A little more than one year after the Russian invasion Ukraine started its counterattack. At the moment it is not clear how successful it may be, but we already can discuss the future of this war regardless of the level of its success. The ongoing counterattack will not decide the outcome of the war, though it will influence it. And we should admit that the future of the war depends on Russia, not on Ukraine.
Russia started the war. Russia wants to end it in a way favorable to its current regime. Making one geopolitical mistake after another Russia still sets the agenda of the war. And it makes sense to look into the Russian dynamics and power structure logic that Ukraine has to react to. We can never discuss the future without the past. Therefore, it is important to investigate the Kremlin’s reasoning when it invaded Ukraine.
January 2023 started with news of gas prices dropping in Europe to the pre-war level, which marked the failure of Putin’s Plan B. At the same time, both Russian and international media were occupied with minuscule military advancements of the Wagner group in Bakhmut. None of Putin’s plans had military reasoning behind them. Putin is not a commander-in-chief, he is a gangster, so he planned to grab something and run, or threaten to throw a nuke if anybody dares to try to take it away from him, but not to fight for it.
That was his obvious Plan A: to quickly grab a part of Ukraine. The army was used as a threat, not as a real force, hence the big losses of February and March of 2024. Putin’s concept of perpetual war was developed to fight with the West, the “Collective West” as they say in the Kremlin. The invasion of Ukraine was his idea of a war with the West. Putin did not want to have a war with Ukraine. He planned to gain over NATO before the latter realizes that it was attacked, a typical gangster method. After Putin’s Plan A failed he quickly developed Plan B.
Gazprom burning gas with a daily worth of about $10 million and Russia-sponsored reels of Europe freezing in the winter was the propaganda part of the plan. The plan was very straightforward (just like Plan A): let’s freeze Europe by cutting its gas supply. Once it freezes, Europeans will demand that their governments stop supporting Ukraine and then we can go back to plan A. And the drop in gas prices buried Plan B, just as the heroic fight of the Ukrainians quickly buried Plan A.
And now we see Plan C, which is a Russian traditional one. Its name is “what if”. What if Democrats lose elections and Trump stops all support to Ukraine? What if gas prices skyrocket again and Europe stops its support to Ukraine? What if Ukrainians get tired of the war and oust Zelensky? Many things may happen if we just wait. This approach is a perfect reflection of the ineffective character of the Russian government. Whether you serve in the Soviet KGB or work in the St.Petersburg administration you know that if you wait something good may happen.
After the second army in the world and the great European gas empire failed, Putin bets on waiting and the patience of the Russian people. The plan seems to be working for Putin, with the absence of protests, Russian men ready to go to Ukraine to die, and Russian women receiving remunerations for them. Putin’s goal now is to drag the war as soon as possible trying to tire Ukrainians and the West out. On the battlefield, it mainly means defending against Ukrainian counterattacks. Putin does not care if he can capture much more Ukrainian land. Putin’s propaganda machine can make any captured small village another big victory.
This is the Russian agenda, and the West reacts to it. After Plan A failed the West started to increase its military and financial aid to Ukraine. Following how the Western political discourse we see the change from “Russia must not win” to “Ukraine must win”, finally arriving at “Ukraine must liberate all its territories”. The problem for both Putin and the West is that they do not know what the Ukrainian army is capable of. What seemed to be a handful of patriotic professionals before February 24 is expected to be the deadliest army of today. And the ongoing counterattack will show if the expectation is true.
The fact that Russia does not call the war its name using “special military operation” instead underlines its waiting character. Putin’s goal is to formalize the status quo, keep some Ukrainian territories, and gather resources for another attempt.
Interestingly enough neither Russia nor Ukraine declared war. No country uses this term in official legal documents. On Feb. 24, 2022, Ukraine declared martial law and general mobilization for 90 days prolonging this legal status from then on. Both militarily and legally Ukraine responds to Russia, where the war was never declared.
Regardless of the officially declared legal status, we have a real war in Ukraine. Declaring a war means you have to win it. Otherwise, you have more space for political maneuvering. While liberating all territories including Crimea seems a decisive victory for Ukraine, it will not be a victory in the war that was never declared. Russia will come back for Crimea and Donbas.
And Western politicians realize it. Since there is no accord about what to do with Russia after the war, and how to defend against its future aggressions, Western governments hesitate. They can not fully rely on the Ukrainian army as they just do not have any visible result of its overall effectiveness. So, they supplied it with enough armament to produce a successful retaliation, a proof of concept, so to say, which can not be totally effective without F-16s.
Jet fighters are key to contemporary military operations not because they need to fight with enemy planes. No, the needed F-16s will provide data links enabling Ukraine’s aircraft to combine with NATO’s ground-based air-defense radars, such as the Patriot. This will improve tactical effectiveness against Russian cruise missiles and could help in counter-offensive now. Unlike the existing small fleet of Soviet-era Mig-29s, Su-27s, and Su-24s the F-16 can carry the full suite of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles.
Ukraine now has HARMs and Storm Shadow missiles that it tries to launch from the current planes making all sorts of adapters. This method though is not very effective, missiles often miss targets. Linking missiles to the aircraft’s native systems, which detect the radar further and more accurately than the missile head and can give it a full initial target designation, the effectiveness of the HARM will increase many times over. And Russian air defense losses will augment. After knocking out the air defense system, the same F-16 can launch Storm Shadow at unprotected military targets. But the F-16s will come in the fall, too late to contribute to the ongoing counter-offensive.
A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft would also help the Ukrainian counter-offensive. These elderly machines are the very needed frontline aircraft support to bomb down Russian positions and anti-missile defense systems. The Russian air force is very effective against Ukrainian land troops now. And Ukraine does not have any Western aircraft now when it needs them most.
Zelensky acknowledged that Ukrainian troops face “very tough resistance”. It should not surprise him. Big geopolitical players again miss one fact: Russian soldiers want to survive, and their commanders do too. And they have all the military means for that. The Russian army is not against this war. Whether the war is just or not, Russian soldiers’ survival instincts push them to fight.
On June 13, Putin voiced again the West has the key to resolving the Ukrainian conflict. To do this, “they need to stop supplying weapons and equipment to Ukraine.” Putin also noted that in case of termination of arms supplies, Ukraine itself will soon want to hold negotiations. He clearly wants to drag the war hoping for Russian resources that seem endlessly rich to him.
And this is where his misunderstanding of Russian society and history will backfire. Russian history shows that Russia could only be at war for about 2,5 years before it depletes the necessary resources to drag the war further. It might seem surprising but all Russian wars of the last 200 years prove that after approximately 2,5 years it always needs additional resources, that usually come from the West. The vicious circle of Russian history outlines the time frames of the current war:
- the Crimea War, 1853-1856, problems with logistics and ineffective generals resulted in Russia losing the war after locally available resources were depleted;
- Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905, problems with logistics and ineffective generals resulted in Russia losing the war after locally available resources were depleted;
- World War 1, 1914-1918, Russia depleted its easy-to-deploy resources in 1916, the economy spiralling down, and societal irresolvable contradictions ended with the 1917 revolution;
- World War II, 1939-1945, the Western help came in time, and without it, as Western military analysts wrote then, USSR was to leave the war at the end of 1943 – the beginning of 1944 (German military headquarters had the same timeline);
- Russia-Ukraine war, Feb.24, 2022, unless the Chinese lend-lease comes soon, Russia can only drag it to the end or 2026-beginning of 2027.
Putin has no real plan, and Russian history and ineffective governance practices together with a worsening economy are against him. But he hates Ukraine and believes that he can outwear Ukraine and the West. This will end up in total depletion of resources and/or an internal coup, exactly how Germany and Russia both ended WW I. And before that Putin will continue to kiss hundreds of thousands, creating millions of refugees. Russia sets the agenda for this war, but maybe it is time for the West to take a firm position and stop it?