Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Judgement and Forecast on Situational Development
The escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine has entered its 32nd day. The war, and the unprecedented and sweeping sanctions imposed on Russia by many Western countries that it triggered, have escalated into a geopolitical game that affects the world. From the current situation, Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine has not taken control of Ukraine in a “blitzkrieg” as expected. Backed by the weaponry of the entire Western world, the Ukrainian army demonstrated its ability and managed to turn the fight against Russian forces into a protracted war of attrition.
How long will the war last? In what way will it end or be phased out? These are important questions that capture the attention of the world. If the war does not stop, there will be no basic environment of peace, and there will not be any room to deliberate political and economic problems.
Judging from a number of indications, researchers at ANBOUND believe the Russia-Ukraine conflict is facing a phased shift. Russian military operations will move rom a full-scale operation to a drawdown to the east, with a new focus on controlling the Donbas region.
On March 25, local time, the Russian Defense Ministry held a press conference on special military operations. The Ministry said the military operation in Ukraine is proceeding strictly according to the plan, and the main tasks of the first phase of the operation have been completed. It claimed the Ukrainian military had been significantly weakened, allowing Russia to focus on its main goal of taking control of the Donbas region. The Ministry also mentioned that avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties was its top priority, and military infrastructure and weaponry were destroyed with precision weapons.
The Russian Defense Ministry also issued a report on the operation, stating that it has almost completely destroyed Ukraine’s air force and air defense, and Ukraine’s navy is no longer in existence. In addition, the Ukrainian army has no organized reserves left. It claimed that within a month, the Ukrainian army suffered about 30,000 personnel losses, with 14,000 killed and 16,000 wounded. Currently, Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region controlled 93% of Ukraine’s Luhansk region and 54% of the Donetsk region. A total of 127 bridges were destroyed in the Ukrainian war zone, all by the Ukrainian army in an attempt to slow down the offensive. Supplies of missiles, ammunition, fuel, and food to the Ukrainian army have all but stopped. Nonetheless, it admitted that a total of 1,351 Russians were killed and 3,825 wounded during the special military operation.
The announcement by the Russian Defense Ministry that the main tasks of the first phase of the operation have been completed is an important signal that Russia will next refocus its military operations from an unsuccessful all-out offensive to a focus on controlling the Donbas region. If the Russian military adjusts its operational focus in a timely manner, this will in effect be an active drawdown and a wise “stop loss” for Russia. Judging from the current stalemate, the Russian army is already heavily depleted (Ukraine claims 12,000 Russian troops have been killed). If the limited number of Russian troops continue to fight in the vast territory of Ukraine, they will continue to see more losses, and even drag down the whole army. To replenish its forces, Russia has transferred marines from the far eastern city of Vladivostok to fight in Ukraine, according to ANBOUND’s information tracking. The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russia’s remaining military forces would be unable to maintain basic territorial defense if it continues to deploy troops in Ukraine.
The Russian military’s tactical adjustments show that Russia is taking more realistic situations into account in its war strategy. However, even if Russia wants to be realistic, the Ukrainians are not necessarily letting it happen. Judging by the current situation, they are trying to keep Russian troops around Kyiv. Therefore, the next challenge facing the Russian troops is to reduce casualties and realize drawdown as quickly as possible. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently said that all negotiating concessions would be put to a nationwide referendum. This means that Ukraine will not back down easily, defying European expectations for a quick peace deal and gaining more leverage in negotiations with Russia. The Russian side has said in the past that the Minsk agreements no longer exist. However, the war has been fought until now and it is going back to the basis of the Minsk agreements and allowing Russia to expand some more territories. Such an outcome would be unacceptable for Ukraine. Therefore, in the next step, Russia is expected to be more eager than Ukraine to settle for some kind of negotiated outcome.
What outcome does Russia hope to achieve next?
Researchers at ANBOUND believe that among the several operational goals proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s non-admission to NATO, demilitarization, and the so-called “denazification” are relatively easy for Ukraine to achieve, while the real difficulty lies in territorial issues. Politically, it is impossible for Ukraine to accept the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, or to accept that Crimea belongs to Russia. For Russia, after suffering huge costs in many areas, including military, economic, diplomatic, and international reputation, it is necessary to achieve the goal of Ukraine’s non-admission to NATO, as well as to establish a fixed and permanent strategic buffer zone between Russia and Ukraine (i.e., the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region). As for Crimea, political recognition by Ukraine is less of a question, since Russia already has de facto control of it.
Before the war began, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Luhansk and Donetsk as “independent states”. In the future however, it is expected that it will be difficult for Luhansk and Donetsk to participate in the international geopolitical game as “independent states”. It is more likely that the two “states” will join Russia in a “Crimean model”. At the moment, we have already seen signs of this.
“I think that a referendum will be held in the republic’s territory in the near future, at which the people will exercise their absolute constitutional right and will express their opinion on the possibility of unifying with the Russian Federation,” Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic, said recently. This model is exactly the same as the one used in the past when Russia “took back” Crimea. According to the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Russia is trying to merge the occupied territories into a quasi-state entity.
In addition, there are signs of the formation of new civil-military administrations in the areas occupied by Russian troops in southern Ukraine. Georgiy Muradov, Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Crimea, and the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Crimea under the President of the Russia, said recently that the establishment of new civil-military governments has begun in the southern part of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, which are controlled by Russian troops, “where the formation of new civil-military governments has begun, the broadcasting of Russian television broadcasts process has been launched, and people are increasingly using Russian Ruble”. “Southeastern Ukraine has always been an important part of Russian civilization,” he said. “It was the province of Tauride.” Along with Crimea, these regions have always been “a unified economy”.
These signs suggest that while Putin claims to have no territorial claims on Ukraine, Russia is unlikely to end the war without any gains. In our view, the retention of Ukraine’s two eastern regions, or even having Luhansk and Donetsk join the Russian Federation following the Crimean model, may be the core objective that Russia will hold on to.
Final analysis conclusion:
Overall, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is undergoing a major shift. The Russian military will not be able to sustain the war of attrition on the Ukrainian battlefield and will refocus its operations on taking control of the Donbas region, separating the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk from Ukrainian territory and turning them into a long-term strategic buffer zone for Russia. If possible, Russia will try to reclaim the two states in a “Crimean model”. However, Ukraine will resist this possibility vigorously, denying it politically and hoping for a protracted war of attrition that will put Russia in a quagmire for a long time.
Writer by He Jun
Partner, Director of China Macro-Economic Research Team and Senior Researcher. His research field covers China’s macro-economy, energy industry and public policy.
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