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.

Introduction

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.

Conclusions

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.

Disclaimer:

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.

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.

Introduction

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.

Conclusions:

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.

Putin’s Retirement Speech (if only) and Whacky Kremlin Sitcoms

There’s a fascinating AI (artificial intelligence) project currently openly available, ChatGPT, which allows you to ask the system to write texts on any topic in whatever style. As a momentary and welcome distraction, I played around with it.

First of all, I asked it to generate four ideas for a sitcom set in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. It came up with:

  1. The Kremlin Komedians” follows a group of bumbling bureaucrats as they navigate the cutthroat world of Russian politics.
  2. Putin’s Palace” centers on the personal and professional lives of the staff at the President’s official residence.
  3. Kremlin Chaos” showcases the absurd and hilarious antics of the President’s advisors as they try to keep him in line.
  4. The Putin Show” is a mockumentary-style sitcom that parodies the inner workings of the Kremlin, with Putin himself playing the lead role.

Then, I requested that the AI wrote a speech by Vladimir Putin in which he explains why he is retiring from office in the context of the war in Ukraine:

Dear fellow Russians,

Today, I am announcing my decision to retire from the office of President of the Russian Federation. This decision has not come easily, as I have devoted my entire life to serving our great nation. But after much contemplation and consideration, I have come to the realization that it is time for me to step down and allow fresh leadership to guide Russia into the future.

Over the past two decades, I have had the honor of leading Russia through some of the most challenging and transformative times in our history. We have faced economic hardships, global tensions, and political turmoil. But through it all, we have remained strong and resilient, and have emerged as a global power on the world stage.

However, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has weighed heavily on my mind and on the hearts of the Russian people. Despite our best efforts to find a peaceful resolution, the situation has only grown more complex and dangerous.

It is with a heavy heart that I announce my decision to retire from office, in the hopes that a new leader will be able to bring fresh perspective and renewed efforts to the negotiations and peace talks in Ukraine.

I am confident that the future of Russia is bright. We have a strong foundation, a resilient people, and an unwavering commitment to our national interests. And with the right leadership, I am confident that we can continue to prosper and thrive in the coming years.

I want to thank each and every one of you for your support and dedication over the years. It has been a privilege to serve as your President, and I will always cherish the memories and experiences we have shared together.

I look forward to watching Russia continue to grow and flourish, and I am confident that the best days for our great nation are yet to come.

Thank you, and may God bless Russia.

Sincerely,

Vladimir Putin

Ah well, we can all dream, even if these are electric dreams…

PS, if anyone’s wondering about that image at the head of this post, there apparently is a game called Putin vs. Aliens: Extended Cut CyberPutin 2033 and then, as if there were not enough, CyberPutin 2077: Endgame (or Путин против Инопланетян: Финал), described as

In 2015, Vladimir Putin received a call from aliens, who said they would destroy the Earth. We didn’t have to wait for help from the West, because they were rotten. Therefore, Putin was not confused, and together with loyal friends punished the aliens in full!
Now, in 2020, it’s time for the final battle! Between stability and surprise, between the sun of all Russia V. V. Putin and God-fearing Aliens! In space!
In the game you will learn the secret of the origin of aliens, as well as get a unique gaming experience, because the game consists of four parts: Arcade, Strategy, RPG and, of course, Putin!

And no, I haven’t played it.

FY23 SCSS#2, 15 November 2022: “Militaries, Mercenaries, Militias and Morale and the Ukraine War”

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 15 November 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.

Introduction

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.  To this end, SCSS#2 identified and explored the impact of multiple militaries on Russia’s war fighting effort in Ukraine. Has Russia achieved ‘unity of command’ with the appointment of Gen Surovikin to overall commander of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine? How does theory of unified command differ from practice? What are the operational effectiveness implications of discrepancies between the two?

Russia’s Formal Chain of Command

The integrity of Russia’s military command is a constant issue.  Russia’s multi-axis military invasion of Ukraine, initiated at 0400 CET on 24 February 2022, was led by multiple commanders.  In October 2022 Gen Surovikin was appointed top Russian commander. However, unity of command has not appreciably strengthened.  On paper Russia adopts a formal chain of unified command of the Russia Group of Forces for Special Military Operation in Ukraine.  Gen Surovikin is the unified commander and as such is ultimately responsible for any resultant loss of operational effectiveness. Figure 1 outlines how in theory Russia’s formal chain of command should operate in Ukraine.  

We can see that a wide variety of military actors are subordinated within this unified chain of command. It is difficult to verify with certainty thee current numbers of these actors as figures regarding ‘attrition rates’ and reconstitution with mobilized troops are not readily available.  Approximations can be made and, given this, we should focus less on the exact figures and more on the relative balance between different units.

  • Regular Military: c. 80,000 (?)
  • Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republic (LDNR) Forces: c. 20,000 – these forces, the so-called 1st and 2nd Corps are very depleted and have been formally annexed into Russia’s regular military
  • Opolcheniye (Militia): 3,000-13,000 (low/mid-range i.e. 5-6k likely)
  • Wagner PMC: 1,000-8,000 (higher end likely) – heavy casualties but are also being reconstituted through a recruitment drive, including of Russian prisoners
  • Rosgvardiya (National Guard): c. 17,000 (?) – includes elite OMON and other interior troops
  • Chechens: 4-6 ‘battalions’ – 2,000-12,000 (lower end likely) – are formally supported to Rosgvardiya

The real chain of command

The Russian chain of command that appears to operate in practice in Ukraine is more chaotic and fragmentary than the theory suggests. This introduces needless friction into cooperation between different units and branches, limiting combined arms efforts, mutual logistical support and so operational effectiveness. Figure 2 highlights how in practice Russia’s informal chain of command does operate in Ukraine. 

What are the notable differences between theory and practice?

  • Wagner PMC is directly subordinated to Prigozhin and his military coordination cell.  Gen Surovikin and the General Staff (the unified command) can request of Wagner troops but Prigozhin’s approval is needed as subordination to unified command would lead to the integration of Wagner into the regular military (institutionalization or ‘empire building’) leading to a loss of autonomy and control over his PMC for at least the duration of an open-ended conflict.
  • Chechen forces in theory are subordinated to Rosgvardiya which in turn reports to the unified command. In practice, as with Wagner and Prigozhin, Kadyrov has direct control over his Kadyrovsky and counter-confirmation is needed if these units are ordered to change location.This de facto veto power addstime and friction to the decision-making and implementation process and so increases dysfunction on battlefield.
  • Rosgvardiya units should be directly subordinated under the unified command.  However, Zolotov has to counter-confirm major engagement and relocation orders, if only because Rosgvardiya commanders in Ukraine seek permission to avoid exposure.  As with the other caveats, added time and friction hampers the operational effectiveness of Russian forces.  – bitter competition over fuel and other necessary supplies and logistics
  • LNR and DNR militias are in theory integrated into the regular Russian military and this in fact largely reflects practice. 

Implications for Russian military operations

Russia’s ‘Unified Command’ is not unified and does not therefore command as it should.  This lack of unity only exacerbates friction between the regular military, Rosgvardiya, Wagner, Kadyrovsky and militias. While it is difficult to assess the potential in combat effect if Russia would be able to realign its fragmented command structure, we can note shortcomings that arise from the current state of affairs.

  • Outright conflict: there is suspicion that Wagner’s months long grinding assault on Bakhmut, strategic value, represents a means of the regular Russian military to control Wagner. However, given Wagner fights alongside the Marine Brigade of the Pacific Fleet (itself supplemented by newly mobilized middle-aged men), ‘disciplining’ and subordinating Wagner cannot be the whole story.
  • Fragmented morale: it is harder to make broader assumptions about Russian morale as morale is not always fixed but can change.  Factors such as logistics support, C3, battlefield losses and withdrawals, winter temperatures, and the falling quality of Russian officers all play a role.  Officers are a key factor in whether troops stand and fight – unlikely if their officers are the first to run.  Morale plummets if officers do not engender trust in the chain of command, issue incomprehensible orders, and are drunk.  Fragmented morale may mitigate the possibility of a cascading collapse of morale, a culmination point.
  • Poor coordination and logistical support: weak communication hampers the provision of logistical support (for example, artillery ammunition and fuel for close air support operations), which is critical to enabling not just Russian combined arms offensive operations, but also defending territory.  Lack of logistical support also further drains morale.  Ukrainian coordination appears by contrast fluid, allow for vertical and horizontal exchanges, integration and adaptation.    

From Symptoms to Causes and Future Trends:

The current fragmented command structure reflects the political fundamentals of the Russian state. To put it another way, where power lies on the battlefield is where power in Moscow. President Putin creates checks and balances through non-institutionalized fragmentation so that groups compete against each other and he can exercise arbitration power and uphold a necessary function in the system.  Added to this, the divergent competitive goals (desire to optimise revenues, recruit best personnel, define mission and narrative) of these sub-institutional actors promotes clashes.  Putin’s ‘power vertical’ is a fiction. 

In addition, the more entrepreneurial Russian elements formally subordinated in the chain of command all have other functions in the Putinite system which legitimises their autonomy. Kadyrov’s independent standing is seen as necessary to avoid a third Chechen war, even as Kadyrov seeks to instrumentalise involvement in the war to secure heavy weaponry for his light infantry forces, and prepare for life after Putin (his patron).  Zolotov’s Rosgvardiya is all that stands between a ‘color revolution’ and the Kremlin, at least in the paranoid mindsets of Russia’s national security elite. Prigozhin’s utility stems from being a fixer – Wagner offers the possibility of quick fix solutions. Like Kadyrov, Prigozhin is a ‘conflict entrepreneur’, seeking to monetize conflict (governors outsource the training of her militias to Wagner) and privatize the profits from ‘patriotic public service’.  

Prigozhin is an oligarch of the third order and lacks unlimited funds. The opaqueness regarding the military men around him and his own command structure leads to a questioning of his standing: is he a front and mouthpiece? If so, for whom?  Is it the GRU?  Some have speculated that it is the GRU, basing this understanding on Wagner’s genesis in 2014-15 in Donbas and Syria.  However, the GRU is tasked to operate spetsnaz behind enemy lines (not in evidence in Ukraine), not police Wagner.  Moreover, Prigozhin publicly denigrates the competence of Russia’s General Staff (GRU is subordinated to the GenStaff), the performance of individual Russian Generals (Lapin) and professionalism of Defense Minister Shoigu. Such verbal tirades are hardly indicative of GRU ‘control’ over Wagner.  The SVR focuses on gathering political (assessing political will) and technical intelligence where it can in West and so is not a contender.  The FSB’s military counter-intelligence directorate monitors the Russian military, and therefore Prigozhin and Wagner will formally at least fall under their oversight.

Russia seeks to avoid losing the war and this means dragging the conflict out to allow for reconstitution.  Time therefore may institutionalize the actual current operating chain of command and improve its functioning.  Russia’s reliance on a wide variety of military actors appears dysfunctional but is this offset by the benefits of greater force generation?  Although mobilization should have strengthened manpower of regular army, it is not clear if this is the case.  Certainly though, the regular military increases in size relative to militias, which are subsumed within it, not to say cannibalized. It is a mistake to underestimate Russian capacity to cope with dysfunctionality.  It is also possible that Russia slowly learns from the Syrian example and experience of coalitional warfare: “Managing the Chechens is like getting Hezbollah to follow the plan”.

Looking to the future, current attrition rates coupled with sanctions and technology controls, suggest it will take at least 10 years to reconstitute the Russian military. How Russia reconstitutes will all depend on who is Russia’s political leader and the mission they set the military, particularly with regards Europe and Eurasia. Politics will have primacy.  The reconstitution slogan may well be “build back better” but the reality will be “build back basics”, first and foremost regarding a force structure fit for purpose and a functioning chain of command. 

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Mark Galeotti, Pavel Baev, and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany, or any other governments.  GCMC, 19 October 2022.

Chain of command figures © Mark Galeotti 2022

FY23 SCSS#1, 18 October 2022 – Roundtable: “Alternative Ukrainian Future Trajectories: Implications for Russia and the West”

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 18 October 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.

Introduction

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.  This Roundtable examines three aspects of the puzzle: Russia’s vertical escalation potential; prospects of Russian regime change; and Ukrainian intelligence covert action.

Russian Nuclear Escalation Potential

Russia has undertaken mobilization, annexation, created a new ‘joint force’ in Belarus (all aspects of ‘horizontal escalation”) and attacked Ukrainian critical national infrastructure.  Putin states that 220,00 ‘mobiks’ have so far been mobilized, with 16,000 already deployed to the occupied territories in combat units. Kremlin predictive thinking is that these measures will enable Russia to stabilize its front lines over Winter. This then creates the conditions for the insertion of even more mobilized and trained troops into Ukraine in the Spring, allowing Russia to launch counter-offensives and be victorious.  The need for vertical escalation is negated by this winning strategy, though its threat is designed to intimidate the West into pressuring Ukraine to negotiate a settlement on Russia’s terms.

This predictive thinking can be questioned.  Russia commits a dual blunder: it annexes territory it does not fully control and mobilizes troops its military cannot absorb/process. In this sense, Russian “forced mobilization” does not immediately boost Russia’s conventional capability. In the short term, rather than consolidation, the cohesion of Russian combat units may decrease.  Inter-ethnic tensions (Belgorod shooting) within the Russian military are exposed. The joint grouping in Belarus is not meant for warfighting (it lacks offensive capability) but is designed to increase the length of the front that Ukraine must worry about.  Attacks on Ukrainian CNI will have an impact in winter but do not materially change the military situation. 

Over the longer term the presence of mobilized troops boosts Russia’s defensive capability and so slows Ukrainian advances, increasing the time Ukraine takes to retake territory, and blunts break-through potential. By March 2023 troops being trained now will have a greater utility and numbers count.  However, in the context of autumn 2022 rather than spring 2023, a sudden large and damaging Ukrainian breakthrough on the ‘Kherson front’, where retreat is not possible, increases the possibility of a Russian military rout.  Ukrainian troops “at the gates of Sevastopol” is a less likely scenario over the next month.  Nonetheless, in either case panic in the Russian military leads to large scale desertion, surrender and mutiny in the Russian military.  Panic in the Kremlin may lead to Russian vertical escalation.  Already one component of the Russian nuclear triad – strategic bombers – are in use in the war in Ukraine and in principle conventional munitions can be exchanged for nuclear.

Several factors mitigate against nuclear use.  Since 1991 Russia lacks practical experience of handling nuclear weapons. This raises the possibilities of human error, mishandling at the delivery, arming or firing stages.  Will the munitions explode?  Will orders be obeyed?  Russia has not brought non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons out of its 12 storage sites, nor has it carried out preparatory nuclear testing (for example, a land or air-based test above Novaya Zemlya) or “nuclearized” its conventional forces. For these reasons, Russian vertical escalation probability is tied to the speed and scale of Ukrainian advances and the effects of the shock of Russian predictive thinking shattering.

Prospects of Regime Change in Russia

Russia cannot win against Ukraine if the West continues current levels of support and Putin cannot admit defeat, regardless of Ukraine taking back occupied territory.  When victory is not possible and defeat not an option, we can expect a prolonged conflict.   Russia will pressure the West to pressure Ukraine and at the same time make the war felt throughout Ukraine though drone and missile attacks. Under such conditions, how likely is regime change in Russia?

“Not very” is the short answer: organized opposition in Russia is destroyed or imprisoned, the regime increases repression and letting those who do not want to fight leave acts a safety valve, allowing Russia to maintain internal pressure at acceptable levels.  Elite splits within Russia are highly unlikely even if losses continue –public divisions that have occurred so far are focused on avoiding blame for setbacks rather than questioning the whole rationale for war or moving to depose Putin.  For the elite and their own costs/benefits calculus, the risks of regime defection are still much greater than maintaining the status quo.  Lenin noted that societal revolt only possible when elites are dissatisfied and divided. According to this logic, stable contemporary Russian elites and limited protest potential means stable society. If elites and society are stable, then the logic of Western discussions about how Putin must entertain vertical escalate to avoid defeat because defeat leads inexorably to regime change, need to be reassessed.   No need therefore for vertical escalation. 

Though a sudden coup/collapse of the regime is unlikely, it cannot be ruled out. The elites are prepared to be in the “party of a long war” but not the “party of defeat”.  A Kherson breakthrough might change the calculus.  If societal attitudes change from apathy to opposition to the war, the security state is less able to respond, given forces like Rosgvardiya are partially deployed to Ukraine, and those remaining are locally recruited and perhaps reluctant to turn on their home towns. Leaderships can bubble forth grievances or resentments do not have to be political and directly war focused.  Economic hardship in Russian mono-industrial towns could be a source of grievance, resentment and protest. The dynamic of pre-emptive purging by the elite in the context of no opposition and the need to assign blame after military setbacks may become a factor. 

Although unlikely, if Putin is removed or dies, this is likely to be a “good thing”.  Western commentators fear of what comes after Putin is misguided.  There is a lot of uncertainty to be sure, but we know that Putin in power is destabilizing. The most likely scenario if Putin goes is internal jockeying for position in new collective leadership order, which in turn assumes a managed intra-elite power transition, as occurred after the death of Stalin in 1953 or after Khrushchev was deposed in 1964. Collective leadership entails coalition building, a move from the extremes to the center and consensus.  Internal consolidation is likely to distract Russia from external fight.

Ukrainian Intelligence Covert Action

Since the summer, the focus has been on the Ukrainian counteroffensive and changes on the battlefield. But there is also a growing parallel war fought by Ukrainian Special Forces and intelligence agencies behind Russian lines in the occupied territories and within the Russian Federation.  These attacks are characterized by a willingness to take greater risk than Western supporters may be comfortable with and expand horizontally the geography of the conflict.  The Crimean bridge attack, for example, while boosting Ukrainian morale, also challenged Ukraine’s western partners’ appetite for risking escalation.

The performance of Ukraine’s domestic Security Service (SBU) has exceeded expectations, given its reputation prior to the war for under performance and Russian penetration.  But it is Ukrainian Military Intelligence, the GUR, that has grabbed most of the headlines in recent months. Gen Kyrylo Budanov, its 36-year-old chief, oversees Ukrainian intelligence covert activities. Though it is difficult to assign exploits to specific intelligence agencies (not least as Russia denies in some cases that a covert action occurred or refuses to attribute them to Ukraine), the GUR appears responsible for high-risk, high-profile operations e.g. retaking Snake Island and resupplying Azovstal by heliocopter under siege. 

In the occupied territories subversion is designed to destabilize Russian control while reasserting Ukraine’s and to set the agenda.  Attacks in Crimea, including the Black Sea Fleet Naval HQ in Sevastopol on Russia’s Navy Day (26 July) and on Saki airfield and other air bases and ammunition dumps, as well as the Crimea bridge itself, has the effect of softening Russia’s red lines and reaffirming the political importance of Crimea as part of Ukraine.  The spread of the war to the Russian Federation, particularly Kursk and Belgorod regions through attacks on transport and energy infrastructure suggests how the war may develop over the winter behind the lines, even if stalemated on the front lines.  The car bomb attack against Darya Dugina on 20 August has been attributed to Ukraine by US officials (although denied by Kyiv). It highlighted that Ukraine was willing and able to attack individuals inside Russia – including potentially Russian officials – and accept escalation risks in doing so.

While these attacks have served Ukraine’s political and military agendas, some high-risk operations have caused concern in western capitals. They are a reminder that Ukraine is willing to push its own sovereign agenda to determine the geography of the battlefield, work outside its borders and effectively disrupt the assumptions of Russia.  But it is likely that risk assessments in Kyiv and Washington DC differ, with Ukraine willing to take greater risk than its western partners, raising questions about future escalation management.  The role of the intelligence services will impact on the role of the ‘security-intelligence bloc’ within Ukraine. Effective covert action is aligned with a “Big Israel” potential alternative future trajectory for Ukraine. 

Conclusions

Assessments offered suggest vertical escalation unlikely, but so too is Russian regime change.  A prolonged war of attrition appears to be the default pathway, with conventional battles along the frontline, Ukrainian covert action in the occupied territories and Russia itself, and the threat of offensive action from Belarus.  Russian nuclear rhetoric attempts to persuade the West to pressure Ukraine to accept Russian terms.  A reconstituted Russian military comes out fighting in the spring of 2023.

We may see one more big push this month before weather conditions worsen. In Kherson, Luhansk or both rather than Zaporizhiia, as it is easier to try to break through in areas where Russian forces are less dug in than where lines have been stable for months. The rainy season gives reason for a temporary 1-2 month pause for maneuver warfare, which can begin again once the ground freezes, especially if it seems that Russian forces have supply problems with cold weather gear.  If Ukrainians feel they are more comfortable fighting in cold than Russian forces, could take advantage.

‘Attrition by drone and missile attack’ appears not to be breaking Ukraine’s will to resist, but rather uniting a nation in anger, bridging internal differences and forging a more consolidated society. Brutal and indiscriminate Russian attacks against Ukrainian civilian population centers undercuts potential western ‘war fatigue’, and maintains western financial and military support for Ukraine.  Russia’s remaining military capability and its ability to reconstitute itself is not a given. Belarus’ role remains unresolved and uncertain.  A sudden Ukrainian battlefield breakthrough could still constitute a game changer, pushing Russian society to oppose the war. Time is not neutral.  Russia looks to surge again in the spring of 2023 but this is one year from an inflection point – Russia’s 2024 presidential election.  Does Russia’s inability to secure a ‘victory’ become a defeat for Putin?  And then what?

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Dmitry Gorenburg, Mark Galeotti, David Lewis and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany, or any other governments.  GCMC, 19 October 2022.

Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) Workshop II Aide Memoire

This is a summary of discussions from the second workshop of the George C Marshall Centre’s Strategic Competition Seminar Series, held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on 20-21 September 2022.

Session 1: Roundtable: Russia-China Nexus: Dynamics, Trajectories?

  • The US understands that the alignment between Russia and China has three key features.  Both Russia and China: 1) question the rules-based world order (not representative, advance US interests); 2) develop disruptive technologies (AI, nano, hypersonic); 3) offer economic and normative models that deny individual liberty, democratic rights and the rule of law (the values upon which the Russo-Chinese alignment is founded). Russia-Chinese partnership is supported by military cooperation, Russian resources/energy and Chinese consumer goods exports and a privileging of their respective “core interests” above all else, even wider compatible geopolitical interests.  China does not, for example, offer Russia material assistance to prosecute its war in Ukraine, and does express support for the principle of non-interference. 
  • In Germany Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine was a shock for an SPD-Green-Liberal coalition government.  The coalition treaty of December 2021 was predicated on a continuation of Germany’s export market growth model, which in turn presupposed cheap Russian gas and stable and predictable global markets. The war became the “external necessity” to decouple the German economy from Russia’s. This process is underway and irreversible. It also raised the specter of an “autocratic alliance” as an anti-Western coalition which threatens open markets and the German business model. Assessments and reappraisals note that strategic decoupling from China could be a potential policy response, though the structural constraints (Germany’s investments in and so exposure to China’s economy) are much greater.  There is no current political consensus amongst coalitional partners and no “external necessity” (such as the invasion of Taiwan) to trigger a policy change.
  • Russia’s leadership’s approach is not monolithic and reflects a mix of ideological and pragmatic concession-seeking considerations.  Three perspectives can be highlighted:
    • 1) Liberal view (Russian opposition): Russia’s economic dependence and junior partner status undercuts Russia’s strategic autonomy and diplomatic influence and leads to political isolation.  As Russia cannot balance economic asymmetry with military relations, it must make concessions in the Arctic, on military technology transfers and place limits on its hedging behavior with India and Vietnam;
    • 2) Bipolar world (Valdai Club/Karaganov): Russia should align with a stronger China against a weaker West to ensure Russia not an adjunct to the West, Russia helps generate a new world order, even if Russia serves as a “battering ram” for China against the West;
    • 3) “Transactional Middle”: the relationship is driven from below by non-ideological pragmatic corporate interests.  Russian coal magnates, for example, have vested interests in railroad and port infrastructure developments and trade expected to reach $190-200bn in 2022 while independent Chinese oil refineries seek cheap oil.   
  • China’s perspective is dominated by three considerations.  First, China wants the relationship to be viewed by other states as close and important (superior and special), a desire underscored by 40 Xi-Putin meetings since 2014, with the latest on 4 February and 15 September 2022, and language used in read-outs (“new model”, “no limits”) that stress the nexus’ effectiveness and utility in generating benefits.  Second, that the relationship rejects “US hegemony” and promotes a “new type of responsible leadership” within a multipolar world. China’s rhetoric is that it is the US response to Ukraine that causes the conflict, just as US behavior in the Indo-Pacific region has the same effect.  Third, China’s core interests and priorities are paramount and Chinese pragmatism understands that Russia is a junior partner, with greater political rather than economic utility for China. 
  • Alliance? Both Russia and China preference their strategic autonomy, flexibility and policy independence over the possibility of a formal by treaty military alliance, which is not needed for security guarantees or extended deterrence and would only bind and constrain each ally from exerting strategic autonomy, preventing each from freely dominating their respective spheres, managing their shared neighborhood.  The peak in the nexus was possibility the eve of the COVID pandemic in January 2020 rather than prior to invasion of Ukraine in January 2022.  China ultimately seeks to make the world safe for China and will not expend political capital on Ukraine, which is not a core interest. The CPP’s 20th Party Congress (November 2022) will likely consolidate Xi’s power and mark continuity in China’s approach to Russia. Both Russia and China project different global orders: Beijing seeks revisionist, stable sphere of influence system in which China exercises global leadership via control of Asia, but a G-Zero world order of uncertainty and crisis best suits Russian interests. 

Session 2:        Russia-China in Asia?

  • Sino-Russian defense cooperation: the PLA is an instrument of the CPP, upholding its power and protecting the territorial integrity of China.  Both militaries have exercised at least 79 times since 2003.  China’s arms industry, formally reliant on Russia’s Defense Industrial Complex is increasingly independent and China views the US as its strategic benchmark, not Russia.  The PLA seeks mechanization by 2020 (COVID delays), modernization by 2027, “intelligent integration” massive use of (AI, Quantum Computing, etc. in conflicts, “integrated joint operations” and “system confrontation” as new concepts of conflict) by 2035, and a world class military (US peer status) by 2050. For China, Ukraine does offer some lessons, validating styles of war fighting (targeting of infrastructure and military leadership, “attack the mind”) and highlighting Western unity and determination to uphold sanctions regimes, including exclusion from SWIFT.  In Asia Russia’s military utility for China is weak, though rhetorical support for “one China” is appreciated in Beijing.  Russian arms sales and presence does allow Vietnam hedging possibilities and opportunities or others that wish for a third option between China and the US.
  • Economic dimension: prior to the invasion of Ukraine Russia exported 200bcm of gas pa with Europe (which seeks to become independent of Russian gas by 2027) and 33bcm of gas to Asia.  The Power of Siberia II pipeline has a maximum capacity of 50bcm pa.  The most optimistic scenarios suggest that Russia may be able to export 120bcm of gas to Asia by 2030.  China paused the Yamal LNG projects for fear of secondary sanctions and has other gas import options asides from Russia.  For Russia South Korea, Japan and Taiwan constitute alternative markets but these states all sanction Russia over Ukraine.  China seeks to be carbon neutral by 2060 and focuses on self-reliance.  For these reasons, Russia’s medium- and long-term gas export prospects are bleak. China can some extent to fill the vacuum left as Western companies leave the Russian market dominating some sectors (70% of mobile phone market) but joint ventures are hampered by Russia’s reluctance to share its technologies and the inability to establish supply chains for advanced technologies which do not need Western suppliers.
  • Structural realities: Do we see a rising China and stagnating Russia or a globally present and relevant China which nevertheless is stagnating and a weak and wounded Russia? The “peaking power syndrome” suggests China may seek to “reunify” Taiwan through military invasion by 2027, as the internal driver of the need for self-reliance, nationalism and national security become key modes of legitimation for Xi, offsetting China’s demographic profile, it’s estrangement from global technology hubs and restrictions placed on its access to European markets (protectionism) and stagnating economic growth. Russia aligns its positions with India, Japan, and SE Asia to counterbalance China’s geopolitical influence and become a “third pole” with a role in triangular US-Russia-China politics.

Session 3:         Strategic Triangle: Russia, China, India?

  • India’s Hedging Behavior: India has demonstrated a historical aversion to military alliances, reflected in its leadership role within the non-aligned movement. In the Cold War non-alignment could be understood as de facto neutrality and US support for Pakistan was balanced by Soviet support for India.  Non-alignment is now understood in terms of strategic autonomy, with India multi-aligned in a multi-polar context.  India buys 70% of its armaments from Russia and cannot operate militarily against China without Russian materiel. India purchases S-400 air defense system, abstains on UNGA Russia sanctions over Ukraine and partakes in the Vostok 2022 military exercise.
  • India-China: China’s external policy towards India in South Asia in general is creating domestic public opinion pressure to recalibrate India’s policy to China. This pressure was exacerbated by the death of 20 Indian soldiers in June 2020 on the Chinese border (highlighting China’s superior border infrastructure) and China’s shielding of Pakistan-supported terrorists. Xi-Modi summits in 2018 and 2019 did not normalize relations: China does not acknowledge India’s status as a rising global power. India embraces multi-polarity to oppose Sino-centric hegemony.  Decoupling India’s economy from China’s is not possible and India cannot fight China without alliances. 
  • India-US: China’s promotion of the BRI is a point of concern for India and India’s cooperation with the US a concern for China.  India has strengthened defense cooperation with the US, which supports a democratic India’s aspirations to be a UNSC P5 member.  India’s closer relations with the US is in part a response to closer Russia-China alignment and also its own alignment with US interests in Afghanistan. India has changed its rhetoric which suggested that the Russia’s war in Ukraine was a Russia-NATO issue.  In Samarkand on 15 September 2022 Prime Minister Modi directly told President Putin that “democracy, diplomacy and dialogue” were needed, not war, reflecting frustration in India’s strategic community and military establishment over Russia’s missteps and miscalculation in Ukraine.  If Russia became China’s junior partner in 2014, did it become India’s in 2022?
  • Triangle: India’s criticism of Russia – if followed by any limitations in bilateral cooperation – has the potential to bring Russia closer to China, India’s key strategic rival. Too close a Russo-Chinese alignment due to power asymmetries between the two becomes a redline for India, suggesting India maintain its arms procurement from Russia to lessen Russia’s dependence on China.  Russia Both Russia and China seek to keep India in the non-Western if not anti-Western camp. India’s tilt to the West is slow but steady, marked by India’s diversification of arms procurement away from Russia and towards the UK, France, Israel and the US.  States increasingly seek to align with India to counterbalance China. This trend will accelerate if Russia is defeated in Ukraine. For the West it is important to realize that an “if you are not with us, you are against us” rhetoric is not helpful. Respect for the strategic considerations of non-aligned states such as India is of paramount importance for not “losing” them in the context of strategic competition with authoritarian regimes.

Session 4:            New Russo-Chinese Arctic/Nordic Dynamics?

  • Russia: The Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation is regarded as “vital” for the country’s military, economic, political, environmental security, and even its sense of cultural and historical identity. This has been confirmed by Russia’s latest Maritime Doctrine (31 July 2022) where it warns against “efforts by a number of states to weaken Russian Federation control over the Northern Sea Route, a build-up of foreign naval presence in the Arctic, and an increase in conflict potential in this region”. Russia’s doctrine stresses its willingness to exert economic and military control of the region and to further develop the Northern Sea Route without external interference. NATO’s 2022 Security Concept notes that “In the High North, [Russia’s] capability to disrupt Allied reinforcements and freedom of navigation across the North Atlantic is a strategic challenge to the Alliance.”  However, Russia lacks the financial resources and technical expertise for such an expansive Arctic policy and the capabilities to enact its 2022 maritime doctrine without other nations (i.e. China) providing capital, capabilities and technology.  
  • China does perceive the Western sanctions regime against Russia as an opportunity to increase its own influence in the High North through the promotion of its “Polar Silk Road” project (linking China to Europe), its observer status in the Arctic Council, its self-declared “near-Arctic state” status, strengthening the PLA Navy and its icebreaker capabilities. China invests tens of billions of dollars in energy, infrastructure and research projects in the region. China also suggests that the Arctic is a “global commons”, though 90% of estimated resources fall within the sovereign territory or EEZ of circumpolar states.  To offset such pressure, Russia welcomes interest from India, Singapore, UAE, South Korea and Japan as this provides alternative opportunities and lessens dependency on the West or China. Notably, Chinese shipping giant COSCO has not sent a single ship through the NSR this year, reflecting the wider international trend in a year that witnessed zero internationally flagged transit vessels traversing the NSR. Only internationally flagged LNG carriers sailed the NSR, transporting LNG from Yamal. This reflects a lack trust Russian transit mechanisms and perceived risk, as well as an inability to attain vessel insurance from the Western dominated market.  It is likely that China will continue to look past its relationship with Russia and lay the ground work for exploitation of unlimited draft trans-polar routes by 2050 and beyond.
  • Ukraine War: Sweden and Finland’s decision to join NATO changed Russia’s risk calculus in the Arctic and High North and Baltic Sea.  Formerly non-aligned Finland and Sweden become a “NATO land-​and air- bridge” linking the Baltic Sea to the North Atlantic and the Arctic, turning the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake in the process. What was ​once perceived as separate theatres will be a single strategic space for both Russia and NATO. Both will have to adapt to this new reality. In the short term, escalation potential ​could increase (“High North, High Tension” syndrome) as Russia needs to compensate for the overall diminution of its conventional military power due to attrition/degradation following its invasion of Ukraine (Russia has redeployed its Arctic brigades to Ukraine). The enlargement will likely heighten Russia’s insecurities towards the protection of its strategic bastions in the High North, given that seven of the eight Arctic nations would be NATO allies. NATO needs to develop its strategic thinking on the Arctic, continue and increase High-North military training and capability development and, alongside the EU, ensure that avenues of dialogue with Russia function.  In the long term, a stronger NATO in the High North and the Arctic is likely to diminish the risk of escalation and mitigate the security dilemma, as offense will have less advantage for Russia. This could pave the way for a renaissance for collaboration with Russia.  The suspended Arctic Council remains the best mechanism for discussion of mutually beneficial Arctic cooperation, yet it prohibits discussion of military security matters. Dialogue on military security will remain severely limited, creating a risk of inadvertent escalation due to misunderstandings or misperceptions.

Session 5:       Roundtable: Ukraine: Alternative Outcomes?

  • United Ukraine (UA) integrating with the EU and NATO, gradually restores its territorial integrity with a combination of military and diplomatic means.
    • This alternative is conditioned on: domestic unity in Ukraine; UA continues successful counter-offensive (after an operational pause) into 2023; Western unity and support (US key role, plus EU and G7), the gradual expansion of anti-Russian coalition; the Ramstein coalition sustaining deliveries around a campaign plan rather than a chaotic supply of what is available in stock is matched by a financial equivalent able to coordinate and provide feedback loops; the EU opens accession negotiations and advances practical integration projects such as a common market; maintaining connection and re-settlement of 8 million IDPs (with 3 million refugee status in the EU); China maintains non-allied status and abides by sanctions; and Russian decision making elites understand the failure of the Putin doctrine and act accordingly.
    • The indicators of such an outcome include: collaborative resilient decentralized governance, trust in and legitimacy of the top leaders and wider Ukrainian institutions, such as the armed forces, emergency services and police, high morale reflected in hope in Ukraine’s future, if only for the next generation, and continued support for mobilization in defense of Ukrainian statehood, western financial support and emergency assistance to sustain macro-economic stability and the functioning of the state ($38 bn pa needed for Ukraine to function); special tribunal and prosecutions for war crimes to ensure justice and disincentivize Russian malign behavior, and Russian domestic developments.
    • Implications for Russia: geopolitical damage, loss of prestige and destruction of the eternal Russia myth, greater repression, delegitimization of Putin and his doctrine, leading to change and a period of reform and the curtailment of Russian imperial ambition.
  • Stalled Progress Ukraine (muddling through) is more self-reliant but exhausted, inhabiting a grey-zone protracted conflict, a new line of conflict contacts and inconclusive outcomes in which neither side prevails.
    • This is predicated on Putin limiting his efforts to Donbas, the stalling of Ukrainian counter-attacks and both Russian and Ukrainian operational exhaustion, the rise of a “give peace a chance” camp in the EU, limiting western aid, eroding sanctions and impeding Ukraine’s EU integration.
    • This implies Russia can present this alternative as a victory and is able to regroup and reconstitute its military, lobby for sanctions relief, and then over time launch a new war.
  • Failed state Ukraine – Russia does not necessarily occupy new land but inflicts damage that leads to an unstable and chaotic state.
    • Russia announces general mobilization, Ukraine suffers hyperinflation and losses on the battlefield, an “incident: occurs at a nuclear civilian site, a deal imposed on President Zelenskyy is rejected by society and a new wave of refugees enters the EU as host county support, exacerbated by Russian information operations, fractures.
    • For Russia the implications are clear: use coercive measure to further fragment Ukraine and annex new territory with the aim of federalizing (or “Finlandizing”) what is left; address the Ukrainian insurgency on the occupied territories and inside Russia but balance a heavy policing operation in Ukraine with risks to upheaval in Russia itself, while trying to install a “neutral” puppet regime in Kyiv.
  • Russian imperial identity: Is there a foreseeable post-war period or is the new normal a permanent war to 2024 (Ukrainian C-in-C Gen Zaluzhnyy) and beyond?  Will Ukraine survive as a unitary state?  Whose and which war is this?  Is it a war of imperial breakdown and the stakes are the survival of Russian its current imperial state and so the eradication of Ukrainian culture and identity? Or a war of Ukrainian decolonization and statehood and a return for Russia to Muscovy of the 16th century?  In this sense the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 can be understood as a continuation of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and tsarist empire in 1917. It proves a reality test that demonstrates the Potemkin nature of Putin’s regime.  The return to past glory – Tsar Alexander I in Paris in 1814, Stalin in Berlin in 1945 – highlights Russia’s failure to develop a modernization paradigm for this century.  Given Russia’s society is atomized and lacks subjectivity and subject to state media propaganda, public attitudes and fluid and malleable and can react to changing circumstances.
  • Geopolitical outcomes: Does the Kremlin seek to dominate and dissolve Ukraine and/or does it imagine it fights World War III against the US/NATO and collective West and for a “new global order”?  Does it just seek to remake order in Europe or also global order? Russian failure implies the dissolution of the Putin imperial doctrine, the sense of status it projects and leads to the reformation of Putin’s regime and Russia’s political system.  Ukrainian success implies Ukrainian identity consolidates around an EU agenda, which not only geo-strategically anchors Ukraine but provides a means of holding elected officials accountable.  The Ukrainian diaspora’s presence in the EU promotes “shadow integration”. Ukraine’s military becomes one of the most capable (battle hardened) in Europe, more interoperable with NATO and better able to be integrated.  In this sense, Ukraine’s “shadow integration” into NATO is an ongoing process.

Session 6:       Russia’s “Strategic South”

  • Turkey views its neighbourhood (Libya, Syria, Black Sea, South Caucasus and Central Asia) as a series of interconnected and interlinked spaces in which it vies for influence with Russia. While Turkey’s strategic thinkers aim to gradually counterbalance Russia through soft power influence (trade, infrastructure development and educational/cultural tools), there are interest groups that are aligned with Moscow commercially and by shared anti-Western sentiments.  Political and security links deepened following Russia’s entry in to Syria in 2015 and the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Russia has been able to co-opt segments of Ankara, particularly using propaganda that played on anti-western sentiments and economic enticements, to drive a wedge between Turkey and the West.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed the Black Sea naval balance and the plight of Crimean Tartars. While Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in 2022 places pressure on Turkey’s balancing the West with Russia, it also elevated Turkey’s strategic importance for both Russia and the West. The war provided President Erdogan with an alibi for Turkish economic performance and raised the prospect of Turkey as a potential mediator. However, neither Turkey’s ideological leanings (nationalism or political Islam) nor its interest are aligned with Russia’s, and there are concerns held by a range of state institutions about Russia’s influence in Turkey, as well as Russia’s role in conflicts which encircle Turkey.
  • Central Asia: Turkey’s increased activism in Central Asia, not least its upgrading of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) which cuts across and potentially could challenge Russia’s EEU and CSTO and increased bilateral meetings, provides a new type of threat to Russian interests.  If in the 1990s pan-Turkic sentiment in the region was buttressed by business cultural and educational links and networks (in these ideational terms Turkey represents a threat that China does not), in the 2020s Turkish political and military engagement (arms sales in general and effective demonstrative support for Azerbaijan) challenges Russia’s monopoly of these agendas. Turkey does not project as political model (“Islamist democracy”) in Central Asia, but rather provides a model of how a personalist regime, with an open society and connections to global markets can manage geopolitical relations. Turkey is a hub for regional trade and supports the “middle corridor” from China through Central Asia and across the Caspian to the South Caucasus (an alternative to Russia’s trans-Siberian supply routes) and upgrades transport infrastructure to that end.  In Russia Turkey is viewed by nationalists as a historical existential competitor (Turkey also as a NATO proxy/agent), by ideologues as a potential Eurasian ally (Turkic-Slavic Union) and by pragmatic transactionalists as a difficult partner, but one Russia can do business with.
  • Middle East: as the US has stepped back from a more direct leadership and mediation role in this region, new types of direct partnerships and self-help linkages between states have emerged, as evidenced by the Abraham Accords. At the same time, drivers of political violence are increasing, even as dynastic and autocratic regimes in the region uphold the status quo.  Because of its historic support for many states in the Middle East, Russia still exerts influence politically and militarily, through direct intervention (Syria and Libya), or through its arms sales. his has resulted in the hedging behavior of most Arab states when it comes to condemning Russia for the Ukraine invasion or complying with Western demands to balance the oil market.  Because of a complex landscape with cross-cutting loyalties and dependencies between autocratic rulers, states, and proxies, Russia can still leverage the region’s vulnerabilities to exert influence (Idlib refuges for Turkey, for example). However, Russia’s clout in the region is diminishing and its tactical strength weakening as Russia withdraws military material to focus on Ukraine, which could create a dangerous vacuum that regional rivals (Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) and other global actors, like China, can exploit. It may also lead to more positive developments and collaboration within the new security framework of a combined Abraham Accords-CENTCOM structure.

Session 7: Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons and Russian Deterrence in Practice?

  • Declaratory Doctrine: Russia has a number of non-strategic weapons and dual use systems (estimated at 1900/2000), designed to balance the US/NATO’s conventional advantage.  Russia is prepared to inflict unacceptable damage and cost in defense of “Russia and allies” by forceful nuclear demonstration for deterrence and intimidation purposes in a conventional conflict as part of escalation control (what some call ‘escalate to de-escalate) and potentially use “non-strategic nuclear weapons”. Russia’s nuclear doctrine states that Russia can use nuclear weapons if under nuclear attack or if a conventional threat poses an existential threat against the Russian state.  Known unknowns abound around when local conflict is deemed to have moved to regional, the necessary level of conventional combat ineffectiveness, and potential signaling and miscalculation, before nuclear first use is triggered.   Russia’s nuclear doctrine is not a straight-jacket and the doctrine itself recognizes that Russia’s political and military leadership have flexibility and can act pragmatically in any given context.
  • Deeds in Practice: Given the scale of the conflict in Ukraine, non-strategic nuclear weapons, which are currently in over a dozen storage sites in Russia (including Belgorod), are not suitable for counter-force or counter-value targeting. Russia has not exercised naval, air and ballistic missile delivery systems or options and its arsenal of high precision munitions is exhausted. Since 1991, Russia lacks practical experience of handling nuclear weapons. It has not carried out preparatory nuclear testing or “nuclearized” its conventional forces.  This rises the possibilities of human error, mishandling at the delivery, arming or firing stages.  Will the munitions explode?  Will orders be obeyed?  How to prevent a single strike becoming a series of strikes?  Russia’s response to Ukraine’s last breakthrough appears to be further mobilization, and this mitigates the risk of vertical escalation.  But what will be its response to the next Ukrainian break through?
  • Implications and Potential Responses: To prevent “vertical escalation”, deterrence by punishment consequences would have to be conveyed clearly to President Putin.  Prime Minister Modi or President Xi may be effective interlocutors, but Xi is unlikely to accept that role unless China’s core national interest was at stake.  Given its history Japan could communicate the consequences, or nuclear weapons states, given the morality implications. A punishing western (US-led) response could be conventional not nuclear and military strikes that would target Russian conventional assets (for example, air, sea and land blockade of Kaliningrad, the elimination of all Russian naval assets wherever they may be) and that the consequences will be very personal. (this would all lead to escalation but not as directly as direct attacks on Russian forces in Russia would).  Sanctions would be part of a deterrence by punishment response and emergency aid to Ukraine would feature.  Self-deterrence (Russia assuming pariah status) would not be factor in Russian thinking. Russian nuclear threats and even more nuclear use, as well as another NATO-hostile US President, would induce the Europeans to engage in sovereignty-sensitive strategic-level discussions about an independent European nuclear deterrent. Such initiatives could include expanding France or the UK’s nuclear umbrella, European nuclear sharing, a missile shield, but no EU command if the EU is not a state (fear of a collapse of the NPT). The need for a European bomb could gain traction, while arms control talk lose momentum, given Russia is unwilling to negotiate sub-strategic weapons.

Session 8:         Roundtable: Russian Regime Stability – Alternative Outcomes and Implications?  

  • Misunderstandings: If there is a general tendency in the West to overestimate Russia and underestimate Ukraine, in Russia it is to over-interpret the role of the West, and misunderstands or discounts the thinking, identity and the right to agency of elites and society in Ukraine, as well as other neighbors.  For China, Xi’s “Russia complex” is challenged.  Xi understands that he is powerful because China is powerful, but hitherto saw Putin as intelligent, decisive, manipulative, and powerful, even as Russia was weak. This selective bias in Xi’s judgement about Russia’s national power has led China to overestimate Russia’s strengths and reliability, while underestimating its weaknesses and the risks its behavior poses to China.If on 4 February 2022 it appeared that the world was bipolar, split between Russia-China and the US and allies, by September 2022 Russia appears over stretched and in imperial retreat
  • Prior Assumptions: Some assumptions highlighted in prior SCSS virtual seminars are validated.  The greatest risks Putin takes do appear to be those that address threats to his personal reputation, legacy and imagined “destiny” as a strong leader. Putin equates existential threat to his regime to Russia itself (“No Putin, no Russia” doctrine). Putin is willing to take greater risk to preserve what he imagines he has (Ukraine). The irreducible core of Russian “victory” – holding onto Crimea, incorporating Donetsk and Luhansk to 23 February 2022 line of contact into Russia (restoration of the territorial status quo ante plus annexation) – has yet to be breached. 
  • New Behavior: Rather than using one conflict to leverage presence into another and military escalation to generate new opportunities to negotiate from a position of strength, and reach an outcome that can be spun as a victory – the Ukraine war appears have the opposite effect.  The one Ukraine conflict reduces Russia’s presence elsewhere (“horizontal de-escalation”?).  Rather than creating new opportunities, it backs Putin into a corner.  To avoid defeat or vertical escalation, Putin banks on: 1) the effective and timely mobilization of 300,000 men into the Russian military; 2) a severe winter in the West turning western public opinion; and 3) an exhausted Ukrainian military incapable of mounting further advances. The gap between propaganda (“victory” through restoration of imperial territory and heritage) and reality (Ukraine posed for further advances) widens.  Momentum is lost, timelines are dashed and options become existential: defeat or nuclear escalation. Putin is driven by events over which he has little control: changing Chinese perceptions of his power and credibility, the Alla Pugacheva “blast from the past” sentiments which resonates with his Soviet nostalgia support base within the electorate, a more vocal, kleptocratic and opportunistic “party of war” within Russia (Kadyrov, Malofeev, Prigozhin) and a military and Rosgvardiya which feels betrayed.  As a result, Putin’s irritation and frustration gives way to fear.  
  • Plausible implausibilities: The current situation is very fluid and difficult to forecast, hinging on the physical state of one person – Putin.  Our thoughts regarding what might constitute the plausibly implausible or at least unpredictable future tipping and turning points included:
    • Sudden death of Putin or coup against, followed by chaotic regime change, a Russian civil war and Belarus’ implosion;
    • Breakdown of US bipartisan pro-Ukraine support and consensus (November 2022 Congressional elections and/or November 2024 presidential);China invades Taiwan – simultaneity of crises forces prioritization;Fracturing of European EU/NATO member state support and unity;
    • Crisis of Ukrainian cohesion, resilience and morale leading to a chaotic failed state;
    • Catastrophic Ukrainian success – Crimea as a bridge too far or carry on successful counter-offensive into Russia?

Graeme P. Herd, GCMC, 22 September 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary is a synthesis by Graeme P. Herd of the presentations and extensive discussions at the SCSS Garmisch-Partenkirchen Workshop on 20-21 September 2022 and is not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, any other governments, or any other organization.

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