How the Ukraine invasion ends may depend on China and Russian mothers
While everything suggests Russia may now be in serious trouble, there are still reasons for caution
Only three days into his invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s war plan was faltering. The main intention, to take capital city Kyiv within 48 hours, depended on minimal military opposition and even some support from a welcoming public. Both would also ease Kremlin’s second aim: consolidating control of Crimea and Donbas.
The extent of the Russian president’s anger at the multiple failures of military organisation was shown on 27 February, via his warning to NATO of a nuclear response to any direct interference.
Already, by that point, Putin faced the prospect of a possible defeat in Ukraine, which would very likely end both his 22-year rule and his attempt to make Russia great again. Because of that, during the following week, Russia’s plan shifted to counter-city attacks and increasing loss of civilian lives – aimed at forcing a change of Ukraine’s government. This echoed military operations practised in Chechnya in the late 1990s and in Aleppo in Syria more recently. In parallel with this, Putin sought to continue with the push to gain a Russia-controlled corridor linking Donbas and Crimea.
Now, at the start of the third week of the war, a major amphibious force may be in place for an assault on Ukraine’s most important port, the historical and cultural centre of Odessa, further extending that corridor westwards.
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This change in tactics should not disguise the continuing failure of the overall war plan. Preparations to take Kyiv are still not complete. Only if Mariupol is taken in the coming days will one major city have fallen; Kharkiv is still in Ukrainian hands despite an appalling bombardment and even in the smaller centre of Kherson, Russian troops may be in charge, but civilians are repeatedly demonstrating their dissent.
Overall, Putin’s forces are still faltering. As of 6 March, Pentagon sources were already assessing that Russia had committed 95% of the 190,000+ forces it brought to the conflict. There are multiple reports of low morale among the Russian troops, made worse by the reported deaths of two of the army’s most experienced generals.
A substantial reinforcement of soldiers in Ukraine would involve mass troop movements from elsewhere in Russia. Many would need to be drawn from the current intake of conscripts, who have questionable competence due to limited training and experience. The prospects for a sudden transformation of the Russian Army’s capabilities are, therefore, poor. In any case, the need to reinforce existing troops on a large scale would be very difficult to hide – further affecting morale across the army at large.
Meanwhile, support for Ukraine’s armed forces is increasing, as large quantities of weapons and munitions from NATO states flow across the country’s western borders, especially from Poland. An intense operation to disperse these across western and central Ukraine is under way, with 17,000 anti-tank missiles now committed, including 3,615 from Britain.
NATO states’ support follows years of preparation and equipping for an insurgency in the face of a future Russian occupation, including the training of special forces by US and UK instructors. As the US’s Army Times recently reported:
Since 2018, US and European officials have quietly helped Ukraine implement key portions of a total defense framework that military officials call the ‘Resistance Operating Concept,’ according to a U.S. special operations official who requested anonymity to discuss the project with Military Times.
What is also frequently forgotten is that many units of the regular Ukrainian army have direct combat experience, gained from the sustained and violent conflict in the Donbas region since 2014.
There are differing figures available for Russian casualties; a Pentagon source puts it at up to 4,000 but it may be lower. If a figure of 3,000 is taken, that compares with 2,461 US troops killed in the entire 20-year war in Afghanistan. Moreover, in modern conventional warfare, for every soldier killed there will be at least three with serious injuries, so Russia has likely had some 12,000 young men, primarily conscripts, killed or seriously injured in just two weeks.
Putin’s war planners have further problems. The assault is transforming into urban warfare, and the Russian Army is singularly unequipped for that type of conflict. This means that aerial bombardment will increasingly become the grim policy of choice – and the cost for Russia, with all the evident human costs and the 24/7 media coverage, is that China will see its world standing progressively damaged just by association with Putin, as a recent analysis from the Belgian Egmont Institute suggests.
Beijing may decide it is not in its wider interests to remain associated with Putin
This all indicates that Putin may now be in serious trouble, but there are still reasons for caution. First is the president’s ruthless overall determination to succeed. Having been in control of Russia for 22 years, power really has been corrupted. Moreover, the Kremlin is exerting remarkable power over the country’s mass media and has now controlled or even suppressed most alternative channels, while exerting persistent force in countering demonstrations.
Finally, if Putin does succeed in taking control of Ukraine, the assumption that Russia will be worn down by a determined insurgency is problematic. Insurgencies, and counterinsurgencies, can take many years – it took two decades for the Taliban to retake Afghanistan and even longer for the Sri Lankan Army to suppress the Tamil Tigers – and the civilian suffering can be immense. Insurgencies can also very easily expand across borders with, in the case of Ukraine, Russia no doubt eyeing Ukrainian supply routes, especially from Poland and Romania, as well as cross-border safe havens.
For all these reasons, the future of this grim and terrible conflict is impossible to predict, though there are two elements that may play a key role despite Putin’s utter determination to win. One is the role of China and whether it will continue to back the Russian president. As the circumstances of war become even more disastrous, Beijing may decide it is not in its wider interests to remain associated with Putin, especially if he resorts to chemical warfare. There are already indications that Beijing is growing more concerned at the outcome of Putin’s war.
The other is the accumulating impact of the perhaps tens of thousands of deaths and serious injuries of young Russians. Despite all the rigid public order control that Putin’s people can muster, it is one thing to deal with hundreds or thousands of protesters but quite another to suppress the anger of tens of thousands of mothers. Such was the case with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s when one of the strongest pressures on the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, came from the mothers of thousands of young Russian conscripts who were killed or maimed in the eight-year war. History could yet repeat itself.
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