I am not a military expert and will not comment daily on the action on the ground during this military operation. However, the analytic possibilities of even military professionals are severely limited due to the intentional withholding of information by the Russian side as regards all activities outside the Donbas area, which they cover extensively in minute detail for reasons I will set out below. As regards the “news” released by the Ukrainian authorities, its propagandistic nature is evident both in inflated and fake reports and videos of Russia-caused devastation and death and in reports on the extraordinary bravery and successes of their own forces.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, some things begin to become clear about this operation at the strategic as well as tactical levels.
Firstly, what we received from the Russian side at the outset was only their war objectives and their conception of the path to victory. The objectives were two:
- to denazify Ukraine by killing in battle or arresting and sending onward to trials those radical nationalist elements who were behind the coup d’état of February 2014 and worked hand in glove with the Americans to establish a viciously anti-Russian government that has oppressed Russian speakers throughout Ukraine and waged an incessant war on the breakaway republics of the Donbas
- to demilitarize Ukraine and establish its future development as a neutral country that does not participate in any alliances
To this, in recent days the Kremlin has added a third objective: Ukrainian formal recognition of the loss of Crimea and of its incorporation into the Russian Federation.
Secondly, at the strategic level, the Russians from the beginning said they planned to separate the professional Ukrainian army from the radical nationalist battalions who were the main aggressors in the conflict at the line of demarcation between the breakaway Donbas republics and Ukraine proper, and who have been the ‘force behind the throne’ in Kiev ever since 2014 as presidents of Ukraine come and go. Indeed, the Kremlin’s stated ambition was to do a deal with the senior command of the Ukrainian army establishing a period of martial law during which the denazification could proceed.
The opening days of this military campaign have put in serious doubt the validity of the assumptions underlying that strategy. It is now becoming fairly obvious that the past 8 years of military reorganization in Ukraine under the tutorship of the USA and other NATO powers has established discipline within the armed forces, while the political indoctrination from radical nationalists embedded within the military ensures that defection, raising the white flag is not easy any more.
By bringing up reinforcements to the initial 80,000 troops that Russia committed to operations within Ukraine, the Kremlin has indicated that it is about to change its game. Today, we understand that the ‘cauldron’ has been closed around Mariupol, the port and Ukrainian naval base on the Azov Sea, which has a substantial radical nationalist force defending it, the infamous Azov Battalion, in the environs. We will see in the coming days how the Russian command deals with these worst of the Ukrainian elements and whether ordinary Ukrainian army forces in their midst are treated any differently. How this plays out will indicate the further conduct of the Russian troops throughout Ukraine.
Thirdly, I wish to share an observation that bears on my previous description of what I called “the Russian Way of War.” There is a very specific consideration in how the Russians have prosecuted the incursion, invasion, however you wish to call their operation, in Ukraine. That consideration arises from the special relationship of the two peoples, Ukrainian and Russian. In a way, the present conflict is fratricidal, or a form of civil war. Ukrainians and Russians are very extensively intermarried. A great number of Russians have relatives in Ukraine and vice versa. Moreover, during the past eight years there have been several million Ukrainians who fled their country not to the West but to the East and have settled either temporarily or permanently in the Russian Federation. This being the case, the Kremlin wanted to avoid any brutal assault on Ukraine that would generate enormous casualties, both of combatants and of civilians. Such an eventuality, much more than the plight of aggrieved oligarchs caught in the sights of Western sanctions, could pose a threat to the stability of the Russian government.
Fourthly, and in conclusion, I call attention to the fact that nearly all Russian news coverage of the opening days of the campaign in Ukraine has focused on the combat being waged by the military forces of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic with only minor support from the Russian Federation. This is a key point both for the population of those republics and for the Russian ‘mainland’ in the RF. These republics must win their own territory back by their efforts, not be handed it on a silver platter by RF forces. The net result of this approach will be to reinforce the sovereignty and national pride within these republics and obviate the need to annex them to Russia, which Moscow plainly does not want to do.
Instead, the independent, Russia friendly Donbas republics are a model for what may be the division of Ukraine into several different states, among which the westernmost based in Lviv will be the homeland of the dyed-in-the-wool radical nationalists. It will be land-locked and sufficiently far from Russian borders not to pose a greater threat to Russia when it joins NATO and the EU than do Slovakia or Poland. In the middle of what is today still Ukraine the Russians may oversee the formation of a country with its capital in Kiev and with genuinely mixed ethnic Russian and ethnic Ukrainian populations that is tolerant of minorities and freed of all radical nationalists and neo-Nazis. I am not saying that this endgame solution is already set, but it does exist as a possible denouement.
Time will tell.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022