What don’t we know about the war in Ukraine?
Special to The Washington Post May 12, 2022
In thinking about the evolution of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lawrence Freedman’s Substack has been invaluable. His latest assessment is blunt about Russia’s failures on the battlefield: “The second phase of the war has been underway for a month now and the Russians have made few gains. ... The Russians have amassed whatever forces they can muster for this latest push, with little left in reserve, and it does not appear to be sufficient.” This matches the assessments of other experts on the Russian military. Moscow’s ability to pursue offensive actions appears to be waning by the day.
Freedman said something else about Putin’s Victory Day speech that is worth noting, however — that in delivering such a muted set of war aims, Putin offered “a definition of victory that might be in reach. So long as the Donbas is spared punitive action, Crimea is defended and Ukraine abandons thoughts of nuclear weapons then Russia will have succeeded. Putin described an imaginary threat for which he therefore might accept an imaginary solution.”
Russia has paid an enormous price for its ambitions in Ukraine. It is worth remembering, however, that if the war ended tomorrow with the current battle lines frozen in place, the Russian Federation would control most of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. The parallels to Stalin’s 1939 invasion of Finland come to mind. The Soviet Union suffered horrible losses during the first phase of that winter war, but in the end it still gained control over more than 10% of Finland — territory it controls to this day.
One of the arenas where Ukraine is routing Russia is the information war. A lot of attention has been paid to Russian casualties and very little has been said about Ukrainian casualties. There are lots of videos showing successful attacks on Russian units, but the only ones showing Russian attacks are those that stress the loss of innocent civilians. There are plenty of recordings demonstrating abysmal Russian morale, but we have heard little about Ukrainian weariness.
None of this is to say that the information environment has distorted the state of the conflict beyond all recognition. Relative to prewar expectations, Russia has underperformed and Ukraine has overperformed. The polling in Ukraine strongly supports the narrative of a country united in resisting Russia; on the other hand, I cannot count the number of times Russia has claimed to capture all of Mariupol without, you know, it actually happening.
What I am saying is that because Ukraine has been so effective in the information space, Kyiv has obscured some known unknowns that need to be puzzled out when considering the next phase of this conflict.
For one thing, can Ukraine go on the offensive beyond the north? There is no denying that Ukraine had great success counterattacking to gain territory near Kyiv. They are succeeding around Kharkiv as well. But as Margarita Konaev and Polina Beliakova note in Foreign Affairs, other parts of the country will require a different strategy: “To win in Donbas, they will likely have to shift to a more conventional fight on open ground, where they may be more vulnerable. ... In open terrain, especially if the Ukrainians want to move from a defensive posture, regain lost territory, and expel Russian soldiers from the Donbas region, they will need serious reinforcements.”
Then there is the south. The Russians continue to control Kherson and are threatening to annex it through a bogus referendum. The humanitarian situation in that region grows more dire by the day.
Finally, what happens to Ukraine after the war ends, or at least after the battle lines stabilize? As Anna Reid notes in Foreign Affairs, Ukraine has demonstrated extraordinary resiliency during this war, but questions remain about its future:
“Security will be paramount: even in the most optimistic scenarios, Ukrainians recognize that they will likely face a future of continued conflict in the east, perhaps lasting for years to come. The country will also need to address the loss not only of much of its economy, but also of more than five million of its citizens who have fled the country and will have to be persuaded that there is something to return to. At the same time, it will take exceptional effort for the Ukrainian government not relapse into corruption, even as it pleads for tens of billions of dollars in desperately needed reconstruction money. And it remains unclear just what status the country will have in the West when all is said and done.”
Russia’s decision to invade its sovereign neighbor has proven to be ill-fated. My question is whether, in the end, Russia will still walk away with territorial gains compared to 2014 and Ukraine will be able to recover.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.