FY23 SCSS#6, 7 March 2023: “Ukraine and Emerging Trends in Russian and Turkish Foreign Policy”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 7 March 2023 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West.  SCSS#06 focuses on the three key trends in Turkey’s relationship with Russia in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, addressing defense and security cooperation in the Black Sea region, increases cooperation between the Erdoğan and Putin governments and the changing dynamics of interdependence.  It then addresses three emerging trends in Russian foreign policy – radicalization of ideology, isolation from West and reach-out to Global South and interaction via the grey zone – before concluding.

Trends in Turkish Foreign Policy

First, we can explore the Turkey/Ukraine axis in defense cooperation.  Turkey’s trade and tourism relations with Ukraine were dominant before 2014 but after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea the diplomatic and security partnership came to the fore. Turkey supports Ukraine politically by not recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and so upholding Ukraine’s statehood (territorial integrity and sovereignty).  In military terms, Turkish production of corvettes for Ukraine’s navy, the sale of Bayraktar TB2 combat drones and plans for their joint production, and the closing the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Russian warships thereby preventing escalation in the Black Sea, all help Ukraine to assert its statehood. Turkey has been instrumental in sponsoring POW swops and the grain deal. At the same time, by supporting Ukraine, Turkey is in fact strengthening its own position in the region as Ukraine helps to deter Russian expansion which is a threat to Turkey itself. 

This cooperation can form the back bone of post-war Black Sea security.  In effect, as the war progresses the Ukrainization of Turkish foreign policy drives its Westernization. However, although Russia is not a Turkish partner, let alone ally, Russia is a state with which Turkey can engage with through situational cooperation that is rooted in mutual distrust of the West: Turkey is not so much pro-Russian as anti-Western. Turkey also benefits economically with Russia from commercial trade.  Do costs of balancing support for Ukraine and the West outweigh benefits of situational commercial deals?

Second, we can note increased cooperation between governments in Moscow and Ankara ahead of the critical 2023 election in Turkey.  These elections occur in the context of the earthquake and humanitarian disaster, economic and political insecurity.  Russian financial support and investments in Turkey, not least in infrastructure and critical sectors, can directly benefit the Erdoğan government and this nexus helps explain not only Turkey’s refusal to engage in sanctioning Russia, but its circumvention of western sanctions through engagement with Russian oligarchs and the reported sale to Russia of dual use technologies.

Rosatom’s construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant is a case in point.  Russia will build, own and operate, regulate (“regulatory capture”) and decommission the Akkuyu NPP, which has a service life of 60-80 years. Rosatom will also supply the fuel and manage the waste generated while helping Turkey build the necessary human capital (i.e. Turkish students in nuclear engineering to be trained in Russia). The Mersin-Akkuyu site of the NPP is located on the eastern Mediterranean coast close to Incirlik and Tartus.  Russia appears to assert the right to construct commercial ports and terminals for maritime transport, storage and loading and offloading NPP waste.  In effect, it constructs a forward base to meet the logistical needs of Russian naval ships in the Mediterranean.  This base may establish a search radar and an S-400 high-altitude air defense system in the Akkuyu region. These factors suggest that Turkey will become heavily dependent on Rosatom technology and energy can be used as a means of coercion.  The role of Rosatom and model of civil nuclear reactor construction is relevant for wider Russian NPP diplomacy to Indonesia, Egypt and Hungary. 

Third, changes within the dynamics of interdependence in both countries are also in evidence. As Russia becomes further embroiled in its war with Ukraine, Turkey can displace Russia in South Caucasus and challenge Russia in Central Asia.  Russia’s military underperformance in Ukraine helps dispel myths prevalent in Turkey of Russia as a “great power”. At the same time, Russia as Turkey’s strategic rival can destabilize Syria and remains a major source of Turkey’s energy imports, economic benefits, and financial resources.  Turkey does not confront Russian state-affiliated media propaganda targeting Turkish public opinion.  Russian state-sponsored Sputnik News Agency and RS FM (Voice of Russia–Sputnik FM) operate freely in Turkey. Pro-Russian narratives can also promote President Erdoğan’s coalition with the Eurasianists and undermine Turkey’s cooperative ties with West, blaming the West/NATO/US for instigating the war in Ukraine and causing regional instability and steer Turkey toward Russia, Iran and alliances with non-Western countries, like BRICS, under the cloak of promoting a fair and inclusive world order.

Russia and Turkey are likely to remain “frenemies”, strategic rivals linked by post-imperial identities, a willingness to project power outside their borders, authoritarian trends and benefits of economic cooperation.  To counter Russian influence in Turkey is difficult. The starting point is recognizing the need to manage a pragmatic, assertive and transactional Turkey that seeks to maximize benefits and minimize costs in relations with all of its partners. Therefore, to keep Turkey engaged with the West, anchored as it is in NATO, it’s important to increase the costs of Turkish support for Russia, on the one hand, and to make clear the benefits of being strategically orientated westwards, on the other. Confidence building measures to address the lack of trust to the West, including through earthquake diplomacy, Western investments based on conditionality, joint initiatives around alternative energy sources (the “Middle Corridor” initiative) and support for Ukraine-Turkey cooperation in a post-war context and in maritime security are crucial to this end.  Russian propaganda can be countered through greater emphasis on Turkish language outlets providing counter-narratives.  The greater EU and NATO cooperation with Turkey, the less the interdependencies between Ankara and Moscow. 

Trends in Russian Foreign Policy

Three key trends mark Russia’s wartime foreign policy. The first trend is a radicalization of Russia’s ideological beliefs.  Russia is now more ideological, promoting a toxic mix of radical geopolitics, anti-Westernism/anti-colonialism and ultra-conservative “traditional values” (gender roles and religion). Its geopolitics are now more openly imperial (seeking as it does the restoration of “historical Russia”) and more radically revisionist, promoting a full-on assault of the liberal international order.  Russia, in effect, through maximalist rhetoric, seeks to “make the international system safe for emerging empires”.  Putin uses ideology as a tool of reflexive control, setting Russia on a future path that his successors cannot easily or quickly reverse. Such is the vehemence of Russian anti-Westernism that is difficult not to conclude that Russian policy-makers appear to deliberately box themselves in, placing themselves in an “iron cage”.  Russian ideological beliefs can be understood as a façade for power politics, but it rests on core ideas that are genuinely held by this currently elite in Russia, even if much is instrumentalized. Russia is still pragmatic when necessary.  It balances support for Iran with not totally alienating Israel.  Azeri-Turkey and Turkish-Israeli military cooperation is balanced by a Russia-Armenia-Iran nexus. Revisionist Russia offers a vision of how states can break with the current international order and survive if not yet wholly thrive. The litmus test of survivability for Russia is steadily increasing the number of sanctions avoiding states. 

The second big trend is Russia’s diplomatic outreach to the Global South. Despite the remarkable unity shown in the UN General Assembly votes, Russia has managed to maintain a bloc of about 50 countries which are willing to abstain on votes against Russia or be conveniently absent. These include big democracies such as India and South Africa. A wider group of states is happy to vote with the majority in the UN on the principle of invasion or annexation – but prefers not to actively work against Russia – that left just 93 states willing to vote Russia off the Human Rights Council. This group includes for example the Gulf States and some Latin American countries. And there are even fewer willing to impose sanctions.

Why is Russia having this traction? A number of explanations can be advanced. Some countries have long memories of Russia as an anti-colonial power in the Soviet period.

Russian propaganda is more effective in parts of the Middle East and Africa than in Europe. There is already a strong dose of anti-Westernism in many countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa – few major non-Western powers wish to see a re-invigorated collective West that may impinge on their national interests in the future.  Above all, it’s a sense that Ukraine is a European and not a global issue and that for most countries there are more pressing local and regional concerns – food security, economic instability, their own conflicts, which have often been overlooked.

We can see these attitudes emerging in opinion polls. Attitudes towards Russia have polarized across the world. While 87% of people living in the West hold a negative view of Russia, in other regions some 66% view Russia positively. The war has hit Russia’s standing overall, but it has remained largely stable in countries like Egypt and Indonesia or declined only slightly, as in India and Vietnam.

 In terms of Global South outreach, we can distinguish three zones crucial for Russian foreign policy.  First, Eurasia and China, as a huge borderland for sanctions-busting.  A 2 March 2023 joint statement from the US Departments of Justice, Commerce and the Treasury noted that countries such as China, Armenia, Turkey and Uzbekistan can be used as “transit points” for the illegal transfer of prohibited goods to Russia or Belarus. In the first nine months of the war in Ukraine, the volume of goods supplied from the European Union to Russia decreased by 47%. In the same period, the supply of European products to Russia’s neighbouring countries, such as Georgia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, increased by 48%.  Second, the Gulf States as vital deal making, logistics, finance and business hub for Russia.  Third, Africa as a new zone of competition with the West.

A third notable trend is Russian foreign policy increasingly operating in the greyzone. Russia has a network of informal and illicit networks that are the main levers of Russian influence. Illicit finance and organized crime will be vital for the Russian state to survive the threat of sanctions and political and information warfare will offer continued opportunities to challenge the West. Wagner Private Military Corporation (PMC) demonstrates the mixing of arms, mercenaries, ideological and information campaigns and niche economic opportunities.  Wagner operates in small countries, where they can effectively capture part of the state apparatus.  Wagner’s networks are self-financing and have become adept at creating financial and trade networks that bypass sanctions and regulatory regimes. Russia becomes deeply embedded in Central African Republic and can then use CAR as a platform and develop routes out through Cameroon and Sudan, so establishing a wider illicit network. 

The war in Ukraine provides the opportunity for Russia’s ideological oligarchs – second-tier figures who use their aggressive patriotism to lever business deals, at home and abroad – to become players in Russian foreign policy.  The flood of Russian money into occupied territories of Ukraine is already proving a lucrative source of rents for Russia’s military, Chechen warlords, and well-connected construction companies. In effect, the criminalization of the Russian elite is sanctified in the name of patriotism, sovereign internationalism and strategic autonomy.  Russia believes great powers break the rules, indeed that rule-breaking is the hall-mark of a great power.  Such beliefs are reinforced by bad governance norms in Russia where ‘rule by law’ rather than ‘rule of law’ and the blurring of internal-external, war-peace and regime-state are central pillars of Putinism.


Turkey is emblematic of third-party states with direct interests at stake in the outcome of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and whose strategic response is pragmatic realpolitik balancing.  But the longer the war continues the harder such balancing becomes. China’s so-called “12 Point Peace Plan” aims to bolster its own reputation in the Global South as a peacemaker, rebut accusations of silent complicity and its rejection potentially create justification for increasing support for Russia.  China supports Ukraine’s statehood but blames NATO “expansion” for the war and condemns Western sanctions while largely observing them. China seeks to avoid its nightmare scenario – Russian defeat leading to regime change in Russia and a pro-Western government – but realizes that unconditional support to Russia would damage China’s economic and technological advancement.  Unconditional support would force a break with the West – a point Western “red lines” messaging effectively conveys. In reality, a weaker more isolated China-dependent Russia allows China through calibrated oil and gas purchases and potentially facilitating the supply of weapons to attempt escalation control over the war.

Russia’s Turkey policy challenges the coherence and cohesion of Russia’s foreign policy amidst chaos, reactive thinking and intra-elite struggles exacerbated by the pressure of fighting a three-day war now in its second year. Russia undertakes pragmatic practice in the grey zone but cloaks such behavior on the ground in a radical take-no-prisoners black-and-white world view asserting simplistic ideological problem-blame-solution bromides. Russia is clearer about what it is against than offering a vision of what it is for. Many countries in the Global South do not want to make a choice – but few show overt support for Moscow. While illicit finance and organized crime are major challenges in effective sanctions enforcement, some key instruments do work in improving transparency, enforcing regulations and making it increasingly difficult for jurisdictions to cover up for Russian illicit behavior. The desire of many Russian businesspeople to continue to engage with the global economy may yet prove to be the key driver for change in Russia.

Ukraine itself represents a largely untapped counter-narrative in that it is pro-Western (identity, values and orientation) but not part of the institutionalized West (EU and NATO). Thus, Ukraine’s role in countering Russian anti-colonial rhetoric in Turkey, Africa and throughout the Global South.  Ukraine stands testament to argue that Russia is not the Soviet Union, which did fund training and education, but an imperial colonial power on a war of conquest, prepared to weaponize interdependencies and hold the Global South hostage to gain leverage over Kyiv. Indeed, Ukraine launches an African diplomatic effort to open ten embassies in key African states and exert untapped Ukrainian soft-power, being able to directly challenge Russian narratives about the war.


This summary reflects the views of the authors (Yevgeniya Gaber, David Lewis and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments. 

GCMC, 8 March 2023.

FY23 SCSS#5, 22 February 2023: “Russia’s Strategic Débâcle: Regime Stability, Military Reconstitution and Relations with Belarus?”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 22 February 2023 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West.  In this session we use the notion of “strategic débâcle” to question the implications of Russia’s war of imperial aggression against Ukraine on the stability of Putin’s regime. What does the experience of war over the last year suggest about Russia’s ability to reconstitute its conventional combat capability?  Are we likely to see military reform allowing for build back better”, “build back late Soviet” or “build back worse”? What of relations with Belarus?  How has the war impacted Putin’s calculus towards its only ally and what are the prospects for a compensatory annexation?

Russian Regime Stability

Although the war in Ukraine cannot be characterized as the triumph of Putinism and an outright Russian victory, it is too early to state that the impact of Russia’s war of imperial choice will fundamentally reformat power in Russia. The maxim that suggested a “spillover effect” was in play was never realistic.  Ukrainian pluralism, decentralization, electoral democracy, reform and westwards strategic orientation would not act as a demonstration model for Russia. Historically these two societies have been different and are so today, especially so over the last 30 years, particularly since the 2004 “Orange Revolution”. Russia is more authoritarian and its society accepting of that fact. Putin may have started the war, but this is Russia’s war, supported as it is by 70% of its population. Opinion polls consistently show that 40% fully support the “Special Military Operation” (SVO), 30% give tacit support (rather support than not), and 35% of respondents will not support Putin undertaking ceasefire or peace negotiations, even if Putin decides this is the path he wants to follow. Defeat is not a catastrophe for the regime in that this regime will not agree to reparations, reform and/or regime change will not follow: Russia 2023 is more akin to Iraq under Saddam Hussein 1991-2003.  The Serbia scenario, with Milosevic at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, is not plausible.

The crucible of war has not led to culmination or break point but rather elites have pledged allegiance and loyalty to Putin and society (“upward mobility”) has consolidated and the economy functions and performs much better than expected.  Russia has lost perhaps 3-4% of its GDP and the effects of sanctions in 2023 will be greater than 2022. But Russians survived the economic crisis of 1991-92 and the systemic shock of 1998 and, this time, Russia does not have foreign loans and its informal (“garage”) economy is resilient, though some economic sectors (such as automobile production) are hit harder than others. A culture of poverty, subsistence, fatalism, patience (a tolerance for suffering) is encouraged by the state. Russia can survive economically at a lower level for decades. 

Putin’s Federal Assembly address on 21 February 2023 demonstrates that Putin has achieved the chaos he promised to unleash. His aides called upon him to be the “generator of entropy” and this is precisely the environment he has carefully constructed over the last two decades, with societal supports.  To give one example, the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, once its top-rated university and a hub of globalization, now builds campuses in Donetsk and Luhansk, fully embracing the reality of occupation. Militarism is promoted through propaganda and theatrics, such as the Immortal Regiment, the Victory Temple, and other quasi-sacred symbolic rituals that celebrate Russia is a nation at war. As war generates resentments and new legends around “fallen heroes”, it becomes normalized, woven into family history, just as Putin wove the “Great Patriotic War” into his own personal biography. Putinism” is now distilled to its essence – “war Putinism” – a condition that brings stability and an organizing logic and dynamic to his regime.  Does a ceasefire or, worse still following this logic, a peace treaty with Ukraine, entail Russian internal instability, perhaps even regime implosion? For Russia, war is peace, peace is war?

Moreover, while Russia is more isolated from the ‘political West’ (1bn people – the “golden billion” in Putin’s understanding), it uses narratives of anti-colonialism (despite clearly imperial actions regarding Ukraine and “historical Rus”) and anti-Americanism to appeal to the ‘Global South’ (Africa, Latin and South America, China).  Russia suggests that it is in the global vanguard of upholding the sovereignty of states, sovereign equality and the right to choose their own systems of governance. This is Putin’s world.  Outreach to the ‘Global South’ gives external legitimacy to and acknowledgement of Russian Great Power status.  In this perverse narrative the defeat of Ukraine is the defeat of the US and so of colonialism: the wrongs of the West in the past are righted by Russia in the present.

Russia represents a classic case of imperial overstretch, a fact perhaps unsurprising when one considers that Russia constitutes 2% of global GDP and the political West supporting Ukraine 40% of global GDP. Russia’s perimeters are currently bare as “everything to the front” is the order of the day.  The UK’s MoD reports that 90% of Russian border troops are deployed to Ukraine. The Pacific Fleet’s Marine Infantry Brigade has been reconstituted three times.  Troops on the Finish border and Arctic are rotated through the “SVO”. Russia does not have the capacity to police the empire, staff the garrisons, patrol the borders.  Russia was and remains a loosely organized patchwork filled with empty spaces. In the future, Russia could resemble more a number of large cities loosely connected by highways. However, this looseness does not translate into an impetus for reform as Russia does not face strategic coopetition in Eurasia. As the problem of imperial overstretch is perennial, inertia not reform rules. Putin’s regime has developed a raft of sophisticated soft management tools to control society. Society can be “retuned” through propaganda, as the era of glasnost and perestroika demonstrated when hope and imagination combined. However, there is a limit. Putin can use propaganda to explain defeat as victory – he can appeal to and amplify what people want to hear – but it cannot be used to impose on Russian society new and alien narratives such as “defeat is actually defeat”.

Russia’s Military Combat Capability Reconstitution

Gen Milley has stated that for Russia this war is a strategic, operational and tactical failure. Is this the case?  The use of the term “débâcle” is entirely correct when applied to the military-strategic context.  The war has proved high intensity, has lasted a year rather than three days and shows no signs of exhausting itself.  The Russian military is failing to learn from its mistakes, being unable to undertake a frank and honest analysis over what went wrong. Defense Minister Shoigu, Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov and General Staff itself are “learning backwards”, falling back to analog Soviet habits. The Ukrainian military is already more digitalized/computerized and with willing recruits able to “learn forward”.  The quality of Russia’s newly mobilized precludes the use of technology, even if Russia had it.

Reforming the military in a war is challenging.  There is an inherent tension between what the war demands and what society can supply. Russia needs a larger military, and can use every and all means to recruit, but where do the recruits come from?  Russia faces long-term negative underlying demographic trends (every year’s draft cycle yields less and less), the under-reported effects of COVID, war casualties and mass out-migration to avoid conscription.  Extending the duration of servicemen is probably the only viable solution. In addition, military security may be strengthened with a larger military (quantity not quality) but this can impact societal cohesion and increase economic costs, both to the military budget and by creating labor supply shortfalls elsewhere.

Another lesson to be learned from this war is that airpower remains decisive.  Russia is not able to achieve “air superiority” let alone “air supremacy”.  Russia and Ukraine fly approximately the same number of daily sorties (one or two dozen), despite the fact that Russia has reported destroying the Ukrainian air force many times over. How to explain this underperformance?  Russia argues that it does not fight Ukrainians in Ukraine but the collective west in Ukraine. A looming kinetic war with NATO is predicted and so through prudence and pragmatism, Russia holds back airframes for the larger war to come. More to the point, Russia’s Defense Industrial Complex lacks key component parts and critical supply changes are broken. In addition, modern warfare demands real time targeting, an ability that HIMARS clearly demonstrates. This in turn rests on good intelligence, communication and functioning satellite constellation, areas where Russia is deficient.  A bureaucratic rigid military means that 48-72 hours may pass between the acquisition of intelligence and actual attack. In short, Russia cannot connect its air to ground forces and its airpower cannot give sufficient air support to enable the Black Sea Fleet to launch opposed amphibious operations against, for example, Odessa.

Lastly, Russia has invested heavily in its nuclear forces. These expensive systems can be used for nuclear blackmail.  Putin’s speech on 21 February announced Russia’s suspension from START II and the resumption of nuclear testing.  On 22 February Medvedev again suggests Russia will countenance nuclear first use if defeated conventionally in Ukraine. By suggesting a willingness to use nuclear weapons, Putin signals his commitment to winning the war in Ukraine at ever-increasing costs.  But aside from this signaling function, these weapons are impotent.  If signaling is the only function, then Russia could achieve the same results with less weapons, remembering that one nuclear submarine is the equivalent of ten combined arms battalion tactical groups.

Until 2022, there was the perception that Russia was overtaking the west in warfighting capabilities. Why did this not end up being true?  Why is the Ukrainian military learning much more effectively than the Russian? What makes the difference?  Prior to the war, it appeared Russia was learning from expeditionary coalitional warfare (Syria) while the Ukrainian army had essentially confined itself to trench warfare since 2014 along a line of contact in occupied Donbas, fighting with old Soviet equipment.  But in reality, prior to 24 February 2022 the Russia military had not fought a regular military since 1945. It ran on reputation and so could punch above its weight. Many analysts failed to understand the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a harbinger and had forgotten that Prince Potemkin was also a Russian general. Military culture plays a role. Russia’s military structures are hierarchical and vertical, Ukraine’s more decentralized, networked, with horizontal linkages. The quality of recruits, leadership, morale and training (the intangibles) appears critical. The lack of modernization in Russia, particularly societal modernization and a retrograde backward-looking political culture which viewed reform, change and the new as inherently destabilizing. While Russia replaces its weapons systems with older and more outdated equipment, the Ukrainian military receives a huge variety of increasingly more modern weaponry and its army learns everything rapidly.

Whereas one might expect communication between Russian soldiers and the society from which they came to generate pressure to root out corruption and inefficiency, this is not the case.  Inefficiency is a cultural norm and so expected. Veterans and others exposed to the horrors of the war do not typically share the pain they experience or wish to rejoin “for my buddies”. In trench or positional warfare, there are no communication links between Russians and Ukrainians, so TV propaganda labelling Ukrainians as Nazi becomes the default perception. Russian society largely sits within their own echo chamber, heavily influenced by state propaganda. The 11 million Russians with Ukrainian relatives do not act as a communication bridge to the larger Russian population. But knowledge of a war that is going very wrong is spreading through social networks. This is invisible to the Russian government as it fails to understand how social networks work.

Relations with Belarus

Putin’s calculus before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was that Russia did not need the formal annexation of Belarus to have territorial, political and military control of Belarus. Putin achieves this control through President Lukashenka, an instrument in Putin’s hands, one that knows where the red lines are and does what is needed and required when push comes to shove. Lukashenka enjoys the status of being Putin’s only ally and each March, year after year, Belarus votes in UN General Assembly against Ukrainian territorial integrity. What does Russia really require?  Not the 9,000 deployable Belarusian military but use of Belarusian territory.  Russia has achieved this prime objective without the risks of possible elite splits replacing Lukashenka would entail.  Lukashenka’s regime is personalistic and so dependent on Lukashenka the person. Another challenge: which narrative could be deployed in Russia to explain to the Russian people the sudden need of a forced succession in brotherly Slavic “one people” Belarus?  The sudden rise of Belarusian Nazis?

In addition, whatever the political loyalty or opposition to Lukashenka, Belarusians can all agree that participation in the war should not be countenanced. The historical memory of the “Great Patriotic War” in Belarus is different than in Russia.  In Belarus it is remembered as a war of suffering, of victims, death and destruction not as one of unity, triumph and victory.  Belarusians do not harbor imperialist sentiment or an imperial complex, but are comfortable in their territory. Belarusian society knows Europe, constituting the largest number of Schengen visitors on a per capita basis in the post-Soviet space.  The demonization of the EU does not have as great a purchase and traction as it does in Russia.  This consensus and the “audience costs” factor – the fear of mismanaging a post-Lukashenka’s Belarus, preserves some autonomy and generates the alibi: “I would love to send troops but it will trigger an uprising”.  The notion that Belarus’ annexation could occur as a consolidation prize or compensation for defeat in Ukraine is not viable for the same reason. Putin’s plan for Belarus’ integration into Russia is not on the basis of the Union State construct but rather each of its six regions would agree to “voluntary accession” and be integrated separately.  Belarus’ integration as a single entity would make it too distinct and indigestible whereas individual oblast entry breaks its historical identity. Ultimately though, Russian annexation of Belarus is a distraction that detracts from the ‘problem’ of Ukraine.  As long as Ukraine fights, Belarus has a chance to uphold its statehood (territorial integrity and sovereignty).


Russia is overstretched but not at break point.  The single point of strategic failure for Ukraine is not political will or societal cohesion, but that it depends on external rather than indigenous sources of arms to maintain the fight.  For Russia, the single point of strategic failure is Putin’s health: the medieval idea of the political body of the nation being invested in the physical body of the tsar is resurrected. Contemporary Russian political order is physically invested in Putin’s body: “No Putin no Russia” is not just a sycophant’s slogan. The degradation of Russian analytical and forecasting abilities means Russia knows less about Ukraine and the West and this increases the risk of more mistakes and miscalculation. To mitigate the risks of uncertainty and unpredictability, analysts must widen the cone of analysis.


This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Sergei Medvedev, Arkady Moshes and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments. 

GCMC, 22 February 2023.

Budapest, Edinburgh, Boston, Gainesville FL…

Just a quick note of some forthcoming speaking events.

I’ll be in Budapest next week, and will be speaking at a public event at Corvinus University on Thursday 23 February on the subject of ‘Russia’s war in Ukraine – Predictions and Scenarios’ sponsored by the thinktank Political Capital, CEA Hungary and the British Embassy. Details are here. (It will also be livestreamed by Political Capital.)

Then, on Thursday 9 March, I have the honour of giving the next (COVID-delayed) Erickson Lecture at Edinburgh University, with the deliberately provocative title ‘What does defeat in Ukraine tell us about Putin’s Russia?’ You can get tickets here – and despite what the graphic says, it is 9 not 8 March! I understand it will go on YouTube afterwards.

On Tuesday 28 March, I will be speaking at the Fletcher School of Tufts University in Boston, while receiving Russia & Eurasia Program’s annual US-Russia Relations Book Prize for my Putin’s Wars, but the details are not yet available.

Finally, on Friday 31 March, I’ll be delivering the John Shelton Curtiss Lecture at this year’s Southern Conference on Slavic Studies in Gainesville, FL (first time I’ve ever been to Florida!). The title of the lecture will be ‘Putin’s Russia and the struggle between autocracy, adhocracy and technocracy.’ More details here.

FY23 SCSS#4, 17 January 2023: “Ukrainian Victory!”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 17 January 2023 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West.SCSS#3 concluded by noting that “While the conflict is “mutually hurting”, a stalemate is not in evidence, far less exhaustion. Winter has not led to a strategic impasse.  Fears of a grey-zone protracted inconclusive conflict characterized by operational exhaustion, war fatigue and the rise of a “give peace a chance” camp in Europe are not realized. Paradoxically, a high intensity fluid deadlock is in balance at break-point.”  While there may be no prospect of peace talks this winter between Russia and Ukraine, there are talks about talks and talks about avoiding escalation. Looking out over 2023, how might evolving structural factors shape the interests that modify the decision-making calculus of the parties directly and indirectly involved in the armed conflict?  What constitutes “victory”?

Ukrainian Victory

In an interview with the Economist on 3 December 2022, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Gen Valery Zaluzhny argued that Ukraine has the troops but lacks military equipment and needed 300 tanks, 600-700 infantry fighting vehicles and 500 howitzers. Ukraine believes that the offensive mobility inherent in armored brigades will allow it to seize the initiative and create a viable and necessary military precondition for negotiation leading to war termination on its terms – the withdrawal of Russian troops from “all captured territories”. The upcoming 20 January 2023 Ramstein military assistance coordination meeting of allied defense ministers will highlight the extent to which western partners will supply equipment.  Without further Ukrainian military advances, President Volodymyr Zelensky lacks a mandate to negotiate a peace deal. 

In addition to this military track, President Zelensky offered a 10-Point Peace Plan and issued a call for a Ukrainian Peace Formula Summit, a proposal most recently presented by First Lady Olena Zelenska at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 17 January 2023. Kyiv insists that justice is a central concern, not a negotiating tactic.  It reflects a historically-driven sense of victimhood under tsarist imperial and then Soviet control and the realities of forced Russification and the Holodomor and the ongoing war since 2014.  Justice is also integral to the Ukraine’s International Law-based approach to war.  On 17 January 2023 Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on the European Parliament to support setting up a special tribunal to hold Russia’s political and military leadership accountable for war crimes against Ukraine. Ukraine also seeks to establish a mechanism for compensatory reparations for damage Russia has inflicted on Ukraine and calls into question the legality of Russia’s status as an UN P5 member.  Punishing the perpetrator aims also to deter future aggression. Ukraine is now trying to build support globally for this approach.

Russia has lost 50% of the territory it had seized and occupied in the first 6 weeks of the war. Although Ukraine cities are dark and children are less visible, Ukraine’s railways still run, its banking system operates, local produce is sold in the streets and macro-economic stability holds.  Ukraine appears resilient and its people resolute. There is a perception in Ukraine that western assistance through 2022 gave Ukraine enough materiel, economic and diplomatic support to resist Russian aggression but not enough to ensure Russia’s defeat and to make Ukraine safer and more secure. This approach must change in 2023. Arguably, Ukraine’s political culture is being transformed – not least through the activities of its anti-corruption agencies and support for a “rule of law” society – but the war and such change is necessary if Ukraine is to remain Ukraine (“plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”).  In 2022, the High Anti-Corruption Court transferred more than 1.22 billion UAH of pledges and seized assets to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Indeed, Western military assistance (equipment, training, doctrine) accelerates Ukraine’s move to a 21st century NATO interoperable military, even as Russia’s military descends to its late Soviet variant.

When examining debates in Ukraine around a preferred end state, we see a striking degree of unity amongst internal actors, in terms of message discipline and coherence. Slight differences in emphasis can be noted when surveying a range of internal actors, reflecting both an expectation of victory and a desire to see that victory aligned with their institutional interests and aspirations. Gen Zaluzhny and Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s second most senior soldier and C-in-C of its army, differ on the issue of the duration of the war, which is linked to war aims.  Gen Zaluzhny points out that for Crimea to be militarily “in play”, Ukrainian forces would first have to advance around 100km into Russian lines to take Melitopol.

For the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), this is a “good war,” not least because it has pushed the overdue question of reform off the agenda, and their support for maximalist goals may in part reflect their interest in a longer war.  This puts internal reform efforts on hold for the duration, an outcome that may align with the interests of mid-ranking Cols and LtCols in that service.  By contrast, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, headed by Denys Monastyrsky (who tragically died in a helicopter accident 18 January 2023), will at the point of war termination be responsible for the reintegration of occupied territories and will need to deploy the Police, National Guard, State Emergency Services, Border Guard and State Migration service (customs service) to LNR, DNR and Crimea.  A quicker war termination may align with less territory to reintegrate which in turn allows the Ministry to initiate reform efforts sooner.     

For Ukraine, a minimally acceptable starting point for negotiation would be for Russia to be a return to the status quo ante 24 February 2022, with the territories seized in 2014 (DNR, LNR and Crimea) all on the table.  Such an outcome is dependent on western military assistance.  More controversially, Ukrainian “end state” discussions reflect on the need for a reformation of Russian political order to enable a “New Russia” to emerge. Ukraine recognizes that Putin’s world view is informed by the belief that the West is “coming” for him and is shaped by imperialist sphere of influence notions. Putin may strike a deal at some stage for survival, but he will not change his beliefs.  Defeating Russia, though, might force Russia to deal with its imperial past. Discussions around the contours of a “New Russia” include the notion of Russia as a “Parliamentary Republic” (Khodokovsky) or even confederation, cuts in energy revenues that fuel the war and a decrease in its nuclear arsenal to mitigate the risks of further aggression.  Nonetheless, it is questionable how far Ukraine and the West may be able to reshape Russia in any meaningful way.

Russian “Victory”

President Putin’s war aims have remained constant and continue to center on the destruction of Ukraine as an independent state capable of joining the EU or NATO, the breaking of the will of its people to resist and the will of the West to support it.   As SCSS#3 noted: “Russia seems to believe that its aerial campaign against Ukraine combined with declining support from the West will eventually lead to talks on its terms, involving territorial concessions by Kyiv and the acceptance of constraints on a future Ukrainian state’s foreign, defense and domestic politics. Broadly speaking, Russia sees time on its side and predicts that in 2023 it will be much harder to sustain financial support to Ukraine. Eventually, Ukraine will crack.” 

Actual means to achieve Russian ends include: salami-slicing Ukrainian territory (Soledar and Bakhmut the current focus); the use of missile strikes to target Ukraine’s economy and cause population displacement and refugees; and, ultimately, forcefully assimilating Ukrainians into Putin’s artificial “one Russian people” construct.  Putin places Russia on a war footing through mobilization of reservists, the Russian economy and its society. ‘Wartime Putinism’ seeks to impose talks on Ukraine on Russia’s own terms.  In Russia more generally, publicly broadcast notions of victory are maximalist and detached from reality.  Real discussions center on what can be salvaged by this debacle and how defeat can be mitigated.

On 11 January 2023 Gen Sergey Surovikin was replaced as single unified commander of the Russia Group of Forces for the Special Military Operation (SVO) in Ukraine, becoming one of three deputies to Chief of the General Staff (CGS) Valery Gerasimov, who as well as SVO commander retained his CGS duties (suggesting a demotion for both). Surovikin is considered to have played a bad hand well, overseeing the “regrouping” of Russian forces from Kherson to more defensible lines on the left bank of the Dnipro, stabilizing the ‘Luhansk front’ and addressing logistical and mobilization issues.

The Russian MoD and state-controlled media explained Gerasimov’s appointment as heralding a shift from “defensive” (“positional warfare”) to “offensive”, suggesting that the SVO could now be expanded to include large-scale long-term “war”.  Implied in the appointment is a Russian Spring Offensive. Realistically, by spring Gerasimov cannot address the systemic challenges that bedevil Russian military operations, including a largely incompetent officer corps, endemic corruption which emanates from the Kremlin, logistical, subordination and coordination issues. 

In theory the organizational prowess and vision of Gerasimov combined with the unsentimental battlefield brutality of Surovikin makes for a winning combination.  In practice Gerasimov may be able to use his role as the CGS to flex his political strength, given his centrality to the Putin regime, by implementing controlled escalation.  Non-strategic nuclear weapon escalation is very unlikely, unless Putin panics. Gerasimov’s escalatory options are ultimately political decisions. First, Belarus or the ‘northern front’ can be brought into play.  Lukashenka currently gives all support – munitions, training, the use of Belarusian territory as a launch pad – short of committing his maximum of 9000 deployable troops into Ukraine (of the 48,000 in the Belarusian armed forces), aware that Belarusian society and its military would object.  Second, more Russian reserves could be mobilized and/or Gerasimov could prioritize the deployment of better trained and equipped Russian conscripts over its “mobiks”, despite the reluctance of Russian society to sacrifice these “wards of the state”.

Another explanation offered for Gerasimov’s appointment is the need for Putin to restore a factional power balance and rests on the notion that a virtual open conflict is ongoing between the Defense Ministry, top political figures and mercenary group commanders.  In a regime where the presidency is the strongest institution presided over by a president-for-life, with no formal checks-and-balances, rule of law and accountability, factional infighting is driven by power (access to Putin) which in turn results in increased federal funding and the advantageous redistribution of property and profits.  Gerasimov’s appointment could signify Putin’s desire to restore the primacy of MoD/GS authority over the “mercenary generals”. This in turn points to another less visible reality: Russia’s war in Ukraine is driven not by the logic of victory but of avoiding blame and responsibility for defeat.  If this explanation has purchase, then might we not expect positive reporting of Wagner PMC in the Russian media to drop off and certainly Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner PMC’s leader, to desist from openly attacking the Shoigu and the GS.  Time will tell with regards to the latter, but the Russian media from 15 January resumed positive reporting of Wagner’s effort in Ukraine.  Prigozhin plays a necessary Zhirinovsky-jester role in the Russian psycho-drama – a man without allies or a firm institutional basis is only able to secure Putin’s patronage only to the extent that he is military relevant.  Hence the totemic importance of being seen to storm Bakhmut. 

For Putin, if not for Russian ‘technocrats’ (where mere survival constitutes victory), the appearance of being “victorious” (“Grand Victory”) against the West matters perhaps even more than tactical “victory” on the battlefield in Ukraine.  There are minimum preconditions though that any Russian negotiated victory must meet if Putin is to justify the costs of the war.  We can speculate that this includes not just consolidating existing territorial occupation but also seizing the rest of Donetsk region, including Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. The occupation of Donbas and a land corridor to Crimea represent Russian victory.  Russia does not have the troop-to-task ratio to achieve anything else. Putin views himself as a transformative leader, a commander-in-chief able in his New Year’s Eve address to lay down the law and use the war in Ukraine to fundamentally reshape Russia. For Putin, ideal victory comes with a Yalta-II summit (‘Grand Bargain’) in which the US and Russia negotiate as Great Powers the fate of Ukraine.  Russia is acknowledged as a co-equal Great Power by a dignified foe (the US), while it is able to dictate the fate of Ukraine within its sphere of influence.  But might victory for Putin also be understood in terms of his legacy in transforming Russia, with or without victory in Ukraine? Russia’s 2024 presidential election becomes the ritual consecration of Putin’s historic mission and Russia’s destiny, by this reading, not a stumbling block or check on Putin’s power. The notion of a ticking time clock putting Putin under pressure is an illusion: Putin’s ability to manufacture the reality of time by resetting the clock is in a sense the proof of the existence of God (Putin), at least in his mind.


It is clear that the incentives of parties have shifted over the last 11 months and that such shifts can open pathways for war termination through negotiation, though 2023 is likely to still be driven by military logic rather than diplomacy, especially as both sides prepare for offensives. In the balance is the Ukrainian desire for a sustainable war termination (“just peace”) as set against the real risks of Russian military reconstitution and conflict sustainment.  Security guarantees in the form of NATO membership may mitigate this risk, but even if such membership became largely symbolic (Ukraine is in effect already a de facto member of the NATO alliance), it would also constitute a strategic defeat for Russia.  Ukraine’s wider diplomatic effort centered on “unifying for peace” may also play a role in opening up new negotiation opportunities, for example, through the diplomatic engagement of China.  These opportunities are currently missing and may be able to be used to exert indirect influence on involved parties to move closer to a sustainable conflict resolution.


This summary reflects the views of the authors (Mark Galeotti, Orysia Lutsevych and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany, or any other governments. 

GCMC, 18 January 2023.

‘We Have Conversations’: The Gangster as Actor and Agent in Russian Foreign Policy

Courtesy of the Norwegian Research Council, my latest journal article, ‘We Have Conversations’: The Gangster as Actor and Agent in Russian Foreign Policy, published in Europe-Asia Studies, is on open access. You can find the full text at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09668136.2022.2154316

Come for the quotes from various practitioners, stay for the dissection of what may be behind that lazy ‘mafia state’ stereotype…

FY23 SCSS#3, 13 December 2022 – “Winter has Come!” Roundtable

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 13 December 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities will focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West.  Much has been assumed about the impact of winter on Russia’s ability to advance its invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine’s ability to resist, Western unity and potentially on increased pressure for a ceasefire – but on whose terms?  This roundtable examines these interlinked themes. 

Winter War?

In general terms, Russia expects winter will break western solidarity and resolve, increase calls for ceasefire on Russian terms and undercut Ukraine’s morale and will to fight.  Russian strikes against Ukraine’s energy grid have reduced in numbers but are sustainable through the winter and have a cumulative effect.  An operational pause appears underway, akin to August 2022 before Ukraine’s lightning counter attack in September to retake Kharkiv region, as each side probes the other in search of weakness, vulnerabilities and opportunities.  Ukraine makes small advances on the Svatove-Kremina line, for example, and undertakes long-range strikes against Russian supply nodes, while Russia makes slow incremental gains around Bakhmut. 

When surveying Russian mainstream commentators and military bloggers, two other themes emerge: Russia makes advances at the front; Russia is vulnerable in its rear to long range Ukrainian strikes. These bloggers show a renewed confidence. They believe that Russia has regained the military initiative and advantage from the low point of 9 November Kherson “regrouping” announcement.  Slow advances towards Bakhmut, it is argued, are not only proof positive of this proposition, but also demonstrate that Gen Surovikin’s recommendation, accepted by Defense Minister Shoigu, was the right one as it allowed Russian troops to withdraw to more defensive lines in the south and be redeployed to focus on expanding Russian territorial control of Donetsk region. Shortages of artillery munitions, this narrative argues, can and are being addressed.  Newly mobilized and better trained battalions will be ready for a “Spring Offensive”. 

The sense that time is on Russia’s side and that Russia’s military position is sustainable has taken hold.  Three months into the mobilization announced on 22 September, we can see that overall it is having an effect: 50,000 are deployed, 250,000 to be deployed and the annual autumn draft generates another 100,000. These conscripts can only be deployed to Russian territory – which, in Russia’s eyes, includes occupied Ukraine.  In reality, though, Russia continues to overestimate its own ability and underestimate Ukraine’s and so miscalculate the balance of forces.  Differences are most stark in logistics, with Russia’s logistical supply chains broken. It is also very apparent that production in Russia’s defense industrial complex is very dependent on western component parts.  Ten months into the war the Russian military has more able-bodied men but these new forces have less armor, heavy weapons and military equipment available to them.  Russia is not ready to repel a Ukrainian winter offensive. 

Repurposed Ukrainian Soviet-era targeting drones are successfully, if symbolically, capable of attacking a 1000km into Russia’s rear. The direct attack on a part of Russia’s nuclear triad (Russian strategic bombers at Engels airbase) is an unprecedented event and the expectation among commentators and bloggers was Russia would launch a very punishing response.  This has yet to occur. In addition, the perception holds that Ukraine received green light from the Pentagon to launch the attack, used western supplied long-range missiles and received western targeting aid.  Such targeting, the perception holds, was also in evidence in attacks on Saki airfield and Sevastopol in Crimea, the Moskva cruiser, Kerch bridge and Wagner PMC HQ in Luhansk.  Another concern expressed is in the decline of the supply of Iranian drones for swarm attacks against Ukraine.

By some estimates, there is a 20-30% probability that Ukraine could launch an offensive in Zaporizhzhia region around late January-February 2023, but this would likely consist of gradual advances, both in order to reduce combat fatalities and because more robust Russian defenses make the kind of collapse that occurred in the Kharkiv region in September relatively unlikely.  Ukraine’s military enjoys much better morale, winter warfare equipment and logistical supplies (in part due to shorter lines of communication). Russian missile attacks against civilians in cities force Ukraine to deploy its air defense to protect cities, opening the possibility that Russia deploys its air force against Ukraine’s military on the front lines, making continued western air defense assistance and support more generally a priority.  Ukrainian morale remains high.

Continued European Solidarity?

Europe faces an unprecedented energy crisis as Russia supplied 25% of its crude oil, 40% of its gas supply and 50% of coal deliveries.  Expectations around the potential magnitude of the crisis have not been met: the current situation is better than expected.  Gas storage in Germany, for example, is at 90%, electricity supply is stable, and gasoline cheaper now than before the conflict (see chart below).

Although it is still early in the winter, we do have data and scenarios that indicate a high probability that there will be no shortage. (See Chart below)

A number of explanations account for this better than expected outcome.  First, the EU’s energy market has functioned well, reducing consumption and brining new energy to Europe.  Second, luck with external conditions is a factor, not least the weather a drop in Chinese consumption.  Third, with few exceptions, the alignment of EU and national energy policies have prompted the filling of storages, commitments to energy conservation and the construction of new infrastructure. In a milestone achievement, the first ever LNG shipment (“Esperenza”) docks in Germany on 15 December 2022.

How can European populations and businesses be protected from the impact?  The impact feels very different in different parts of Europe, depending energy systems, industrial consumption, and, most importantly, the fiscal ability of a state to shield its consumers. Despite policy not advancing in some areas, such as a gas price cap, heated bargaining and accusations, energy has not led to deeper divisions. Why?  First, it is abundantly clear that what is at stake is extremely important.  As a result, attempts to divide the EU at this critical time run the risks of paying a high political price.  Second, the process of advancing energy policy is characterized by lots of bargaining, over, for example, sanctions, price caps, and subsidies. In this process, there is no single East-West, core-center, North-South cleavage in Europe but rather overlapping coalitions which generates stability.

How is societal cohesion impacted?  It is difficult to measure social cohesion though protest can serve as an indirect indicator.  In Prague in late October 2022 a protest gathering of 70,000 proved to be an outlie. In Germany, for example, there has been no large protest and support for the political party ‘Alternative for Germany’ peaked on this issue in October, when uncertainty and fear was at its highest.  Lower gas prices and distractions, such as the world football championship and Christmas, are also factors.  Attitudes, however, could change quickly.  An unpredicted disaster, an attack by Russia on Norwegian pipelines, or a freak event generated by system stretched are all possible.  In addition, Russian disinformation targeting Ukrainian refugees and host state populations may be a factor, particularly following a potential upsurge in refugees over winter if the Ukrainian energy grid collapses.

In the case of Germany, it is clear that this is Putin’s war and that blame for subsequent energy disruption is easily attributed.  For this reason, energy will not be the factor that results in a trade “land for peace” compromise, allowing Russia to reconstitute its military, consolidate political control and perpetuate the conflict at a time of its choosing.  In Germany, entrenched pacifism or fear of escalation (the issue of supplying German tanks to Ukraine is a case in point) could become problematic.

Winter Stalemate and Ceasefire?

Better than expected energy policies have mitigated the risk that “General Winter” would build western pressure that pushes Ukraine to accept a ceasefire on Russian terms.  There is no prospect of peace talks this winter between Russia and Ukraine, but there is still a lot of talking going on. There are talks about talks, there are various talks about concrete issues that may have a wider impact on the conflict, and there are talks about avoiding escalation. There is therefore a gradual institutionalization of contacts, negotiated PoW exchanges, local ceasefires and vested interests in play that complicate the picture. 

Talks about talks: A flurry of discussions in the media about talks in November may have proved divorced from the reality on the ground, but they did reflect real anxieties in the West about how to support Ukraine if the war dragged on through 2023.  The New York Times, for example, reported different views on peace talks being aired inside the White House.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark Milley’s suggestion in November that Ukraine should be ready to contemplate negotiations with Moscow to consolidate its current gains on the ground met with a frosty response in Kyiv.

Ukraine’s position: Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Zaluzhny responded that “The Ukrainian military will not accept any negotiations, agreements or compromises” and named the Ukrainian condition for negotiations – the withdrawal of Russian troops from “all captured territories.”  As Zaluzhny’s comments suggest, Ukraine’s military leadership has no interest in talks which would likely only consolidate Russia’s territorial gains and public opinion is supportive: at least 70% of Ukrainians want to continue to militarily resist Russian aggression.  Ukraine believes it has a viable military option to end the war on its terms. But there are evidently different views in Kyiv.  Although the maximalist public position – including the return of Crimea – is becoming difficult to step back from, in negotiations Ukraine could shift positions.  Indeed, under pressure from Washington, President Zelensky has put more effort into a diplomatic track. He presented a 10-point peace plan at the G20 and has called for a Ukrainian Peace Formula Summit. Although the plan was largely a restatement of Ukraine’s war goals, it demonstrated an understanding of the importance of a political track. Ukraine is now trying to build on its proposals to conjure up more support – both in the West to help it survive the winter – and in the global south, where Ukraine recognizes Russia’s narrative has had some cut-through.

Russian position: Despite Russian rhetoric about being ready for talks, in reality Moscow only wants talk on its terms. An effective precondition for Russia is at a minimum de facto recognition by Ukraine of Russia’s existing territorial occupation. Speaking at a recent summit in Bishkek, Putin agreed that there would one day be a political settlement, but added that “all participants in this process will have to agree with the realities that are taking shape on the ground.”  This sentiment was reiterated by Putin’s press spokesman Dmitry Peskov on 13 December, when he rejected Zelensky’s peace proposal and insisted that Ukraine must accept new “realities”.

Russia seems to believe that its aerial campaign against Ukraine combined with declining support from the West will eventually lead to talks on its terms, involving territorial concessions by Kyiv and the acceptance of constraints on a future Ukrainian state’s foreign, defense and domestic politics. Broadly speaking, Russia sees time on its side and predicts that in 2023 it will be much harder to sustain financial support to Ukraine. Eventually, Ukraine will crack.

But behind this unrealistic view there are signs of splits in elite opinion. The so-called patriotic camp appears to be increasingly divided about how to go forward. One wing of this camp is still hoping for various types of escalation to force Ukraine to capitulate – or just collapse – but there are also signs of a more realistic appraisal from some in the patriotic camp. This group accepted the military necessity of the withdrawal from Kherson and now advocates a resigned position of defending what Russia has already seized, while focusing attention on building up Russia’s defense and economy at home.

Zaporizhzhia.  Even if talks about a peace deal are unlikely, there are few other channels opening up to discuss how to manage different aspects of the war. An example is the Zaporizhzhia power plant, where IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has been mediating talks between the two sides over establishing a “protection zone” around the plant. In theory, some kind of de-militarization of the site is possible but so far Russia has refused to withdraw its forces. Neither side trusts the other – and both have principled objections to any agreement that delegitimizes their territorial claims. The dispute is a microcosm of a wider dilemma for Ukraine. Any agreement on a protection zone around the plant that leaves Russian forces in place is a de facto ceasefire that legitimizes the Russian presence and allows them to consolidate control.

Ammonia for prisoners. Zaporizhzhia is not the only behind-the-scenes negotiation. Russian and Ukrainian delegations met on 17 November in Abu Dhabi to discuss resuming the export of Russian ammonia along a Soviet-era pipeline from Togliatti in Russia to Odesa (exports were halted after the war began) in exchange for a return of POWs. Russian ammonia exports were included in the grain deal agreed in July between Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN, but Ukraine is reluctant to allow Russian business to earn huge profits from ammonia exports through Odesa while Russia continues to bomb the city. These talks have not reached any agreement yet although there were further prisoner exchanges on 1 and 6 December.


While the conflict is “mutually hurting”, a stalemate is not in evidence, far less exhaustion.  A prolonged war of attrition by drone and missile attack may appear the default pathway, but it is not the only one. Putin has to escalate not to lose and Russian “victory-at-any-costs” rhetoric and targeting of cities and civilian infrastructure increases Ukraine’s will to resist and reject a ceasefire on Russian terms.  Winter has not led to a strategic impasse.  Fears of a grey-zone protracted inconclusive conflict characterized by operational exhaustion, war fatigue and the rise of a “give peace a chance” camp in Europe are not realized. Paradoxically, a high intensity fluid deadlock is in balance at break-point.

A deterioration of Russian military leadership and poor discipline, training and supply will generate significant impacts on Russia’s ability to generate deployable combat power, even come spring. Russia manages between 10-15 air sorties per day (a maximum of 20) which is inadequate given the scale of the conflict and does not allow aerial dominance.  An opposite set of drivers appear the reality for Ukraine.  Trust in the top leaders and wider Ukrainian institutions, such as the armed forces, emergency services and police, high morale and continued support for mobilization in defense of Ukrainian statehood are all in evidence.  Ukraine has western trained specialized units, much better logistical chains and western military assistance tied to an operational plan. The strength of Ukrainian air defense explains the underperformance of the Russian air force. Western solidarity is boosted by effective energy policy responses to what had been dependence on Russian energy.

As Russia perceives that time is on its side, and is using an operational pause to regroup and reconstitute its military in order to launch new offensives in the spring, the incentives for a focused Ukrainian offensive in winter increase – with the probability over 50%.  Major Ukrainian military advances would dramatically alter political positions, leading not just to the replacement of Gen Gerasimov, but badly damaging the political legitimacy of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief – that is, President Putin.  

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Dmitry Gorenburg, Janis Kluge, David Lewis and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany, or any other governments. 

GCMC, 14 December 2022.

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