Entering uncharted waters : The Tribune India

One year of Ukraine War

Entering uncharted waters

Defeat in the proxy war will undermine America’s transatlantic leadership

Entering uncharted waters

Strategy: The Russian plan has been to keep the burn rate high on the front. Reuters

MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

MILITARY minds expected a massive Russian offensive in Ukraine after the mobilisation, sometime between January and February when in the freezing, windswept steppes of the Donbass, temperatures dropped to minus 30°C, the ground hardened, and it was possible to move heavy artillery. However, that didn’t materialise.

NATO is close to crossing a Russian ‘red line’, pushing the war towards a confrontation with incalculable risks.

Instead, a great deal of intense combat did occur in the Donbass front and the Russian forces scored a string of successes in what appeared to be positional battles, but which helped seize the military initiative right across the front, forcing Ukraine’s reservists into a perilous state now.

The Russian tactic has been to keep the burn rate on the front high and degrade Ukraine’s ability to form reserves, while well-fortified defence lines stretching over 800 km denied Kyiv any chance at regaining operational initiative. Unsurprisingly, Russians are in no mood to rush into ambitious operations. Besides, they are also in the long game sorting out organisational issues. A restructuring in the Russian armed forces is underway, which involves transitioning from the so-called Battalion Tactical Group formations of an expeditionary army that is heavy on firepower but exceptionally light on infantry to reverting to the Soviet army’s division structure, which, along with a massive expansion in armaments production and retooling of the military-industrial complex, would meet the requirements of a continental war, should the need arise.

Meanwhile, the operations in Donbass have reached a tipping point. With the impending fall of Bakhmut, the linchpin of the Ukrainian defence line in Donbass, the path for the Russian assault on Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, the last two cities under Kyiv’s control, is opening. Some intense fighting can also be expected in the coming weeks in the Ugledar sector in south-western Donbass, which overlooks the trunk rail line connecting Donetsk with Mariupol port on Azov Sea and the land bridge to Crimea and potentially threatens the entire Russian logistics in the south.

Therefore, control of the Ugledar ‘bulge’ is a priority for both Ukraine and Russia. Again, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently flagged that it is a constitutional obligation to fully liberate Zaporizhzhia oblast (two-thirds of which are under Russian control) and Kherson (which changed hands in the Ukrainian counteroffensive in November.)

Of course, if the US dramatically escalates the scope of the proxy war by supplying Ukraine with long-range weapons, the Russian operations will also, inevitably, escalate to the entire region east of Dnieper River and create a buffer zone for the security of the Russian territories. Basically, Russia keeps the escalation dominance.

To be sure, the trajectory of the Russian operations in the period ahead will also depend on emergent political factors. The spring offensive is unlikely to begin before the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow this month. Closer cooperation and coordination between China and Russia in these times of war under conditions of western sanctions is gradually emerging as in their common strategic interests.

Much will depend on some kind of new equilibrium emerging in the conflict by this summer — and is recognised by all parties. At present, though, a peaceful and consensual security order in Europe looks very far away. While Russia has already absorbed western sanctions and demonstrated its determination to see things through to the end, the US and its European allies are unable to influence the course of the conflict. What we are witnessing — Challenger tanks from the British, negotiations to send Patriot batteries, M1 Abrams tanks, F16s from the US, etc. — is faux escalation, as these weapon systems are unlikely to ever arrive.

Without doubt, the strategic, industrial, economic, political, and military situation in Europe is deteriorating significantly due to the blowback from sanctions against Russia. High cost of production has forced the closure of European industries resulting in layoffs. The German public opinion is increasingly sceptical about the West’s approach to the war. The recent finding that the Biden administration was responsible for the Nord Stream sabotage exacerbates these sentiments. How all this pans out through the difficult months ahead remains to be seen, as a deep recession takes hold and America’s diplomatic hubris is in focus.

Russia will not listen anymore to dubious western offers to negotiate that ignore the issues that caused the war in the first place. The Russian leadership has concluded that no western government can be trusted, and that the West as a whole is implacably hostile to Russia.

While both Russia and the West face an existential crisis, there is also a crucial difference insofar as for Russia, this is about the threat to historical statehood, but for the West, it is about preservation of its global dominance and the unwillingness to adapt to a qualitatively changed global environment that has suddenly become highly competitive.

Thus, a defeat in the proxy war will not only dent the credibility of the US globally — coming after the debacle in Afghanistan — but also damage its transatlantic leadership. There could also be deleterious consequences for NATO. That is why NATO is dangerously close to crossing a Russian “red line”, pushing the proxy war towards a direct confrontation with incalculable risks.

If that happens, Russia may be compelled to respond with an internal and qualitative escalation. What if Russia declares a state of de facto war with NATO? What if Russia transfers the conflict to NATO space? Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche last week that his priority in the period ahead is “to keep the war away from our country.” Here is an ominous warning that the Ukraine conflict is entering uncharted waters.

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