Putin’s war in Ukraine is now on its sixth day, and the Russian military’s “thunder run” advance on Kyiv, where it likely intends to overthrow President Zelensky and install a puppet regime, has gradually slowed in the face of unexpected challenges. Pressure grows on Putin, who increasingly appears to have made an unprecedented strategic blunder. In this piece, Lewis Sage-Passant explores the geopolitical implications of this war.
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The past days have witnessed the most dramatic foreign policy shifts in the last 30 years. Germany has announced an ambitious programme of rearmament by raising its defense spending to the 2%-of-GDP NATO target. When challenged on the matter, Christian Lindner, the coalition government’s finance minister, responded that it was an “investment in our freedom”. Concurrently, the European Union has shaken off a lifelong malaise of indecisive and largely non-existent defence policy by announcing that not only would it supply arms to Ukraine, but that it would include fighter jets in its aid package, to be airborne in Ukrainian skies within hours of the announcement. Meanwhile, Finland’s parliament will now debate NATO membership, while the country (as well as non-NATO member Sweden) joins the global alliance to supply Ukraine with arms. Ukraine has been accepted as a candidate for membership by the EU parliament, and anti-EU, anti-refugee political positions across the continent have suddenly become unsupportable. These acts have fundamentally achieved more for European defence integration and NATO revitalisation in one weekend than decades of diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian resistance has proven incredibly resilient. The nation’s President, beginning the conflict with approval ratings as low as 30 points, has unified the nation into a fanatic defence. The former actor, known for providing the voice of Paddington Bear for Ukrainian children, was expected by the Kremlin to prove a malleable figure. Instead, he has shown remarkable personal bravery, and a knack for fighting an information war that was expected to be dominated by Russian narratives. Themes of sacrifice and bravery penetrate deeper than the administration, with dozens of stories emerging daily of acts of heroism by soldiers and civilians alike. This bravery extends to Russia, where ordinary civilians, celebrities, and oligarchs are defying the Kremlin’s repressive response to protests and are denouncing the war publicly.
This protest is amplified by a war that is going poorly for Russia, and the extraordinary losses that it is already suffering. Some estimates (to be assessed with skepticism, given the partisan source and challenge of verifying losses in such a contested information environment) suggest losses within six days that equate to the first five years of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Experienced Open Source Intelligence researchers report being overwhelmed by the sheer losses, despite track records of accurately cataloguing the war in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Afghanistan. The Russian military that continues to make errors tactically on the battlefield, and its “New Look” military reforms are increasingly appearing to have been purely aesthetic. Logistical lines are failing to match even the slow pace of advance, and is being interrupted by well-placed Ukrainian ambushes. Russian forces appear to be using civilian radios, preventing them from employing their advanced electronic warfare capabilities. Even more surprisingly, Russia still does not control Ukraine’s skies, allowing Ukrainian drones (most notably the Turkish-made TB-2 Bayraktar) to erode ground forces. This is likely supported by real-time intelligence from near-constant NATO flights over Poland, Romania, and the Black Sea. As the war progresses into Ukraine’s urban areas, such as inner Kyiv, Russian forces will likely meet the same fate as the 1st Guard’s Tank Army in Kharkiv, where the most pro-Russian of Ukraine’s major cities has fought to a halt a crucial advance aiming to encircle the bulk of the Ukrainian army in the Donbas. Russian troops appear to be suffering from dramatically lower morale than their Ukrainian counterparts. The invasion force was living in tough field conditions for many days prior to the invasion (and likely longer than planned due to US intelligence releases which are assessed as having spoiled the Kremlin’s timeline and forced a 4-5 day delay), and as such started the war cold, tired, and hungry. This friction will only increase as they are increasingly confronted by a Ukrainian population that openly resists them, contrary to promises by their leaders that they would be greeted as liberators. As Russia turns to more indiscriminate weapons, Russian soldiers will be increasingly forced to question the morality of the war. While Belarussian forces have now reportedly entered the war on Russia’s side, they are only able to deploy a handful of battalions, and although their supply lines will be shorter than Russia’s, they are unlikely to significantly change the outcome of the war unless they are able to capture Ukraine’s western border areas to stem the flow of NATO and European supplies.
This assessment, however, must be tempered in its pessimism for Russia’s forces. 25% of the invasion force still remains in reserve. Russia is now deploying increasingly more indiscriminate joint fires assets – largely missing from the conflict so far, despite being core to Russian military doctrine – which will both increase the cost of the war on Ukraine’s civilian population. This will also reduce (although not entirely remove) the Ukrainian resistance’s urban-defence advantage, which in large cities can exceed a 5-to-1 force ratio. While at the beginning of the war, it was unthinkable that Ukraine could mount a conventional defence against Russia and succeed, it is now possible; albeit unlikely. Western arms and intelligence support, combined with a determined resistance have made this possible. The cracks are starting to show, however, with some Ukrainian officials reportedly facing treason charges for opening negotiations with Russian forces. As the civilian cost mounts, and Ukrainian cities become encircled and starved of supplies, these cracks will likely grow uglier. Meanwhile, Russia has called for the Ukrainian military to overthrow Zelensky, and has reportedly attempted decapitation strikes against him. As the push on Kyiv stalls, it looks increasingly likely that this is a failed “thunder run” to remove his government.
Peace talks are ongoing at the border, however, a truce would represent a dramatic break from character for Putin. They do present a potential de-escalatory opportunity for Putin to seize upon. At this stage, given the mounting economic and political challenges he is facing domestically, including increasing anti-war comments within elite circles in Moscow, withdrawal would likely be overwhelmingly popular. It is unclear whether Putin, who has spent decades cultivating an image of a capable, ruthless leader, would be willing to withdraw without the perception of having gained significant concessions, however he is likely to be aware of the growing vulnerability of his personal position. While the street protests in Russia are far from achieving sufficient mass to challenge the state’s well-oiled machinery of repression, discontent with the war in the Siloviki – the security and intelligence elite – is likely growing. Members of this class have watched unprecedented and well-targeted sanctions evaporate much of their personal wealth and travel rights overnight, and have long looked to Putin’s patronage-oligarchy system to ensure the stability of their position. One oligarch has even lost his personal yacht when the “Lady Anastasia” (IMO: 8742496, built 2001), partially sank with a destroyed engine room, at Port Adriano in Majorca. According to Maritime Security analyst Cormac Mc Garry, the Ukrainian chief engineer opened the sea chest valve, which flooded the engine room. He also opened a second, unidentified valve near the crew compartment. When the police arrived, the man confessed quickly, although it is not clear if he will be charged. The Siloviki will almost certainly be constrained by long-established loyalty controls throughout the Russian security apparatus, with a complex web of reporting lines designed to prevent a coup from being possible. Despite this, if sufficient members of Putin’s second and third tier elites see that their only option to undo the economic carnage now hammering the Russian economy and restore their comfortable lives is his replacement, such a move may be possible.
Ukraine’s delegation to the peace talks is reportedly demanding the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces, so it also does not appear likely that Ukraine is willing to offer major concessions at this point. While this is almost certainly a negotiation tactic, the talks will continue in the coming days. As the pressure mounts at home and on the battlefield for Putin, he may be forced to recalculate and offer another dramatic change in foreign policy course. The past weekend has thrown intelligence analysts globally into overdrive, upending decades of geopolitical assumptions. This situation is likely to be true on both sides of the rapidly reassembling Iron Curtain, with Kremlin strategic planners almost certainly scrambling to understand the depth of Putin’s miscalculation on Ukraine. Even if Russian forces regain momentum and win the war, it is now facing a long and well-equipped insurgency. Recent lessons have taught us that these can bleed the determination of even the most mighty militaries. Where Putin set out to achieve rapid regime change in Kyiv, he may have set the foundations for such a change in Moscow.
Support for those fleeing the conflict can be provided via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees here.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order (Kathryn Stoner)
- Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance in Modern War (Jason Lyall)
- Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West (Catherine Belton)
- Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (David Kilcullen)
- Strategiya: The Foundations of the Russian Art of Strategy (Ofer Fridman)
- The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (Serhii Plokhy)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2022 reading list
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Lewis Sage-Passant is a Doctoral Researcher in intelligence and former Military Intelligence Officer with extensive experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia Pacific regions in a variety of geopolitical analysis, security & conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis specialises in geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, the financial sector and leading technology firms.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.