With Russia driven out of the Kharkiv oblast, the defeat on the battlefield is so humiliating for Putin, that it is perhaps unsurprising that he has responded in the way he has. After all, his only other options were to retreat (not likely) or continue to slowly lose (equally non-viable.) Escalate to De-Escalate therefore seems to be the solution. But how far could he realistically escalate? What does the announcement mean for the war in Ukraine?
- Nuclear War
Headline-grabbing yes. Probable, no. First of all, Putin is not solely in control of nuclear weapons. Secondly, given the atrocities the Ukrainian nation has been through, it is unlikely a singular strike would force a withdrawal by them, instead it would need to be multiple times. It’s also hard to imagine India or other countries being allowed to sit on the fence as well if Russia did this. The Russian economy is being kept alive at the moment by countries ignoring or circumventing western sanctions. If they started using nuclear weapons, they would be so isolated the country itself would possibly implode from within due to the economic and political pressure. Nonetheless, there’s a small risk of a singular strike on a strategic target, e.g. Kyiv in spite or the western border to make logistics harder, but not for the purpose of bombing to win the war itself and even a singular strike would carry substantial risk.
- Propaganda Wars
Expect the propaganda to now go into overdrive. The Ukrainian people unlawfully deposed an elected President, Yanukovych, in 2014 and replaced him with a Nazi Gov’t, which amongst other things, would forbid Russian people from speaking Russian in the East and would treat them as second-class citizens. Russia is only acting to protect Russians from these Nazis. Or, Ukraine was pursuing membership of NATO to mean there would be hostile western weaponry on their border, which despite warnings was continued, therefore Russia needed to act pre-emptively. Or finally, Russia is not losing to Ukraine, but to NATO, therefore the only way the Russian nation can defend its people within Ukraine is by mobilising. Why does this matter? Well, Russia in order to mobilise needs a justification of why the special operation has not worked so far, why it is a just cause and why mobilisation is needed.
- Scorched Earth
In the short term, expect the Russians to have an indiscriminate approach to targeting civilian infrastructure and to escalate their scorched earth policies. Cities are notoriously hard to seize, so the objective would be to flatten them, and make them unlivable, so for defending troops, there is nothing to defend. The one area for concern here will be the lack of precision missiles the Russians have left, equally, they have almost unlimited artillery shells so there is nothing to prevent them from doing this.
Already this has begun and there are rumours that Russia seeks to mobilise 1m troops. How effective this army would be is up for debate, given the challenges associated with arming and equipping soldiers already in Ukraine. The Russian strategy here suggests their plan is to occupy the various regions with so many troops that it acts to freeze the conflict and establish facts on the ground. Equally, it is estimated it could take at least three to six months before any troops mobilised could make a meaningful difference to the front line. Hence why for Ukraine, this period now is critical.
- Brain Drain
Russian men between 18-50 who could now be conscripted are fleeing. The economic impact of this is not to be underestimated. People who could be contributing to growing the Russian economy are now going to be leaving and looking to make a new life in other countries where for as long as this regime remains, they will not return. Russia will only be impacted negatively by this.
- The Economic War will only help China
The Russians talked about the economic war that the west is placing upon them, well with this announcement, the impact will be to make it even harder for any western companies remaining to operate. The impact of this escalation will mean that pro-Russian politicians in Hungary, Italy or Germany will find it significantly harder to dilute the sanctions put in place, where the EU will now accelerate moving to a post-Russian energy framework. While Russia is moving to supply China with gas, the Chinese will exploit Russia’s isolation to secure preferential terms. While in the short term this is a footnote, longer term this could be a significant event geo-politically if China is able to secure discounted energy rates as it looks to build its own domestic industry.
- Belarus to be pulled in, a new Kyiv front in spring
As Russia organises more troops, if the war is still continuing then, it is conceivable that there is a push by the Russian Army through Belarus to target Kyiv again. Even if this proves unsuccessful, the nature of this front would act to weaken defences elsewhere in defence of the capital. The danger for Belarus in this would be that they would risk having the same level of sanctions imposed as are on Russia at the moment. Lukashenko remains in power only through force and the war there is even more unpopular than in Russia, therefore it could be that he declines to support Russia in this way. Equally, unless he does that, it is logical that Russia should seek to target Kyiv again as they scale up their army again.
Finally, the most important point is, that as a result of the combination of the mobilisation and the planned referenda, while Putin remains in power, a negotiated settlement now seems impossible. There is no way a democratically elected leader of Ukraine could now negotiate peace which would mean giving away upwards of 20% of its territory, along with the associated natural resources. Equally, Putin’s move here acts to preclude any negotiation on the subject. “My way or nukes,” seems to be the message. This means we are now entering a situation of polarisation where increasingly there can only be four outcomes:
- The West gives up supporting Ukraine, Russian territorial ambitions are met and a peace accord is signed on Russian terms.
- The West continues supporting Ukraine, the mobilisation acts to freeze the conflict, and Putin remains in power
- The West continues supporting Ukraine, Russia is pushed out over time, and Putin is deposed by an equally hawkish Gov’t
- The West continues supporting Ukraine, Russia is pushed out over time, and Putin is deposed by a more moderate Gov’t
Which of these is the most likely is for people individually to assess for themselves, equally for the Ukrainian nation what is critical is the continued support of the West, as it is only with that, they can stay in the fight. Hence why Putin is doing everything he can now to make supporting Ukraine as expensive as possible. Here is hoping for a mild winter.