Kiev has launched by far its most successful counter-attack since the Russian Special Military Operation began on 24 February this year. The Ukrainians gained large swathes of territory in the North East around Kharkov that Russian forces were occupying and administering, as opposed to simply performing military operations on.
Does this constitute a turning of the tide in Ukraine?
The Ukrainian success has certainly made the West cock-a-hoop. General Sir Richard Shirreff, former British Army and Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told an interviewer on Times Radio on 14 September:
“What we have seen is a masterclass in the operational art by the Ukrainians… This is a brilliant operation and the Russians are in a bad way and completely routed. The initiative has passed firmly to the Ukrainians… This all points to a collapse of Russia… a collapse in Russian morale which has been rubbish since the start of the war… I draw a historical parallel from what is happening now and what happened in 1917 when the Russian Army collapsed on the Eastern front before the Bolshevik Revolution… When morale collapses things can happen very quickly…
The Ukrainians are not going to be beaten. They suckered the Russians… This was not opportunistic. Clearly the history will come out. You only achieve this sort of result if you really thought about it, planned it, you war-gamed it and rehearsed it and assembled the forces necessary to do it...
The West must double down… The Germans have been pathetic… Now is not the time to take the foot off the gas. We need to reinforce success. We need to give Ukraine the tools to do the job. If this momentum builds Ukraine will win quite quickly… If the West really takes the gloves off and ramps up support with weaponry, ammunition and logistics Ukraine can maintain the necessary pressure… Putin could behave like a cornered rat and lash out (with nuclear weapons) so NATO needs to be ready for it and the worse case – war with Russia. We need to totally mobilise for this war.”
This view – usually in more restrained form – has been parroted widely across the British media by its military analysts, presenters and those it selects to interview to reinforce the state narrative. The general opinion aired on the BBC, with great exuberance, is that the tide has turned in favour of Kiev, the Russians are hopelessly demoralised and it will all probably be over by Christmas, or before. Ukrainians and American lawyers interviewed on UK media talked about the Russia leadership facing Nuremberg style trials, paying Reparations to both Ukraine and the West and even facing territorial loss. It is sounding like what was done to the Kaiser’s Germany in 1919 is going to be done to Russia if certain people have their way. Only a very few of the interviewees have been more cautious and realistic about the events of the past fortnight.
Just a few weeks before the Ukrainian counter-offensive, Lord Richard Dannatt, former Chief of Staff of the British Army, made a much more realistic assessment of the situation in Ukraine for Times Radio on 24 August. He said:
“There is a danger that Boris Johnson’s visits to Kiev gives them an optimism that realism does not suggest… Russia is not going to lose this war and I cannot see Ukraine winning it. At some stage this conflict will return to negotiations. The Russians will never go voluntarily and I cannot see how the Ukrainians will ever be strong enough to throw them out and the West will never mount a Kuwait-style operation to throw them out. Reality is going to have to be accepted and a new modus vivendi worked out with Russia left controlling part of Ukraine’s territory whether we like it or not… Zelensky has got to realise that he cannot throw the Russians out and has to start negotiating.”
This realistic view of Lord Dannatt was completely undermined by the euphoria that the Ukrainian counter-offensive produced in the West.
It also meant that the Russian Special Military Operation, in its present form, was finally seen in Russia as having exhausted its potential to resolve the conflict to the Kremlin’s advantage.
The present writer, in the course of the last 7 or 8 months, has been at pains to describe political, military and economic events in as realistic way as possible to aid understanding in the West.
At this point, therefore, we should carefully consider the various stages of this war, how it has developed and where it might go after the events of the last few weeks in order to see the context of what is happening.
Phase 1: Late February to Early April
Seven months ago, in late February 2022, the Kremlin ordered the Special Military Operation in Ukraine. It did so to prevent Ukraine’s admission to NATO and to head off a Ukrainian attack using 50,000 troops on the Donbas republics it believed was imminent. The Kremlin used Article 51 of the United Nations Charter to justify its pre-emptive action. Its stated objects were demilitarisation and “denazification” of the Kiev regime.
The Russians opened the operation in the North by launching a rapid thrust toward Kiev. Russian battalion tactical groups overran a great deal of territory but made absolutely no attempt to convert their occupation into permanent possession.
The Western media presented this as an attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital. That was utterly ridiculous. A national capital of 3.5 people with heavily guarded government and security headquarters, in which arms had been freely distributed to the civilian population, is unlikely to fall to a few thousand troops. Even if had been seized how was such a force, even reinforced by tens of thousands more, going to administer, police and fight off insurgents and much bigger Ukrainian relief forces coming from other areas?
If this was meant as a lightning strike on the Ukrainian capital, aimed at decapitating the Ukrainian leadership, it failed. It encountered stiff Ukrainian resistance. That resistance was overcome after a few days by the Russians after some heavy losses suffered North of Kiev. Russian forces then began to envelop the Ukrainian capital with the intention of intimidating the Ukrainians into a quick settlement.
The decapitation strategy might have appeared to be a long-shot but it would have been understood that the alternative was a long grinding war in the East. So it was worth a gamble.
Perhaps the Kremlin believed a military coup could be triggered against the Kiev government or alternatively it would be forced into agreeing to Russia’s conditions for an ending of the Special Military Operation. These conditions would have been the removal of the Ukrainian army from the Donbas, the acceptance of Crimea as part of Russia and the repudiation of any NATO association plans. Russia would retire to pre-February military positions. Fiona Hill, former senior official under Presidents Bush and Trump, confirmed in Foreign Affairs that the US knew of the details of this deal and set out to prevent it.
This was presumably Putin’s attempt to end the conflict in Ukraine, which had been building up since 2014 and which had reached a crisis point in early 2022, in the quickest and easiest way. It failed, however, resulting in 6 months of military conflict and the political/economic war on Russia by the West.
It failed for 2 main reasons: Firstly, the West replied to the Special Military Operation with full political and economic backing and presented the Ukrainian army with extensive military supplies, making it able to resist Russia’s move to force an early decision in the war. Secondly, when the Ukrainians appeared to be buckling at the Istanbul talks and seemed ready to agree to the Kremlin’s conditions, and to a potential summit, they were discouraged from doing so by the West.
The Kremlin’s hopes for a speedy end to the conflict was disappointed when Zelensky suddenly rejected all the concessions his negotiators in Istanbul had apparently been willing to make in the draft Istanbul agreement. It was believed by both Russia and Turkiye that only refinement was necessary to make it work to end the war. Witnessing the Western sabotage of this made a strong impression on President Erdogan of Turkiye (a member of NATO) and his movement toward Moscow has been evident ever since.
In anticipation of an agreement with Kiev, Putin had ordered his forces to move back from the positions they had occupied on the outskirts of Kiev. However, following a phone call from the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to Zelensky on April 2 and Johnson’s unexpected visit to Kiev on April 9 Kiev stonewalled. Johnson communicated to Zelensky the message that if Ukraine was ready to sign an agreement with Russia, Washington and London were not. Zelensky would be on his own, without security guarantees, if he signed a ceasefire agreement that made any concessions to Russia. This made an agreement impossible.
Zelensky acquiesced in the US/UK pressure for war and ended negotiations by making new demands that Russia could not accept.
Russia’s objective of achieving a swift settlement on its terms with Kiev failed because Washington did not agree to it. It wanted a long war to drain Russia of blood and treasure. Ukraine’s role was as the battering ram in this. It would provide the blood and Washington the treasure. That was the bargain made between Zelensky and Biden.
Three days after Boris Johnson left for home, Putin stated that talks with Kiev had reached an impasse, the military thrust and enveloping of the Ukrainian capital having failed in its political objective. Russian forces then began to be withdrawn from around Kiev and Kharkov to fight an extended war in the East aimed at demilitarising and “de-nazifying” Ukraine by grinding down the Washington-supplied forces.
However, while having failed to achieve its main political aim the Russian military thrust toward Kiev had achieved the military objective of a feint, in allowing the Russians to make territorial gains, particularly in the direction of Kherson, while Kiev’s forces were tied down in defence of the capital. The Russian thrust convinced the Ukrainians to weaken their main field army, then fighting in the Donbas region, to bolster the defences of the capital and other prominent cities. After spending 5 weeks in the North, around Kiev and Kharkov, the Russians left as rapidly as they had arrived.
The West and Kiev presented this as a great victory but it wasn’t anything of the sort – although it undoubtedly raised morale among the Ukrainians and reinforced the narrative of heroic Ukrainian resistance required in the West to drum up support for Kiev.
As a result of the operation in the North and the diversion of Ukrainian forces, Russian forces were able to drive toward Kherson and capture it on March 2, take Volnovakha on 12 March, Izyum on 17 March and surround and pin down the Azov battalions in Mariupol by the end of the month. The Azov forces hid in a formidable Soviet built bunker system requiring the Russians to devastate the city in order to neutralise them.
In the South the Russian thrust from Crimea was of a very different character to the operation in the North. Russian operations in the area between the southern sea coast and the Dneiper River took permanent possession of large population centres before installing friendly administrations within them. This served to incorporate territories inhabited by a large number of ethnic Russians into what could be called the “Russian World.” Like the thrust on the northern front, Russian southern operations encouraged the Ukrainian leadership to commit to the defense of cities, included the ports of Mykolayiv and Odessa, forces that might otherwise have been used in the defence of the Donbas region, where the main fighting was to occur over the next 6 months.
To make it clear: The Special Military Operation was never meant to be a Russian war on Ukraine. It was a strictly limited military expedition by Moscow aimed at changing Kiev’s policy through intimidation using physical force in order to head off a perceived serious threat to Russia’s security.
Phase 2: Mid-April to mid-August
After the Kremlin’s failure to subdue the Kiev regime and force an early settlement over the course of the opening weeks of the war a period of around 4 months of attritional warfare ensued in which Russian forces moved steadily but cautiously forward in the Eastern regions of Ukraine.
However, despite Western disinformation which saturated the media in the Anglosphere, it was clear that Moscow had very limited objectives in its Special Military Operation.
The most obvious evidence for the limited objectives was the size of the expeditionary force which was capped at between 150,000-200,000 and never superseded the size of the forces arrayed against it on the Ukrainian side, except in localised fighting. At the outset Ukrainian forces numbered around 250,000 front line troops with 900,000 or so reserves, volunteers and recent conscripts. All the time Ukrainian forces were being replenished and increased whilst the Russian expeditionary force was merely maintained at its set operational level.
Russian forces were mainly made up of Ukrainian-Russians from the Donbass (Donetsk and Luhansk) numbering around 50,000, the Wagner private group of ex-Russian soldiers and officers, and Kadyrov’s 2000 or so Chechens. Regular Russian forces employed in Ukraine consisted mainly of artillery/tank and aviation support for local assaults and internal security forces used to occupy towns captured from the Kiev regime in Donetsk and Luhansk. There is very little Russian infantry in Ukraine. The main bulk of the Russian Army, probably around 80 per cent of its normal strength, remained in Russia, presumably readying itself for a full declaration of war or a possible NATO escalation if necessary.
This meant that the Russians had to be very cautious and conservative in their limited offensives. These were characterised by large artillery barrages aimed at destroying the extensive Ukrainian defensive fortifications and then, when the Ukrainians had been sufficiently softened up and Russian casualties judged to be potentially minimal ground forces were sent in to capture villages and towns. This enabled the comparatively small Russian force to avoid high casualties but inflict them on the larger Ukrainian defending forces at a much higher ratio.
It was also becoming clear, despite Western misinformation, that the Russians only had limited territorial ambitions in Ukraine. These amounted to securing the defence of the strategically important Crimea and its hinterland, along with the Russian-oriented regions of the Donbass, up to the area around Kharkov in the North-East. By early July, with the fall of Sievierodonetsk, the Luhansk oblast/People’s Republic had been practically secured for the Russian-Ukrainians along with most of the territory of the Donetsk oblast/People’s Republic. That meant around 20 per cent of the former Ukraine was under Russian-oriented control.
No reinforcements were brought up by Moscow and progress almost ground to a halt by the end of Summer. Ukrainian forces were allowed to retreat out of cauldrons rather than any attempt made to destroy them.
It was speculated that Moscow’s ultimate objective might include Odessa and Kharkov city. However, the limited size of the expeditionary force and conservative nature of the Russian advance meant that even if this were true, barring a sudden Ukrainian collapse, such objectives would be only undertaken in 2023 and when greater forces were brought to bear – if they ever were.
During the previous 6 months there had been no successful counter-offensives launched by Kiev’s forces. Any movements forward by Ukrainian armed forces were into territory already vacated by Russian forces being redeployed to more strategic areas of the front. Instead the Ukrainians had ensconced themselves in urban areas, among civilian populations, or in robust fortifications built up over previous years. Eastern Ukraine, including the Donbass, has a lot of meandering rivers and small towns, and this is why the Ukrainians dug in and held the towns using local populations, whose allegiance to Kiev was questionable to say the least, as shields against Russian bombardment.
Therefore, by the end of the Summer the Kremlin, having withstood the West’s economic war, and not being concerned too much with territorial acquisition, evidently thought it could grind away at Kiev’s forces in a controlled, business-like war of attrition with time not being against Russia. The only pressure on advance was the increasing supply of longer-range weapons to Kiev, like the Himars, which were used by Washington to encourage Russian forces forward so as to engage in more risky and costly forms of warfare that would necessitate the deployment of greater numbers of Russian forces in Ukraine. Coupled with this were the sabotage operations in Crimea. There was no evidence of a Russian response to these provocations.
It may even have been the intention of the Kremlin to attempt to Ukrainianize the conflict at this point, minimising Russian participation as much as possible and to let the war go into largely static mode with most of the territorial objectives having been fulfilled.
Deaths and destruction of Ukrainians are not a problem for the West per se – only in reducing their will to fight. And Russian deaths and destruction are the objective of Washington in luring the Russians further and further onto the glacis.
In the course of the Summer Kiev’s forces concentrated on defending territory and looked largely incapable of any mobility in its offensive movement.
The pro-Russian commentators on social media were satisfied with the progress of the Special Military Operation and churned out daily reports of Russian victories, large Ukrainian losses and predicted imminent breakthroughs and the collapse of Kiev’s forces. The Russian MoD estimates of Ukrainian losses of 87,000 dead (Shoigu recently claimed 62,000) and over 200,000 wounded pointed to such a scenario – if they could be believed (“Dima”, the Belarusian military analyst, has estimated these losses, probably more accurately, at around half these figures). With Kiev’s forces sustaining 10 times the losses the Russian forces were suffering there was no way an effective defence could be maintained in the medium term.
There was one major voice of dissent – Scott Ritter, who has proved to be a substantial commentator. Ritter, former US Intelligence, said in a May interview with Ray McGovern that the $53 billion financial and military supplies the West were providing to Kiev was enabling it to assemble, train and equip a large army in the rear and this could be a transformative “game changer” in the conflict leading to a new reality on the ground. He was ridiculed and shunned by many of the pro-Russian element and ceased appearing on their channels.
Ritter proved to be, at least, partly correct. His view was that the Russians could not make substantial gains in the East against the formidable Ukrainian defences with such a limited ground force. This gave Kiev time to rebuild and increase its forces with NATO training and equipment. In fact, it also allowed Kiev to keep a large part of its army and Western-supplied material out of the frontline in preparation for a late Summer offensive. The Ukrainians were enabled by the small size of the Russian force to keep the bulk of their forces, and some of the best, outside the direct conflict zone, just like Moscow was doing.
As Ritter notes, by August the Ukrainian Army had become a NATO army rather than a Ukrainian army armed by NATO. Operational and logistical planning for this Ukrainian NATO army was increasingly being taken over by Washington and London making it much more effective and mobile than the previous force force built by Kiev over 7 years. It was working to a NATO strategic plan employing manoeuvre warfare for the first time.
While Ritter believed that the liberation of the Donbas, Russia’s territorial objective of the Special Military Operation, was attainable he reasoned that Moscow’s other 2 objectives were unachievable given the size of its forces. In fact, demilitarisation had been a complete failure with the creation of a NATO army in Ukraine and there was little prospect of “de-nazification” occurring through the overthrow of the Kiev regime and its ultra-nationalist core.
Phase 3: Late-August to ?
Pressure had built up on Kiev from both Washington and London to launch an offensive to show that Ukraine was capable of rolling back the Russian advance. Kiev had been provided with an impressive amount of weaponry by the West and the Ukrainian state was being entirely supported by Western subventions. Both Washington and London required a return for its outlay particularly with the imminence of US mid-terms in November.
It was up to Zelensky to deliver something that would provide a PR boost before the Winter to demonstrate to an increasingly sceptical Western public which, particularly in Europe, was making increasing financial sacrifices to fund the war effort. The propaganda could not be relied upon to carry the Western public indefinitely if nothing but slow defeat was evident for Kiev. The hyped-up minor successes of the Ukrainian amplified by the Western media as “turning points” were having decreasing purchase on public opinion. The “miracle at Kiev” story was looking increasingly fanciful and solitary in the face of one-way traffic ever since.
Kiev’s forces launched a much-advertised counter-offensive in the Kherson area to the South in early September. It was beaten back in a few days with very heavy casualties being suffered by the Ukrainians, who had apparently deployed new recruits who were hastily trained in the UK. Kiev’s forces attacked across open terrain where they were easily destroyed in vast numbers by the defenders of Kherson. The casualties of as much as 15,000 (estimated 4000 killed) were unusually reported in the West and influential newspapers immediately lowered expectations of Ukrainian military success. It was a substantial defeat in the most important strategic area, although news of it was buried by subsequent events elsewhere.
Another smaller Ukrainian amphibious thrust was made toward the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. It was also defeated by the Russians with smaller losses.
However, at the Izyum front, east of Kharkov, which has been relatively static for months, the Ukrainians made a surprising and substantial breakthrough of more than 30km in a few days using a sizeable force of 30,000 men. Here, in a long thrust they encountered only light pockets of resistance from Luhansk Peoples Republic forces and small numbers of Russian Interior forces, who were speedily evacuated. There was very little actual fighting and strategic withdrawals were conducted by Russian forces in a number of areas including Izyum. Izyum was a town which had been captured in March and was previously seen as strategically important by the Russians as the gateway to Slavyansk, but which, due to the impenetrable forests south of it heavily occupied by Ukrainians, had proved to be a cul de sac.
There were also territorial losses to the Russians near Balakliya and surrounding villages on the outskirts of Kharkov.
Later it was learnt that the Russians had been denuding this area of forces for at least a week prior to the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the area. Western satellites had presumably located the weaknesses of Russian deployment at this point and directed Kiev’s forces there to take advantage. This area was by then only composed of sparse, static, holding forces of local militias, internal security and others resting. Russian reserves were seen to be located too distant to arrive in time to stabilise existing lines, even if the Russians desired to do so.
Ukrainian forces had been assembled for around a month in substantial number, so it was surprising that Moscow did not anticipate such a large thrust. Some Russian observers concluded that Russian forces were stretched too thin across a front of well over 1000 km and this was proof that the small expeditionary force of the Special Military Operation was inadequate to the military objective in Ukraine. Others, engaging in wishful thinking, believed it was a carefully prepared trap to lure the Ukrainians onto the offensive where they could be dealt with easier than in defensive positions, by reinforcements called in from Russia. A Russian MoD statement backed up this theory.
In fact, it looks like the Russians simply chose to withdraw from the territory to preserve their soldiers for another day, seeing the BIG forces assembled against them. If they had not thousands would have been lost and thousands more would have been paraded in Kiev as prisoners. A fighting retreat was conducted and a new more compact defence line on the Oskl River and to the South was formed. Very few casualties were taken whilst the Ukrainians were reported to have suffered a couple of thousand killed, brought about by Russian artillery and aviation, as they advanced. Kiev was quite willing to sustain heavy casualties in return for liberated territory and Ukrainians are undoubtedly willingly prepared to sacrifice themselves. In terms of territory Kiev had reversed the Russian gains of 4 months in the Northern sector in only 4 or 5 days in a PR triumph.
It appears that the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the North had not been launched to obtain such a great gain of territory and there was surprise in Kiev at the extent of the advance. It may have had more limited territorial objectives aimed at drawing in Russian reserves from the Donbass. But the speedy Russian departure, described as a “regrouping” by Moscow, was to do with intelligence reports that a fourth and most important Ukrainian counter-offensive was about to begin from Ugledar where forces of over 40,000 with large armoured divisions were being amassed. This was believed to be aimed toward the cities of Donetz and Mariupol with the object of smashing the Peoples Republic of Donetz and finishing the war.
Whether such a significant offensive takes place now remains to be seen. But it is probable that the Russians evacuated the entire region North East of Kharkov, leaving the Ukrainians with an extravagant gain in territory far beyond their operational objectives, to protect against such a dangerous eventuality.
Time will tell if the Northern counter-offensive was only a momentary Ukrainian territorial triumph. Kiev has used up as much as 40 per cent of its strategic reserves built up over the Summer in expanding around Kharkov. More forces will be required for the consolidation of this territory, which is close to the Russian border and could be threatened again quickly. There have been more Ukrainian attacks since without the same success and Kiev is demanding even more supplies from the West if it is to repeat its success. Will the Ukrainian territorial gain blunt any major offensive planned in the more vital fronts to the South and represent a tactical victory but strategic defeat for Kiev in the longer term?
As Scott Ritter predicted, Washington has become increasingly active in Ukraine’s war effort – that is now effectively a NATO war effort – focussed on the main weakness of the Russian Special Military Operation, its limited manpower. The thrust in the North was successful because it was a NATO battle plan, carried out with modern Western training and equipment and satellite surveillance. This was publicly admitted by the Chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, claiming Washington’s vital contribution (“and our friends, the Brits”) to Kiev’s success. What is apparent is that the self-limiting Russian military intervention in Ukraine can be out-manoeuvred by Kiev’s NATO army because it lacks the manpower to defend the large front it was spread out across. So it has been forced to prioritise certain sectors as strategically vital and abandon others.
The most serious aspect of the Russian abandonment of this area is what happens to the civilians left there. Russian forces helped evacuate many civilians and large columns of refugees were seen heading toward the border with Russia.
In much of Eastern Ukraine the populace does not support the Kiev regime. It would have been quite happy to have settled down under an administration of Russian-Ukrainians protected by Russian forces. Many Russian Ukrainians have been disappointed with Moscow’s attitude toward them for at least a generation. They consider themselves Russian and not really Ukrainian and feel that Moscow insists on them being called Ukrainian because it continues to see Ukrainians as brother Russians, despite evidence to the contrary, particularly since 2014. (The book 85 Days in Slavyansk by Alexander Zhuchkovsky, provides a good insight into the views of Russian Ukrainians).
Kiev’s forces regards these Russian Ukrainians as “enemies within” and there have been reports, even in the Western media, that the hunt for “collaborators” is first on the agenda of Kiev’s forces when they advance into any area vacated by the Russians. The Kiev regime’s State Bureau of Investigations announced: “The time of reckoning has come.” Locals have been sent texts asking them to identify “traitors” for punishment. Filtration of civilian populations is taking place and 15 years imprisonment is being implemented for any form of “collaboration”.
Summary justice is more than likely in the circumstances. There is evidence that much of the killing at Bucha, outside Kiev, in March, was done by Kiev’s forces conducting “cleansing operations” against “collaborators.” This was aside from the Russian killing of captured local defence volunteers, widely reported in the Western media. Vitaly Kim, the governor of Nikolayev, recently announced that special squads had been formed to hunt down and summarily execute collaborators. He declared that “Traitors will be executed. it will be like that. And I am not afraid of this word.”
It is likely that those executed by Kiev’s forces will be presented by the Western media as having been killed by the Russians. Already a story about a mass grave of 400 in Izyum has saturated the Western media to distract from Ukrainian filtration activity. That 400 died in the battles for Izyum is hardly surprising and it would be normal practice to bury the dead in mass graves during wartime at the frontline. But the presentation of misinformation to US and European populations who have been carefully closeted from the realities of war for generations, to generate outrage, is everything to those who wish to control the narrative and prevent opposition to the war.
In the West Russia is presented as a brutal totalitarian society ruled by an evil dictator. But if the BBC is anything to go by Britain has assumed a much more all-assuming totalitarian character than anything that is in evidence in Russia. The British party consensus is united behind an uncritical warmongering line. When there is no opposition within the British parties and political spectrum there is unanimity of thought and information in the society. Opposition seems to be growing, if social media and the ordinary conversations of people are anything to go by, but it has no political outlet to make it of any consequence in the UK or Europe.
Russia appears to be different. After reports of the evacuation of the North came through there were a range of political views about the conduct of the Special Military Operation openly on display in the Russian media much in evidence, including about whether the limited Special Military Operation should give way to a full-blooded war in Ukraine.
The Western intention 6 months ago was to provoke an opposition in Russia to Putin which would overthrow and replace him with a pro-Western government. However, the war has helped to nullify any pro-Western opposition which might have existed and generated a more hardline and leftist tendency that is less moderate than those who command the Kremlin.
There were increasing demands that the Kremlin throw off the self-imposed constraints on its military activity which seem to be in place to limit the conflict and avoid escalation with the West. The argument was that this was not just a war against a West-backed Kiev regime but a de facto war against NATO. War could not be waged on the cheap by a small expeditionary force. Ukrainian nationalist resilience and Western support had made that impossible went the argument.
Some of the suggestions aired on Russian TV included destroying the infrastructure of roads, railways, tunnels and power stations used in the Ukrainian war effort that have so far been off limits to Russian aerospace; bombing Kiev’s ministries and government buildings being used to direct the war; employing Russia’s most advanced and destructive weapons in Ukraine; neutralising US and private satellites being used by Kiev; and bringing the fearsome Iranian drones that have defeated American air defences in the Middle East into operation. Ramzan Kadyrov, Moscow’s Chechen ally, has called for changes in Russian strategy.
The Russian Special Military Operation has so far been characterised by comparative restraint. Targets for missiles, particularly West of the Dneiper, have been carefully chosen and precision is the name of the game. It is probable that the Russian notion that the Ukrainians are not really a separate people and many might be won over from Kiev in the event of victory has deterred the wanton willing of civilians, indulged in by the US in its “shock and awe” wars.
Putin ruled out any significant changes to the Special Military Operation in a statement made in Samarkand where the leaders of the free world (the world free of the United States) were meeting as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. De-Dollarisation and Eurasian integration, outside of the US sphere of influence, were the main items on the agenda. Large infrastructure and trade deals were concluded involving Russia, China, India and others, opening up the prospect of great development across Eurasia. The Russian leader did not look like the leader of a state that was losing a war. On the contrary, he looked like a leader who was confident in the direction the war was going and the world was now taking as a result of the war.
The spectacular Eurasian developments, enhanced by the sanctions regime against Russia, which stand in marked contrast with the economic meltdown afflicting the European economic aggressor nations, presumably buoyed Putin up with renewed confidence about what was being achieved in the wider world, where the bulk of humanity live. The West was in decline through its willingness, with Ukraine, to be led by Washington as lambs to the slaughter while the greater part of humanity was making provision for a new future. (It should be noted that Russia never wanted the suffering that Europe will experience. It had a good business relationship with the continent that was mutually beneficial and intended to be of long-term duration. It was Washington, with a little help from the EU, which destabilised Ukraine and began the geopolitical war against the East that Russia has intervened in).
Putin noted the “sensitive blows” Russian aviation had inflicted on the Ukrainians over the last week which were “warning shots” that could be turned into more if the situation deemed it necessary. He was referring to the half dozen or so missiles that took out the Ukrainian power grid and the “dam-busters raid” that threw a further Ukrainian counter-offensive into chaos by the flooding of the Ingulet river basin around a logistical hub, sweeping away pontoon bridges and cutting off Ukrainian forces, which were subsequently slaughtered by Russian aerospace. The limited attack on the power grid was simply a warning, to shut down power in Ukraine temporarily. If Russia wished to cut off all power permanently in Ukraine to paralyse the country completely it undoubtedly could.
Any removal of restraint on the Special Military Operation would undoubtedly be seen by the US as an escalation of the conflict on the Kremlin’s part, even though the US, in the shape of its Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Victoria Nuland recently announced a further Washington escalation from the Ramstein US air base in Germany. This event marked another stage in the war, raising the stakes with an American promise of high-precision missiles for Kiev. It is probable that because the Kremlin realises an escalation will be taken advantage by Washington to escalate on its side that such a course has been avoided so far. As has been noted, it is in the interests of Moscow to minimise the conflict while Washington seeks to maximise it (short of nuclear exchange).
It is suggested that if Washington were to supply Kiev with longer range missiles, which the Kiev hot-heads could use against Russian territory, including Crimea, this would be viewed as an existential threat to Russia by Moscow. Putin has warned that this would make the US a direct participant in the conflict and Russia would act accordingly. Biden has promised to veto such a development but short of a signed treaty how much are US verbal agreements worth?
Undoubtedly Washington is engaged in Russian Bear baiting. The objective is to continually up the ante and get the Kremlin to engage more and more forces in Ukraine with the ultimate objective of goading the Russians into waging a full scale war on Ukraine. What happens then is anyone’s guess, particularly what the US response would be if really substantial force is applied against Ukrainians.
Putin will be conscious of the fact that a general mobilisation could be unpopular in Russia and would disrupt the economy, which has shown great resilience in beating off the Western sanctions and turning them against their instigators in creating energy and cost of living crises in Europe that may still pay increasing dividends for Russia when “General Winter” makes an appearance. He looks at the bigger geopolitical picture which involves Eurasian development and a multi-polar world. And in this Russia is winning, at the time of writing. This cannot be compromised as it is a much bigger prize than risking all in a big push on the Ukrainian battlefield against the West’s instruments in Kiev.
However, Scott Ritter estimates that a Russian force of between 300,000 and 400,000 would be necessary to break the Ukrainian will to fight in the Spring. If not stalemate will have to be settled for by the Kremlin. It is therefore most likely that while there will be an enhancement of the Special Military Operation with greater recruitment of volunteer forces and deployment in Ukraine.
The Kremlin now has the political capital to expand the intervention if it so chooses. This might mean a change of status from Special Military Operation to Counter-Terrorist Operation but perhaps not to War in the present circumstances. What that entails is unclear but it would probably be a widening in the scope and intensity of targeting within the territory of Ukraine and the raising of extra forces.
Putin and Stalin (again)
Despite misrepresentation and caricature in the West Putin is a conservative and realist statesman who usually looks for the minimalist strategy for obtaining political objectives.
In an article written at the start of the Special Military Operation (Glacis Ukraine: Putin versus Stalin? Irish Foreign Affairs, March 2022) the present writer made it clear that Putin was not acting in the way Stalin had and it was clear that the President of Russia wished to put distance between himself and the Soviet leader.
On 24 February, the day of the launch of the Russian military operation into Ukraine, Putin defended his decision to launch a pre-emptive strike against Ukraine in a televised address to the Russian people and referred to Stalin’s caution before the Great Patriotic War:
“If history is any guide, we know that in 1940 and early 1941 the Soviet Union went to great lengths to prevent war or at least delay its outbreak. To this end, the USSR sought not to provoke the potential aggressor until the very end by refraining or postponing the most urgent and obvious preparations it had to make to defend itself from an imminent attack. When it finally acted, it was too late.
As a result, the country was not prepared to counter the invasion by Nazi Germany, which attacked our Motherland on June 22, 1941, without declaring war. The country stopped the enemy and went on to defeat it, but this came at a tremendous cost. The attempt to appease the aggressor ahead of the Great Patriotic War proved to be a mistake which came at a high cost for our people. In the first months after the hostilities broke out, we lost vast territories of strategic importance, as well as millions of lives. We will not make this mistake the second time. We have no right to do so.”
Stalin it seems was even more conservative and cautious in war than Putin. But when Stalin waged war he knew that war against a formidable enemy had to be waged with the full resources of the state. If it was not it should not be taken on.
Stalin is often criticised in the West for his handling of the Great Patriotic War and these criticisms have filtered through to Russia since the time of Khrushchev and particularly as it has become capitalist. But the Red Army reached Berlin as a result of Stalin’s handling of the War and took hold of half of Europe, creating a powerful defensive barrier for Russia against the West for a couple of generations.
Perhaps Stalin did not know how and when to start wars but he sure knew how to finish them!
In 1941-45 Soviet citizens defended the homeland with their lives, at very great cost. And it was not just Russians but Belorussians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Armenians and Ukrainians who also did so. Would citizens of the Russian Federation imbued with the capitalist materialist mode of existence be such staunch defenders?
Should Putin have invaded Ukraine or waited it out for a NATO attack – sacrificing the Russian orientated Ukrainians of the Donbas? That question will only be answered by the results of the war. Certainly Putin, having made his decision in February, has every interest in playing it out to the end. And Washington, which was very pleased with itself in achieving Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine, will most probably continually raise the stakes in attempting to turn the Special Military Operation into a full blown Russian war.
The Western advance to the East to liquidate Russia as a functional state was originally the project of Hitler. The thought of it disabled the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, who realised that it might result in the Soviet Union repulsing such a move and rolling it back, right across Europe. Chamberlain’s hesitation is now termed “appeasement”. The Catholic Bulletin in Ireland made the same calculation when it predicted in bold letters: “STALIN WINS” at the outset of the war.
Hitler’s project was popular among many Eastern European countries and they assisted him in eradicating the Jewish presence in their midst with great enthusiasm, clearing the way to Russia for his forces, which many joined. These countries, along with Britain, are now the strongest supporters of Kiev. Britain, under Churchill, delayed the US from launching the liberation of Europe for 2 years in the hope that Germany and Russia would exhaust their population stock on the Eastern front in the meantime. During these 2 years much of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe was annihilated.
Hitler’s project of dividing and disintegrating Russia was taken up by the Western Allies in 1945, after they had finally reached Berlin. The West, in fascist or democratic form, is intent on reducing Russia, whether it was Socialist or capitalist democratic, to a disintegrated mess. The democratic ideology has been an effective bond to rally the Russophobe East Europeans in the drive to the East. Europe’s leaders have taken enthusiastically to the project, even though it spells economic suicide for their countries.
Is Putin going to allow Russia to be reduced to a mess again, after he gave two decades of his life in reviving it? That is unlikely, but maybe now he is thinking again on Stalin.
On 21 September Putin announced the calling up of the Russian reserves (300,000 potentially) and referendums have been announced across Russian-held territory in Ukraine. Just before the beginning of the Special Military Operation the Kremlin had recognised the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics. If now incorporated into the Russian Federation, along with the 2 other occupied territories of Kherson and Zaporozhe, Moscow could upgrade the Special Military Operation significantly with the new legal status. Ukrainian attacks on these territories would be regarded as attacks on Russia itself. This has become imperative with the increase in Kiev’s artillery bombardments of civilians in Donbass.
The call up of the reserves is unlikely to make a difference at the front lines for around 3 months. There may be a calculation in the Kremlin that the Ukrainians will not be ready for a great offensive until then. However, Kiev are pressing the presently limited Russian forces heavily across the long front and breakthroughs are a distinct possibility in the coming weeks. Perhaps the Kremlin announcement may hasten an offensive from Kiev’s forces before the Russian lines are reinforced.
According to the BBC, after explaining the partial mobilisation and referendums, Putin said:
”If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to defend Russia and our people, we will use all means we have. This is not bluff. The territorial integrity of our motherland, our independence and freedom will be secured, I repeat, with all the means we have.”
The Ukrainian counter-offensive may prove to be a turning of the tide in the war after all.
Scott Ritter was asked what happens now. He chose to contrast the Russian Special Military Operation to what the US did in Iraq to explain what he thought Russia would do, if it emulated an American war:
“I helped plan and implement a war – against Iraq, Operation Desert Storm. We initiated it with a strategic air campaign. We took everything out. There was no electricity in Baghdad, no electricity in Iraq. We blew up everything. That’s how you do it. We blew up the bridges, we blew up the roads, we blew up the trucks, we blew up the trains. We blew up the political decision making centres. If we thought you were in a bunker, we blew up the bunker. We blew everything up, everything. We did that for 6 weeks and then when we rolled in it took us a hundred hours to get the Iraqis to surrender. They were the 4th largest army at the time and we killed 100,000 of them that quick. We could have killed 30 or 40,000 more if we had kept the war going another 24 hours. It was an annihilation… A one-sided fight.
Russia has tied its hands behind its back. When Russia decides it will no longer self-limit what you will see happen to Ukraine is what happened to Iraq. It will be one-sided, it will be devastating, it will be total… You are not going to get Zelensky being able to broadcast to the West and meet foreign officials again. Those days are done… It’s going to be a completely different reality.”