SWPRS | July 2022
A no-nonsense analysis of the ongoing Ukraine war and its global impact.
The initial Russian offensive (“phase 1”) consisted of a direct advance from Belarus to the northern gates of Kiev and the simultaneous opening of multiple fronts in the north-east, east, and south of Ukraine. There have been various theories as to what the initial Russian strategy was (e.g. conquering Kiev or ‘binding Ukrainian forces’), but most likely, Russia tried to force a collapse or capitulation of the Ukrainian government, in which case Russia would have won the war without really fighting it.
Indeed, just one day after the beginning of the invasion, Russian President Putin proposed a kind of “military coup” in Ukraine to make it easier to “reach an agreement”. There were also several rounds of negotiations between Moscow and Kiev in Belarus and Turkey.
Yet this initial, political-military plan failed and was halted in late March, about one month after the beginning of the invasion.
Nevertheless, already by early March Russia had conquered extensive territories in southern Ukraine connecting the Donbas and Crimea and had been able to restore water supply to the Crimean Peninsula, which had been cut off by Ukraine since 2014 (see map above).
By late April, Russia had essentially conquered the important southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol (500k pre-war inhabitants), and by late May, the remaining Ukrainian forces in the Azovstal steel plant of Mariupol had surrendered. In addition, Russia conquered the southern Ukrainian cities of Melitopol (150k inhabitants) and Kherson (300k) without meeting much resistance.
After the failure of the initial political-military strategy, Russia in early April withdrew all of its troops from the north of Kiev and redeployed them to the east in an attempt to encircle and defeat the main positions of the Ukrainian military and conquer the entire Donbas region.
However, the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine was much slower than expected by many observers, and Russian forces advanced only about 25 kilometers in about two months.
Many Western analysts got the impression that the Russian military was weaker than previously assumed, while many Russian and pro-Russian analysts have argued that the Russian military was advancing slow “on purpose”, allegedly to “minimize losses”.
Yet neither of these explanations were convincing. Instead, there are several substantial reasons that explain the steady, but rather slow advance of the Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
First, in terms of the number of soldiers and tanks, the Ukrainian military is the largest military in Europe, second only to the Russian military (not counting the Turkish military).
Second, while Ukraine has already mobilized large parts of its men of fighting age, Russia has not yet mobilized at all, i.e. Russia is using only active soldiers, no reservists or conscripts. In fact, Russia has essentially deployed its peace-time army, which has resulted in a notable lack of manpower and infantry. A likely explanation for this decision is that the Russian government wants to keep up the impression, at least domestically, that it is just conducting a “special military operation”, not a full-scale war, and that it wants to avoid the political repercussions of having to conscript additional men (i.e. civilians). This is consistent with the fact that Russia has offered high-paid short-term military contracts to volunteers, again avoiding conscription.
Third, Eastern Ukraine is probably the most strongly fortified region in Europe today, having been prepared against a potential Russian invasion for several years. Although some Ukrainian units have surrendered due to a lack of supply or guidance, the overall Ukrainian resistance against Russian forces remains at a very high level.
Fourth, the Ukrainian military has received large amounts of weapons from the US and NATO countries, including powerful artillery and modern anti-tank weapons. Without these supplies, the Ukrainian front would likely have collapsed rather quickly.
Fifth, the Ukrainian military has greatly enhanced the effectiveness of its artillery by using reconnaissance data from its own drones as well as from US satellites. Indeed, the use of commercial and simple military drones appears to have fundamentally transformed modern warfare at the tactical level.
Sixth, and contrary to claims by Western media, the Russian military is still trying to minimize civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure, likely because it views Eastern Ukraine as Russian territory anyway. For instance, it has been noted that the Russian military delivered fewer airstrikes and fewer missiles during the entire first month than the United States did during the Iraq war in just one day. However, as the Ukrainian military has been fiercely defending most cities and villages, avoiding evacuation for as long as possible, the end result is still large-scale destruction of urban infrastructure.
Although Russia has had the upper hand in Eastern Ukraine, it remains uncertain if the current Russian military strategy will be viable in the longer run, especially if Russia intends to conquer some of the larger Ukrainian cities, such as Kharkiv, Odessa or Dnipro (1M-1.5M) or even Kiev (3M). If the Ukrainian government or military do not surrender or agree to a negotiated solution, the Russian military may have to call up reservists and conscripts and/or switch to an (even) more destructive mode of warfare against the cities it intends to “liberate”.
Currently, the main Russian military advantage consists of relative (but not absolute) air superiority, more powerful artillery, and cruise missiles that can destroy strategic targets anywhere in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Ukraine war is currently not an “asymmetric war”.
In terms of military strength, it is estimated that Russia deployed about 160,000 soldiers, the pro-Russian Donbas republics about 40,000 soldiers, and Ukraine about 300,000 military and paramilitary forces, of which about 50,000 in Eastern Ukraine. In terms of military losses, it is estimated that by late June, Ukraine may have lost close to 20,000 soldiers, Russia close to 5,000 soldiers, and the Donbas republics about 10,000 soldiers.
Russia will certainly try to fully conquer (or liberate) the Donbas republics, including the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk (100k-150k pre-war inhabitants). Russia may also try to conquer Mykolaiv (500k) and Odessa (1M) in the south of Ukraine in order to establish a corridor to Moldova/Transnistria, which would cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea and turn the country into a landlocked rump state. After conquering the Donbas republics, Russia may further try to conquer or encircle Kharkov (1.5M) and advance to the large Dnipr river.
Cities or districts conquered by Russia will likely hold referendums on becoming part of Russia. These referendums will likely turn out in favor of Russia, as a majority of the people in the east and south-east of Ukraine do indeed identify as Russians (or are leaning towards Russia), and Russia may then annex or absorb these territories. However, such a strategy will not work in Kiev, nor in northern and western Ukraine (see political map below).
In terms of potential escalations, a Russian advance towards Moldova may trigger a preemptive Romanian invasion (“by invitation”) of Moldova. A further destabilization of Ukraine may trigger a Polish invasion (“peace mission”) of western Ukraine, which in turn could trigger a war between Poland and Belarus in western Ukraine (as during the Ukrainian War of Independence 100 years ago).
Moreover, NATO countries could decide to deliver more powerful weapons to Ukraine or to establish a “safe zone” in western Ukraine (similar to the situation in eastern Syria). In general, the US will likely try to prolong the Ukraine war as much as possible in order to weaken Russia financially and politically (similar to the Afghanistan war in the 1980s.)
Outside of Ukraine, the situation in the Baltics (Lithuania/Kaliningrad), the Balkans (Bosnia-Serbia-Kosovo) and in the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia-Azerbaijan) could further deteriorate. The situation in Syria, where the US, Israel, Turkey, Iran and Russia are already involved, could also further escalate. In Asia, China could decide to invade and annex Taiwan.
The global economic situation will also likely continue to deteriorate, especially in the fields of energy and food supply, price inflation and financial market stability. This deterioration is driven not just by the war itself, but also by Western sanctions against Russia as well as by two years of misguided pandemic lockdown policies, which have caused serious global supply chain disruptions.
The possibility of a nuclear escalation will be discussed further below.
In terms of war crimes, the current situation is in stark contrast to claims by Western media and Western governments, as most war crimes have been committed not by the Russian side, but by the Ukrainian side. This includes many major war crimes blamed on the Russian side, such as the infamous Bucha massacre, the Mariupol theater bombing, or the Kramatorsk railway station bombing. Other supposed Russian war crimes were simply made up by Ukrainian officials, such as allegations of systematic rape and mass looting.
Yet other events were taken out of context, such as the alleged Russian bombing of Ukrainian schools and hospitals or shopping centers, which in almost all cases had been turned into Ukrainian military bases or ammunition depots. In other cases, civilian buildings supposedly destroyed by Russian missiles were in fact destroyed by Ukrainian air-defense missiles (e.g. in Kiev) or Ukrainian artillery missiles (e.g. in Borodyanka).
In yet other cases, Ukrainian forces, poorly disguised as Russian forces, executed Ukrainian civilians that welcomed the false “Russian liberators”; Western media then presented the execution as a Russian war crime. In even other cases, the Ukrainian bombing of Donbas cities was presented as the Russian bombing of Ukrainian cities.
In the case of Bucha, the bodies seen in the streets were victims of Ukrainian shelling of residential areas during the Russian occupation and retreat, and of subsequent Ukrainian executions of “collaborators” (hence the many white armbands, a sign of friendly status during Russian occupation). The bodies were then presented as victims of a supposed “Russian massacre”.
Ironically, the Ukrainian commander who oversaw the Bucha massacre previously was a Russian intelligence asset who had built up “neonazi groups” in Russia and Belarus. The international “marketing” of the Bucha massacre as a supposed Russian war crime appears to have been coordinated by British intelligence, similar to numerous chemical false-flag attacks in Syria.
In the case of the Mariupol maternity clinic, Western media claimed it was a Russian airstrike, but they could not provide any evidence supporting this hypothesis, and witnesses at the clinic said there was no airstrike. Yet the incident remains unresolved, and both a Russian attack (possibly targeting a nearby Ukrainian base) or a Ukrainian operation or deception remain possible.
In the case of the recent Kremenchuk shopping center incident, the Ukrainian government claimed a Russian missile hit a shopping center with 1,000 people inside; in reality, the Russian missiles hit an adjacent military plant and the shopping center was either closed (non-operational) or almost empty (perhaps repurposed during the war). However, one of the Russian missiles did hit very close to the shopping center, which then caught fire and burnt down.
Documented, confirmed or potential Russian war crimes currently consist mainly of the shooting and killing of civilians that approached Russian checkpoints or military columns, on foot or by car, although the context of these events is sometimes unclear (e.g. if there were any warning shots). There are also allegations of several other crimes against individual Russian soldiers that are currently difficult to verify independently.
On the Ukrainian side, documented war crimes encompass mass torture and mass executions, both against prisoners of war and their own people (if deemed pro-Russian collaborators or sympathizers), including several cases of decapitation; the military use of civilian infrastructure (including schools) and civilians as “human shields”; and large-scale shelling of residential areas behind front lines, especially against the city of Donetsk (in one case even hitting a maternity clinic).
Moreover, several Western journalists, whose death was blamed on the Russian side, were in fact killed by the Ukrainian side (in friendly-fire incidents). In another case, it was claimed Russian forces “executed a Ukrainian journalist in cold blood”; in reality, the journalist, wearing a blue (military) armband instead of his press jacket and being accompanied by an armed friend in military clothing, crossed the front line by car to retrieve a drone in a forest near a Russian position.
False claims of major Russian war crimes (i.e. atrocity propaganda) have been used by Western governments to justify weapons supplies to Ukraine and (additional) sanctions against Russia. The heavy use of such atrocity propaganda is not a new phenomenon, of course. Important recent examples include the US/NATO wars against Yugoslavia and against Syria.
The topic of atrocity propaganda and war crimes will be covered in a separate and more detailed event-by-event analysis.
On the Russian side, propaganda efforts depict the Ukraine war primarily as a continuation of the Second World War or Great Patriotic War against National Socialist Germany, focusing on the supposed “denazification” of Ukraine. At the same time, Russian President Putin has criticized Soviet leaders for having made Ukraine a quasi-independent political entity in the first place. Thus, Russian propaganda combines elements referring to both the former Soviet Union and the earlier Russian Tsarist empire.
Overall, the “Nazi narrative” appears to be quite effective, both in Russia and in the West, in part because many key aspects of the Second World War and NS Germany still cannot be questioned, neither in Russia nor in the sphere of Anglo-American countries, which during the Second World War were allied with Stalin’s Soviet Union against Hitler’s Germany.
On the NATO side, propaganda efforts mainly focus on Russian aggression, supposed Russian war crimes and supposed Ukrainian successes. NATO propaganda is produced by multiple PR firms, coordinated by intelligence services, and distributed to Western media outlets by the three global news agencies AP (American), AFP (French) and Reuters (British-Canadian). The total number of NATO propaganda messages in Western media is likely approaching about one thousand.
In addition, both sides have introduced significant media censorship. In NATO countries, this includes the removal of Russian and pro-Russian media outlets from major Internet search engines Google, Microsoft Bing and even DuckDuckGo. Furthermore, British security state operatives were caught trying to suppress independent media coverage of the Ukraine war.
Nevertheless, independent media outlets and uncensored Telegram channels have continued to provide important real-time footage and analysis of the situation in Ukraine.
Is the Ukraine war about NATO expansion or rather about Russian expansion? In truth, it is likely about both NATO and Russian expansion, although one may argue that the Russian expansion is a response to NATO expansion. Nevertheless, it is clear that the current Russian government sees large parts of Ukraine as “historically Russian territory”, or indeed Ukraine as part of Russia. Only by seeking a neutral status and by accepting the loss of Crimea and the autonomy of the Donbas republics might Ukraine have averted a Russian invasion.
It has been argued that NATO expansion into Ukraine wouldn’t be a threat to nuclear Russia, but this is hardly true. NATO expansion into Ukraine would pose a geostrategic threat (control over pipelines, ports etc.), a direct military threat (planned recapture of Crimea and the Donbas republics), and a strategic military threat (NATO military infrastructure and missile bases). For similar reasons, the US did not and would not accept Russian bases in Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela.
It has been noted that Russia is unlikely to invade Finland or Sweden, despite their intention to join NATO (in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine). In fact, Russia already has a (short) land border with NATO founding member Norway and with the Baltic states. Yet Finland and Sweden do not currently threaten Russian territory or Russian interests. Otherwise, a Russian military response may in fact be conceivable (see below).
Is the Russian military operation in Ukraine legal or illegal? From a Western perspective, the Russian operation is clearly illegal, not unlike previous US invasions (e.g. of Grenada, Panama and Iraq) and most US/NATO wars (e.g. against Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria). From a Russian perspective, the military operation is a legitimate intervention into an ongoing, illegal eight-year war against the Donbas republics. Russia will likely annex large parts of Ukraine, but it will try to “legitimize” these annexations by prior referendums, as described above.
It has also been argued that Russia is waging an energy war by restricting oil and gas exports in order to destabilize NATO countries and especially Europe. Yet upon closer inspection, it is clear that the energy war is in fact waged via sanctions by NATO countries in order to financially destabilize Russia, although so far this seems to have failed and indeed backfired, with energy security in Europe becoming increasingly uncertain and Russia exporting more oil to China and India instead.
For instance, a reduction in gas flow through the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany was (and is) due to a broken turbine sent by Germany to Canada for repair, but then retained by Canada due to sanctions against Russia. Similarly, the Russian decision to accept energy payments only after conversion into rubles was simply in response to the prior freezing of billions of Russian Euro and dollar reserves by Western countries.
Indeed, neither during nor after the Cold War has Russia (or the USSR) ever used the “energy weapon” against (Western) Europe, as Russia is very much interested in both being seen as a reliable supplier and in receiving foreign currency export revenue.
However, one can argue that Russia is relying on a kind of “indirect energy weapon”: by being a reliable energy supplier, Russia may hope that Europe and NATO will not turn hostile, regardless of Russian military actions. Moreover, if relations should further deteriorate, Russia could of course use the “energy weapon” and stop energy exports to Europe altogether.
The Russian government likes to emphasize that the impact of Western sanctions is rather minor and that the Russian ruble has remained strong. But Russia had to impose capital controls (i.e. the ruble is no longer free floating), and the economic impact is substantial, with tens of thousands of IT specialists having already left the country, for instance.
How likely is a nuclear war as a potential escalation of the Ukraine war?
A direct nuclear war targeting the mainland of nuclear states remains very unlikely, as this would lead to the destruction of all states involved. However, from a purely military and geostrategic perspective, there are two rational offensive uses of nuclear weapons, in addition to their defensive use as a deterrent: against hostile non-nuclear states and against overseas military infrastructure of nuclear states.
In this regard, there is a major geostrategic asymmetry between Russia and China on the one hand and the US on the other hand: whereas the US has several hundred overseas military bases and several dozen non-nuclear allies or client states (both in Europe and in Asia), Russia and China have almost no overseas military bases and very few non-nuclear allies.
Thus, Russia and China could consider coordinated nuclear strikes against all US overseas military bases in Eurasia (i.e. in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and East Asia). In addition, Russia and China could consider nuclear strikes against hostile non-nuclear countries, both in Europe and in Asia, targeting military/industrial centers or even population centers.
Theoretically, such a coordinated nuclear operation might remove the US military from the Eurasian continent (and by extension from Africa), limiting US military influence to North and South America. Thereafter, a new geo-economic Cold War between Eurasia/Africa, led by China and Russia, and the Americas would likely ensue.
Nuclear allies of the US in Eurasia, most notably Britain, France and Israel, would have to ensure robust sea- and air-based second-strike capability even against modern hypersonic missiles with multiple nuclear warheads, in order to avoid being targeted themselves.
A nuclear attack against non-nuclear NATO states would be seen as an attack against NATO, and a nuclear attack against US overseas military bases would be seen as an attack against the United States, but because of the above-mentioned asymmetry, the US could not respond in a meaningful way without forcing its own destruction.
While such a scenario seems militarily conceivable and even rational (given the breakdown of the post-WWII global security architecture), both China and Russia currently seem to follow a different economic, diplomatic and military strategy by developing novel alliances such as BRICS, RCEP, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
In contrast, the US may attempt to contain Russia and China via economic and political sanctions and to ultimately overturn regimes in both countries, thus paving the way for global US predominance, which was almost achieved after the end of the Cold War.
You have been reading: Ukraine War: 120 Days.
An analysis by Swiss Policy Research.
1) Results of 2010 Ukrainian presidential election.
Janukovych was the pro-Russian candidate, Tymoshenko was the pro-Western candidate.
2) Mariupol: Before and after Russian conquest
3) Western propaganda vs. Russian propaganda