UKRAINE: THE ASPECTS OF THE
WAR. ANALYSIS AND COMMENTS
origins of the crisis
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the foreign ministers of United States, France, Great Britain, Germany and Canada signed an agreement with Russia. The agreement guaranteed to Russia, which in return accepted to pull its armies out of eastern Europe, that no former Warsaw pact nation would have joined NATO in the future. The geographical limit was the Oder, a river between Germany and Poland. None of these promises have been honored by NATO.
In 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO. In 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia did the same. In 2008, during a NATO meeting in Bucharest, Romania, the US stated that the next members of the organization would be Ukraine and Georgia (the initiative was later scrapped because of the opposition of France, Italy and Germany).
The Russian claim that they are flanked or attacked by NATO finds its foundation in all of the above.
The first signs of the crisis emerged between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014: Ukrainian demonstrations in favor of their joining the European Union were shunned by the filo-Russian president Yanukovich, who was swiftly ousted from power. His substitute, Poroshenko, accepted the demands of the population just a few months later. Meanwhile, Russia occupied Crimea and legitimized its annexation with a drugged referendum while fueling separatism in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. It was a clear signal addressed to Kiev which was ignored. Even after the incidents in Odessa between filo-Russians and filo-Ukrainians, which left several dead and wounded on the ground, Ukraine chose to ignore the message. The incidents had been the responsibility of right-wing extremist and Neo-nazi Ukrainian groups (that’s why Putin insists on saying that he wants to oust a Nazi regime from Kiev in order to protect the Russian population in Ukraine).
Two separate protocols were signed in Minsk in 2014 and 2015 to put an end to the armed struggle in the Donbass region between filo-Russian separatists from the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk, Luhansk and Ukraine. The accords were eased by Russian mediation, which was at the time playing the role of the negotiator together with France and Germany. The two agreements were later signed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and ratified by the UN security council. Both parties have later accused the other side of not respecting the accords.
The Russian backing of the secession of the Donbass region, which was supposed to be a warning for Ukraine, instead pushed them into the arms of Europe and NATO (all of the former Warsaw pact countries are today members of both organizations).
Accordingly, Russia’s fear of seeing Ukraine out of its sphere of influence and into someone else's unleashed their military reaction, coupled with the recognition of two separatist republics and the annexation of Crimea.
In 2021, the Ukrainian troops went so far as to participate in a NATO training exercise on the Black sea that alarmed Russia. Also, in 2005, the US sent members of their special forces and of the CIA to train the Ukrainian army in guerrilla warfare, protection of communications, use of anti-tank weapons and so forth. The program was started by the Obama administration and continued with Trump, only to be halted by Biden a few days before the Russian invasion.
The way Putin sees it, the sovereignty of Crimea was donated by Khrushchev in 1954, so it is only fair that it be taken back by Russia today. After all, independent Ukraine saw the light only in August 1991 (and their constitution includes non-alignment and the refusal to host foreign troops on its territory). Before 1991, Ukraine was a republic integrated in the Soviet Union; a place where language and culture were mixed and overlapped. But accepting Putin’s take on history requires some forcing, if not a total manipulation of history and geography.
On February 22, two days before the start of the military operations, Putin said in a speech to the nation that “Ukraine is not just a bordering country for us. It is an unalienable part of our history, culture and spiritual space”. This is a historical revision based on Russia’s Imperial past, not on the story of the Bolsheviks, which Putin judges negatively. Also, this conception of history limits the possibility of Ukraine ever being sovereign. Not to mention the fact that Belarus is also included in Putin’s ‘one nation’ remarks.
The military operations
In the last 30 years there have been three significant military operations on our planet: two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Wars waged by others always carry an induced experience that can be useful when you decide to wage your own.
In the three wars mentioned above, the United States always used the same technique: to start operations at night with the jamming of the enemy’s communications, an air strike aimed at the enemy’s command and control system and against the country's aerial defense, leading to an immediate relative air supremacy. This is followed by the systematic destruction of infrastructures, especially the ones that can maim the enemy’s operative capacity. After all of this happens, and only then, will the attackers target infrastructures that can decrease the morale of the enemy troops. Only after days of relentless bombardments and destruction will the ground troops enter the enemy territory.
The Russian army didn’t follow this procedure: they entered Ukraine without first destroying the Ukrainian system of command and control and without winning the supremacy over the skies. They attacked with ground troops without even striking the enemy’s main infrastructures first. The result of this is that from the first day of the attack, they have been faced with an enemy that is still strong enough to fight back.
There has been a lot of debate on the fact that Russia didn’t learn from the previous American invasions. This is probably due to the fact that the staunch resistance of the Ukrainian army was unforeseen, possibly because of a misjudgment by the Russian secret services. Were they hoping that the Russian troops would be met with joyful parades by the Ukrainian population? Probably. Were they hoping that the Ukrainian army would dissolve when faced with the advancing Russian troops? Probably. After all, the occupation of Crimea was completed without firing a single shot.
Why didn't this happen? Apart from the secret services, who else is to blame? The failure to foresee the Ukrainian violent reaction is the responsibility of Putin’s entourage, of his political counselors and obviously of heads of the military who give commands to the ground troops. After all, each time there is a ground invasion in a war, there is a lot of programming to be done ahead of time, because there is always the possibility of things not going as planned.
On the military level, these are the most blatant mistakes:
The massive use of insufficiently trained or unmotivated conscripts; the poor organization of the logistical chain (perhaps due to the presumption that this would be a lightning-fast conflict); an inadequately encrypted communications system, that forced many Russian soldiers to use their cellphone (which can be easily intercepted); the failure to block foreign military aid from flowing into Ukraine; an inadequate number of troops for a country of 600.000 square kilometers and with a population in excess of 40 million (the 190 thousand soldiers that were initially employed were surely not enough).
But the initial mistake was the belief that the Russian troops wouldn't face any resistance on the part of the Ukrainians and that they would be met with open arms, as liberators. Maybe the same belief influenced the choice to invade during the winter. For tanks and armored vehicles it would have been a lot easier to operate in another time of the year, without the snow.
Putin and his counselors
Someone in the media recently raised doubts on the psycho-physical capacity of Putin and on the fact that he is surrounded by a small circle of trusted aides, many of which are products of the former KGB (like Nikolay Tokarev, who directs the Russian state pipeline company; counselors Igor Panarin and Nikolay Patrushev; the head of Rostec Corporation, a company that operates in the field of defense; and others who have become wealthy and powerful in Putin's shadow). These are all individuals who, for personal reasons, are unlikely to contradict the president. Add to it the fact that Putin is a very diffident individual, so his contacts with people outside of this circle is limited. Even the minister of Defense, Sergey Shoigu, who wears a general's uniform when he appears in public, is but a civil engineer who knows little about the military.
All of these circumstances probably prevented Putin from confronting himself with reality, which is different from the virtual world proposed by his aides. One thing is certain: many of Putin's counselors found their professional formation in a context that is connected to the former Soviet Union; they see the rest of the world as an antagonist, transforming adversaries into enemies, hoping to rebuild the glorious past.
Obviously the invasion of Ukraine has damaged Putin's image throughout the world. And this will be a lasting impression, not only for himself, but also for Russia as a whole. Add to that the economic sanctions, which cannot be bypassed altogether through the adoption of commercial agreements with third parties, because like it or not, international finance is in the hands of the USA. Although the impact of sanctions may be limited in the short term period, their medium and long term effects will surely have a negative fallout on Russian economy.
But the consequences of the military operation also carry other side-effects, which perhaps Putin has underestimated:
- NATO, which had become a pariah after the fall of the Soviet Union, is now firmly back at the helm of every western military alliance and is throwing its weight to the east;
- Europe, which was very acquiescent when faced with the invasions of Crimea and Donbass, has found new unity in front of the common enemy and is likely to speed up the constitution of its own common military defense system;
- Ukraine, which in Putin's opinion was but a territorial branch of the great mother Russia has shown the world, with the blood of its armed resistance, that it is a real nation that wants to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty. The war fueled their nationalism;
- While European dependency on Russian energy was used to exert a veiled form of pressure on EU policy in the past, this is due to change now. Many countries that depend on Russian gas and oil, including Italy, but especially Germany, are changing their stance. Germany, which used to be very accommodating in the administration of its eastern border, is likely to adopt a more critical and firm stance. The recent increase in the nation's military spending is a clear indication of this.
- The fear of an aggressive Russia can push some of the eastern European countries, like Sweden and Finland, to abandon their neutral stance (the two countries were recently invited to join a NATO meeting). Others, like Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic countries, will be more prone to hosting allied troops on their territories;
- The war has put Russians and Ukrainians, who once lived together peacefully, against one another. The consequences of this will probably emerge after the war is over, when the Ukrainian people will have to face the destruction and death that the war caused in their homeland. There has been a lot of talk about Ukrainians being Russian-speaking, but this doesn't make them filo-Russian.
The time factor
A war that isn't won well is a lost war and this is exactly what is happening in Ukraine. To go from the perspective of a lightning-fast conflict to a long and wearing war is in itself defeating. The longer it takes for Russia to achieve its military goals, the more its image will be tainted internationally. There will be no more room for views that paint the Ukrainian government as a Nazi or illegal regime or for lies about the Ukrainian population rejoicing in the arrival of the Russians.
Now Putin has few options left to save his face: namely to get to the bottom of the war by conquering all important urban centers and controlling the country, or to negotiate a truce. The first option, which the Russians would probably prefer, is the hardest to achieve. It means to totally destroy a country; to face a great loss of men - which would surely occur if the Russians decide to take the fight to the streets; to fuel a long civil war, like in Afghanistan; to have the huge burden of controlling a vast country. The cost, in terms of money and human lives, would be very high, with very few benefits.
The other option, a negotiation, is perhaps the easier one, although it would certify Russia's defeat. To stop or to go back on their tracks now would mean to admit defeat, even if Russia were to completely control the Azov sea and obtain a neutral Ukraine through negotiations. It would still mean that Russia's aims were downsized gradually from an ultimatum to a negotiated ultimatum to a true negotiation.
In the negotiations, Russia will want to obtain as much as possible, so military operations are likely to continue as Russia tries to conquer more negotiating power and induce Ukraine to allow more concessions. But the time factor plays its part here too.
Another signal of weakness are the Russian strikes against civilian targets like schools and hospitals. The attempt by Russia to conceptually separate the Ukrainian population from its political and military leadership in view of the invasion has failed, now they are trying to use frustration and exasperation against the Ukrainian people to make them capitulate.
The effects on the Russian system of power
Today in Russia, as with all autocracies, power is firmly in the hands of one man, Putin. He orders and decides without being contradicted. He doesn't need to confront himself with the public opinion. To think that a failed war will make him step down is perhaps too wishful, but it surely can weaken him. But all things considered, his ousting is unlikely to happen in the short term, if ever. It would need a replacement, an individual who could find allies in the Russian establishment, perhaps through the wealth of some oligarch. This person would need to the army and the security services to his side; and perhaps even the Orthodox patriarchate. All of these structures are now firmly in the hands of Putin.
It is more likely that the Ukrainian war will bring about the involution of the Russian system of power into the more likeness of a dictatorship. It is a recurring circumstance in Russian history, which gets applied on a population that has never felt the charm of democracy, if not through the social networks and the web. Any form of dissent is due to suffer from the greater repression that is likely to follow. The substantial difference between an autocracy and a democracy - or worse yet, a dictatorship - is in the decision-making process, which in the latter case happens in disdain of the public opinion.
Putin and the support of the Russian Orthodox Church
The recent public statements by the Russian Patriarch Kirill, who on one occasion justified the invasion of Ukraine by correlating it with sexual libertinism in the West and in other public outbursts blamed the responsibility for the conflict to NATO, have had a great impact. And in doing so he legitimized the war and blatantly sided with Putin.
Within the Russian patriarchate Kirill was often accused by some authoritative and conservative members of having been too exposed to the West and the Catholic Church and, in this respect, he needed to emphasize his loyalty to Russia. The link with Putin is also made up of money, tax exemptions, free access to television, all facilities that the President generously bestows on the patriarchy.
But then there is the problem of the relations of the Russian patriarchate with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which, after the invasion of Crimea, the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Kiev, decided to break away from its ties with the aforementioned patriarchate to unite with the patriarch of Constantinople. It is a circumstance that has been used against Kirill by his detractors within the Russian patriarchate. Both in Russia and in Ukraine the respective patriarchates are involved in national political or military affairs.
The nuclear power-plants
At the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its independence proclaimed, Ukraine had nuclear weapons belonging to the Soviet Union on its territory. With a Memorandum signed in Budapest in December 1994, Ukraine adhered to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and delivered 1900 nuclear warheads to Russia, obtaining in return the guarantee from Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom (and subsequently China and France) of its independence and sovereignty, as well as of territorial integrity within its borders.
During the invasion, Russia tried to take control of the nuclear power plants (it currently controls 3 out of 4) that operate in Ukraine and which supply more than 50% of the country’s electricity. This objective aims, from a military point of view, to be able to control Ukraine's electricity system, but it also served the purpose of reviving Russian accusations that Kiev was developing its own nuclear weapons development program.
This accusation is also used to justify Russia's failure to comply with the Budapest Memorandum for the part relating to Ukrainian sovereignty.
role of China
China at the moment is watching and keeping silent. It has always opted for a cautious approach in many other international disputes. The contact between Biden and Xi is intended as interlocutory. China does not want to be involved in a conflict and in a part of the world in which it has no interest.
As of today, China has stated its willingness to rebuild the country at the end of the war. Translates: the Ukrainian matter has been turned into a future business. Above all, the Chinese don’t want to get involved with the sanctions.
Trade with European countries is approximately 580 billion / EUR, that with the US is over 676 billion / USD while that with Russia 140 billion / USD. It does not suit China to antagonize two of its most important trade partners. The approach is also typical of the Chinese pragmatism in foreign policy.
Surely the Russian military initiative with its repercussions on trade and international finance was not welcome, despite the official talk blaming the Americans rather than the Russians. Above all, China is observing the Ukrainian events to monitor the American reactions in the perspective of a crisis with Taiwan.
It is an activity that has had great importance in the war in Ukraine. Today, there is no possibility that any communication that travels in the air or on the internet could escape an interception. Perhaps there could be issues in decrypting the message, but not in its identification. And this is a problem that is faced, in the defensive or offensive phase, by all Information Services.
There is a form of cooperation in the world of wiretapping known as "Five Eyes". It is an intelligence cooperation, mainly focused on wiretapping and related decryption, which includes the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It was started after World War II, in 1946, on the basis of a bilateral agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom which was then extended to the three other English-speaking countries. They have distributed a series of interception facilities around the world (the largest in Europe is in the United Kingdom) whose findings are jointly shared.
In the case of Ukraine, the United States and its associates had long known about the military preparations that Russia was undertaking for the invasion of that country. They had known since last November and in some way they had tried to warn their allies by sending Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, to Europe. They had also contacted China to warn it about the Russian intentions and, as a last resort, the CIA chief, Williams Burns, was sent to Moscow to let Putin know that they were aware of his Ukrainian aims and hoped to have him abort his plan.
The results of these unsuccessful attempts to stop the war are for all to see.
However, the fact remains that in any war knowing the opponent's intentions in advance provides a great strategic and tactical advantage and not only, as in the specific case, on the ground.
The SIGINT (signal intelligence) activity made it possible to anticipate, step by step, all the movements on the ground of the Russian army, to acquire data by intercepting the communications between departments, thus being able to provide the Ukrainian army and its political leaders with everything that could be useful to them.
The use of information and disinformation
Following the various public statements by President Zelensky, apart from what he has repeatedly declared in order to involve other countries in the fight against Russia, it is interesting to note what he has often said publicly to anticipate or dismantle the intentions of Moscow.
Also in this case, the knowledge deriving from wiretapping was useful to prevent or hinder all that tide of disinformation by Moscow, both to prevent the Russian population from being aware of the real Ukrainian events, and to accuse Kiev of various crimes and also to undermine the morale of the other party.
It is that propaganda that in the West is labeled as "fake news" but which in the Soviet system first and then in Russia has now always played a primary role in the war events in Moscow. A peculiarity, known with the name of "disinformatia".
In this activity, Moscow had to operate on several media fronts, both in defensive and offensive form, having to validate the theory of a special operation (the term "war" has never been used), both to demonstrate that there was a Nazi regime in Kiev, that the local Russian community was the subject of genocide and that the intervention was requested by the Ukrainians themselves to liberate the country.
Then of course there was a need, on both sides, to emphasize or belittle various local episodes to stigmatize the enemy's actions. Hence, propaganda.
The mistake that Russia has committed in this specific context is that it has not sufficiently countered or inhibited the presence of so many foreign journalists who have filled the news with facts and misdeeds that a war entails.
On the other hand, a president particularly savvy in the mass media thanks to his professional background, such as Zelensky, used instead the publicity of the war to solicit international aid and support, to feed the sense of national pride and the morale of his troops.
It is a variable that changes with the changing circumstances.
Putin went from the initial triumphalist tones to threatening ones, he also targeted unidentified traitors, presumably at home, where in any case there is a strict vigilance of censorship and a systematic oppression of all forms of opposition. He was probably referring to that category of oligarchs, a kleptocracy enriched in the shadow of the President and which is now suffering the consequences of the sanctions on its own skin. Regardless of its scope, it is a sign of weakness.
It doesn't help in a post-war Ukrainian future that Putin has been labeled a "war criminal" by Biden. Nor that in the Western world there is a growing russophobia.
War experience and weapons
As always happens, wars are used to test armaments and to refine tactics, strategies, methods of using men and means. The Ukrainian experience has done that too.
The use of drones in its various configurations has been magnified: because the drone sees, hears, kills or destroys. It was found that using a large number of armored vehicles, when not protected by adequate infantry, fuels ambushes and their destruction. And in this context, various counter-tank armaments have had the opportunity to demonstrate their ability, such as the American Javelins.
It has been established that the dominion over airspace is essential and that communications between departments must always be encrypted. It was also established that the logistics chain must always be functional and that one must always be able to go from a blitzkrieg to a war of attrition.
All lessons for both sides, but above all for the Russian army.
It has been shown that the decoy installed on the Russian Iskander missile system works, that Russian hypersonic missiles are difficult to intercept, that the Stingers have confirmed, after Afghanistan, how deadly they are against helicopters and low-flying aircrafts. It is always the battlefield that indicates what works best and what needs to be improved.
And we could continue on the ability of the Ukrainian guerrillas to hit the rear of the Russian troops by blocking the advances or on the use of snipers who can shoot miles away, generating panic and insecurity. But above all, when wars are fought, what matters are the motivations that the Russian conscripts did not have and the Ukrainians did.
That's where the difference on the ground lies. And it no longer matters that Ukraine has an army of 200,000 men against a million Russians, that it has a quarter of the armored vehicles, a third of the artillery and cannot compete in airplanes or helicopters.
The Ukrainian soldier knows he is fighting for a just cause and is not afraid to fight, the Russian, on the other, is only afraid and does not understand the reasons why he could or should die.
At the moment it is not known what the future developments of the war in Ukraine will be. It will certainly have repercussions on the relations between Ukraine and Russia and will certainly have repercussions for Putin in the international and perhaps even internal context.
This war could have been avoided if guarantees were given to Russia that Ukraine, which has a common border with Russia of more than 2,200 km, would never join NATO and remain neutral, a bridge between the Alliance and Moscow. These guarantees were not provided and on the contrary the idea was fueled, even among the Ukrainian leadership, that the accession to NATO was indeed possible. Russia was afraid for its own security, it felt threatened and the frustration then produced a series of negative reactions: threats, provocations, support for secessionist instances, incorporation of Crimea and finally war.
Russian behavior cannot be assessed with the same parameters of a Western democracy, but must be measured against the culture of an autocracy that leads a country with a glorious past but with a not so glorious present. An autocracy dedicated to reviving the glories of a great Russia. The invasion of another state, in this type of culture, does not have the same negative connotations it may have for a Western democracy. Putin had fears, however well founded, that Ukraine could pass into the Western camp and this circumstance justified, in his eyes, the armed intervention.
Right or wrong, it is not necessary to resort to the Machiavellian approach of the end that justifies the means. The problem for Putin is that the means used were not the right ones and that the war, that of attrition still in progress, forces him to play a game where he will lose anyway: whether he negotiates or decides to carry the war to the end. He also gave a bad example of how international disputes can be resolved and this has frightened many countries that have hitherto remained neutral and are now forced to make a partial choice.
The neutrality required by Russia of Ukraine and imposed, if ever achieved, with an armed intervention will not be able to free itself from everything that has happened with cities destroyed, deaths, abuses. For a long time, rancor and resentment will be the trait of the relations not only between Russia and Ukraine, but also between Russia and a large part of the world. Not even if Russia sits down in a negotiation, with the gun aimed at Kiev's temple and with some major gains in the south. An artificially constructed neutrality will not last over time.
Tomorrow will be different from today, but it will certainly be worse, especially for Russia. If then, as expected, Ukraine has the opportunity to enter the European Union, it would still become part of a system of alliances where a form of common defense is envisaged under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty.
The last aspect is Russia resorting to supporting pro-Russian separatisms and secessionisms in various parts of the former Soviet empire, as if to underline its own right of pre-emption over the sovereignty of many countries that belonged to its sphere of influence. It has happened to Moldova with Transnistria since 1992 (where today there is a Russian military base with over 1500 men that could be useful for the conquest of Odessa). It happened in 2008 in Georgia where separatism in South Ossetia and Abkhazia was supported and then recognized through Russian military intervention (not coincidentally when Georgia had publicly expressed its intention to join NATO). And now with the so-called separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014 that have now become secessionist.
On all these episodes Europe had shown itself acquiescent and perhaps this has generated in Russia the perception that this modus operandi was legitimate and accepted in its disputes with the countries of the former Warsaw Pact. The invasion of Ukraine opened our eyes to the dangers of this way of acting.