By Dr. Mark Galeotti, Orysia Lutsevych and Dr. Graeme P. Herd
This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series activities focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West. A previous seminar, held in October 2022, concluded by noting that “while the conflict is ‘mutually hurting,’ a stalemate is not in evidence. A prolonged war of attrition by drone and missile attack may appear the default pathway, but it is not the only one. [Russian President Vladimir] 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.”
The summary presented here is drawn from a seminar held in January 2023. 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?”
In an interview with The Economist on December 3, 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 January 20 Ukraine Defense Contact Group Meeting of allied defense ministers at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, highlighted the extent to which Western partners will supply equipment. Without further Ukrainian military advances, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lacks a mandate to negotiate a peace deal.
In addition to this military track, Zelenskyy offered a 10-Point Peace Plan and issued a call for a Ukrainian Peace Formula Summit, a proposal most recently presented by Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 17, 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, the Holodomor and the ongoing war since the first Russian invasion in 2014. Justice is also integral to the Ukraine’s international law-based approach to war. On January 17, 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 one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Punishing the perpetrator aims also to deter future aggression. Ukraine is trying to build support globally for this approach.
Russia has lost muchof the territory it had seized and occupied in the first six weeks of the war. Although Ukrainian cities are dark and children are less visible, Ukraine’s railways still run, its banking system operates, local produce is sold on the streets and macroeconomic stability holds. Ukraine appears resilient and its people resolute. There is a perception in Ukraine that Western assistance through 2022 gave Ukraine enough materiel, and 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 Ukrainian hryvnia (U.S. $33 million) of pledges and seized assets to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Indeed, Western military assistance (equipment, training, doctrine) accelerates Ukraine’s transition to a 21st century NATO interoperable military, even as Russia’s military descends to its late Soviet variant.
When examining debates around a preferred end state in Ukraine, we see a striking degree of unity among 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 Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s second-most senior soldier and commander in chief of its Army, differ on the issue of the duration of the war, which is linked to war aims. Zaluzhny points out that for Crimea to be militarily “in play,” Ukrainian forces would first have to advance around 100 kilometers past current 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 colonels and lieutenant colonels in that service. By contrast, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, previously headed by reformer Denys Monastyrsky (who died in a helicopter accident on January 18, 2023), will at the war’s end 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 Luhansk, Donetsk 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 anteon February 24, 2022, with territories seized in 2014 (in Donetsk, Luhansk 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 the Russian political order to enable a “New Russia” to emerge. Ukraine recognizes that Putin’s worldview 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 it to deal with its imperial past. Discussions around the contours of a “New Russia” include the notion of Russia as a “parliamentary republic,” as advocated by exiled former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or even a 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.
Putin’s war aims have remained constant and continue to center on the destruction of Ukraine as an independent state capable of joining the European Union or NATO, the breaking of the will of its people to resist and the will of the West to support it. As the previous session of the seminar series 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 [as being] 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 are 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, but on Russia’s terms. In Russia more generally, publicly broadcast notions of victory are maximalist and detached from reality. Real discussions center on what can be salvaged from this debacle and how defeat can be mitigated.
On January 11, 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 generals). 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 River, stabilizing the Luhansk front, and addressing logistical and mobilization issues.
The Russian ministry of defense 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 into a large-scale, long-term “war.” Implied in the appointment is a Russian spring offensive. Realistically, that is not enough time for Gerasimov to address the systemic challenges that bedevil Russian military operations, including a largely incompetent officer corps, endemic corruption (which emanates from the Kremlin), and 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. Nonstrategic 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. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka currently gives all support — munitions, training, the use of Belarusian territory as a launch pad — short of committing his maximum of 9,000 deployable troops (of the 48,000 in the Belarusian armed forces) into Ukraine, 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 (conscripts), 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 virtually open conflict is ongoing among 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 or 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 defense ministry/General Staff 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 a decrease in positive reporting on the Wagner Private Military Company in the Russian media, and certainly that Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner PMC’s leader, desist from openly attacking the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the General Staff? Time will tell with regard to the latter, but since January 15, the Russian media resumed positive reporting on Wagner’s efforts in Ukraine. Prigozhin plays a necessary Vladimir Zhirinovsky-jester role in the Russian psychodrama — a man without allies or a firm institutional basis is able to secure Putin’s patronage only to the extent that he is militarily relevant. Hence, the totemic importance of being seen to storm Bakhmut.
For Putin, if not for Russian technocrats (for whom mere survival constitutes victory), the appearance of a “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 the 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 United States and Russia negotiate as Great Powers the fate of Ukraine. Russia would be acknowledged as a co-equal Great Power by a dignified foe (the U.S.), while dictating 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 clock putting Putin under pressure is an illusion: For Putin, his ability to manufacture the reality of time by resetting the clock is in a sense proof of the existence of God (Putin), at least in his own mind.
It is clear that the incentives of parties have shifted since the war began and 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 termination of the war (“just peace”), 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 constitute a strategic defeat for Russia. Ukraine’s wider diplomatic effort centered on “unifying for peace” may also play a role in opening up new negotiation opportunities, for example, through the diplomatic engagement of China. These opportunities are currently missing and may be able to be used to exert indirect influence on involved parties to move closer to a sustainable conflict resolution.
This summary reflects the views of the authors and is not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany or any other governments.
About the Authors
Dr. Mark Galeotti is director of the London-based consultancy Mayak Intelligence, an honorary professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. He is an expert and prolific author on transnational crime and Russian security affairs. His latest books include: “Putin’s Wars, from Chechnya to Ukraine” (London: Osprey, 2022) and “The Weaponisation of Everything: A Field Guide to the New Way of War, 2022” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2022).
Orysia Lutsevych is head of the Ukraine Forum and research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. Since joining Chatham House in 2012, her research has focused on social change and the role of civil society in democratic transition in the post-Soviet region. Her most recent focus is on state and societal resilience, where she is leading an effort to design a Resilience Index on Foreign Encroachment (RIFE). In 2017, she coordinated and co-authored a major Chatham House report, “The Struggle for Ukraine,” which assessed changes since Euromaidan and provided policy recommendations. She is the author of the Chatham House publications “Agents of the Russian World: Proxy Groups in the Contested Neighbourhood” (2016) and “How to Finish a Revolution: Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine” (2013). Her media work includes contributions to the BBC, The Guardian, The Times, CNN, the Financial Times, The New York Times and Open Democracy.
Dr. Graeme P. Herd is a professor of transnational security studies in the Research and Policy Analysis Department at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. His latest books include: “Understanding Russia’s Strategic Behavior: Imperial Strategic Culture and Putin’s Operational Code” (London and New York, Routledge, 2022) and “Russia’s Global Reach: A Security and Statecraft Assessment,” ed. Graeme P. Herd (Garmisch-Partenkirchen: George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, 2021).