Germany’s reversal on its decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, and the Biden administration’s follow up announcement that the US will also ship a contingent of M-1 Abrams tanks has raised eyebrows and caused concern across the globe. NATO sending armor to the Ukraine has been considered a red line since the start of the war in Ukraine almost a year ago. The fear was that such a move is almost certain to bring with it a substantial risk of escalation. That concern proved to be a main reason Berlin was initially reluctant to make its Leopard 2 tanks available to Kiev. But in the face of allied pressure and a changing dynamic on the ground in Ukraine, Germany decided providing Leopard 2s was worth the perceived risk. Great Britain drew the same conclusion a few days earlier and the United States has followed suit. The events going on over the last thirty-six hours make it clear NATO’s strategy for Ukraine is shifting to an ‘escalate to deescalate’ track. The problem with this is that Russia appears to be doing much of the same.
With winter having transformed the fighting in Ukraine into a stalemate, Russia is digging in and making preparations for a spring offensive. Which means that between now and spring, Russia and NATO will be racing to make their respective arrangements. For NATO this means getting Ukrainian tank crews trained to proficiency and the new armor integrated into Ukrainian units in time to help blunt the coming Russian offensive. Russia, on the other hand, will be rushing to get its dispositions and resupply efforts complete in time to launch the offensive on its terms and seize the initiative.
Between now and spring, the conflict will enter the shadow of escalation. Essentially, this is a critical stage where perception and misperception of the opposing side’s intentions and strategic objectives will determine the next direction the war will take. As we’ve seen many times over the past eleven months, the behavior of Russia has not been as centralized, coordinated or planned as the West anticipated. The imposing of heavy economic sanctions failed to deter Putin from pressing forward with the invasion. Even larger batches of Western military and economic aid earmarked for Kiev also did not convince him that war was a bad idea. Putin and Russia have not responded as anticipated. The West misperceived Putin and the effect its actions would have.
In turn, Putin’s misperceptions of the West, predominantly of NATO and the United States, contributed greatly to the less-than-attractive position the Russians are presently in. The overall unity NATO has demonstrated in the face of Soviet aggression has transcended all pre-war predictions. Ukraine’s performance on the battlefield helped to keep the alliance from writing off Kiev as a lost cause. Putin and Russian military leaders also grossly underestimated how well the military would fight, a near fatal misperception of Russian power and one which continues to haunt Russia on a regular basis.
In the shadow of escalation phase watch for the West and Russia to try and reassess their perceptions of the other’s intentions and behavior. For Russia, NATO’s commitment to send armor to Ukraine has served to fulfill Putin’s argument that NATO is an active combatant in the war. This could give him some relief on the domestic front with a resurgence of popular support, rendering the burgeoning anti-Putin faction in the Russian government stillborn. The West, in turn, needs to prioritize determining Putin’s most probable courses of action in the event the offensive comes up short of its objectives. More to the point, how might Putin respond if the newly arrived armor from Germany, the United States and Great Britain plays a key role in blunting his spring offensive?
In the opinion of most experts, diplomats and talking heads across the globe, the Ukrainian War will come to a conclusion at some point in the next twelve months. On this point I am in agreement. However, it is fair to remember that a year ago around this time there was a divide in opinion about whether Vladimir Putin would order an invasion of Ukraine. Even more worthy of recollection is the rather somber fact that just about every single prediction put forward about the scope, shape and timeline of Russia’s invasion was thoroughly incorrect. My own included and misery, as they say, loves company. 😊
Here we are now in January, 2023 with the war continuing on down a path unforeseen twelve months ago. The question of ‘How is the war going to end?’ continues to crop up regularly in the first days of this new year. The collection of responses are every bit as varied and colorful as were the answers to the January, 2022 query of ‘will Russia invade?’ And in all likelihood, these responses will be nowhere near as accurate.
Barring a complete change of heart by Kiev and Moscow, the Ukraine War will be decided on the battlefield. The diplomatic avenue continues to be explored but with each side placing terms and conditions on negotiations that the other side views as beyond the bounds of possibility. Therefore, the war will be decided on the battlefield. With Ukrainian forces being better equipped and highly motivated, it is expected they will attempt to keep up pressure on Russian forces in Donbas and perhaps also in areas of southern Ukraine. Russian forces, on the other hand, appear to be using the winter pause to build up supplies and incorporate new troops in preparation for a spring offensive. Of the 300,000 Russian reservists mobilized in summer and fall of 2022, three quarters of them are in training for 2023. When they arrive at the front in great numbers more indications of a coming spring offensive will become visible.
For Ukraine, disruption needs to be centerpiece of its military strategy through the remainder of the winter months. Kiev has to buy time for additional arms and supplies to arrive from the West. The best way to create time and throw off the Russian timetable for spring is to keep up the pressure on the ground in Donbas.
Over Christmas weekend there have been indications of both Russia and Ukraine at the very least signaling a willingness to open sincere negotiations with the other side. But only under specific sets of circumstances. In an interview aired on Christmas Day, Russian leader Vladimir Putin claimed he is ready to negotiate with ‘all parties engaged in the Ukraine War’ however, the Ukrainian government and its Western supporters have refused to consider peace talks. “We are ready to negotiate with everyone involved about acceptable solutions, but that is up to them – we are not the ones refusing to negotiate, they are,” Putin said in the interview.
Today, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his nation wants to chair a so-called ‘peace summit’ at the United Nations in February, 2023. He suggested that the UN secretary general could mediate the conference, but then went on to apply a caveat to Russia’s participation in a peace summit: Russia would be included only if it faces a war crimes tribunal in an international court. Since the chances of Moscow agreeing to this term are basically non-existent, don’t expect to see Russia and Ukraine sitting down to discuss peace at any point in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, a second attempted Ukrainian drone attack on an airbase deep inside of Russian territory appears to have taken place. The Russian defense ministry reported that air defense forces in and around the Engels Airbase engaged and destroyed a drone near the base. But unfortunately, falling debris killed three servicemembers. Engels is a major Russian bomber base that was supposedly targeted by the Ukrainian military earlier in December. Neither the Ukrainian government or armed forces have admitted being behind the attack, but military spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said the explosions were the result of what Russia was doing on Ukrainian soil.
The Ukrainian government has been dismissive of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s call for a negotiated settlement to the Russia-Ukraine war. Kissinger said peace needs to be pursued with determination and sincerity in order to minimize the risk of this conflict escalating to a major war or worse. In an article printed in The Spectator magazine Kissinger wrote, “The time is approaching to build on the strategic changes which have already been accomplished and to integrate them into a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation. A peace process should link Ukraine to NATO, however expressed. The alternative of neutrality is no longer meaningful.”
Kiev did not waste time voicing opposition to the proposal. “Mr. Kissinger still has not understood anything … neither the nature of this war, nor its impact on the world order,” Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said in a digital release. “Henry Kissinger calls for cease-fire along borders prewar 2/24 with Russia disgorging its conquests and negotiations on territory seized in 2014. What Kissinger doesn’t allow for are politics on both sides making this idea impossible now, maybe never.”
Podolyak is correct to an extent. Russia is not going to voluntarily give up the territory it has gained since February or negotiate on the future of Crimea. Nor will Ukraine concede any amount of its soil presently under Russian control. This preordains any negotiations aimed at reaching peaceful settlement to certain failure. The diplomatic front is every bit as stalemated as the battlefield in Ukraine at this point.
Unfortunately, my free time is limited this afternoon but over the Christmas vacation I can find time to examine Kissinger’s statements in greater detail. As for the next update, we will look at China’s looming COVID wave and the consequences of Xi Jinping’s Zero-COVID retreat.
Russia wasted little time in responding to Ukraine’s “terrorist attack” against the Kerch Strait Bridge. Early this morning Russian forces executed a well-coordinated and massive missile strike against targets across Ukraine. “This morning, a massive high-precision strike was conducted on Ukrainian energy infrastructure, military command, and communications,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a video address to his security advisors. “In case Ukrainian terrorist attacks continue on Russian territory, our response will be tough and proportional.” Infrastructure and military targets were struck from Kiev (Kyiv) to Lvov. Over fifteen Ukrainian cities were struck this morning.
Despite Putin’s claims that the targets were military and infrastructure, the Ukrainian government says otherwise. Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskiy said in a video posted to social media that the Russians are “Choosing targets to harm as many people as possible.”
There could be some truth to this. However, Zelenskiy has a well-known penchant for exaggeration. Civilian infrastructure and communications nodes are legitimate targets of war. Ukraine’s own attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge took place at a moment when there appeared to be civilian traffic going across the span. This did not make the bridge any less of a legitimate target.
The attacks, mostly carried out by cruise missiles, have resulted in large-scale power and communications outages around Ukraine. Air raid warnings went off through the day, sending Ukrainian citizens to basements and bomb shelters in scenes reminiscent of the war’s first days. It is not clear if today’s strikes will be followed up by further attacks in the coming days and hours. Putin promises proportionate responses to future attacks on Russian soil, so at first look these missile attacks look to be a one-day affair. Yet if Russia senses real success building as a result of today’s action, expect to see similar strikes in the near future.