Escalators and Quagmires
9A Russian ballistic nuclear missile roles through Red Square during rehearsals for the 2018 Military Victory Parade (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
It is an unfortunate feature of wars that they are often launched with an expectation of swift and decisive conclusions but then spin out of control, losing both focus and limits. Just over thirty years ago I wrote an article describing how this happens, employing the familiar metaphors of escalation, describing how a war could progressively reach levels of increasing ferocity and danger, and quagmires, describing how belligerents could get stuck in an unwinnable conflict that they dare not lose. I noted:
‘They warn the apparently complacent of the potentially dangerous consequences of initiating direct military action on even the most modest scale. Both conjure up the image of one thing leading to another, a chain of events that will turn the most restrained first move into an unmitigated disaster. Step on the escalator and you are taken inexorably up the scale of violence until eventually the holocaust is reached. Step into the quagmire and you will soon be bogged down, thrashing about, unable to escape.’
Both concerns are now evident in discussions around the Russo-Ukraine war. Senior British ministers and now NATO officials are warning that the war could drag on not only until 2023, but possibly for years thereafter. At the same time, concerns grow that the war might break out of the boundaries that have thus far kept it contained. The greatest worry is that it might lead to Russian nuclear use.
Moscow’s narrative has already escalated, turning the war away from the protection of Russian-speakers in the Donbas into an existential struggle of a noble civilisation against the combined weight of a Russophobic, and on some accounts Satanic, NATO. The possibility of failure is not allowed. In public Putin still expresses his confidence that his forces will prevail. Volodymyr Zelensky expresses a similar confidence. Which of these two leaders turns out to be right will be decided through the test of battle.
It may be that this battle will end in stalemate, so leading to a quagmire. Certainly the two sides will be unable to sustain a war of this intensity for much longer, so there could be some temporary truce or simply mutual exhaustion resulting in the fighting subsiding, continuing at a lower level for some time, before the pace picks up again. Arguably this is what has been going on since March 2014 when Russia seized Crimea.
Even if there is a significant breakthrough by one side in the current battle for the Donbas this would not necessarily lead to the war concluding. That would require the losing side to accept the political implications of defeat and the winning side to accept that it has achieved enough. As things stand there is no way that the Ukrainian government will ever commit to anything less than a return to the pre-invasion situation and will be under popular pressure if it should get that far to regain the enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk. Should Moscow achieve its current objective of acquiring the whole territory of the Donbas then it has already promised to reinstate the broader objectives that it temporarily had to forego.
For this new round of the war the Russians have got a more unified command structure, with General Aleksandr Dvornikov orchestrating operations. The challenge he faces is not a simple one. The forces under his command are still spread over a large geographical area, involving a variety of operational challenges. The units he must work with are often in a poor state. Because Russia lacks sufficient reserves, Battalion Tactical groups (BTGs) have been pushed back into the fight without recovering from a torrid time in the north where they suffered losses of equipment, personnel, and morale. They are, as before, poorly led and restricted in their movements, but are also now undermanned. They have been hampered by the poor weather and the need to use the roads, leaving them with the same vulnerabilities to ambushes they faced in the north. The Russian air force remains inhibited by Ukrainian air defences, especially as a shortage of precision-guided weapons means that only by flying at low altitudes can they attack much of military value.
The main aim appears to be to encircle and eliminate the Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation, the established force that has long been defending the line of contact with the seperatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, now occupying a north-south crescent between Russian positions in the Donbas. Instead of the bold manoeuvres of the first phase, Dvornikov’s approach appears more methodical, using artillery to soften up the targeted areas, then advancing with armour and infantry to probe for weaknesses and then trying to exploit them. This has provided some limited success near Izyum, which has looked for some time to be the most promising area for a Russian advance, and where Russia is concentrating its efforts, reinforcing recently with extra units. Their problem appears to be that while Ukrainian forces do not have an adequate riposte - as yet - to the firepower, the Russian combat units that are following through are not up to the task and so are susceptible to counterattacks. Even where they have advanced progress is slow. And while there is heavy shelling of Ukrainian units along the whole front, there are no signs as yet of comparable advances elsewhere that would allow them to complete a pincer movement. The Ukrainians are holding along the line of contact, where they have strong defensive positions, while in the Kherson area Ukrainian forces are making small inroads against Russian positions.
We hear far less about Ukrainian losses than Russian, and these are also certainly accumulating. While highly motivated, their troops will be suffering from fatigue and the strain of having to hold to defensive positions while facing constant incoming fire. This is a gruelling fight and it will not be surprising to see some Russian gains. For now the main Ukrainian task is to absorb and blunt the Russian offensive, even if this means trading some space to gain time. The longer they can frustrate the Russians the stronger their position should become as new supplies start to roll in. As they do this a priority will be to impose the maximum attrition on the already depleted Russian forces. Eventully they will be able to launch their own offensives. This will be a pivotal moment and – unless an opportunity arises unexpectedly – Ukraine will not wish to move until they have built up their strength and weakened the enemy.
This is why the military assistance from the West is so vital. On Tuesday US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin hosted a meeting of some 40 donors at Ramstein air base in Germany. Ukraine still has to take delivery of all that has promised and will need time for training and to incorporate the systems into its forward units. But the difference they will make should not be underestimated. To take one example, the 72 US 155mm howitzers (of which half delivered and half on their way), coming with 144,000 artillery rounds, have three times the range of Ukraine’s current artillery. Another part of the American package is 10 AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radars, able to detect and track incoming artillery and rocket fire to facilitate counterattacks.
The anticipated impact of these systems helps explain why Russia did not take the time, as some expected, to reconstitute its forces to be better able to cope with the rigours of a fresh battle. It can replenish some of its stocks but not all, as many depend on components that can only be sourced from the West. There have already been reports of tank manufacturers having to shut down as sanctions deny them key parts. There have been some reports of China providing equipment and spares, including trucks, but nothing with a major impact. China had good relations with Ukraine prior to the war, and President Xi must already be wondering if he backed the wrong horse.
There are also issues with manpower. Whether the number of Russians killed in action is 15,000 as the Americans suggest or 21,000, which is the Ukrainian figure, once one adds those who are missing, captured, injured or traumatised, this is a major blow – a quarter or more of those originally gathered for the offensive, a figure matched by equipment losses. Finding replacements, for example by persuading conscripts to sign up for longer service, has not been straightforward. As the Russians are still suffering casualties and hits on equipment it may well be the case that, as Michael Kofman has argued, that this offensive ‘might be the last one that the Russian military is capable of launching before it is a spent force.’
Hence the pressure on the Russian commanders to produce results quickly. One key date in the diary is the 9 May, the day on which Russia celebrates victory against Nazi Germany with grand parades. The importance of this date is not unique to Russia. It is one that the US, UK, and France, and for that matter Ukraine, can also mark. It currently has the greatest salience for Russia as the Great Patriotic War has been put into the heart of its national ideology. Not that long ago it was assumed that Putin was expecting some triumph to proclaim. So far none has been forthcoming – not even complete control of the shattered city of Mariupol. He hoped that the enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, and possibly even the Kherson region, would be in a position to hold referendums on their annexation into the Russian Federation. These have already been postponed a number of times and it seems unlikely that the situation will be sufficiently stable for further attempts soon (even if it were possible to take such votes seriously).
Now the question is whether Putin might use the big day to turn his special military operation into a proper war and order full mobilisation. Such an announcement might be greeted with a surge of patriotic enthusiasm, but it will not actually provide a short-term fix to Russia’s current problems in the field as it takes many months to get new conscripts and old reservists into a state of battle readiness. It would also be a signal that the war in Ukraine had indeed turned into a quagmire and that the Russian people should prepare for months of pain and sacrifice.
This is the backdrop for current concerns that Putin will escalate the war. If few gains are made during the next few weeks and Russian forces are obliged to move on to the defensive will Putin feel that he has no choice but to raise the stakes dramatically, perhaps with nuclear weapons?
Moscow’s main concern is the extent of the West’s assistance to Ukraine and the issue of escalation must be considered in that light. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, best understood as an alternating current of threats and reassurances, switched on and off by Putin, welcomed the UN Secretary General on Tuesday morning by expressing his interest in a diplomatic solution but then accused NATO of engaging in a battle against Russia by arming Ukraine, saying this had created a serious and real risk of nuclear war. ‘The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it,’ according to Lavrov . ‘NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.’
The context was Austin’s Ramstein conference. If Lavrov was trying to pick up on the reported reluctance of German Chancellor Scholtz’s concerns that the wrong sort of arms sales could lead to a wider war then his remarks failed to have the requisite effect, as Berlin announced that 50 Gepard anti-aircraft tanks will be delivered to Ukraine.
It was, at any rate, a bit late for Russia to turn arms deals into a ‘red line’ as this line was passed long ago, perhaps when Russia did not think it would make much difference. It has now been left well behind with each increment in the quantity and quality of arms transfers agreed. Russia’s Ambassador to Washington has complained that the Americans are ‘pouring oil on the flames.’ His response was an official diplomatic note stressing the ‘unacceptability of this situation’ and demanding an end to the practice.
NATO countries are supporting Ukraine as it exercises its inherent right to self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Ukraine is pursuing its own political goals. This is why it is just as important to avoid any suggestion that NATO is imposing war aims on Kyiv as it would be to impose a peace deal on Kyiv. For now there is no great divergence of aims. Lloyd Austin has spoken of weakening Russia ‘to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine’. Although that suggests doing more than ensuring that Ukraine defeats Russia in practice one aim achieves the other. Equally, the ambitious war aims set out by the UK Foreign Secretary on Wednesday evening, including reversing the annexation of Crimea, converge with those of Kyiv.
But they may well prove difficult to meet, and it would be unfortunate to get into the position where Ukraine was somehow seen to have failed if they had not. There is now unity around the proposition that the Russian invasion must fail, and be shown to have failed, but it is probably best if statements about what Western countries would like to see happen be left at that.
There are two issues of particular sensitivity. The first is whether attacks will be mounted on Russia’s side of the border. There have already been a number of blasts and fires affecting fuel dumps and arms stores for which nobody has claimed responsibility. Mykhailo Podolyak, Zelensky’s adviser, has noted that warehouses in regions like Belgorod and Voronezh were being used to supply fuel for armed vehicles in Ukraine. Disarming them, he wrote was ‘a very natural process,’ adding, ‘Karma is a cruel thing.’
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has observed that there is no reason in principle why Ukraine should not attack military targets in Russia if they choose do so. If that happens with any regularity and greater impact, however, Russia could see this as representing a new stage of the war that would in principle warrant the use of all military means to protect the homeland. In response to comments from UK Minister of the Armed Forces James Heappey, that it would ‘not necessarily be a problem’ if British-donated weapons were used to hit targets in Russia, the Russian Ministry of Defence warned that should Ukraine commit such actions this would ‘immediately lead to our proportional response.’
‘As we have warned, the Russian Armed Forces are ready round the clock to carry out retaliatory strikes with long-range high-precision weapons against decision-making centres in Kiev.
The advisers from one of the Western countries, present at Ukrainian decision-making centres in Kiev, “will not necessarily be a problem” for Russia in making a decision to retaliate.’
Somewhat typically for Russia, instead of holding the capability in reserve for when Western systems were used by Ukraine to attack Rusian territory, it immediately chose to send two cruise missiles into downtown Kyiv, one landing close to where UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was staying.
The nuclear threat is being reserved for the most serious form of external intervention - direct engagement in combat by one or more NATO countries. This has been the priority for deterrence since the start of the conflict. On Wednesday Putin threatened ‘lightning-fast’ retaliation against any Western countries that intervene on Ukraine's behalf. This is the red line recognized and respected thus far by NATO countries. His point was underlined by the successful testing of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on 20 April, duly characterized by Putin as providing ‘food for thought’ to potential adversaries. For his part president Biden has played down the threat, urging Russia on Thursday not to make ‘idle comments about use of nuclear weapons.’
These nuclear warnings all depend on strategic systems and not so-called battlefield nuclear weapons. There are no signs that Russia is preparing to use these or, for that matter, chemical weapons in the fight. In neither case would it help that much to gain a military advantage. A battlefield nuclear explosion would make a difference if there was a large and conspicuous concentration of Ukrainian forces preparing for an offensive, but even if there was, Russia is not short of weapons that can cause massive blasts. Unless there was a military advantage to be gained, the only reason to use a nuclear weapon would be to signal that an escalatory process was beginning, thus passing a vital threshold without any material strategic gain and with uncertain consequences, including potentially prompting the full-scale war with NATO Russia seeks to avoid.
There are already signs of desperation creeping into Russian policy, such as cutting off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria because they refuse to pay in roubles, which suggests that Moscow is looking for ways to undermine European support for Ukraine. It is promiscuous when it comes to issuing threats, warning constantly of unpredictable consequences, for example when severe economic sanctions were under discussion or as Finland and Sweden apply to join NATO. Yet its threats are taken less seriously than before and it has nothing positive to offer. It is already a diminished power.
The necessary condition for a negotiated settlement remains as has always been the case: for Moscow to recognise that this war is going badly and that its short-term military prospects are poor. Because of his past bombast it is hard to imagine a humbled Putin admitting meekly to a monumental failure. But if the alternatives are a quagmire that prolongs the misery or an escalation that yields no strategic benefit then perhaps within Russia’s elite, including the senior ranks of the military, there will be more stirrings against the continuation of this futile war. They might consider the implications of a complete battlefield failure in the Dombas and the potential value of an agreed, orderly withdrawal.
There is a lot of fighting to be done before we reach this stage, and it may never be reached, especially if Russian forces prove to be more successful in defence than in attack. But it is important that would-be mediators adjust their proposals to take account of the surprising and devastating course the war has taken. When it began advocates of an active peace diplomacy were wondering what sort of partition of his country Zelensky could be persuaded to accept. Now they need to consider the practicalities of getting Russian troops out of the country. They should banish the notion that despite having set in motion this calamitous war Putin must be given some reward to bring it to a conclusion so that his ‘face’ can be saved and even greater calamities prevented. Zelensky’s face is as important as Putin’s, and he would lose his if - after all the sacrifices of his people - he was asked to find concessions to help render Putin’s defeat more palatable.
The problem from the start has not been Putin’s face but his mind. The track record of those attempting to anticipate his choices has been poor, and constant speculation about how he might lash out as he approaches his personal Götterdämmerung tends to make us more anxious than wise. There are all sorts of things that Putin might do to express his anger and frustration but none will gain him any lasting strategic advantage. The best course is for Ukraine to stick to its reasonable objective of expelling Russian troops from its soil and NATO to support them in that endeavour.
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