Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine is entering a new phase. President Vladimir Putin lifted the fog of war and hinted at what can be expected going forward in a landmark speech at the National Defence Control Centre while addressing a meeting of the Russian Defence Ministry Board on December 19.
Russia has gained the upper hand in the proxy war while the United States is struggling to recreate a new narrative. For Putin, this is a moment of triumph where he has no reason to take advantage of the fog of war in Ukraine, whereas, for President Biden, the fog of war continues to serve a useful purpose of dissimulation in the crucial election ahead where he seeks a second term.
Putin’s speech exuded a buoyant mood. The Russian economy has not only regained its pre-2022 momentum but is accelerating toward a 3.5% growth rate by the yearend, marked by rising incomes and purchasing power for millions of its citizens and an increase in living standards. Unemployment is at an all-time low and Russia has beaten back the Western sanctions and the attempts to isolate it in the international arena.
The leitmotif of Putin’s speech is that this is a war that Russia never sought but was imposed on it by the US. Putin had listed last year in February five clear-cut objectives of the Russian military operation — security of the Russian population; de-nazification of Ukraine; demilitarisation of Ukraine; striving for a friendly regime in Kiev; and, non-admission of Ukraine into NATO. These are of course interlocked objectives. The US and its allies know it but continue to pretend otherwise with their focus in the proxy war has been a military victory and regime change in Russia.
Putin’s message is that any new Western narrative on the war is doomed to meet with the same fate as the previous one unless there is realism that Russia cannot be militarily defeated and its legitimate interests are recognised.
The heart of the matter is that the West all along perceived Ukraine as a geopolitical project targeting Russia. Today, even with defeat staring at its face, the West’s priority lies in forcing Russia to agree to a ceasefire on the basis of the existing line of contact without any geopolitical or strategic obligations on the part of Washington or the transatlantic alliance — which, de facto, would mean leaving the door for the rearmament of the battered Ukrainian military and for Kiev’s accession to NATO through the back door.
Suffice to say, the discredited agenda of using Ukraine as a pawn to pursue the West’s anti-Russian policy is still very much around. But Moscow will not fall for the US’ trap a second time, risking another war that may erupt at a time that suits NATO.
Unsurprisingly, Putin’s speech paid great attention to revving up Russia’s defence industry to meet any military exigencies that might arise. But towards the end of his speech, Putin also dwelt on Russia’s politico-military options under the circumstances.
On the military side, clearly, Russia will press forward the attritional war to its logical end of pushing the Ukrainian military into a strategic dead-end, which would mean seeking tactical improvements along the frontline, undermining Ukraine’s economic potential, inflicting military losses, and boosting Russia’s own defence industry on a scale that tips the balance of forces to weigh against any military adventures by the NATO.
In the final analysis, Putin asserted, Russia is determined to reclaim the “vast historical territories, Russian territories, along with the population” that the Bolsheviks transferred to Ukraine during the Soviet era. However, he drew an important distinction as regards the “western lands” of Ukraine (west of Dnieper) that are a legacy of World War II over which there could be territorial claims from Poland, Hungary and Romania, which at least in the case of Poland is also linked to the transfer of “eastern German lands, the Danzig Corridor, and Danzig itself” following the defeat of the Third Reich.
Putin took note that “people who live there (western Ukraine) – many of them, at least, I know this for sure, 100 percent – they want to return to their historical homeland. The countries that lost these territories, primarily Poland, dream of having them back.”
That said, interestingly, Putin simply washed his hands off any territorial disputes that may arise between Ukraine and its eastern neighbours(all of whom are NATO countries.) Looking ahead, this is going to be a can of worms for the US. Recently, Russia’s intelligence chief Sergey Naryshkin used a powerful metaphor, warning that the US may face a “second Vietnam” in Ukraine that will come to haunt it for a long time.
The bottom line, as Putin framed it, is as follows: “History will put everything in its place. We (Moscow) will not interfere, but we will not give up what is ours. Everyone should be aware of this –- those in Ukraine who are aggressively disposed towards Russia, and in Europe, and in the United States. If they want to negotiate, let them do so. But we will do it only based on our interests.”
Putin concluded saying that if the final arbiter is military prowess, that explains why Russia is focusing on a “strong, reliable, well-equipped, and properly motivated Armed Forces” backed by a strong economy and “the support of the multi-ethnic people of Russia.”
There is a strong likelihood of Russian military operations moving further westward toward the Dnieper in the coming months, well beyond the four new territories that joined the Russian Federation last year — Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhia, and Kherson. In the absence of any negotiated settlement, Russia may choose to unilaterally “liberate” those southern regions of Ukraine that were historically part of Russia, which would presumably include Odessa and the entire Black Sea coast, or Kharkov to the north of the Donbass region.
Russia is expecting that the combat capabilities of the Ukrainian forces will sharply diminish in the near future and the army faces difficulty already to get new recruits. That is to say, through the year ahead, the balance of forces at the front will shift due to the Ukrainian military’s heavy losses and the drop in Western aid, and, at some point, Ukraine’s defences will begin to crumble.
Russia’s recent gains in military operations — eg., Soledar, Artyomovsk (Bakhmut), Avdeevka, Maryinka, etc. — already testify to a shift in the balance of forces between the two armies. This shift will further accelerate as Russia’s military-industrial complex is functioning optimally and Russia is massively deploying new types of weapons, such as gliding aviation bombs, which have altered the role of the Russian Air Force in the conflict.
Dozens of heavy aerial bombs are dropped every single day and similarly, there is increase in the use of modern barrage ammunition and some other systems, including precision-guided munitions. T-90M tanks and new types of light armoured vehicles have also appeared on the battlefield.
In comparison, Ukraine faces a decrease in arms supplies due to limited production capacities in the West where sustainable production growth on an industrial scale is not attainable in the near term. Meanwhile, the Middle East crisis and the tensions around Taiwan become major distractions for the US.
All these factors taken into account, a decisive shift in the balance of forces against Ukraine is entirely conceivable by the end of next year, leading to an end of the conflict on Russia’s terms.