Opinion | What next for Russia
By Tom Fowdy
War is full of surprises, and few people, even the most optimistic of Ukraine supporting analysts, didn't see it coming. Over the course of just three days, Ukraine launched a surprise counteroffensive in the Kharkiv Oblast region which caught Russia off guard. Facing a thinly manned frontier whilst the focus of troop numbers was elsewhere, its positions collapsed and Ukraine reclaimed over 2000sqkm of territory at an astonishing pace, regaining the strategic town of Izyum.
The pace and scope of the offensive has given Ukrainian supporters a clear sense of conviction that they are winning the conflict, whilst for Russia it feels like deju and a repeat of the Kiev debacle at the beginning of the war. Outnumbered and overstretched, they were forced to withdraw. In conjunction with this, the Ukrainian government immediately hardened its negotiating position, saying that the conflict will only end with the "complete demilitarization" and "surrender" of Russia.
Whilst of course that outcome is impossible, it nonetheless poses serious questions for Moscow. How exactly do they go about "winning" this war, and how do they plan to do so? Without for that matter, resorting to extreme, unacceptable and catastrophic outcomes such as nuclear weapons? I have played down the endless bombardment of one-sided Ukraine Agitprop for six months, yet this outcome has been a reality check that Russia's "Part-time war" in the name of the Special Military Operation (SMO) is not simply capable of defeating Ukraine in its current form, who do not see such as a half-in "war of choice" at all, but an existential struggle for national survival.
Russia's miscalculations on starting this conflict have been many. First of all, the SMO has committed itself to a full-scale war, whilst attempting to avoid the commitment of such. It's a "best of both worlds" approach which attempts to retain luxuries at home that Ukraine simply can't have. In fear of facing public unrest at home and further repercussions, Putin avoided a formal declaration of war and mass mobilization. With this, it is clear, even if one dismisses the "Fall of Kiev in three days" unsubstantiated propaganda talking point, at the beginning of the war Putin gambled on a quick capitulation of the Ukrainian state and minimal resistance by invading on multiple axis with a thin force.
In doing so, the nationalistic resolve of Ukrainians was duly underestimated and this quickly accumulated in their first defeat in the north. Recognizing this, Russia downsized their objectives and calibrated their focus on capturing Donbass, aiming to do so at a slow and grinding pace through an artillery doctrine which made use of their entrenched positions. From April through to July, this succeeded as Russia encircled and captured the remainder of Luhansk Oblast. However, as the focus moved onto Donestk, Russia's progress began to slow down drastically. Some attribute this to the impact of Ukraine attaining increasingly stronger weaponry from the west, including the infamous "HIMARS" system which allowed them to strike targets further behind enemy lines, hampering logistics.
Either way, Russia's Donbas offensive slowed from a stroll to a crawl. And from here, Ukraine discovered that it could now exploit Russia's gigantic, yet thinly manned frontline by pursuing multiple points of pressure simultaneously. All focus was placed on a fabled "Kherson counteroffensive" which whilst having minimal results itself, was orchestrated as a distraction which saw Russia concentrate its defense in the southern province at the expense of other areas, accumulating in the loss of Kharkiv, marking Ukraine's largest and most drastic counteroffensive yet.
All of this, therefore, questions what Russia will do now, if anything. The reality is that the only way out of this conflict on terms favourable to itself is to defeat Ukraine, who at this stage will not accept any peace negotiations or settlement precisely because it believes it does not have to do so. However, this is easier said than done because it is longer possible to achieve such under the current auspices of the SMO, limiting both manpower and firepower. Even if Russia were, for example, to seize all of Donbass, Ukraine is simply not going to stop and is floated on a never-ending supply of western (Largely US and UK) supplied weaponry and aid, which has increased in capability and scope.
Therefore, Russia's only, logically speaking, option is to escalate to an extent with the goal of inflicting a critical defeat on Ukraine, and abandon the repeatedly failed assumption that Kyiv can be negotiated with simply by gradually seizing territory and prolonging a stalemate. That was the logic of the SMO, and it is no longer working. This means Putin faces pressure to escalate to a more formalized war between Russia and Ukraine.
Whilst he may avoid the political pitfall of mass mobilization, which is not of course a "quick-fix" given its obvious implications for people's families and lives, nonetheless, he may reconsider the restraint he has otherwise exercised in this "part-time war" against Ukraine. On Sunday night, Russian bombing knocked out most of the country's electricity grid. Some say it was the start of a new phase, others say it was a one-off retaliation.
But either way, it is now clear that Russia has held on to a "status quo" of this war which has lasted for nearly 7 months, yet has not succeeded in its objectives. Ukraine want to see Russia's total defeat, as do the US and the UK. Therefore, we end again by asking, what now? Does Putin back up and go home and face the music amidst a huge political backlash given the consequences Moscow has suffered for this war of choice? Or does he now realize what he has truly committed himself to, and recognize he has to finish what he started?
Only time will tell.
The author is a well-seasoned writer and analyst with a large portfolio related to China topics, especially in the field of politics, international relations and more. He graduated with an Msc. in Chinese Studies from Oxford University in 2018.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.
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