks.
Moscow’s initial optimism in February-March that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” (Sun Tzu) has also given way to the realism that the Biden Administration will not allow the war to end anytime soon until Russia is bled white and weakened. This led to the Russian withdrawal from Kharkhov and Kherson regions with a view to create a well-fortified defence line and dig in.
Putin finally accepted the army commanders’ demand for a partial mobilisation. The ensuing big deployment in Ukraine, alongside the build-up in Belarus, has put Russia for the first time in a commanding position militarily as the war enters the second year.
The Kremlin has put necessary mechanisms in place to galvanise the defence industry and the economy to meet the needs of the military operations in Ukraine. From a long-term perspective, one historic outcome of the conflict is going to be Russia’s emergence as an unassailable military power that draws comparison with the Soviet Red Army, which the West will never again dare to confront. This is yet to sink in.
Today, the Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov stated in an extraordinary interview with the journal Argumenti i Fakti that the newly approved Armed Forces development plan will guarantee the protection of Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and “create conditions for progress in the country’s social and economic development.
Under the plan approved by Putin, the Moscow and the Leningrad military districts will be created, three motorised rifle divisions will be formed in the Kherson and the Zaporozhye oblasts (that have been annexed in September) and an army corps will be built in the northwestern region of Karelia bordering Finland.
The internal western assessment is that the war is going badly for Ukraine. Spiegel reported last week that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) “informed security politicians of the Bundestag in a secret meeting this week that the Ukrainian army is currently losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day in battles.”
The BND told the German MPs that it is particularly “alarmed by the high losses of the Ukrainian army in the battle for the strategically important city of Bakhmut” (in Donetsk) and warned that “the Russians’ capture of Bakhmut would have significant consequences, as it would allow Russia to make further forays into the interior of the country.”
Again, a Reuters report quoted a senior Biden Administration official who was speaking to a small group of reporters in Washington on Friday that there is “a high possibility” that the Russians will push the Ukrainians out of Bakhmut, which western military experts have called the “lynchpin” of the entire Ukrainian defence line in Donbass.
On the other hand, the Biden Administration is hoping to buy time till spring to revamp the pulverised Ukrainian military and equip it with advanced weaponry. The old stocks of Soviet-era weaponry have been exhausted and future supplies to Ukraine will have to be from hardware in service with NATO countries. That is easier said than done, and western defence industry will need time to restart production.
All the bravado that Kiev is preparing for an offensive to drive the Russians out of Ukraine has vanished. The signs are that a Russian offensive may have begun on the southern front, which is steadily advancing toward Zaporozhye city, a major industrial hub in Ukraine.
This offensive would have profound implications. Capture of the remaining 25% of the territory in Zaporozhye oblast, which is still under Kiev’s control, will make the land bridge between Crimea and the Russian hinterland impregnable to Ukrainian counter-offensive as well as strengthen the Russian control of the Azov Sea ports (which connect the Caspian Sea with the Black Sea and the Volga–Don Shipping Canal leading to St.Petersburg), apart from dramatically weakening the entire Ukrainian military deployment in Donbass and in the steppes on the eastern side of Dnieper River.
The big picture, therefore, as the war enters the second year is that the West is working feverishly on plans, with the Biden Administration leading from the rear, to deliver heavy armour to the Ukrainian military by spring, including German Leopard tanks. If that happens, Russia is sure to retaliate with strikes on supply routes and warehouses in western Ukraine.
On Thursday, Dmitry Medvedev, the outspoken former Russian president who is close to Putin and serves as deputy chairman of the powerful security council, explicitly warned, “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”
However, there are mitigating factors. First, the results of Davos 2023 and the meeting of NATO defence ministers in Ramstein on Friday as well as the inter-party disputes in Washington over the budget and the US debt ceiling, etc. are pushing the Biden Administration to make a choice between a risky continuation of confrontation with Russia or slowing down the gravy train running through Ukraine, fixing their profits with the withdrawal from the project. For the Zelensky regime, this will mean that the good things in life may be coming to an end.
Last week, the influential Russian daily Izvestia featured an incisive essay authored by Viktor Medvedchuk, the veteran Ukrainian MP and oligarch-politician (based in Moscow currently) to the effect that “the process has started” in the unraveling of the regime in Kiev.
Medvedchuk reminds us of “an interesting trend” in Ukrainian politics. President Poroshenko had promised peace with Russia in one week but once in power did not fulfil the Minsk agreements, and “miserably lost the next election.” He was replaced by Vladimir Zelensky, who also promised a settlement with Russia in Donbass, but instead became “the personification of war. That is, the Ukrainian people are promised peace, and then they are deceived.” The western press has shoved under the carpet the reality that Zelensky’s support base is small and there is a silent majority that pines for peace.
The death of interior minister Denys Monastyrsky, a longtime aide to Zelensky, and his first deputy Yevgeny Enin in a helicopter crash in Kiev week ago in mysterious circumstances raises eyebrows, since the Ukrainian neo-Nazi militias operate out of his ministry. Only a day earlier came the surprise development of the resignation of Zelensky’s top adviser Alexey Arestovich for allegedly casting aspersions on the Ukrainian military.
In TV interviews since then, Arestovich has been voicing his misgivings about the conduct of the war. Then, there has been the murder of Denis Kireev, who was an important participant in the March peace talks with Russia. A major personnel shakeup today, following corruption claims, involved a deputy prosecutor general, the deputy head of the president’s office, the deputy defence minister and five regional governors so far.
Over and above this fluidity in Kiev, there is the ‘X’ factor — US domestic politics as it approaches the 2024 election year. The Republicans are insisting on an auditing of the tens of billions of dollars spent on Ukraine — $110 billion in military aid alone — making the Biden Administration accountable. The CIA chief William Burns paid an unpublicised visit to Kiev, reportedly to transmit the message that US arms supplies beyond July may become problematic.
On the other hand, revelations are growing on President Biden’s handling of classified documents, which may include sensitive materials on Ukraine. These are early days, but the 13-hour FBI search of his personal residence in Delaware on Friday is generating new questions about White House transparency on the issue. New developments in the document scandal could cut into Biden’s support as he prepares to announce a reelection bid.
All things taken into account, therefore, one tends to agree with Medvedchuk’s prognosis that the Ukraine conflict, as it enters the second year, “will either grow further, spreading to Europe and other countries, or it will be localised and resolved.”
MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.
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