Kyiv

Russia’s war on Ukraine: what’s happening?

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Russia’s war on Ukraine has failed on most fronts. But Russian President Putin continues to slaughter vast numbers of his own troops, and Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, in the hope of a military breakthrough. That could yet happen. The top task for countries supporting Ukraine must be to maintain unity for weeks, months or years to come. This will be a challenge.

This post considers what is happening in Russia’s war on Ukraine and how we should respond.

How we got here

At the beginning of Russia’s new invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 I wrote a Russia-Ukraine war explainer. It explains the history to the war and how Vladimir Putin’s goal was to protect his personal position. I wrote: “The next hours and days will show the military situation. Like the Russian invasion of 2014, long-term this new invasion is a lose-lose for Russia and its people as well as a catastrophe for the people of Ukraine and a grave threat to European and even world security over the months and years ahead”.

Kyiv lightning
Lightning over Kyiv, 2009 (Photo Gözde Eren)

Where we are now

When Putin launched Russia’s war on Ukraine, most analysts – and Putin himself – assumed Russia would win quickly. In interviews, I pointed out that the Azerbaijan-Armenia war of 2021 had shown that modern wars were unpredictable: it was possible Russia could win quickly, or perhaps Ukraine would manage to fight back effectively.

I did not expect, however, that Ukraine would fight as well as it has done. It destroyed the Russian forces that attempted to seize Ukraine’s largest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv, preventing Putin from reaching his initial goal – to seize Kyiv quickly and install a puppet government. Russia has suffered losses greater than anyone could have imagined before this war. No-one knows exact numbers but analysts think Russia has lost between ten thousand and thirty thousand soldiers.

Ukraine, too, has suffered enormous military and civilian losses. Whole Ukrainian cities such as Mariupol have been destroyed by Russian bombardment, while centres across the country have been damaged, some severely. Many civilians, including children, have been killed; millions have fled the country. The Ukrainian economy is in ruins.

Against this background, the idea that Russia is somehow “protecting” Russian speakers in the east of Ukraine is grotesque. I visited the Donbas region often from 2008-2012, before Putin’s 2014 invasion. It was prosperous and stable. Now, eight years later, it is a smoking ruin. Russian speakers in Ukraine are no more “Russian” than English speakers in Dublin are “English”.

Russian forces are now focusing on trying to smash their way west from positions they occupied in 2014 in the east of Ukraine. They have not achieved a breakthrough. But they have had local successes and are inflicting huge damage on Ukrainian forces and vice-versa. For the latest military situation I recommend the tweets of the UK Ministry of Defence, which have been sober and reliable up to now. 

In response to the invasion, many countries have imposed sanctions on Russia, including cutting oil and gas imports. These measures handicap the Russian economy and will reduce Russia’s ability to maintain the war in the medium- to long-term. But they will not affect the short-term conduct of the war because Putin has no alternative but to reach something he can describe as a “win” before he can “declare victory”. Anything less will undermine his position even more than he has undermined it already with his disastrous wars in 2014 and now in 2022. Whatever now happens, both have inflicted immense harm on Russia and the Russian people, as well as unspeakable suffering in Ukraine.

Some countries have provided Ukraine with modern weapons to defend itself. These have had a vital impact in driving back and slowing the advance of Russian forces.

Russia’s war on Ukraine: what will happen next?

Militarily, the situation could still go either way. A loss of morale or some kind of breakthrough could lead to a rapid collapse on either side. Up to now, Ukrainian forces have been better led and much more motivated than Russian forces. But we cannot take this for granted. Better weapons for Ukraine could change the picture, or could simply make it harder for Russia to advance. Ukraine is handicapped by not wanting to attack Russia itself, lest this give Moscow an excuse for even more barbaric measures in prosecuting the war – eg the use of nuclear weapons1. The likeliest outcome at present looks like a continued hard-fought war of attrition.

We should continue to watch the situation inside Russia. Putin has spent twenty three years building a system where he is difficult to overthrow. He has crushed the opposition and controlled the media. This lack of checks, balances or debate is one reason why he keeps making such bad decisions. The longer the war goes on, the greater the likelihood that Russian families suffering personal tragedies from the loss of loved ones will demand a change, as they did during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan 1979-89. But we cannot count on this. Putin has painted himself into a corner with his reckless mistakes. He will do whatever it takes to remain in power.

I disagree with those well-meaning analysts who argue that providing weapons to Ukraine simply prolongs the war, or that a ceasefire is the answer. What they are in fact saying is “we should let Moscow win, so this war will go away and we can resume trading with Russia”. This is wrong. The degree of suffering – indeed, what appear to be war crimes – we have seen in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine is heartbreaking and morally repugnant. Putin’s goal is the annihilation of an entire country, in order to prevent a democratic Ukraine exporting democracy to Russia and threatening his grip on power. If we turn a blind eye to this, what will happen next?

Morality aside, the second reason that letting Russia win the war, or freezing it with a ceasefire, is unacceptable is that it would not create stability. Since NATO rejected Ukraine’s membership application in 2008, well-meaning countries have repeatedly tried to avoid “provoking” Russia, including responding less robustly than I thought wise to the 2014 invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and hesitating to arm Ukraine to deter a fresh Russian invasion until after that invasion actually happened in 2022.

Kyiv in happier days (Photo Brigid Houlihan)

Any outcome of this war that leaves Russia with possession of more of Ukraine than it held before February 2022 will simply create a new, unstable situation. Putin will integrate into Russia areas it has seized and await an opportunity to bite off more – storing up trouble for the future. The message that this outcome would send to other countries around the world who fancy invading a neighbour or re-drawing borders would also be catastrophic.

Early in the war, Ukraine suggested as a basis for peace talks a return to the pre-February lines. Talks would then take place about Russian-occupied territory in the east, with a 15-year delay on discussing Crimea. Russia was not prepared to consider that. Whether such an outcome could still be feasible after so much suffering is hard to judge.

The biggest challenge

The biggest challenge for countries that have actively opposed Russia’s 2022 invasion, including NATO countries, the EU and like-minded allies, is to maintain a consistent policy for weeks, months or maybe even years. This will be difficult. For Putin, as explained in my earlier blog, the war is existential. If he loses, he will probably fall from power. He would then face an uncertain future (this is code for “spend the rest of his life in prison”, although we cannot know for sure). In democracies, by contrast, the war will soon slip off the front pages of newspapers. Governments will find it hard to maintain popular support for costly interventions in a distant conflict as energy prices rise, inflation rages and Russia’s war on Ukraine – perhaps – drags on.

The top priority in responding to Russia’s war on Ukraine must be to maintain unity amongst countries opposing the war. Only that will make it possible to keep providing Ukraine with the weapons and material it needs to defend itself against the biggest war launched on European soil since 1945, and slowly to weaken Russia. It is a grim prospect. But the alternatives are grimmer still.

Other resources

Other resources on this site:

Russia-Ukraine war explainer: why the war is happening.

Reverse conspiracy theories: why we should recognise that Russia’s war on Ukraine is overwhelmingly the responsibility of Vladimir Putin.

Three things to bear in mind about Russian official statements: Kim Philby, maskirovka and MH17.

My books, including “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy”, coming 2023, which will look at these issues in more detail.

Note 1: the authorisation of the use of nuclear weapons by Putin cannot be ruled out. Whatever their impact on the battlefield, it would be a grim day for the world – including Russia. It would (i) break a taboo that has stood since 1945; (ii) encourage other countries to acquire nuclear weapons; and (iii) lower the threshold for the future use of such weapons – including against Russia – in future conflicts. This would include countries which are not at present nuclear-armed. Unfortunately, the fact that such a move would be against Russia’s own interests does not make it impossible. That is true of much of what Putin has done since he invaded Ukraine in 2014.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks very much for the considered update Leigh: very helpful. I’ve just one question: what do you make of Macron’s thinking of allowing Putin a way of saving face in order, presumably, to reduce the chances of his pushing the red button? I’ve read the story of Putin once being ‘attacked’ by a cornered rat and how this made a big impact on his thinking!

    1. Thanks Jony. This goes to the core of the challenges around how to respond to Putin’s aggression. This senseless war has put Putin in a terrible fix. But countries trying to resist him are in a fix, too. No-one wants a nuclear war; and Putin tries to cultivate an “unpredictable crazy guy” image. Yet if we don’t stand up to him, the likelihood of a nuclear war actually increase. That is why I advocate slow, steady and long term.

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