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The Russo-Ukrainian War: In Context

In this second episode of the Russia in Context podcast, host Jeff Hawn continues the conversation with New Lines’ own OSIG Manager Aram Shabanian; Kirill Shamiev, visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations; and Sim Tack, an analyst for Force Analysis. These experts discuss the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, the lead-up to hostilities, the performance of the Russian military thus far, and what may unfold next.

Jeff Hawn:

Hello, and welcome to the Russia in Context series of New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy Contours podcast. This is your host, Jeff Hawn. Three decades ago, the Cold War ended with the red flag being lowered over the Kremlin. The USSR was dead and Russia was reborn, but history did not end. And over the last quarter-century, Russia has once again become a persistent challenger to U.S. global leadership. How this has happened and why is what we seek to answer in our new Subseries of the Contours podcast, Russia in Context.

Today I’m joined by Aram Shabanian, our open source information gatherer and manager at New Lines Institute. He uses a mixture of modern open source technology and traditional research methods to keep a finger on the pulse of ongoing and upcoming global events. His areas of expertise are West Asia and the former Soviet Union.

Also joining me today is Dr. Kirill Shamiev, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. In January 2023, he defended his PhD in political science on civil military relations and defense policy in contemporary Russia. He is currently an analyst of Russian politics and defense affairs, and the Russian diaspora at the European Council of Foreign Relations.

Sim Tack will also be joining us. He is a military analyst for Force Analysis where he studies defense policy and operational aspects of armed conflicts. He’s also a GEOINT and imaging analyst with extensive professional experience and monitoring the activities of the Russian armed forces.

And we are going to be discussing the Russian conflict in Ukraine, starting with the sudden and dramatic escalation in 2022. In our last episode, we discussed the Russian military and how it has changed since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Welcome back everyone. Let’s start by discussing the conflict in Ukraine beginning in 2022. We know the conflict began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, but the conflict significantly and dramatically escalated in 2022. Sim, can you take us through broadly what has happened over the last two years?

Sim Tack:

Sure. I’ll focus primarily on the battlefield events. I assume we’ll delve a little deeper into the political events and the makings of those military moves. But essentially what we saw over the course of 2021, we saw Russia conduct a series of very large exercises along its border with Ukraine, which essentially started to generate the fear of foreign invasion. Following those exercises in some of the satellite imagery work that we did, we also started to note a lot of prepositioning of military equipment. And essentially this buildup continued until early 2022. I think in January 2022 is when we saw Russia expand that buildup even further when it started to push forces and fighter aircraft into Belarus. And then eventually, of course, by February we saw Russian forces enter the territories of Ukraine that they had not entered yet since 2014. And essentially just to give a brief description of what happened, I think we saw different phases of the conflict where initially Russia attempted to conduct a very rapid advance into Ukraine.

That advance was focused on several different locations. One of those was, of course, Kyiv, the capital, which they never did manage to reach. Another was Odessa, one of Ukraine’s main port cities on the Black Sea, which they also were cut off from reaching. And then other advances of the Russian operation focused on the Kharkiv regions, the areas around Donetsk and Luhansk, where they, of course, had a presence since 2014. And then the so-called land bridge, the areas of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson that essentially connect the separatist areas of Donbas and the occupied territory of Crimea.

So, I think in that first phase as they tried to push out, we then saw the second phase, which essentially consisted of Ukrainian forces defeating those pushes towards Kyiv and Chernihiv, which is located in northeastern Ukraine, that same axis of advance that was heading towards Kyiv and in Odessa. So that was a very big achievement for Ukraine to essentially deny Russia the strategic objective of seizing Kyiv and being able to announce political control over the entire state of Ukraine.

And then in following phases, we’ve seen Ukraine recover territory around Kharkiv. And then I guess in the final phase, which covers the last year of the conflict since the winter of 2022/2023 until now, where essentially we’ve seen the conflict stagnate, at least spatially at least in lines on the map. The line of contact has not shifted dramatically in this past year despite efforts by Ukraine to mount a counteroffensive over the summer, despite Russian offensives focusing on smaller villages on the borderline, on the contact lines such as currently Avdiivka, which is one of the main areas of fighting right now. So I think that takes us to where we are now, where the line of contact is not shifting too much, but I guess a lot of the emphasis, a lot of the focus in the conflict is starting to be on the sustainability of operations, which of the parties can actually continue to sustain its operations, who suffers more from attrition, et cetera.

But I think that kind of sets the general course of the conflict so far. I think we’ll go deeper into all of those elements now.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you, Sim. And Aram, picking up on that, why is it you think that the Russian military and its opening moves performed so poorly, but the Ukrainian military seemed to perform rather well? After all much of the analysis before the conflict predicted that Kyiv would fall within days and the Russians would simply just march through Ukraine?

Aram Shabanian:

Well, I think there’s a couple of reasons for Russia’s performance in Ukraine. First off, there’s just the military hardware aspect of it, the combat aspect of it. I think the comparison that Putin was looking for was for his military to decapitate the Ukrainian state the way that the U.S. had decapitated the Iraqi state in 2003. But what Putin failed to recognize was again, that Operation Desert Storm had largely eviscerated the Iraqi military. And then as I mentioned, the 10 years or 12 years of Operations Northern/Southern Watch continued to wear down the Iraqi military. So really Iraq was at war for 12 and a half years before the US military decapitated Saddam Hussein’s regime. So that’s one difference that you’d see right there is that it’s very difficult when a state is as militarily powerful as Ukraine was pre-war to just sweep their military aside in its entirety.

The other side of it is that the Ukrainian military reformed after 2014, largely reformed. The whole country started taking the defense more seriously, and that plays into the next factor, which is that the Russians didn’t say, our goal here is to punish your president or your military for something they’ve done in Russia. It’ll be a limited operation. What they said was, this’ll be a limited military operation to “denazify” Ukraine and demilitarize Ukraine. And the Ukrainian people read exactly what that was. It was a war of conquest and a war of genocide. And so much like the Israelis have done in all of their wars against the Arab states from ’48, ’67, and ’73, the Ukrainians were up against the wall and they recognized full well that if they lost that war, it would be very bad for them. And so I think that’s played into why a lot of Ukrainians are fighting so tenaciously and so intently.

They also recognized that they have the backing of most of the Western world behind them, which is excellent for morale to say the least before you even get into the equipment that they’re getting from that. And then all of those things that I’ve factored in for the Ukrainians in terms of positive morale are inversely affecting the Russians who were told, this will be a quick two-day operation. You’re not really going into Ukraine. This is just a training operation. The Ukrainian people will welcome you as liberators. And when none of that proved true, it became a lot more difficult for the Russian soldiers to feel like they were in it to win, and they were in the good fight. I think a lot of them probably still believe the propaganda they’ve been raised on telling them that the Ukrainians are Nazis and whatnot, but it’s very difficult to train your soldiers to be good at and enjoy, or at least look the other way on killing people who look and sound just like them.

Even though there are differences between the Russian and Ukrainian languages, there are enough similarities, enough Ukrainians speak Russian, that it would be effectively like if the U.S. had invaded Toronto, the U.S. soldiers would not have treated the people of Canada the way they treated the people of Baghdad. That also plays a factor here, is that it’s not a fight that a lot of the Russian military really, I think that soldiers at least really have their hearts in. They’re in it for their brothers, they’re in it for their comrades. They’re in it to go home alive, but they don’t really believe in the mission as much anymore, I don’t think.

Jeff Hawn:

It’s very interesting. Thank you. So, Kirill, maybe you can give us a good overview here of what do you think was the thought process in the senior Russian military leadership, and how has that changed as the war has progressed?

Kirill Shamiev:

Do you mean the thought process before the full-scale invasion, or could you elaborate for me please?

Jeff Hawn:

Sorry. What was the thought process that led up to thinking that this was an achievable goal? And then how have they changed their strategic outlook as the war has gone on much longer than they say they had initially anticipated?

Kirill Shamiev:

Well, this is an excellent question, and I don’t have a definite answer to this. First, if we look at the discussions before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the Russian blogosphere and even some of the Kremlin affiliated media, we can actually find Russian military, or retired military officers or people affiliated with the military saying that the full-scale invasion would be a mistake. There were several cases just a few months before full-scale invasion of some senior, some military officers, retired military officer basically commented saying that, well, that Russia would face exactly it faced a few months later and what we have discussed today. And so that gives us some ideas that actually some people in the Russian military command understood that it wouldn’t be a good idea to start the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Another level is that, and this is, I think it comes from the political side of the similar relationships in Russia that under Shoigu the Ministry of Defense really prioritize people with combat experience in Syria.

And basically in order to get appointed to you command level positions, high level positions, and officer had to have experience of serving in Syria. And this experience isn’t adequate to the type of warfare Russia faced in Ukraine. At the same time, those who actually fought unofficially on the Russian or separatist side in Eastern Ukraine from 14 to basically February, 2022, this wasn’t official acknowledged as something you can get promoted for. Of course, informally it is still, especially among those units, informations where officers took care of their people, it was still acknowledged as a good experience needed for officers to go consider it as a suitable experience. But on the official level, regulations and laws, this was not recognized and it created this problem on the individual level that I think for some military commanders that what they saw in Syria they would be able to use in Ukraine.

In terms of the military preparedness for the full scale innovation? Well, the main body for any military plans in Russia is the chief operational directorate of the general staff. These are the people who develop all contingencies of all military plans. Well, they’re supposed to, we don’t know because all of this is secret, but allegedly, they have to create plans basically from the invasion of, I don’t know, Mongolians to, of course, fight with Ukraine, fight with the West. But the investigative journalists I read, including some Western American investigative journalists, their analysis showed that this planning was heavily influenced by the FSB, Russia’s domestic Counterintelligence and Intelligence Agency and the chief leadership around Putin. And the main points of their involvement was emphasis on clandestine operations in Ukraine, the emphasis on the Russian agents in the Ukrainian administration and political structures and the information that both the Ukrainian elites and the Ukrainian society were not ready to fight with the Russian military.

Well, it’s proven to be incorrect, apart from apparently one region of Ukraine is Kherson. Apparently this is the region where their plan was successful. Basically, some of the Ukrainian administrative apparatus refused to mobilize and to fight against the Russians, and they managed to relatively quickly occupy the capital of this region and parts of the territory enough. As far as I know from the Ukrainian side, there are some of those patriotic Ukrainians who were still in Kherson they received an order to retreat and not to fight because they realized they’re losing political control over the region.

But then during the first months of this full-scale invasion, they, of course, realized the problems. And there I think the process was like that. The military was advocating cautiously for retreating or reconstituting the Russian military force in Ukraine. But at the same time, without acknowledging that this is a disaster, because giving bad information to Putin would mean that there should be somebody responsible for that. And, of course, it’s hard to make Shoigu or Gerasimov be responsible for that. It’s a lower lever individual commanders who can be basically scapegoats for these problems and feelers. But at the same time, there was a political struggle because, for instance, with the second stage of the war, when the Ukraine forces managed to liberate territories in Eastern Ukraine around Kharkiv and other places, there were already a lot of discussions in Russian blogs here among people affiliated with the military that the Russian needed some sort of mobilization to refill its forces with new manpower.

And Putin or the Kremlin was postponing and postponing this decision basically till the end of December last year, in my view, based on the analysis of Russia’s political history and political developments under Putin, because Putin didn’t want to risk his rating and receiving problems with domestic politics because of the mobilization. There was a fear that the people would not support that, which turned out to be probably not entirely true, and they also needed some time to pacify and to stabilize domestic politics, to prepare also including administrative structure for the mobilization, because this is a separate discussion about how the most archaic Russian military institution is the military recruitment of officers or [inaudible 00:15:01] military.

It’s basically still remaining Soviet, even defunded Soviet recruitment structure that was not basically changed in the fold out of the Soviet Union. These officers were also not prepared for this large-scale mobilization. So they faced both political and administrative problems that postponed this decision making. But then when they realized that this situation was dire, they announced the mobilization that helped them stabilize the front and even achieve some local successes, as we probably can discuss later.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you, Kirill. So the war has progressed in phases of an initial Russian advance, which was blunted by stiff Ukrainian resistance. Unexpectedly stiff Ukrainian resistance. As Kirill mentioned, it wasn’t the same across the board. Obviously there were some Ukrainians who were willing to make a deal with Russia, and they probably were expecting a larger number of people to defect. But it does seem that Ukraine had a central goal of preserving its independence to rally around and strong political leadership. And now that the Russians have been pushed back, what has the effect been on the Russian military as a whole? We know that there are these ongoing, very bloody battles. There was a recent report that came out that argued that, I believe it was from British intelligence that, or American intelligence, that Russia has lost 90% of its pre-war military. Can one of you break down for us, what exactly does this mean and what is the long-term ramifications here?

Sim Tack:

I’ll tackle that question if I may. So I think one of the main things that we have to talk about here is that all of the things that we talked about in the previous episode and how the Russian military tried to rebuild itself after the ’90s through the professionalization of its military. So by changing from a draft or conscript military to a contract military while having a massive equipment drive, all of those things have essentially been undone already by this current conflict. That’s not to say that there are no military forces left in the Russian military or that there is no new equipment available to the Russian military, but when we talk about scale, about the levels of penetration of this particular types of equipment or military structures throughout the entire Russian military, then essentially all of the advances that had been made under these very intensive modernization programs have essentially been completely voided by the performance of the Russian military in Ukraine.

So what Russia is essentially left with now is a military that is largely dependent on large conscriptions drafts. So that’s, of course, one of the big questions going into how Russia will be able to sustain its operations in the future, whether they will be forced to become more and more aggressive in conducting those drafts as well. But those drafts as well as being forced to equip those forces with limited training and poor or aged equipment. We’ve seen a lot of that. There is some new equipment as well as refurbished equipment coming to the front lines, but just not in great enough numbers for Russia to be able to actually try any complex military operation like offensives to regain the initiatives, et cetera.

So that essentially puts Russia itself in the defensive position that they are in. Since the last successful Ukrainian liberations of the areas in Kharkiv and Kherson, Russia has not been in a position to really mount offensive by anything other than simple human wave attacks. And Russia is simply putting its demographic weight in the balance where they are simply sacrificing conscripts largely at this point to make minor advances on Ukraine.

Jeff Hawn:

I want to come back to that, the mobilization and the conscripts in a second, but Aram, maybe you can talk to us about how the Ukrainian military has fared under the same pressure it’s been under and also trying to conduct its counterattacks. Is it also facing degradation or has it been strengthening itself over the last two years?

Aram Shabanian:

The Ukrainian military is absolutely facing degradation and taking some pretty terrible losses. They’ve lost a lot of very talented and courageous young people who are the first to go fight. The thing that the Ukrainians have on their side that the Russians don’t have is that they have effectively, if the West stays the course, they have an endless supply or near endless supply of things like armored fighting vehicles, especially from the US. Not endless, but endless in the sense that when the Syrian and Egyptian armies noticed in 1973 that aircraft were landing in Tel Aviv with American tanks for the Israelis, it played a major role in convincing the Arab states to stop fighting because they realized that for every Israeli tank they destroyed on the battlefield, another American tank could replace it. Ukraine kind of has the same thing going for them in the sense that it will be easier for them to reconstitute these battlefield losses with more technologically advanced equipment, but whether or not that plays an effective role in the combat is to be seen.

I think it will, but I think it’s going to take a longer time. I think what we’re looking at more is now is more like an Iran/Iraq war style conflict, which is going to grind on for years before we see a major counter offensive from the Ukrainians that takes back their territory. Another factor that we’re seeing is just the fact that the Russians have taken losses in an offensive war that the Soviet Union could not sustain in an offensive war, which is to say they lost 15 to 17,000 soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and that played a huge role in breaking up the Soviet Union. So the number of losses the Russians have taken in Ukraine will absolutely have an impact on Russian society, and it’s really just a matter now of which society and which country can hold together longer to affect their battlefield changes that we’ll see in the coming future.

Jeff Hawn:

Sim you wanted to pick up on that?

Sim Tack:

Just one thing I want to make sure is clear, and I think Aram will probably agree as well, is even though there is a continued flow or access to Western military equipment, one of the more restricting elements for the Ukrainian military is that they still do need people to man all of that equipment. And I think that’s one of the more important timers that are slowly running out for Ukraine, which is the fact that they do need to be able to recruit people to go to the frontline. They need to be able to rotate the people that are on the frontline, and they don’t have as vast a population as Russia does to recruit those from. And even though Russia has its own problems in that recruitment, they will always have a much wider reserve of people than Ukraine has.

So I just want to add that element of time pressure where even though I would agree on a strategic level in terms of access to resources, et cetera, there would be an advantage to Ukraine, but Ukraine also does need to translate this advantage into battlefield gains before the timer runs out on being able to actually staff all of those efforts.

Jeff Hawn:

Kirill?

Kirill Shamiev:

If I can add a few things on the Russian main power reserves. Important aspect to consider, especially for, in my view, Western analysts, because it’s just difficult to comprehend, I think, that Russia opted for in the third phase of the war, Russia first Wagner forces and then official Russian military forces opted for the recruitment of inmates from Russian prisons. And that actually helped them to sustain some of the losses during Ukrainian counter offensive and also some of the offensive actions in around Bakhmut and Dyakove. We don’t know the exact numbers, but apparently it can be up to 30,000 Russian convicts died in Ukraine. And these, politically speaking, these people actually, well, they didn’t exist even on paper. And in terms of political impact, most of them, okay, maybe not most, but some of them were criminals who, politically speaking, no one cared about.

When I was recently talking about this issue with some other analyst, how I was trying to explain that, for example, when a professional soldier dies, it’s years of training and better equipment and specialization and in other aspects that are relatively painful for the Russian military. When a mobilized soldier die, this is also painful, not only because of there’s still some training investment and so on, but also it’s a political problem because they’re accumulating the cumulative weight of mobilized soldiers’. Losses, of course, potentially can lead to and already leads to problems domestically, in domestic politics.

But when it comes to prison inmates, especially those who were convicted for heavy, severe crimes, these people can be basically disregarded by the Russian military whatsoever because no one cares about them. They can be killed, and even their relatives probably could consider, okay, at least they were patriots and die for the motherland. It sounds absolutely horrible. Nothing in connection with human rights, absolutely. But this is what this rational calculus of Russian political and military leadership that having these people actually help them to fight this year. We’ll see what’s going to happen next year because I think the prisons are actually empty and the number of people who want to serve from the prisons is lower than it used to be before.

Jeff Hawn:

And so that is the next question, is the destabilizing effect the conflict has had on the Russian political system or also the effect that it has had on Ukrainian political system. But this year we witnessed what could be described as a mutiny or a baronial revolt by the Wagner Group, which eventually ended with a political deal. Then subsequently, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner, the Russian PMC, which had recast itself as a shock troop for the Russian military, dying in a plane crash explosion. No one’s 100% sure. I don’t think anyone ever will be. Let’s discuss that briefly. Do we think that this was a quirk or just an abnormal effect of the war on the Russian political system? Or is this symptomatic of a broader ongoing destabilization? Sim?

Sim Tack:

Just very briefly, I think one of the ways to frame what happened with Wagner and its revolt has to be put into context of organizational competition within the Russian military system. Personally, I don’t see Wagner’s revolt as a reflection of a popular uprising or popular discontent with the war. I think that exists at some level, obviously. But I think that what happened around Wagner had a lot more to do with how Wagner initially came into existence, how the portfolio of this private military organization was very intentionally placed outside of the Russian military. That’s something that Putin has done consistently, create these forces, these entities and balance them against each other as part of his way to actually maintain control over the different factions that compete for power in the Russian political system.

But obviously there has always been a competition or an envy between the Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group, and then, of course, as Prigozhin and Wagner rose to prominence through their role in Ukraine, I think those tensions exploded. But if anything, I would describe it as an attempt at a palace coup more than any societal or popular event.

Jeff Hawn:

Kirill?

Kirill Shamiev:

I agree with Sim’s overall argument about the role of Wagner and the Wagner mutiny, but I would perhaps maybe discuss a bit of a different causal pathway to what we’ve seen in June this year. In my view, originally private military company Wagner, and actually some smaller minor groups, that was the idea of their GRU Russian military intelligence. They were formed before Prigozhin and took over Wagner as an owner, if we can say that, they were formed on the basis of the Russian military intelligence. And only then we’ve got some evidence that Prigozhin stepped in and took over the political or business control over the military, oh, sorry, over the Wagner forces. They were also logistically fully dependent on the Russian military, including its for example, transportation to the Middle East and African countries, including before the full scale invasion.

So in my view, the Kremlin had this perception, probably Putin personally, that having this shadowy hand, the invisible hand of the Russian government with soldiers, or with mercenaries, with no whatsoever official legal rights, but strong personal connections and believed that they will be paid and respected, which was allegedly true for the core of the Wagner troops before the full scale invasion and these people working on behalf of the Russian government, but in different places with the Kremlin official didn’t acknowledge this was beneficial, including, for example, signing contracts with the multiple African dictators and then helping the Russian government securing some deals and, say, having some hands in the natural resources of these states.

But in the end, this alien body, and I fully agree that this is pure experiment or how we call it this alien body in Russian civil military relations came out of control not only because of their role and prominence in the war against Ukraine and just the sheer numbers of personnel they received, including from prisons and the armaments they got, but because Prigozhin also developed his media and social media empire, there were a lot of Wagner/Prigozhin-affiliated social media channels quite popular, at least among this far right/right wing affiliated and pro-war groups.

And I’m speaking about hundreds of thousands followers on social media and a lot of cash and income from these shady contracts from abroad and probably some corrupt deals with the Russian elites or business and political elites. When the mutiny happened, the Russian officials raided the offices, multiple offices of Wagner and Prigozhin-affiliated companies, and they basically found millions of dollars in cash and diamonds, gold bars in these places, which is absolutely crazy if you think about the authoritarian nature of the Russian regime and how they tried to control everything.

So I think it was Putin’s personal mistake that he trusted so much this person, and that led to significant disagreements with the Russian minister of defense and also probably feeling on behalf of Prigozhin that he could challenge, maybe not Putin personally, but at least the Russian government and become an alternative leader together with Putin in the Russian system. Well, he didn’t. He failed and was killed in August this year.

Jeff Hawn:

And is that something to think about? Do you think the Russian regime is looking for a way to conclude the war? And what do you think their vision of concluding the war is? There’s a growing chorus in the West to push Ukraine for ceasefire negotiations, but is this a realistic possibility for Ukraine? Many Ukrainian supporters, of course, point out that Russia’s demands have not changed, but do we think that this is the case?

Aram Shabanian:

I think that, I mean, it’s always important to keep diplomatic channels open in a conflict, but I think what we’re seeing in Ukraine is the Russian goal isn’t to right some historical wrong and just retake Crimea or just retake a city in the East. Their goal is to reshape the entirety of Ukrainian society so that Ukraine can’t pose a threat to Russia in the future, and so that Ukraine can’t offer a viable alternative to the Russian way of doing business in the Russian way of politics, right? That’s the real issue with Ukraine, is that when Zelenskyy got elected, sure, he wasn’t necessarily a threat to Russia, but he wasn’t an oligarch either. He wasn’t on a traditional elite that the Russians could have more control over. He represented the fact that democracy was successful in Ukraine effectively, and if it could be successful in Ukraine, it could be successful in Russia.

And so the fact that that still remains, that Ukraine still poses that potent threat to the Russians politically, it means that the Russians won’t be satisfied until their Ukrainian state is forced to collapse. It’s forced to fail at the very least, otherwise their war will have been for nothing.

Jeff Hawn:

Kirill?

Kirill Shamiev:

I agree with what’s been said previously. In my view, people in the Kremlin currently believe that they can outlive the Western support for Ukraine, especially next year because there is a lot of these dooming news about the what’s in support for Ukraine for 2024, and I think their perception is that at least before the presidential election, they can just keep this fighting going without significant large-scale offensive. But once Putin draws this necessary numbers that now 85%, for example, of course it’s unfair in a democratic election whatsoever, but he needs this point to show to the elites that everything is under control inside Russia, that the domestic administrative and political apparatus worked well and they can secure it. They need the numbers. Then we can see a new more large scale offensive action or some kind of change of Russia’s operations against Ukraine.

But to be honest, and full disclosure here, if I was quite pessimistic about this, I was expecting that the war wouldn’t be so easy as people started to talk after the first failures on the Russian side. I think now actually, I’m not sure that Putin is fully informed and understands the deeper level structural challenges that the Russian military would face, including with manpower, including with the accumulating political, delegitimization of the invasion. We’ve seen some already survey evidence that even the Russian public started questioning that maybe it’s enough and we should sign some sort of a deal, even including with some territorial, giving away some of the occupied territories of Ukraine back to Ukraine, I mean.

And also the Russian economic, financial, economic bloc, highly qualified professionals. This is actually, I think we should acknowledge these people actually saved the Russian economy last year, sorry, this year, last year. They also started commenting that they’re running out of tools to keep the Russian economy afloat. So, although I think their calculus is that they can outlive the West and Ukraine, I wouldn’t be so sure that Russia actually has enough resources to sustain this war of attrition for long than the Western support.

Jeff Hawn:

So currently the conflict is in a stalemate. Both Ukraine and Russia facing heavy casualties and Ukraine completely reliant on Western support in order to maintain its momentum on the battlefield. Obviously there was that big counteroffensive, which was much hyped up this year, but the results on the map at least did not match people’s expectation. Can we dig a bit into why that happened and what have the effects of the Ukrainian counteroffensive operations been? Sim, could you start on that?

Sim Tack:

Of course. And I think this is a very important topic to discuss because I think a lot of the current western perception of the conflict in Ukraine hinges on the perceived lack of results from that summer offensive. Now, the reality is, even though, as you say, the offensive did not manage to dramatically shift the frontline, even though that’s the case, it’s very important to realize that there are other effects of combat than simply where the frontline is. And one of the main things that we saw during that summer offensive is that the rate of attrition of the Russian military in those sectors that were targeted by the offensive, they jumped up massively. So Russia has lost a lot of manpower and a lot of equipment in general during that offensive. But on top of that, there’s also been very important effects in terms of the specific equipment that Russia lost there.

And one that I tend to harp on there is the fact that Russian artillery suffered very heavily through that offensive. And one of the things that actually happened is that Ukrainian forces, which had since the beginning of the conflict constantly been the subject of a Russian artillery superiority along the entire frontline? They actually got into a position where they at the very least were achieving artillery parity, if not their own artillery superiority over Russian forces. So one of the things that caused is an exponential evolution in Russian artillery capabilities, where, of course, as they started to degrade Russian artillery behind the frontline, Russia had to then replace that artillery, and the replacements of those artillery systems were not the same systems, they were of lower quality.

So we saw a shift in a lot of places on the frontline from the more modern self-propelled artillery guns to older, shorter range towed guns, and those towed guns, of course, what they essentially cause is they become easier targets and they are easier targets because they have slightly shorter range than these newer systems. So they sit closer to the frontline, so they can be targeted easier by Ukrainian artillery, or they are within range of more Ukrainian artillery depending on the situation. And they’re also less mobile, right? You can’t simply fire your volleys and drive to the next position as those self-propelled systems can.

So in a way, the replacements of that Russian artillery was more vulnerable than the first line of artillery that was taken out. So again, they continue to suffer immense losses. Now, that’s something that happened throughout that summer offensive or the summer offensive operations, if we want to call it that. I’m not sure if we can call it an offensive without the results on the battlefield in terms of shifting the frontline, but having had those effects, that brings us now to the position where the questions about Western military support, the EU being hung up on voting their 50 billion Euro budget for the Ukrainians due to Hungary not wanting to vote for this.

On the other hand, we have the U.S. Congress taking the bills on Ukrainian financing hostage over other political issues. All of this is causing difficulties and concerns in the supply of artillery ammunition as well as a lot of other military systems. And that is leading to a situation where the Ukrainians are now also having to ration their artillery ammunition to make sure that they continue to be able to fire day by day, even not knowing what level of supplies they’re going to be receiving. And that means that they’re essentially forced to surrender that artillery superiority again where they had it. So in a way, I would say there’s been two main effects from that summer offensive. The first is just the bulk attrition, which, of course, cannot be undone, what Russia lost is lost. But second element, that artillery balance, which I think was very important, is something that is now at the risk of being lost because the West resolve is …

Jeff Hawn:

So from a strategic perspective, 2023 saw a new equilibrium where Ukraine was beginning to regain the initiative. And even though it’s counteroffensive operations in the summer were not successful in recapturing vast swaths of territory, yet it nonetheless degraded Russia’s ability to sustain its own offensive operations. And it seems unlikely Russia will be able to recover to the point in the near term where it is able to mount the kind of big offensive operations it started the war with in 2022. So going into 2024 with the war now officially, this phase of the war, which has been raging since 2014, now officially two, three years old, what do we think we’ll see in 2024? And let’s just go through everybody. Kirill?

Kirill Shamiev:

Sure. I think I started already talking about this that in my view, the Kremlin needs a relative stabilization of the fighting before the so-called presidential election because they’re very risk averse now not to have any significant problems on the frontline because for the presidential administration in Moscow, what is number one criteria now is to ensure that these elections would go as planned without significant protests, especially protests, for example, from the so-called patriot camps, spouses and family members of mobilized people, for example. This would be a problem for them.

But after the election, especially if they’re successful, as I said before, in my view, considering again if there are no significant attrition, additional attrition on the Russian military, and the Ukraine’s managed to reoccupy some of the territories, they would announce or restart without announcing additional mobilization efforts to bring needed troops to reveal the forces and start an offensive. They needed for the political logic start additional new offensive on the front lines there in Ukraine and during the summer. It’s contingent on a lot of other factors, on the availability of Western support for Ukraine, on what’s going to happen with the Russian economy. But I think this is their calculus for now. It may change over time, but I would expect that next summer, especially considering the current forecast of the lack of the Western support for Ukraine, this will be a challenging time for Kyiv, and I think Moscow would try to seize the opportunity.

Jeff Hawn:

Aram?

Aram Shabanian:

I mean, I think that again, the Iran/Iraq War provides a decent analog for what we’re going to see in the next year. I think that it’s entirely correct that we’re probably going to see the front lines stabilize and some kind of a calming down of the conflict, I guess? Because both sides are pretty exhausted at this point by their offensives and counteroffensives and their military moves. They both need to reconstitute their forces a bit. The Ukrainians really won’t be up and ready for deep strike operations with their Air Force until their F-16s are all deployed and ready to take part in the combat. And so I think that what we’re going to see now is a grinding stalemate, which is not good for either side, politically or militarily. And so that really calls into question who will come out on top at this point?

Jeff Hawn:

Sim?

Sim Tack:

I tend to agree with the view that it’s really unclear which direction the conflict is going to evolve. And I think especially so because Ukraine’s ability to continue fighting or the level at which it can continue fighting, I don’t think that’s, the question of whether they will continue to fight is appropriate here, but the level to which they can afford to fight will depend tremendously on decisions out of their reach in the West. And we have the current key decisions that are on the table about EU financing, about U.S. financing. But on top of that, we’ve also got some very critical elections taking place in 2024. Obviously we have the Russian election. That’s not going to have much of an impact, I imagine. I’m not expecting any surprise candidates to come out of that election, but, of course, we’re looking at U.S. elections in 2024, and then just recently, apparently it looks like we might also have U.K. elections in 2024.

And then U.K., out of Europeans, has been one of the most dominant supporters of Ukraine in terms of material that’s being sent over there. So, even though the broader geopolitical interests of these countries won’t change because of those elections, we have some wild cards in there with Trump being a candidate in the U.S. With attrition, general attrition of the excitement of Western powers to bankroll Ukraine’s fight against Russia. I think we could be seeing a situation where Ukraine is going to have to lobby very, very hard to actually maintain the support that it requires to continue to fight at its current level. And then we’re not even talking yet about what Ukraine would actually need to be able to regain some meaningful initiative as Kirill referred to potentially seeing new offensive actions in the summer. I think one part of doing that successfully is going to be about the necessary supplies.

Perhaps not like last summer. The focus might not be on specific tanks and armored vehicles, but at the very least it will be on massive amounts of ammunitions. And on top of that, I think there are some questions about Ukraine’s ability to actually translate these weapons into effective offensives. And even though they have shown in the conflict so far that they are capable at conducting offensive operations, they have been able to do those leveraging entirely their ground forces and their immediate organic support.

One of the things that I haven’t seen during the conflict that I think has been holding Ukraine back is the full integration of various capabilities, including the ground forces and their artillery support, as well as the deep strikes that we’ve seen from Storm Shadow missiles all the way down to the HIMARS strikes. I think being able to coordinate those strikes in depth more closely with potential operations on the ground could open up more possibilities there. And that question becomes even more important as Aram signaled, as the F-16s will eventually become operational and could actually contribute to those capabilities, but they won’t contribute much until that effort actually is fully integrated into the general effort.

Jeff Hawn:

So barring a dramatic and sudden change in events, it looks like the next year will be one of stalemate and recalibration. Russia continues to lean on the legacy of its Soviet military past to draw on vast stockpiles of materiel with increasingly degrading abilities. Ukraine continues to remain reliant on Western support, which is wavering. But we will see how the war progresses.

Thank you all so much for joining me. This has been a fantastic discussion, and thank you for listening to Contours.

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