A few months ago, I wrote a piece focused on what we had learned in the first 100 day of the war. In that piece, I listed the following factors that would be key for the war going forward.
1.) How fast can western military aid be deployed?
2.) Can it be deployed in sufficient quantity to appreciably raise the level of Ukrainian combat power to a point that it can compete with Russia anywhere on the front that it chooses?
3.) Does Ukrainian combat power get depleted to the point where it must sue for peace before the arrival of sufficient arms to turn the tide?
4.) Does Russia’s combat power get depleted to a point where it can no longer launch offensives?
5.) How fast can Ukraine develop the capability to launch a massive offensive to retake territory, and can this happen before Russian weakness provokes a push for serious negotiations from the Russian side, which could have the effect of weakening overall support in the West for continuing the war.
In looking at how the war has progressed in the last few months, it appears that the military aid to Ukraine has progressed enough to achieve a measurable increase in the level of Ukrainian combat power. The HIMARS artillery systems appear to have been used effectively to strike Russian ammunition dumps and other logistical nodes, rendering their artillery less effective and negatively impacting the Russian ability to move troops and supplies. The fact that Ukrainians continue to focus on attacking Russian logistics systems indicates that their leadership continues to understand the importance of these to Russia’s war efforts. While there is still argument in the West that the weapons aren’t flowing fast enough (Germany comes in for a lot of criticism on this score), clearly there has been enough weapons reaching the Ukrainians to have a measurable impact.
The biggest evidence of the impact of weapons shipments that many in the West will point to, and the most significant visible development in the war over the last 3 months, is the sudden unexpected success of the Ukrainian military in retaking large swaths of the Kharkiv region. By some estimates, Ukraine recaptured nearly 2,300 sq. miles in its offensive in September. While some in the West have been hailing this as a turning point (and it may eventually prove to be so), this offensive has largely slowed. This is likely due to the Ukrainians nearing the limits of their current logistical capabilities in this region. Although they continue to make advances here, it appears that these are more localized attacks than broad scale offensive operations.
The slower pace of operations in this region should also be understood in the context that the success, although due in part to Ukraine skill and firepower, appears also to be due to Russian troops at some point losing tactical cohesion, panicking, and disintegrating as a result. This is not unlike what happened to Iraqi units in Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1991. But like the Russian retreat from Kiev in the first part of the war, this offensive success reveals Ukrainian limitations as well as Russian weakness. Had Russia been facing a competent (i.e. U.S.) air force when its armored column stalled outside of Kiev, the armored column would have been destroyed in place and not existed long enough to be able to retreat back into Russia. Likewise, had Russia been facing the U.S. and its tank divisions, a frontal collapse of Russian forces as happened in Kharkiv would have likely ended the war. American tanks and infantry would have been moving way too fast for Russia to be able to reestablish defensive lines. And the entire Russian front would have been rolled up. The only option at that point would have been for Russian troops to escape back into Russia and Crimea. The fact that this didn’t happen gives us an indication that Ukraine isn’t yet as strong as the U.S. would like it to be.
For all of the Western focus on the eastern Kharkiv and Donbass region, the southern region of Kherson north of the Crimea remains the critical theater. Any peace settlement that leaves Russia in control of a substantial portion of the territory that it has taken in this area leaves it in a position to possibly threaten Odessa in some future conflict. The port of Odessa is a key lifeline for the Ukrainian economy, thereby allowing it to export its grain to the world. The loss of this port would represent a major economic blow and seriously hamper the ability of Ukraine to rebuild after this war. The ability to threaten Odessa would give Russia negotiating leverage in its future dealings with Ukraine.
Even Putin and the Russian high command appear to understand the importance of this region, as it was likely the transfer of forces from eastern Ukraine to this theater that weakened Russia in the Kharkiv region, allowing the Ukrainians to achieve stunning success there. While the Ukrainians have been continuing offensive operations and keeping up the pressure on Russia, the success in the Kherson theater has been slow up to this point.
That being said, in recent weeks, Ukraine has made some measurable advances in this region to the point that the Russian appear likely to abandon most of Kherson Oblast north-west of the Dnieper River However, at the time of this writing, they appear to be preparing to defend Kherson City that lies on the river to the northwest. Getting Ukrainian forces bogged down in urban fighting to recapture the capital of this Oblast might be a sound strategy, but it will depend upon the strength/quality of these and other supporting forces in other sectors of the front as to whether this proves to be a wise use of Russian manpower. While Ukrainian advances are fairly being touted in Western media, this move also represents a repositioning of Russian forces behind the Dnieper River, likely to more defensible positions. From what can be seen at this time, it appears that the Russians are making preparations for an orderly retreat, unlike their chaotic retreat from the Kharkiv Oblast.
Whether Ukraine will be able to push their offensive beyond the Dnieper River remains to be seen. The apparent difficulty that they have had in pushing Russian forces back in this this region suggests that some skepticism is warranted, at least in the short -to-medium term. There is little to suggest at the current time that Ukrainian forces possess a sufficient level of combat power in this region to cross the Dnieper in force and establish a bridgehead on the other side that could be sustained. Crossing the river on bridges would likely allow Russian artillery to concentrate fire on those chokepoints, thereby disrupting Ukrainian logistics, just as Ukrainian artillery fire has disrupted Russian logistics which has contributed to the apparent planned retreat out of the Kherson Oblast.
Ukrainian Military Capability:
What is becoming clear is that the Ukrainian military capability is improving as the war has gone on. While the Western media seems to be overselling Ukraine’s capabilities as well as Russian weakness, Ukraine’s success isn’t entirely due to Russian ineptness. Ukraine has had many successes that are due to its growing military capability and its increasing ability to impose its will on Russian forces in certain areas. Since the beginning of the war, the ability of Ukrainian units to be more tactically flexible than Russian units has been on display. In fact, although it is tough to tell at this time, it appears that the Ukrainian success in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions is due in significant part to the tactical flexibility of Ukrainian units, rather than entirely due to the superiority of equipment. Since the start of the war in the Donbass in 2014, the West in general and the U.S. in particular have been training Ukrainian miliary units in the western way of warfare and moving them away from the old Soviet model. This flexibility enabled Ukrainian units to attack Russian supply lines at the beginning of the war, and contributed to the failure of Russian attempts to seize Kiev (even if Russian ineptness was the primary factor).
It is also worth noting that substantial quantities of sophisticated weaponry has flowed into Ukraine, raising their level of combat power. This has been indispensable to their success on the battlefield. However, it is important to realize that the ability of Ukraine to regain all of its lost territory is not as likely as is being portrayed by certain sources. At this time, Ukraine doesn’t appear to possess an armored force numerous enough to sweep the Russians out in a blitzkrieg style offensive. Although it may eventually possess such a force as the West seems determined to keep sending weapons, it doesn’t have it now and is not likely to for many months, if ever. In addition, the heavy fall rains that turn parts of Ukraine into a quagmire and make armored movement extremely difficult are on their way (see Operation Barbarossa 1941), and this is likely to favor more of a defensive posture than an offensive posture for many weeks.
Finally, if the Russians decide to abandon trying to conquer Ukraine and simply dig in and try to hold what they have taken so far, they can still make life difficult for attacking Ukrainian forces. The combat power needed to overcome prepared defenses would, assuming that the Russians are able to construct skillful defensive fortifications, be something that would likely take Ukraine over a year or more to generate. In short, while the Ukrainian military capabilities are much improved from what they were at the beginning of the war, at this time they are not adequate to achieve Zelensky’s stated goal of retaking all of the lands lost to the Russians, including Crimea. And furthermore, I would guess that they are not likely to be capable of this for at least a year, if ever.
Russian Military Capability:
Overall, what is becoming clearer is the Russian army has largely reached the end of its ability to launch significant offensive operations. With the exception of some smaller attacks in eastern Ukraine, and missile strikes on military/civilian infrastructure targets, significant offensive actions appear to have largely ceased. The initial professional/elite cadre that Russia began the war with doesn’t appear to exist any longer at a level that would allow them to have significant impact on the battlefield. Apart from its nuclear arsenal, the ability of the Russian military to defend Russia from a 1941-style invasion by NATO forces is perhaps non-existent. Elite units that were expected to go toe-to-toe with NATO forces have been seriously degraded, if not rendered combat ineffective.
It appears also that Russia is having significant difficulties replacing its losses in Ukraine, as is evidenced by its recent “partial mobilization”. There is clearly a reluctance/unwillingness in certain parts of Russian society to having their fathers, sons, husbands/boyfriends sent to fight in Ukraine. Although opinion polls show high support within Russia for the “special military operation” in theory, this doesn’t mean that Russian society as a whole thinks it is worth making significant personal sacrifices, including risking the lives of loved ones, to achieve Putin’s goals there. While the war may be existential for Putin personally, Russian society doesn’t appear to view it as existential in the way that 1941 was existential. Consequently, the overall willingness of Russian society to personally fight this war doesn’t appear to be there. And an army composed of people forced to fight against their will is going to suffer from morale problems, as the U.S. Army discovered in Vietnam. This factor will degrade its combat effectiveness. Even more so when it is facing an army/society that does in fact view the war as an existential threat (such as Ukraine).
Although Russia, given its population, will likely be able to raise large numbers of bodies to send into Ukraine, training them up to be soldiers will take time. Even those with prior military training are not ready to be sent to the front as soon as they are equipped. They will likely need some refresher training, meaning that their impact on the battlefield will be deferred in a best-case scenario. And there is some indication that Russia isn’t spending a lot of time training people and is just sending them to the front. To the extent that this is true, the potential impact of these new recruits will be even more limited. Their impact will be limited even further by the well-documented difficulty that Russia is having producing new heavy equipment (e.g. tanks, etc), forcing them to rely on older models that have been pulled out of storage. And even if these new units were equipped with modern tanks, it takes a lot of training to be able to field a force that could coordinate with infantry and work as a team under battlefield conditions. One can’t just teach troops how to drive and shoot, send them into battle, and expect to have an effective force. To the extent that Russia ever had a tank force capable of performing a blitzkrieg style operation under battlefield conditions, she certainly doesn’t have one now. Rebuilding this from scratch, as Russia would likely have to do, would take a year or more. Russia doesn’t appear to have the patience for this, and it is highly questionable as to whether she even has the officer corps or the time necessary either.
All in all, the new troops are not likely going to be sufficient to enable Russia to regain the initiative. The fact that Russian leadership appears to be explaining its struggles in Ukraine by pointing to the (largely accurate) fact that they are really fighting NATO and not simply Ukraine indicates that they are preparing Russian society for even more negative news. At best, these new bodies would be able to be used in a static defense role, strengthen and stabilize the Russian defensive line, and perhaps be used in some local offensive actions to try and disrupt Ukrainian operations. What is not likely to happen is for Russia to regain the initiative and launch a massive offensive that takes large swaths of Ukrainian territory and accomplish Putin’s stated goals. If the elite, professional, Russian tank units at the beginning of the war weren’t able to do this, it is virtually impossible to imagine that the new recruits will be able to do so either.
The Nuclear Option:
The primary question currently on the minds of those observing this conflict is whether or not the Russians will start using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Recent statements from Russian leadership have been certainly disconcerting as they appear be threatening to use these. The word “tactical” implies a nuclear weapon smaller than one used at Hiroshima, although there are nukes listed as “tactical” that are greater in yield than the bombs dropped on Japan. The risk to Russia and the world of crossing the nuclear threshold is that things could escalate quickly out of control leading to a nuclear exchange, substantially destroying both Russia and the West. While it is tempting to think that perhaps Russia could use the smaller nukes and avoid escalation, the successful use of these weapons would mean that Russia would likely use (or threaten to use) them in every serious dispute given the obvious weakness of their conventional military forces. This would mean that the West would have to go all-in and threaten a nuclear first strike in every serious future dispute with Russia. And Russia would have to do the same. This would make for a very unstable international system.
While Russia’s doctrine about the use of nuclear weapons is that they would only be used in the event that the survival of the Russian state was threatened, the likelihood is high that the statement really means “survival of the Putin regime”. As nobody intends to invade Russia, march to Moscow and topple the Russian state due to Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal, the survival of the Russian state is not in doubt, regardless of what happens in Ukraine. However, a lost war in Ukraine could be fatal to the Putin regime, and very possibly physically fatal to Putin himself. A lost war in Ukraine would upset the nationalist faction in Russian politics that Putin relies on for support. In addition, having been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Russians, massive economic damage, alienation from a significant part of the international system, and little/nothing to show for it, it is hard to see how Putin would survive. While Russian political culture since Stalin has allowed for deposed leaders to maintain their physical security, the current system in Russia is very much dependent on Putin himself. His removal, whether by natural or unnatural causes, will result in a systemic crisis that has the real potential to disintegrate the current regime. Such an event would likely trigger a violent period as various individuals would try to fill the inevitable power vacuum, both to enrich themselves and as a self-preservation defense against potential rivals. In other words, there is a high likelihood both that Putin sees victory (or at least a “peace with honor” scenario) in Ukraine as necessary for his political (and likely physical) survival and also that his perception is largely accurate. While the fact that he has not used the weapons yet means that he is likely go to great lengths to get something that he can live with without using them, it is hard to imagine him not using them if it is the only way to avoid defeat in Ukraine.
Battlefield Impact Of Tactical Nukes:
One of the major questions hanging over the use of tactical nukes would be their actual impact. As they have never been used on a battlefield, their impact is largely conjecture, informed to some extent by war gaming. Apart from what types of weapons might be used, there are a couple of other considerations:
1.) Would the Russian army truly be able operate on a nuclear battlefield?
2.) What military action, if any, would the West take?
Russian Army on a Nuclear Battlefield:
The image of the Russian Army on a nuclear battlefield doesn’t inspire a lot a of confidence, from a military analyst perspective. While Russian soldiers have allegedly been trained to operate under such conditions, a significant fraction of the those who have received this training (i.e. the professional core) have likely already been expended (killed/wounded) in Ukraine. Using tactical nuclear weapons aren’t as simple as just shooting few missiles and artillery shells and walking your troops through the hole in the line. Your troops need to be wearing protective gear so that they don’t catch radiation poisoning. It’s possible that enemy troops (also wearing protective gear) might have survived the blast and are able to put up some sort of resistance. Furthermore, blasting a hole in the Ukrainian defensive front won’t necessarily allow for the rapid advance of Russian troops into it, given the logistical challenges that they have faced in this war so far. This would be further complicated by the need to have logistics personnel also wearing protective gear. Given the apparent shortage of equipment that the Russian army appears to be experiencing, it is not out of the question that they might not even have sufficient protection for their own soldiers (there are even questions as to whether Russian body armor, standard protection for most infantry units, even functions). Moreover, it’s not impossible that some of the munitions might come under attack from Ukrainian conventional force before they can be deployed resulting in some radioactive contamination of Russian rear areas. In short, given the performance that we have seen from the Russian military so far, it is unlikely that it would be able to deploy these weapons as effectively as one might imagine, and also a very high likelihood that Russian casualties due the use of these weapons would not be insignificant.
Potential Western Military Response:
In the event of Russian use of tactical nukes in Ukraine, the West is going to be faced with a choice of how to respond. One option would be to declare the use of tactical nukes against the rules of war justifying the involvement of U.S. and Western forces against any Russian military assets located within the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine. A few years ago, the U.S. Air Force did come to the aid of local forces in Syria that had U.S. Special Forces embedded with them, killing dozens of Russian mercenaries. While the risks of direct U.S. involvement in the conflict would raise the stakes and put the world closer to a direct nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, it’s hard to imagine that those around Putin wouldn’t begin to seriously look at dumping him, rather than risk him launching a first strike against the U.S. which would result in Russia’s demise as well. As for the military result of direct U.S. involvement, it is hard to see any result but the destruction or eviction of the Russian ground forces from Ukraine. The Russian Air Force has seriously underperformed expectations that existed at the outset of the conflict, and it seems hard to imagine that it would be able to stand up to an onslaught of U.S. and NATO air forces.
Of course, NATO could decide not to intervene directly but could use the threat of such intervention to force Putin to the negotiating table. While such a thing would be a bitter pill for Ukraine to swallow, in theory it would allow Putin to claim some sort of positive outcome for Russia, and end the war. The cost of doing this, however, would be that the use of nuclear weapons will be seen to have paid off for Russia. At least, it will be seen in Russia as having forced NATO to the negotiating table and allowed Russia to largely lock-in the territory that it has gained up to this point. Given that Russia’s conventional military deterrent is effectively gone after its substandard performance in Ukraine, Russia will have to rattle the nuclear saber every time a serious military conflict arises, regardless of whether nukes are eventually used in this particular conflict or not. This means that every major conflict with Russia going forward, will contain a higher possibility of quickly spiraling into a nuclear confrontation, that it did in the past. While one could argue that this was always the case with Russia, going forward they will really have limited leverage against the West apart from their nukes. This is especially true after the damage/destruction to their two natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, and the chasing away of foreign businesses/investors who are now keenly aware of the dangers of doing business in Russia, which has reduced any economic leverage that they might have had.
The Road Ahead:
The year 2020 through 2022 are the most consequential years geopolitically since 1989-1991 and likely the most consequential 3 years since WWII. The geopolitical chess board is being reshuffled. The war in Ukraine will likely prove to be seen as a last-ditch attempt to arrest the slide of Russia into a second-rate power status. Much as Britain and France are former colonial powers with some residual military power who depend upon their association with the U.S. to punch above their weight on the world stage, so Russia will likely be sliding into a similar position and rely on their association with China to punch above its weight geopolitically going forward.
In order to minimize the risk of a nuclear confrontation and also minimize the risk of letting Russia gain from its use of tactical nuclear weapons, it will probably be necessary to engage China in any peace process. As Putin has put himself in a position where he cannot back down, what the West (and perhaps the world) needs in Russia is another “Putin” who could be in a position to try and extricate Russia from this colossal mistake without resorting to nukes. While the West can dream of a western-style, democratic Russia, the truth is that such a thing is unrealistic given the historical experience of Russia and the current structure/culture within its political institutions. Likely, the most that the West can hope for is a “Putin” that has the political room to negotiate and end to the war, try and repair relations with the West, has a better grasp on Russia’s true capabilities, and knows how to effectively govern the country within those constraints. As for the actual Putin that the world has to contend with now, probably the best chance of getting him out of there without risking him being forced to drag the world to the brink (or actually into) a nuclear inferno would be to entice him and his entourage into a comfortable retirement in China, complete with a certain amount of wealth. China is the one country that Putin and his cronies might trust to guarantee a certain amount of financial status (and be able to provide him with the medical care that would likely be given as his official reason for his resignation). While such an outcome might strike some as unjust, especially given what has gone on in Ukraine and the fact that Putin’s wealth is largely stolen, it is much better than the alternative.
As for how the West will behave going forward, there was once a possibility early in the war that it might split, with Russia-friendly countries such as Germany, Austria, Italy, and Hungary undermining Western support for Ukraine. Undoubtedly, Putin was hoping for this as it would have given him more political room to maneuver and play one side off against the other.
My sense is that this possibility has passed.
While there are factions in every Western country that are less antagonistic towards Russia, there doesn’t appear to be any significant pro-Russia/Putin factions. And while there is concern about natural gas prices/supplies and the ability to keep warm this winter, Western societies seem to have largely accepted necessity of paying this price. There aren’t massive demonstrations advocating the abandonment of Ukraine, so that Putin will turn on the gas. The West, including Germany, appears ready to stick together.
Regardless of what happens on the battlefield, this war is likely to end in either a long ceasefire/stalemate (think North Korea/South Korea) or in some sort of negotiated settlement. While Zelensky and many in the West may find it morally unsatisfying of pushing Ukraine’s borders back to where they stood in 2013, they are likely going to have to accept peace short of these goals. For all of the claims that Ukraine makes on Crimea, this area is ethnically as Russian as any other area within the internationally recognized border of the Russian Federation. That it became administratively part of Ukraine during the Soviet period was a largely symbolic “gift” by Nikita Khrushchev, as it was then all part of the Soviet Union. And while Putin’s referendum in 2014 asking Crimeans if they wanted to be part of Russia is largely scoffed at in the West, a truly free election would likely result in a ‘yes’ vote for Russia. If letting people freely determine their own fate is a concept that is to have any meaning, then Crimea should likely be recognized as part of Russia.
In addition to this, it should be noted that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed here, which means that recapturing this area would mean taking out a Russian base that has been there since the late 1700’s. While Russia might have a hard time justifying to China the use of nuclear weapons inside of territory that Russia has taken since February 24, 2022, the prospect of losing this base would almost certainly result in a nuclear response of some kind.
How negotiations play out will depend on military and political factors relevant at the time that both sides decide to seriously negotiate, and those are currently unknown at this time. When the time comes, the prospect of international recognition of Russian claims on Crimea will be a bargaining chip that Zelensky and the West can use. This war isn’t going to end with Ukrainian tanks rolling into Moscow, nor will it end with Russian tanks rolling up to the Hungarian/Polish/Romanian border. That means either stalemate or negotiations. The sooner everyone starts to accept that reality, the better off the world will be.