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Russia’s missiles and winter conditions mean no quick end to Ukraine war

Are there prospects for peace in Ukraine amid Russian missile attacks and a winter battlefield stalemate?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
22 November 2022, 10.25am
Smoke rises from burning fuel tanks at the Vasylkiv Air Base near Kyiv just weeks after the 24 Feb invasion
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Thomas Peter/Reuters/Alamy

With its retreat from Kherson, Russia has suffered its worst failure of the war since the invasion started to go wrong at the end of February. It has not been defeated, and still has the option of escalating to more dangerous tactics, but winter is approaching, and the war now looks set to drag through into 2023 with yet more killing, maiming and destruction.

There are competing views among the Russian military and political elites as to how to get out of the mess.

Some, including many around Putin, will be hanging on to the original aim of installing a client regime in Kyiv and pushing NATO influence several hundred kilometres to the west, away from the Russian heartland. With forward-based nuclear forces in Belarus and Ukraine, and the spread of influence westwards into Moldova and the Baltic states, a greater Russia would have emerged, with the Wagner group and other paramilitaries in the Middle East and Sahel further extending the Kremlin’s global impact.

That may seem like nonsense to most, but for some influential minds in the Kremlin, the line will still be that Ukraine and NATO can be worn down to the point of getting an acceptable deal, setting the stage for a later return.

There are, however, other elements within Russian security thinking to take into account.

For a start, the recent military setbacks have greatly angered the extreme nationalist right, which is critical of military and political failures and wants a much more aggressive war.

On the other side, large numbers of Russians are bitterly critical of Putin and are simply desperate for the war to end, a position made more intense by the deaths or maiming of at least 100,000 young soldiers in the past nine months, as well as the mobilisation of many tens of thousands more to shore up an army that has performed far below the original expectations of the ‘special military operation’.

Several hundred thousand more Russians have moved abroad, with some of them re-establishing an independent international media presence that had previously been suppressed within Russia. Resistance also continues within the country. And it’s little reported outside Russia given the restrictions, but the digital underground has evolved in multiple directions. This is far from being an anti-war phenomenon, but it is nevertheless a huge area in which Kremlin control is virtually non-existent.

Any talk of serious instability at the centre may be wishful thinking, but some potential successors, notably Yevgeny Prigozhin, are already looking to the post-Putin era, with Prigozhin staying close to the centre while gaining support among the extreme nationalist right.

One further factor is the deep reluctance of senior military figures to see the war end, fearing their own positions if a faction even worse than Putin were to come to power, then decide to assign blame and clear out the old guard.

What it all adds up to is a deep unease in many sectors of Russian society – matched by the determination of most of the Kremlin elite and senior military to continue the war. The aim, therefore, is for a war of attrition through the winter months, starting with the consolidation of defensive positions and followed by further actions directed against three main elements.

The first is against Ukrainian civilian morale and infrastructure. Indications of this are clear enough, with cruise missile attacks against energy distribution sites increasing, coupled with greater use of Iranian Shahed-136 single-use armed drones.

There have been expectations of Russia running out of its more modern long-range cruise missiles, but the use of scores of KH 1010 and KH 555 missiles on Tuesday last week, with more following days later, suggests otherwise.

In any case, it is the far cheaper and cruder Iranian Shahed drone that is causing more concern to NATO, even as Ukraine finds success on the battlefield. Ukraine may say that it has shot down 200, but its own intelligence people estimate that the Russians have already bought 2,000. They are also reported to be setting up their own production line for what is, by current standards, a low-tech weapon costing $10,000 each. Compare this with the German Iris-T anti-missile system, which can readily shoot it down, but costs $400,000 a time.

In addition to these cruder drone attacks aimed at Ukrainian morale, Russia is likely to concentrate its higher-speed and more powerful cruise missiles on the second element of economic targeting, with an emphasis on sustained missile attacks on Ukraine’s economic infrastructure, particularly electricity generation and distribution. The aim here is to maximise the impact on Ukraine’s economy, especially the war economy.

The final element in the Russian approach is likely to be an expansion in hybrid warfare, which may be directed against NATO states, possibly through attacks on undersea pipelines or transport links, as well as cyber assaults. The emphasis will be on actions that are impossible – or at least very difficult – to pinpoint as Russian in origin.

All three elements can be countered, the first two by added support from NATO, starting with the recent US decision to supply some of its own most effective counter-missile defences including the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS). As to hybrid warfare, that may be more difficult to counter, but it remains risky for Russia because of the risk of exposure.

This does not mean that Ukraine’s army can readily make further progress, given that the Russian defensive positions will be difficult to overcome in winter and attacking them would inevitably be costly in lives. So despite Kyiv’s Kherson success, a continuing violent stalemate until early March looks all too likely.

There remains the issue of whether negotiations, however low level, are possible in the next three months. Prospects are currently low, even if some early moves have been reported in Ukraine and Russia, and some senior US officials have been more open about the need for a way out.

It is possible that those prospects may increase, especially if some NATO states experience economic and social hardship. Accepting the idea of an eventual settlement that allows Russia a domestically acceptable, if minimal, outcome is still a very big call for the Zelenskyi government to make. But the likely alternative must also be faced.

If there is no settlement and Russia is defeated without an escalation to tactical nuclear weapons, itself far from certain, then a victorious Ukraine would still be left with a bitter and potentially vengeful Russia sharing a long common border for years and even decades to come.

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