Looking ahead, there are only two possible major military moves for Russia. Following the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists last autumn, of whom more than half are now combat-ready, Putin’s army is now larger than when it invaded last February. Then, the aim was not to start a war but to end it, with a quick victory forecast by Russian and US Intelligence, both equally intoxicated by the false promise of “post-kinetic” warfare; this would combine electronic propaganda with cyber-attacks on everything from military headquarters to civilian infrastructures. Generals who had never fought against patriotic Europeans but only against Middle Eastern sectarians, if they had fought at all, who considered tanks old-fashioned and had limitless respect for “information warfare”, heavily influenced the totally wrong estimates that misled both Biden and Putin.
After initial failure, Putin had two perfectly reasonable options. He could have ordered a retreat — a politically feasible choice since low-level warfare had been underway for years and the entire operation could have been passed off as an exercise in intimidation. Alternatively, he could have declared war, mobilised the Russian Armed forces and invaded Ukraine in earnest.
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Instead of choosing between retreat or an all-out offensive, Putin and his unimpressive advisors simply tried one thing after another, from the launch of as many missiles as possible against Kyiv and other cities (even anti-aircraft missiles, with their small warheads) to an attempt to conquer Odesa via the industrial town of Mykolaiv, whose shipyard workers acted out a favourite theme of Soviet propaganda: workers streaming out of factories to fight the enemy with whatever weapons they had.
After that, there was mostly retreat for the Russian forces as they gave up the territories they had won at the start, around Kharkiv and on the northern edge of Kyiv. At this point, Putin’s aim was seemingly to keep the entire south, including the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts in addition to Donetsk and Luhansk.
Since Putin had not declared war to mobilise the Russian army (it would have meant calling up 18–year-old conscripts, and having their mothers at the Kremlin gate), he tried everything else, from deploying units manned by contract soldiers recruited in non-Russian peripheries in Siberia and the Caucasus to relying on the Wagner collection of desperadoes and ex-convicts. Finally, he decided to take the political risk of recalling 300,000 reservists.
It is these troops — or rather the actual number who turned up, and were not signed off for health reasons during their refresher training — who now provide the forces that Putin can send into action, in one of two ways.
First, these fresh soldiers might simply be used to continue fighting in the old way, which at this point in the war means to keep trying to drive the last Ukrainian forces out of Donetsk and Luhansk. This aim already looks achievable: the Russians are advancing in the village of Bilohorivka, the very last part of the Luhansk region that is still in Ukrainian hands, and they are also advancing against the city of Bakhmut in the very last part of Donetsk still held by Ukrainian forces. It is possible, then, or at least “not impossible”, that Putin is now trying to extract a slice of victory from a disastrous war, by offering to give up remaining Russian-controlled parts of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in exchange for Ukraine’s surrender of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions which had the largest proportion of Russian speakers to begin with, where popular resistance to Ukrainian rule was strong.
Of course, Zelenskyy would also have to agree to negotiate, and aside from his expressed refusal to give up any territory at all including Crimea, it is not clear that he would have the authority to negotiate over territorial concessions. But that is when the reality of Ukraine’s limited sovereignty would emerge to settle the matter. The country now depends on the United States and its closest allies to survive, and the US in turn would have to go along with Europe’s major governments, who would undoubtedly demand an end to the war.
Moreover, the transfer could even acquire democratic legitimacy with properly supervised plebiscites in the two contested regions. A referendum can be anything or nothing, as in the farce staged by the Russians in Crimea on March 16, 2014. But a plebiscite is very precisely defined by the 1919 rules set at Versailles: it must involve not a handful but thousands of neutral inspectors to examine IDs and issue ballots, and territorial control by armed units sent by neutral countries. Those rules were applied in the plebiscites held to apportion disputed territories between Germany and Belgium, Germany and Denmark, Germany and Poland, and between Austria and Hungary. In every case, both sides accepted the result and violence stopped. Under the same rules, plebiscites could now be held in Donetsk and Luhansk with ballots assigned to anyone who can prove pre-2014 residence, even if they later left, as many refugees did before and after the new war.
But Putin also has a second path before him. He could leave the regional Donetsk and Luhansk troops, contract-soldier units and Wagner mercenaries to drive back the Ukrainians step by step, and he could use the fresh units of reservists — with their refurbished eight-wheel troop carriers, self-propelled artillery and main battle tanks — to change the terms of the war altogether, by launching a new invasion from Belarus.
Instead of more grinding frontal fights, Russian columns could advance straight down from Belarus into east-central Ukraine, towards Korosten and Zhytomyr to reach Vinnytsia, a part of the country that has seen no fighting, and where there are very few Ukrainian troops, and no obstacles in the flat terrain. In doing so, the Russians would cut off all the highways and railway lines that bring weapons, ammunition, and civilian supplies from Warsaw, Berlin, Prague and the West beyond them to Kyiv, Odesa and the entire south and east of the country, except for rare air freight.
If the Russian army can pull it off, that in itself would be an operational success that would restore some of its lost reputation, as well as Putin’s, which would not necessarily be a bad thing if it allows him to negotiate an end to the fighting. Yes, “negotiate”, because cutting off the roads and railways from the West would not actually open the way for a military victory. Russian columns could certainly do a right turn to drive into Kyiv, but once there they would be destroyed in a very accelerated second Stalingrad: Kyiv and its surroundings are now full of determined fighters amply equipped with anti-tank and other weapons, and columns of eight-wheel troops carriers are desperately vulnerable in urban areas.
But an operational-level victory that leaves the Russians astride Ukraine’s critical supply lines could open the way for the diplomatic solution. Yes, there is only one: the exchange of internationally-supervised plebiscites in Donetsk and Luhansk for Russian withdrawals from all other parts of the south and south-east, and of course an end to all fighting. From the first day, this was the only exit from the burning house of war, and so it still remains.
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