|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
The holding of pseudo-referendums in the Russian-occupied regions of southeastern Ukraine, followed by the start of annexation procedures (September 30), indicates that Moscow is rapidly losing ground. Otherwise, the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, would not have started the partial mobilization and would not have speculated about the possibility of using nuclear weapons. The renewal of Russian military capabilities is struggling, military troops are physically exhausted and severely demoralized, and the military leadership is making a cascade of mistakes because it refuses to operate with real information from the ground. The main culprit for the new military defeats recorded by the Russian side is Putin. He refuses to accept the reality that Ukraine is advancing and has broad Western politico-military support to defeat Russian aggression. Although Ukraine pursues the goal of regaining possession of its borders since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia's defeat will have dramatic consequences for the authoritarian regime in Moscow.
The withdrawal of Russian forces inside the occupied territories, recorded in September, is due to the Ukrainian counter-offensive and the takeover of much of the Kharikiv region, followed by the reconquering of the city of Lyman in the Donetsk region and other military successes. This showed that Ukraine not only has resilience but also great potential for an effective counter-offensive (100 km2 of reclaimed land per week in September). Thus, equipped with sufficient modern weaponry and trained according to Western standards, the Ukrainian forces can restore the country's territorial integrity. Until the end of September, the US provided US$17 billion worth of military assistance and the EU €2.5 billion (in five tranches). The Ukrainian side admitted that the US missile systems (HIMERS) changed the dynamics of the war in favor of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The West has pledged to provide aid to Ukraine for as long as it is needed.
In the case of Russia, the military results are in continuous decline. According to some estimates, the losses among Russian soldiers exceed 60 thousand people. Likewise, the partial mobilization resulted in the exodus of more than 200,000 representatives of the male population of Russia (BNE, September 2022). The prospect of becoming "cannon fodder" in the aggression against the neighboring country in the face of a dedicated, trained and efficient Ukrainian army created panic among Russian citizens, who fled abroad to avoid forced conscription into the Russian army. Ukrainian leaders advised them to surrender, return to Russia, or avoid enrollment in the army. Georgia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Mongolia and Turkey are among the top destinations for Russian men. With the exception of Turkey, travel to the rest of the countries mentioned is without a visa. Not qualifying as refugees, the Russian men are not eligible for any humanitarian assistance. Many of them also tried to reach European states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland) but faced travel restrictions applied against Russian citizens with visas issued for tourist purposes. The EU is in no hurry to clarify its status and the possible facilitation of entry into the Schengen Area. It is very likely that there will be a possible negative reaction from the member states and Ukraine, whose around 4 million citizens (as of September 30) are refugees abroad (around 10% of the population of 43.4 million in 2021). In addition, the federal budget loses the income previously provided by the export of hydrocarbons. In August, Russia already registered a deficit of about US$6 billion. The reduction in income puts pressure on war spending, the need to adapt the economy to the sanctioning regime (import substitution, subsidies, etc.) and, respectively, on maintaining the stability of the ruble. In the conditions of a weakened military power, the only means that Russia has at its disposal and that it uses or threatens to activate are the cessation of the supply of natural gas and the use of tactical nuclear weapons, respectively.
Effects of the illegal annexation
Although large portions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk (15% of Ukraine's territory) are in the process of being taken over by the Russian state, the illegal act was met with a strong negative reaction. In contrast to the attitude towards the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the position of the EU and the US against the territorial sequestration established by the Vladimir Putin regime against Ukraine is much harsher. If in 2014 the economic sanctions applied by the West were directed at the elites and the business environment of Crimea, today the targets of the sanctions are Russian parliamentarians and officials, the leadership of the main institutions and companies in Russia. After almost 8 months of defensive warfare by Ukraine and seven waves of European sanctions, Western politicians have developed an unprecedented capacity for collective thought and reaction. In any case, the US actions in relation to Ukraine raise expectations for the EU and the G7, which, under the pressure of image costs, are forced to speed up or intensify aid.
The Russian military aggression against Ukraine has awakened a reflex of courage among European states, which were previously more reluctant and cautious in relation to Moscow. The Ukrainian military success against the Russian army reinforces the principle and pragmatism of the EU and NATO. The West understands that Russia's intention to annex the occupied territories of Ukraine creates a dangerous precedent for border changes with the use of force. Thus, the EU announced new individual and sectoral sanctions (the 8th package), which will be discussed for a final decision on October 6 and 7 in Prague. Two days after the end of the pseudo-referendums, the US introduced individual sanctions against 278 parliamentarians (including Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut), 14 decision-makers from the military industry and 3 officials from the financial sector (including Elvira Nabiullina, the Governor of the Russian Central Bank).
However, the collective possibilities of the US, the EU and the G7 are limited within the UN Security Council, where Russia as a permanent member blocked the resolution condemning the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories, supported by the abstention of China, Gabon, India and Brazil (5 of 15 member countries declined the initiative). The conscious alignment of the great global powers on the side of Russia (China, India) requires that the West channel the necessary aid to Ukraine. Thus, the latter is encouraged to recover its occupied territories, nullifying de facto the Russian attempt to change the status quo through illegal annexations, validated by the Russian Constitutional Court.
The three scenarios
Ukrainian forces continue to successfully advance and bring back new places under Kyiv's control in Kherson and Donbas. The definitive victory of the war could take time. Certain radical events in Russia could influence the trajectory of the military situation in Ukraine, having a direct impact on regional security. Based on the potential of the Ukrainian forces and the limitations on the Russian side, three main scenarios can be highlighted. The development of each of them depends on the degree of despair and, respectively, on the constraints of acceptable options in Putin's calculations.
The "de-occupation" scenario (positive): if Ukraine receives weaponry, training and guidance (US, NATO), but also financial assistance to maintain budget expenditures (some $20bn from IMF is in the pipeline, etc.), then you have the opportunity to restore control over the lost territories. In this case, the Russian forces will try to resist, but in the end, they will have to withdraw to the Crimea peninsula and Russia, respectively, in order to survive. This scenario would mean that Putin will accept defeat and the loss of the occupied territories, which he illegally annexed in September 2022. Under such conditions, the Putin regime will be forced to focus its internal energy and resources on protecting against public protests. The positive scenario for Ukraine could even provoke a coup by the elites against Putin. However, Ukraine's victory will mark the beginning of the end of the dominance of the system created by Putin. Thus, it will be possible to negotiate a ceasefire agreement, favoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
The "zig-zag" scenario (moderate): Russia resorts to new attacks against civilian infrastructure inside Ukraine. In addition, the delivery of gas to the EU through gas pipelines that cross Ukrainian territory is stopped. Gas prices in EU states exceed €3,000 per thousand/m3, and following anti-government protests and the formation of Eurosceptic governments, unity around certain sanctions may weaken. In addition, the shortage of gas in the European market affects deliveries to Ukraine. Consequently, economic activity comes to a standstill and the population is exposed to an acute energy deficit, which may generate a new wave of refugees (heading to Moldova and EU countries). The Ukrainian army continues to fight and achieve some successes, but progress is more limited due to low temperatures and other aforementioned constraints. At the same time, Russia is increasing the import of weapons from Iran and North Korea, thereby trying to compensate for the scarce production of its own weapons. This scenario causes the war to drag on without one side gaining a significant advantage over the other. Negotiating a ceasefire will be unlikely as neither side wants to make concessions. Ukraine is convinced that it can win the war (after numerous successes), and Russia refuses to make concessions in order not to project weaknesses (despite objective losses) that could undermine its authority in the Eurasian space and the Global South (Africa, Asia).
The "nuclear" scenario (worst-case scenario): Considering the increasingly visible loss of positions in the face of the effective counteroffensive of the Ukrainian army, Putin decides to use tactical nuclear weapons, targeting one of the Ukrainian towns liberated from the Russian presence. With the aim of forcing the ceasefire negotiations, the nuclear option cannot be ruled out, although it will mean a new wave of sanctions and the total isolation of Russia. In Putin's opinion, in order to avoid a new nuclear attack, Ukraine could be pushed to the negotiating table, which could lead to the recognition of the annexed territories in September 2022. By using a nuclear weapon against a country that is not part of the collective NATO shield, Russia would be convinced that the West would not defend Ukraine in order to avoid mutual nuclear attacks. This scenario is possible if Putin feels the real risk of losing power. The survival of his own regime matters more to him than a victory against Ukraine. At the same time, the Kremlin conditions (at least for now) the political continuity of the regime to the maintenance of control over the freshly annexed Ukrainian territories.
Instead of conclusions…
The success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive represents a setback for Putin's military strategy toward Ukraine and regional security as a whole. Both the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories and the partial mobilization or threat of using nuclear weapons did not have any effect on the positive dynamics of the Ukrainian military forces. The gradual liberation of the occupied territories strengthens Kyiv's motivation to continue the counteroffensive and the West's to provide the Ukrainians with the necessary help to eliminate the Russian presence in Ukraine.
As the Ukrainian military is proving its effectiveness, Putin may resort to negative scenarios to force negotiations and gain recognition of illegal annexations. Although the "nuclear" scenario will further isolate Russia, Putin is capable of going for it, in limited proportions (tactical nuclear weapons), to save himself from eventually insurgent elites and anti-government protests. Otherwise, if positive scenarios develop, Ukraine's victory could signify the beginning of the end of Putin's rule.
This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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