The critical phase

With almost ten months into the war between Ukraine and Russia and the thawing of snow in the freezing steppes of Ukraine, there is an eerie feeling that this war is entering a critical phase, which could tilt the balance in favor of the Russian Federation. But before arriving at this conclusion, there is a need to conduct an incisive analysis of different operational and strategic factors to project the trajectory of war into the immediate future, let’s say the next six months. This piece analyses the war from four major factors, military operations, the Belarus factor, the morale of fighting forces and citizenry, and the politico-diplomatic factor.
Military operations: Despite tall claims by the West and the fighting spirit displayed by Ukrainian forces, the Russian military has absorbed almost one-fifth of the land mass of Ukraine, mainly the Donetsk, Luhansk (Don-Bas) region as well as the southern seaboard of Ukraine spanning Crimea and Kherson leaving the port of Odessa. Part of the Kharkiv region is under threat and Russian forces are poised to take the important strategic communication hub of Bakhmut. Moscow appointed a new commander for its invasion of Ukraine, according to Reuters, and the Russian private military company Wagner Group declared the capture of the salt mining town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine to be complete even though the Ukrainian military claimed the conflict was still ongoing. Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, was appointed as overall commander by Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. General Sergei Surovikin, who had been selected in October to head the invasion and direct intense attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, was inadvertently degraded by the shift.
Another important factor is the understanding of Russian military strategy; most western commentators and defense analysts believe that Russia remained short of achieving its objectives as it could not capture a lot of area in Ukraine. Any military commander launching a strategic offensive would have three choices, adopt a land-capturing strategy or a force destruction strategy, or maybe target the capital of the country to affect a regime change quickly. In our opinion, the Russian military has adopted a force destruction strategy to achieve its objectives; looking at how they have phased their military operations and targeted Ukrainian military forces and logistics may prove our point, however, we leave to the judgment of our readers, especially those dealing with warfare and its strategy.
Belarus factor: According to an Al Jazeera report published last month, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk. This was Putin’s first visit to Minsk since the beginning of 2019. Putin stated that he and Lukashenko had discussed creating “a common defence space” in the area. More recently, a train carrying Russian troops and equipment has arrived in Belarus, as Al-Arabiya News reported last week. This has sparked worries that Belarus would be utilized as a staging area for a northward invasion of Ukraine. Morale factor: Both sides have used different platforms to spread disinformation, misinformation and even fake news to target the morale of military forces and citizens. Russian outlets and their sympathizers have targeted the Ukrainian leadership, especially President Zelenskyy on how he has caused the destruction of the whole of Ukraine and abandoned his wounded and frostbitten troops at the behest of the West. On the other side, Ukrainian outlets are praising the bold and audacious leadership of President Zelensky and the sacrifices rendered by the Ukrainian Defense Forces in thwarting the Russian offensive.
Politico-Diplomatic Factor: The Western allies of Ukraine and NATO leadership seem to be gradually developing an understanding that this war is not ending soon. According to the Global News website, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated on January 10 that Russia was preparing to send more troops to the conflict in Ukraine and should not be disregarded. Stoltenberg urged EU and military alliance members to be “prepared for the long haul” during a press conference alongside Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel. President of the European Commission Von der Leyen stated that the European Union will impose further sanctions on Belarus, as it keeps up the pressure on Moscow to put an end to the crisis and broadens its measures to include nations that support Russia.
Connecting all the dots, it is possible that Russia may be considering a grand multidirectional military operation against Ukraine at the beginning of the spring of this year. Using Belarus as the northern staging base, the Russian military could descend on the capital Kyiv, while the two prongs from the Donbas region and Kherson converge west of the Dnieper River, almost absorbing half of Ukraine in a gigantic pincer. The repercussions of this expanding war could be detrimental to the global economy and food supply chain; any miscalculation by either side could cause a spillover of this war into Eastern Europe, there is a need for concrete politico-diplomatic efforts to stem the war and find a diplomatic solution which could address sensitivities of the Russian Federation while maintaining Ukraine as a sovereign state.

Adeela Naureen and Waqar K Kauravi

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