This is intended to be the first in a series of essays explaining the measures the Ukrainian people, as well as those in the West, need to take to be able to prevail in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and to achieve Western and Ukrainian military objectives in that conflict as quickly as possible. The author is a specialist in civil conflicts and also a specialist in Ukraine; he has already written a substantial amount about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the early days of the war (and even before it began) but now the war has entered a new phrase, a middle phase, as all civiil conflicts due and a revised set of considerations come to apply because civil conflicts have patterns and the Russian invasion of Ukraine betrays those patterns just as have other civil conflicts in the past.
The first rather obvious point about the Russian invasion of Ukraine - but really very important - is that despite Russia’s massive size and geopolitical importance, virtually everybody wants Ukraine to win. It is worth pausing to consider why this is because it demonstrates a revealing parallelism between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, in which virtually everybody wanted the Bosnian Muslim plurality in Bosnia and Herzegovina to win, and almost nobody wanted the Bosnian Serbs to win who were their principal protagonists. What is it that causes some countries to want to go to war with their neighbours even though it is going to make them extremely unpopular, including amongst their own people? Consider the following.
While in the early stages of the war there was some division between Ukrainians about the merits of a Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory, particularly across lingo-ethnic lines, those divisions rapidly evaporated and one of the very first effects of the Russian invasion was to give the Ukrainians a common sense of nationhood and national identity notwithstanding the prior linguistic divisions that had drawn an unspoken political line of division through the country from northeast to southwest. Now there is consensus across free Ukraine (that is to say the parts of Ukrainian not under Russian military occupation) that Ukraine’s future lies with Europe and with the West more generally. Ukrainians themselves are united in their hostility to Russian aggression, and the political clarity this has generated within Ukrainian politics is undoubtedly a good thing.
It is deeply sad to behold that this renewed common political conviction on the part of Ukrainians has emerged as a result of their shared suffering, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused massive quantities of unnecessary human suffering and even most clear-headed Russians seem to acknowledge that at least in private. The war was driven by the personal animosities of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his desire to eliminate, in many cases literally, a series of his political enemies both domestically and internationally. The price paid by Ukrainian civilians (and by Russian conscripts, the vast majority of whom are unwillingly sent into mortal jeopardy quite unwillingly by the dictate of their tyrannical President) is an abomination in modern Europe. The heroism of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in resisting their homeland against what initially appeared to be numerically overwhelming odds has brought them widespread respect and admiration across the world. But the fundamental calculus of the war has been Vladimir Putin’s assessment that the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the destruction of the lives of hundreds of thousands more has been a price worth paying for him to pursue his own limited and self-promoting political goals relating to Russian political infighting, and this has attracted universal condemnation across the world.
President Putin’s ostensible goal - to prevent the growth of NATO - has been defeated because his aggressive actions in Ukraine have led to a series of new NATO member states and it has also accelerated a previously stalled exercise to expand the European Union. Now deliberations are underway to consider whether Ukraine herself can be admitted promptly to both umbrella organisations, which will require significant improvements in institutional quality in Ukraine: something long overdue and which Ukrainians themselves appear now to be embracing. So one of the things that needs to be done to win the war in Ukraine is to continue to focus upon improving institutional quality in the country so that NATO and EU member states feel comfortable admitting a country, with a recent historical reputation for corruption, into these international structures. This requires a sort of international assistance to Ukraine of which there has not been enough so far: legal and judicial reform; capacity building; improving rule of law; training of police; improving the quality of public administration generally. Attempts in these spheres have been undertaken in the past, but only half-heartedly. Now, with the urgency of admitting Ukraine to international structures with a view to defeating wanton Russian aggression, this sort of institutional capacity-building ought to be pursued with renewed vigour and this should be spearheaded by the European Union and principally using EU funding. Ukraine, in her renewed state of national vitality and commonality of purpose, is ready for this type of investment.
Secondly, there are medium term military goals to be pursued. The conflict in Ukraine has followed a pattern typical of many or even most civil conflicts throughout the twentieth century, namely that there the most important territorial battles take place in the first six months or so of the conflict; then the parties dig trenches, get dug in, and front lines are very slow to move; and then there progresses a period of stalemate that can last months or years. The good news about the stalemate period during a civil war is that death rates from combat go right down, as only a few sharp points on the front line continue to be fought over with such vigour; and this is what we are seeing at the time of writing (early September 2023). During this period of relative lull in the fighting, again the focus of international support and attention needs to shift towards assisting civilians in free territories that have suffered terrible damage, and pursuing the task of reconstruction and civilian support. We are now starting to see a broad array of projects that involve physical reconstruction, as well as improvements in logistical networks to ensure that people in free Ukraine, even if close to the front line, receive reliable regular supplies of the essential provisions necessary to enable them to continue living throughout free Ukraine. This includes shelter; food; medications; medical care; schooling; psychiatric care (living through war is highly traumatic); and reliable infrastructure that may have been damaged or destroyed. Substantial further funds are required to bolster the admirable efforts already being undertaken but Ukrainians themselves in these directions. The supply of international funds should be conditioned upon institutional improvements in the operation of Ukraine’s public administration, so that Ukrainians have incentives to undertake the initially painful necessary reforms that will eventually lead the country on a confident path towards European Union membership.
In the meantime, it is essential to continue to supply the Ukrainian Armed Forces so that they can continue to pursue their two principal current strategic goals, and it is important to focus upon the two most important goals at this moment. One is to undermine, and hopefully even break, the land bridge between the Donbas territories of Donetsk and Luhansk that Russia has effectively occupied (through various unrecognised para-states) since 2014 and occupied Crimea. The maintenance of this land bridge, via the city of Melitopol and the Russian-held land southeast of Kherson, substantially assists in the continuation of Russian aggression and the preservation of a Russian military supply line from Russian military headquarters for the Ukrainian invasion in Rostov and the Russian military garrison in Crimea. If the Ukrainian Armed Forces were able to break this land bridge, then the Russian occupation of Crimea itself might be in jeopardy as Russia would need to rely entirely upon the Kerch bridge that Ukrainian special forces have proven themselves remarkably adept in attack and causing damage to. If Ukraine is eventually to prevail over Russia, then Russia’s occupation of Crimea must be placed under threat and that means breaking the land bridge from Donbas to Crimea and that means focusing on Melitopol and Kherson oblast. To their credit the Ukrainian Armed Forces understand this very clearly and they are urging their Western partners to support their push to break the Russian land bridge. This is and must remain a key priority.
The other priority, now the territorial integrity of the greater majority of free Ukraine has been achieved, is to continue a broad front in the Donbas region so that Donbas’s status does not become foreclosed and the future of the region remains open in the course of any final status negotiations notwithstanding the fact that substantial parts of the region have been under effective Russian occupation for almost a decade. This is another key priority for the Ukrainian Armed Forces and it explains their continuous push in the Donbas, even though progress is admittedly slow-going.
Underlying these tactical considerations is that, as with many civil conflicts, this has become a war of attrition. The end of the war comes only with the removal from power of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in all likelihood as a consequence of his death. There have been no effective peace negotiations to date and the reason for that is that his position is one of intransigence. He has no interest in a peace settlement. For him constant war is tolerable given that hydrocarbon prices, the main source of Russia’s foreign revenues, have been elevated since the war’s beginning. Sanctions are ineffective; they just strike at the Russian wealthy classes with assets abroad that Putin sees for the most part as his opponents, and keep his inner circle in line, knowing that now they have nowhere else to go and must remain by his side. Nevertheless it is they who are likely ultimately to be responsible for his death, unless Mr Putin dies of natural causes. As with Stalin (and the parallels are increasingly striking), Mr Putin’s inner circle may well end up murdering him or at least being complicit in his death which is why Mr Putin is himself murdering them on an increasingly frequent basis. Russian politics at its highest levels is becoming rather bloody. Mr Putin’s age (he is 70; the average Russian male dies at 62) is a factor but unfortunately his health appears rather strong. In any event, given the fact that whereas just a few years ago Russia was in danger of being unable to pay her civil servants due to lack of foreign revenues; and now the country’s war economy footing is essentially stable, with high hydrocarbon revenues being able to fund an indefinite war, the fact is that this war may continue for some considerable further time because Mr Putin finds it personally convenient for him. Moreover he has proven himself unwilling to leave Russia due to the prospect of his facing international justice, and he is personally protected by a Praetorian guard of some 400,000. In all likelihood the way this war comes to an end is by Russian senior insiders, sick of Mr Putin’s reign of terror, killing him. Mr Putin has to die eventually and it is at that point that Russians are likely to be prepared to discuss the terms of the war’s resolution in a constructive way.
In the intervening period, ongoing support must be shown to Ukraine’s remarkable President, who has sustained the national unity of his country and the popularity of the cause within the international community. Funding must be continued for both military and civilian purposes, to continue Ukraine’s two territorial offensives and to relieve the suffering of the Ukrainian people both at home and abroad in the refugee community that has spread throughout Europe and beyond. Russia must continue to be castigated within the international community, so that her status as bête noire may be used as leverage in final status negotiations. The politics of Moscow should continue to be observed with great attention, understanding nonetheless that it is the Russians themselves who will ultimately decide upon the timing and means of the demise of Mr Putin. We must all be patient, and steel ourselves for an ongoing confrontation with Russia until the Russians themselves finally have an opportunity to get rid of their leader. The West must reserve the financial, military and developmental resources to continue support for the war. Euro-Atlantic international institutions must continue engaging with Ukraine, drawing her in the right direction. These are the essential tools for victory. It will not happen overnight, and much depends upon the vagaries of political machinations in Moscow as well as Mr Putin’s health. These are the essential elements for victory in Ukraine over the gravest danger to European peace and global stability since the end of World War II.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.