This week Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine became overt for all the world to see. Since February, Moscow waged a semi-covert campaign that I term Special War, with the initial aim of taking Crimea. This succeeded almost bloodlessly thanks to confusion in Kyiv. Over the past six months, inspired by Crimean success, Russian strategy has focused on creating and preserving Kremlin-controlled pseudo-states, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” which are in fact subsidiaries of Russian intelligence.
This, however, is a far more ambitious goal than the Crimean operation, and resistance has mounted. In recent weeks, Ukrainian efforts to retake territory around Donetsk and Luhansk in what Kyiv calls the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) have gained momentum, and this week Moscow sent troops across the border more or less openly since the alternative is the defeat and collapse of its proxies in southeast Ukraine. That Putin will not allow, and it’s difficult to see how he could, after months of stoking fiery Russian nationalism over the Ukraine issue, with casual talk of “Nazis” ruling in Kyiv ready to inflict “genocide” on ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk.
There is no doubt that hundreds of Russian armored vehicles and thousands of troops are operating in southeast Ukraine now. Dead Russian paratroopers are coming home for burial and NATO has shown satellite imagery that leaves no doubt that the Russo-Ukrainian War, which began in the winter, has become a full-fledged conflict this summer. As I write, the city of Mariupol on the coast of the Sea of Azov is preparing to defend itself against an expected Russian onslaught this weekend. If Mariupol falls, a land corridor to Crimea will open up and the war will likely grow wider, fast. Certainly Russian tanks provocatively flying the flag of Novorossiya, which was the Tsarist-era name for south and east Ukraine — a term that Putin himself has picked up recently — gives a clear indication of what the Kremlin wants.
The next few days will be decisive in determining if Russia’s war against Ukraine remains limited or expands significantly into a major conflict that will imperil European security in a manner not witnessed in decades. The course that Putin has plotted is described ably in an article today in Novaya Gazeta, the last Kremlin-unfriendly serious newspaper in Russia, by Pavel Felgenhauer, a noted Russian defense commentator. “We are still a half step from full-scale war,” he states, explaining why:
War will happen if the current alignment does not achieve the strategic goals that Moscow is setting itself. The strategic goal, as Putin has been saying since April, is a stable ceasefire. In order to achieve it, it is necessary to achieve a military balance on the battlefield: To rout the Ukrainian forces, throw them back from Donetsk and Luhansk, and consolidate the territory that the insurgents are controlling. Donetsk People’s Republic representatives have repeatedly stated that they want the complete withdrawal of the Ukrainian troops from the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk.
To date, Moscow has shown restraint, Felgenhauer notes, committing only a few thousand Russian troops to battle in Ukraine, rather than the tens of thousands it could deploy. But that may not last:
The main battle now will obviously take place around and within Mariupol. Unless the Ukrainians are driven back, a real war will begin. Furthermore, there will be an air war on all of Ukraine’s territory. Then tens of thousands of Russian military will intervene. They will try to achieve air superiority and throw the Ukrainians out. In an extended version, perhaps, this will not only be from the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Time, that trickiest of strategic concerns, is not on Putin’s side any longer, as Felgenhauer observes accurately, between weather and the Russian military’s conscript cycle:
There is not much time left. Fall is approaching. The short hours of daylight and low clouds will complicate the matters for the air force. It will have difficulty supporting ground troops — pilots in Su-25 ground-attack planes need to see the targets on the ground. In addition, starting 1 October, it is necessary to conduct a new draft and begin the demobilization of those conscripts who are stationed on the border as part of the artillery battalion groups. It is specifically for these reasons that the question must be resolved now.
We will know in a few days, then, if Putin has achieved his relatively limited military aims in eastern Ukraine. If he does not manage a quick win, there is every reason to think Ukraine and Russia will become embroiled in a protracted war for which neither Moscow nor Kyiv is ready.
Despite the impressive tenacity shown by Ukrainian volunteer units in the ATO, the overall condition of the country’s military remains lamentable, thanks to a generation of political and financial neglect after independence from the USSR in 1991. Moreover, too many Ukrainian senior officers retain Soviet-era habits of sloth, drunkenness and thievery, which has led to protests this week by citizens angry at military corruption and poor support for the men who are fighting and dying in the southeast. While the courage of Ukrainian troops is not in question, the competence of the military system certainly is.
There is ample reason to doubt the staying power of Ukrainian forces against a genuine Russian onslaught in the southeast. How badly things are going with the Ukrainian military in the field was laid bare in a recent interview with Serhiy Chervonopyskyy in the Kyiv daily Obozrevatel. A highly decorated veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Chervonopyskyy heads the country’s Afghan War veterans’ association and has observed the situation around Donetsk and Luhansk. He’s not impressed:
Many military leaders show a criminal lack of professionalism. Which, as always, is compensated for by the heroism of the ordinary soldiers. Afghanistan veterans are fighting in Donbas, working as instructors, delivering humanitarian aid, freeing captives, living in the battle zone. In the [Afghan veteran's association] we receive a lot of information, particularly from experienced men who know more about war than just what you see in films. We can make an objective assessment of the situation.
Chervonopyskyy minces no words, finding fault with nearly everything about Ukraine’s military, save the soldiers themselves, citing poor logistics, outdated weaponry, abysmal staff work, plus a dysfunctional medical system that does not care for the many wounded properly. The Russians seem to know when the Ukrainians are coming, not only due to numerous Russians spies, but because Ukrainian troops, officers too, use their mobile phones constantly in the combat zone, creating a bonanza for Russian military intelligence, which is listening in. His verdict is harsh: “in recent years the army in our country has been systematically destroyed. Unlike Russia’s army.”
Chervonopyskyy leaves no doubt that Ukraine’s military needs root-and-branch reform that is nearly impossible to achieve while it is at war. Too many officers engage in profiteering while soldiers die without necessary supplies, including ammunition. Repeated offers from Afghan war veterans to assist the war effort have been rebuffed in Kyiv:
Our generals, colonels, and other commanders, of whom there are too many, are very frightened of appearing incompetent in front of us, as we understand military matters well. They are more frightened of this than of losing soldiers or suffering a defeat. Again it is a question of professionalism.
As long as this lamentable situation continues, it is unrealistic to expect the Ukrainian military to successfully defend their country against attacks by some of the best units in the Russian army, the demonstrated heroism of Kyiv’s soldiers notwithstanding. Ukraine is fighting for its life now, and the utmost seriousness is required to prevent defeat at the hands of Putin’s soldiers and proxies.
But we must not find fault only with Ukraine. It is far from encouraging that Western leaders, including the White House, will not use the word “invasion” in connection with Russian moves. Such institutionalized escapism in the West does not discourage Russian aggression, rather it encourages more of it. Putin is playing va banque now, his two options are a quick win in the southeast of Ukraine or a protracted conflict: backing down is not an option in the Kremlin anymore, and only naive Westerners think it is.
Sanctions will have no short-term impact on Russian behavior at this point. Vaunted Western “soft power” has been run over by Russian tanks. The decision for war has been made in Moscow, and it will be prosecuted until Putin achieves his objectives or the cost — rising numbers of Russian dead — becomes politically prohibitive. Putin knows that the Russian public, heady after the nearly bloodless conquest of Crimea, has no stomach for a costly war of choice with Ukraine, their “Slavic brothers.”
If the West wants to prevent more Russian aggression and save Ukraine from further Kremlin depradations, it must offer Kyiv armaments, logistics, training, and above all intelligence support without delay. Nothing else will cause Moscow to back down. Only by arming and enabling Ukraine’s military can the West make the cost of Putin’s war prohibitive for Russia. Ukraine’s defense ministry and armed forces require major Western aid to transform its underperforming military from bad Soviet habits to real fighting capability, but that is a long-term enterprise. Right now, Kyiv needs direct military aid. If NATO does not provide it, a wider war for Ukraine becomes more likely by the day, with grave consequences for the European peace that NATO has preserved, at great expense, for sixty-five years.