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A Year On: Evaluating Russia’s Operation in Ukraine

23 March 2023

As the conflict in Ukraine enters its second year, the US administration is struggling to define its vision for ending the war. Instead, US policymakers have focused on imposing large-scale sanctions on Russia and supplying modern weaponry to Kyiv while pressuring allies to do the same. Unfortunately, neither side seems willing to negotiate, as both continue to seek decisive victories without success in recent months.

Russia's initial failure to win the lightning war sparked speculation of an impending Ukrainian victory, but such a triumph has yet to materialize. Meanwhile, fears are growing that Washington and Moscow could end up in direct confrontations following the recent collision of a Russian fighter jet with a US drone over the Black Sea on March 14, 2023.


Conflict and Points of View


From the outset, the US presented the war in Ukraine as an existential struggle against the so-called "forces of evil." The American narrative claimed that failure to confront Russia would have serious consequences for Washington and the world, especially for those defending liberal values. President Joe Biden's visit to Kyiv on February 20, 2023, during which he invited world leaders to support Ukraine and pledged to continue supplying it with more weapons, came to consolidate this strategy by moving forward in providing all forms of support to Kyiv while managing the risks of escalation and ensuring the war remains contained. American policymakers hope that this approach will eventually lead to Russia's defeat and Ukraine's restoration of its territories based on the 1991 borders.


However, Russian political leaders maintain that the conflict in Ukraine is not expansionist, as the West claims. Instead, they argue that it is an existential war to secure Russia against an imminent NATO threat. Moscow is confident in its ability to emerge victorious, particularly as public opinion polls indicate overwhelming support for President Putin. Despite initial reluctance from Russia's political elite, Western military support for Ukraine has tilted the majority of Russians to align with their country's leadership. Western policy analysts suggest that Russia's elites are unlikely to support any territorial concessions through negotiations. They will not challenge Putin, who they view as their best chance to maintain order and security, despite his failures. Political observers further note that the Russian political elite did not support a withdrawal to pre-war positions on February 24, 2022. At most, they may accept a temporary ceasefire through an interim agreement with the West.


Assessing Russia's strategy and policy more than a year after the commencement of its military operation, Dmitry Trainin, the director of Carnegie Moscow Center, which ceased operations during the war, believes that the conflict has already resulted in a significant shift in Russia's external environment. He notes that Russia's relations with the West and its allies have become hostile and stresses that the conflict is not a typical crisis in Moscow's relationship with its Western neighbours, as seen since the days of Tsarist Russia. Rather, it is a deep-rooted and long-term conflict that will have long-lasting consequences.


President Volodymyr Zelensky sees two possible ways out of the current situation in Ukraine: the first is to expedite the country's accession to NATO, which is supported by the organization's unwavering commitment to Ukraine, although NATO's admission process for Ukraine is not a top priority. The second option, as Zelensky pointed out last year, is for Ukraine to become "another Israel," meaning to be heavily armed with its own and Western arms and fully prepared for large-scale warfare if necessary. This would require Kyiv to have a powerful air force, missile defence systems, and long-range missile batteries, which the Ukrainian president insists on in his appeals to Western allies. However, it's noteworthy that the NATO Secretary-General recently revealed that the organization rejected Ukraine's request for cluster bombs and phosphorous weapons, citing their controversial nature and illegality under international law.


In any case, according to Western analysts, Zelensky's government has been successful in securing "historic amounts of Western aid" as well as "vital" and "evolving" intelligence. The Director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency described the intelligence as "revolutionary" and "unprecedented," It proved crucial at several pivotal points in the war, providing Kyiv with enough time to prepare for counterattacks and defences.


Assessing Russia's Performance


Since the onset of the Ukrainian conflict, the Russian military's effectiveness has been scrutinized by many Western analysts, with some perceiving it as underwhelming. However, other Western analyses have contested this viewpoint, arguing that Russia is still a major industrial power with a robust military and significant military capabilities. Despite its setbacks in Ukraine, Russia remains a formidable adversary, boasting vast territories, abundant natural resources, a strong and enduring culture, a well-educated and patriotic population that takes pride in the country's history as a great power. Moreover, Western analysts continue to emphasize to their policymakers that Russia possesses the world's most powerful nuclear arsenal.


Western experts believe that the Russian military is learning from its mistakes and has become increasingly proficient in carrying out complex operations, such as calculated strikes to disrupt Ukraine's vital infrastructure, which they had previously avoided during the initial phase of the conflict. The Russian military has also made significant adjustments to its strategy by concentrating its targets, mobilizing new personnel, and making tactical adjustments, including the use of electronic warfare tools to disrupt Ukrainian military communications. Furthermore, Russian forces can maintain a higher combat intensity than most other armies and have been operating with greater consistency and stability since switching to a defensive strategy in late 2022, making it challenging for Ukrainian troops to advance. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 effectively transformed the Black Sea into a Russian lake. With 28,000 troops stationed on the peninsula, supported by the S-400 air defence system and cruise anti-ship missile batteries, Russia is well-positioned to dominate the Black Sea region.


The Global South and the War


In addition to the belligerent states, the vast majority of developing countries, known as the "Global South," have remained on the sidelines, asserting that this war is not their fight, despite its far-reaching implications on issues such as food security, energy prices, and high inflation. These nations have chosen not to boycott Moscow and risk damaging their interests with it.


Western estimates indicate that over a year after the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, it cannot be argued that Russia has been isolated internationally, despite intense pressure from the West. Only 34 countries have imposed sanctions on Moscow since the war began. Russia still maintains influence over many former Soviet states in its immediate vicinity, despite their desire to distance themselves from Moscow and the war. Russia continues to forge relationships in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. China, along with India and other key countries in the Global South, abstained from voting for Ukraine at the United Nations. In some cases, trade between Russia and some of these nations has even increased significantly since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict. Moreover, 87 countries still allow Russian citizens to enter without a visa or with a visa on arrival, including Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Thailand, Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela.


However, it must be noted that most of the countries that have maintained their partnerships with Russia are not supportive conglomerates or allies of Moscow. Rather, they are guided primarily by their national interests and deeply embedded in the world economy and international institutions, which are centred on and serve the West. This presents a significant constraint on the interaction between the Global South and Russia due to the economic and political war waged by the West.

In contrast, Russian accounts of the Ukrainian war have gained momentum in the Global South, where Putin holds more influence than the West. Analysts explain that the West's limited success in countering the influential Russian narrative outside Europe is because it has not crafted a coherent narrative about the war or explained why the West has intensified military support for Kyiv. The West has always promoted a narrative of a dichotomy between "democracies" and "autocratic regimes," which Western leaders and senior officials emphasized in their interventions at the Munich Security Conference last February.

What’s Next?

Looking at the current data and facts on the ground, many writers, including Americans and others, conclude that the war in Ukraine is a long-running conflict centered in the eastern and southern regions of the country. Russia will retain the ability to attack other targets, and Western policymakers must prepare themselves for this reality. Policy tools such as military aid and sanctions will not change, regardless of the duration of the war.


Other writers, including Richard Haas, chairman of the US Council on Foreign Relations, believe that America and its NATO partners should consult on the goals of the war. They argue that Western success in the battle is unlikely to involve a peace treaty, a victory on the battleground, or regime change in Russia.

Against this background, it has been pointed out that the prolonging of the Ukrainian war may suit Russia, which enjoys the advantage of vast territory, a flexible economy, and relative safety from invasion. From President Putin's perspective, such a strategy is applicable in the next phase of the war, as he faces little pressure inside Russia. Putin may be betting that Ukraine will ultimately not be able to withstand a war of attrition and that the West will lose patience and lessen its support for Kyiv.


On the other hand, neither the US nor its NATO allies appear ready to directly engage in the war. This leaves Washington and its allies with limited options as the war enters its second year, apart from increasing military and security support to Ukraine. However, there are concerns that this war could escalate beyond Ukrainian territory, especially after recent tensions in the Black Sea region with the US using drones for surveillance. On March 14, tensions between the Russian and American sides escalated to their highest point since the war began, as the European Command of the US Army reported that a Russian SU-27 fighter collided with an American MQ-9 Reaper over the Black Sea. The US military described this incident as "reckless." In response, Washington announced the recall of the Russian ambassador. While the Russian military confirmed that two of its fighters had already intercepted an American drone, it denied colliding with it or causing it to fall, contradicting what Washington had announced.


Many American writers believe that the war in Ukraine is about more than just ensuring the sovereignty of this country within its international borders. It also concerns the basic rules and standards of international relations from the American perspective. They add that what President Putin has done in Ukraine has put the US and Western democracies in Europe and elsewhere on the defensive, but it also gives Washington an opportunity to reshape its vision of a world order that is more compatible with its interests. The US aims to expand its alliances and present a vision of a modified international order that accommodates as many nations and peoples as possible in new forms of international cooperation that serve US interests.


However, these writers overlook the fact that the US has often violated the very regime it established and led since 1945. The Iraq War is a bitter and catastrophic example of Washington's disregard for this regime. The US has also frequently used its privileged position to interpret multilateral rules in its favour and acted unilaterally for narrow economic and political gains. In fact, Russia has mainly focused its justification for the war at the UN and other summits on this issue, highlighting the US policy in the Middle East, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the NATO operation in Libya, and Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinian territories. Russia reminds the international community that the West has double standards, and has been overlooking these violations since the beginning of the war.