A new phase in the longest war of recent times Ukraine – Russia is emerging in the spring summer 2023, what are the key determinants- forces, leaders, political objectives, nuclear use and impact on global resilience, here is an overview.
The freezing cold and snow of winter in Eastern Europe has been weathered by the public at large in Ukraine with a high level of resilience despite the disruptions while armed forces on both sides were engaged in intense urban battles with Bakhmut having assumed a symbolic front.
The Battle of Bakhmut may go into the history books as a modern Stalingrad when details of intensity of fighting in the edge of Donbass is recorded.
There has been a fair amount of debate on the importance of Bakhmut and the persistence of Ukraine in particular to hold on to the urban zone even as it was surrounded by what is believed to be a combination of Russian Special Forces and the Private Military Corporation (PMC) – the Wagner Group.
Bakhmut Symbol or Way Ahead
Officials in the United States including Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin have commented that Ukraine should pull out from the city as attrition levels were high and unsustainable by the Ukrainian armed forces. On the other hand it was felt that Russian losses were mainly in the Wagner PMC while the regular forces were relatively unscathed.
Yet Ukraine President on advise of the military command decided to sustain the defence of Bakhmut surrounded on three sides with the Wagner PMC declaring that it had secured the Eastern portion of the City.
What then is the design of the campaign in the coming year and what could be anticipated for which examination of several factors are essential and is reviewed based on open sources including Telegram channels cross verifying for a reasonable degree of authenticity.
Pain, Resilience and Short Wars
Firstly, war in Ukraine has far exceeded the duration for which states have fought in recent years post-Vietnam. The theory of short wars is thus debunked but only partially.
The ability of pain that has been inflicted and absorbed by Russia and Ukraine on the military and on the civilian counterparts in the latter has been unprecedented in Europe and the developed World.
Other countries and people may not demonstrate the same degree of resilience and thus succumb to a similar aggression in a shorter period of time
Developing countries as India in any case do not have the military and economic wherewithal to sustain long wars. China is an open question for another day.
Russia possibly worked on the presumption of a short war when President Vladimir Putin launched the so called Special Military Operation on February 24 last year.
How long will resilience of the Ukraine triad – people, armed forces and the leadership sustain will determine the war in spring summer 2023 and beyond.
Russia internally has had relatively limited pain in terms of direct effects of the war despite high level of fatalities, mobilisation travails and impact on political, diplomatic and economic performance. The “body bag,” syndrome does not prevail in Russia and the issue of casualties is far too geographically and ethnically complex to have an impact.
The varied challenges are not likely be an existential threat per se for Russia in the coming year and the reserve of resources continues to remain high.
From the Ukrainian perspective to sustain morale and motivation and fighting capability external support in terms of weapons and munitions to the armed forces will be essential which is being provided by the United States and the West. This leads to the discussion of the status of forces on both sides.
Status of Armed Forces
Secondly as far as the armed forces capability there are several imponderables here and many unknowns thus reasonable assumptions will have to be made.
Ukrainian armed forces have demonstrated the capability to prevent an all round breakthrough by the Russian forces in 2022 in the early months.
While Russia did succeed in securing additional territory and the corridor to Crimea, the gains have been less than expected.
Now much will depend on Ukrainian armed force absorbing and adapting weapon systems provided by the United States and other Western countries. It is good to have a Leopard tank but the operator and the gunner will make the difference.
More over variety of tanks, guns and air defence systems provided is also a challenge in terms of training and employment as well as integration and sustenance.
Another factor is doctrinal issue of fighting the old Soviet way with weapons and systems of Russian origin including seized from the Russian army and the modern western way with integrated operations and directional command and control.
Matching the two to generate capabilities on the front line will assume importance.
To the advantage of the Ukrainians their 250,000 fighting strength by a rough estimate has battlefield experience and though these have suffered heavy casualties morale and motivation is high.
At the same time provision of weapons and munitions by the US and the West and its steady supply assumes importance.
How large is the kitty that flows into Ukraine remains to be seen?
Considering several factors and objective of reclaiming lost territories - offensives by the Ukrainian armed forces can be anticipated.
However, as battles are binary, the success achieved will be determined by the resistance faced which is expected to be heavy and a breakthrough in 2023 is unlikely which brings us to Russian forces.
On the Russian side it is not clear if mobilisation that has taken place in September last year has been exhausted in the battles in the winters.
Attrition to the Russian forces as per western estimates is heavy almost 200,000 casualties at a 5 to 7 ratio of dead to wounded.
If the mobilised elements have not been exhausted, Russia will have a force capable of conducting a series of operations as undertaken in the past year with experience of the degree of resistance to be anticipated. Else another round of mobilisation can be anticipated.
Opening many fronts to spread out the Ukrainians and progressing on a few critical areas may be the way ahead.
On the other hand ensuring sustenance of the land bridge to Crimea could draw in large numbers. Similarly it is anticipated that Ukraine has mustered almost 3 to 4 corps worth for launching offensives in 2023, in that scenario how well the Russians perform in the defensive remains to be seen.
Political Objectives Remain Unchanged
Thirdly political objectives on both sides are unlikely to change. For Ukraine as the President Volodymyr Zelensky has outlined recovery of lost territory including Crimea remains but achieving the same with the short capability review attempted hitherto fore appears unlikely in 2023, thus the war may drag on to 2024 unless there is an active attempt at negotiation.
The only one on the horizon is by China with new found confidence in managing regional rivals – Iran and Saudi Arabia. Can Chinese President Xi Jinping be the peacemaker remains to be seen.
On the Russian side acquiescence of Ukraine to the Russian power block is now clearly the political aim. This can be achieved through a change of Presidency and collapse of political order in Kyiv which appears unlikely as President Zelensky seems well entrenched.
Russia is unlikely to achieve success on the battlefield that may lead to a catastrophic breakup of the Ukrainian armed forces and thus capitulation.
On the other hand there is a possibility of the land corridor to Crimea being cut off which was also one of the reason possibly for the Russian Su 27 buzzing the American Predator last week. What if there is a threat to Crimea which cannot be staved off by the Russian conventional forces?
The Tactical Nuclear Option
Fourthly that brings us to the nuclear option a use of a tactical nuclear weapon in such a scenario cannot be ruled out for a breach of security of Crimea will be a red line for Moscow and President Putin. Hopefully we will not come to such a scenario of vertical escalation in 2023.
Horizontal Escalation: Ever Present Danger
However Fifthly there is a danger of horizontal escalation given recent manned unmanned encounter over the Black Sea where a Russian Su 27 brought down a United States Predator unmanned surveillance aircraft.
With both sides releasing selective footage it is not about who is on the right side of the air defence line but a possible escalation in the manned zone.
To be clear Russia selected to buzz an unmanned drone as the consequences of the action would be limited with no human casualties involved.
If there is a hostile encounter in the air between the Russian and the US Air Force manned aircraft escalation could spiral out of control.
Hopefully lessons have been learnt and yet Russia seems to be laying down the red lines for the level of support that the US can provide to Ukrainians in the information and intelligence field or may be signalling that it was willing to escalate, we will know only in times to come.
On the other hand the decision of the International Criminal Court to try Russian President Vladimir Putin will only harden the attitude of Moscow.
European and Global Resilience under Test
Fifthly is the test of resilience in rest of Europe and the World. If the war continues or escalates there will be harder times to come which will be determined by what scenario emerges as discussed through Stages One to Four above.
Prepare for the worst while hope for the best may be a pithy observation but one that can most appropriately describe what the World should do in the days ahead with respect to the war in Ukraine.