Editor’s Note: Nearly four months after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the goal of a short campaign has clearly not been achieved. Russia subsequently sought to achieve gains while suspending negotiations with Kyiv – both to improve its position in advance of future negotiations, and to deliver the message to the West that “you cannot stop us.”
The Russia-Ukraine War, underway for almost four months, continues in full force. Negotiations between the countries achieved certain agreements. However, Russia announced the second stage of the invasion, which began on April 19. This raised the question of how the campaign would continue and what might influence its end and its results. At that stage it seemed that the end of the war could be determined in the coming weeks in accordance with Russia’s military successes or failures. But as well, we must be prepared for the possibility of a war of attrition without a military victory, which could last months more.
War Against NATO
Russia’s war is not only against Ukraine, but rather, as the Russian regime repeatedly declared, against NATO and the West in general. The sequence of events has changed Russia’s initial intention not to become entangled in a long military campaign, but rather, through a short operation, to replace the government of Ukraine or at least to distance Ukraine from the West. But in practice, Russia has been drawn into a prolonged conflict – the result of effective Ukrainian resistance that is supported by NATO, which trained Ukraine’s army and helps it with the supply of weapons, intelligence sharing, and technological warfare.
Beyond the direct Russian-Ukrainian confrontation, the war has become a Russian-Western conflict in the territory of Ukraine, and alongside the military campaign. NATO is exerting pressure on Russia in the cognitive, political, and economic realms in an effort to undermine the government’s stability, and Russia for its part is waging a cognitive war against the West, including in the post-Soviet context and in its attempt to retain its influence in this sphere. But to date, the two sides have failed to achieve their objectives and the war continues, while the Ukrainians have scored significant achievements in the struggle for world public opinion.
With the failure of the planned operation and the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kyiv region, and in light of internal pressure in Moscow by those opposed to continuation of the war, accompanied by internal power struggles, the Russian leadership was interested in ending the campaign quickly and easing the domestic challenge. Russia had to formulate its next steps: reaching certain understandings as part of the negotiations with Ukraine and stopping the war, or preparing for continued fighting, while defining new realistic objectives.
As part of the negotiations, which Russia initiated during the first week of the war, Moscow expressed its willingness to end the campaign with limited achievements, which would enable it in the domestic arena to portray the result as a victory. The conditions for a settlement were already formulated during the first two weeks of the negotiations, including a Ukrainian willingness not to join NATO. The issues that remained unresolved were the status of the Crimean Peninsula and Donbas.
As long as there was no progress in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, the prevailing assumption was that NATO was preventing the advancement of the settlement. It seemed that the West was interested in drawing Russia into a prolonged campaign that would be detrimental to it. This is in parallel with a cognitive effort vis-à-vis the public and the political establishment in Russia itself. This objective was publicly declared by President Biden. It is likely that for this reason NATO worked to encourage Ukraine to continue the war, despite heavy Ukrainian losses. The United States even increased its aid to Ukraine and transferred $700 million in military aid, including advanced rockets.
Containing the Fallout
Russia seemed to have succeeded in containing the threat to stability in Moscow and overcoming the opposition, based on vigorous internal law enforcement and publicity efforts. Opposition members and tens of thousands of demonstrators against the war were arrested and sent to jail, a curfew was imposed in several cities, and media channels that had been considered free were shut down. Meanwhile, there have been increased appearances of pro-Kremlin speakers on the traditional Russian media channels.
Despite the serious sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries on Russia and on senior figures in the political establishment, Moscow believes that the economic challenge has been contained and that further endurance has been ensured for the government and the military campaign.
Tightened ties with China, Iran, and other countries in Asia and the Middle East region, alongside its preplanned reliance on reserves, have enabled Russia to increase the pressure on Ukraine and in particular to persist in the struggle against the West in the energy sphere. As has become increasingly clear, at this stage Western Europe has no effective alternatives to the Russian oil and gas market.
The Russian energy position has been further strengthened by the fact that gas reserves of countries such as Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands shrank, while dependence on Russia grew higher than ever. After considering a ban on Russian imports, in April the European Commission warned companies not to pay in rubles. In May, the EU sent “revised guidelines” to member states. The new regulations permit member countries to buy Russian oil and gas but to pay only in dollars or Euros.
However, quite a few international companies and corporations have thus far agreed to buy gas in rubles from Russia and Gazprom. As long as there are no alternatives to Russian gas, Russia expects Europe to agree to its conditions.
Continuing the Fight
Against this backdrop, it seemed Moscow decided to give up on an effort to end combat through negotiations and instead intended to continue fighting. This stage, the second in the war, according to Moscow, aimed at expanding its hold in eastern and southern Ukraine, including the coastal strip between the Crimean Peninsula and the Donbas – hence the unrelenting effort to achieve control of the port city of Mariupol.
Given this hard-won success, it became possible that Russia would then seek to achieve control of Odessa, in an effort to complete the conquest of the entire coastal strip and to connect with Transnistria in Moldova. Russia would thus succeed in creating an important area of control in order to use it as a future bargaining chip. Control of these regions would also enable Russia to present an achievement in the domestic arena, in accordance with its declared aim in invading Ukraine.
Accordingly, Russia continued its efforts to garner achievements, both in the military campaign in Ukraine and in the broader context of its war – the cognitive effort vis-à-vis NATO and the West, and toward the post-Soviet sphere – through a variety of measures.
First, the war crimes that Russia is accused of – widespread destruction, mass killing, and many instances of rape in the Ukrainian cities of Bucha, Irpin, Volnovakha, Borodyanka, and Mariupol – aim to signal not only to Ukraine but to all countries in the post-Soviet sphere the scope of damage Russia can inflict on them too if they try to approach or join NATO and the West. Additionally, although certain Russian-occupied territories may be subject to some future negotiations, the Russian population transfer operations in these territories are intended to create a strategic population problem for Ukraine in the long run. This is also intended to send a signal to countries in the post-Soviet space.
Second, the conquest of Mariupol and the heightened attacks on Odessa and Severodonetsk, indicate that with the continued disclosure of war crimes in additional cities in eastern Ukraine, Russia will continue to boost pressure on Ukraine and to leverage its demands as part of negotiations in the future.
Third, as part of Russia’s cognitive war with the West, the destruction it has wrought, the damage to civilian infrastructure, and its continued westward advance signal to the West that Moscow is not deterred by its portrayal as a war criminal. On the contrary, Russia seeks to sow fear and to convey a threatening message to Western Europe in order to achieve leeway for itself in negotiations.
The Future in Ukraine
In the near- and mid-term, the scenario for ending the war is likely to take shape, and it will be influenced mainly by Russia’s military successes or failures in Ukraine. To the extent that Moscow achieves significant results in the attack in southern and eastern Ukraine, it is possible that it would resume efforts to take over Kyiv and to replace the government there – an objective that it defined from the outset of its invasion.
However, it is possible that the Ukrainian determination to repel the Russian forces and block their advance in the south will bolster the Russian determination to renew the talks regarding the conditions for stopping the fighting. In this case, the regions that have already been conquered by the Russian army will serve as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
Nevertheless, as summer approached the Ukrainians remained determined to fend off the Russians and refuse to hold talks. While Russian maneuvering proceeded slowly, there also was the possibility of a long-term attrition war. The international community should prepare itself for this possibility too. It should be remembered, however, that a war of attrition contrasts starkly with Russian interests. For these reasons, Russia will seek to end the war in as short a time as possible, whether through military action or through negotiations.
Amb. Zvi Magen in a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel. Sophie Kobzantsev is a Research Assistant at INSS.