Towards Escalation in Ukraine


By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi​​ | September, 2022

Ukraine War
Photos: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine | CC BY-SA 2.0


In recent days the Ukrainian army has managed to make significant achievements, successfully reclaiming many territories in north-eastern Ukraine near Kharkiv that some Ukrainian parties estimate to be in excess of 6000 square kilometers following its surprising counterattack in this area. The successful regaining of Ukrainian control over several territories within days (some of which are of strategic importance serving as logistics centers), which spurred a frantic withdrawal of Russian forces from the region, indicates the extent of Russia’s surprise, and constitutes the Ukrainian army’s most significant accomplishment since it curbed the attack against Kiev early on in the war.


Ukraine’s success resulted from a combination of factors: Deceptive efforts designed to conceal the true target of the counterattack and surprise the Russian army that prepared for an attack in the south, near Kherson, while diluting the forces stationed in the east; the Ukrainian army’s softening of the area in the east while utilizing quality intelligence and advanced weapons systems provided by the West to bolster the harm caused to the Russian army and the infrastructures it had established; fighting spirit and high motivation among the Ukrainian forces “fighting for their home” compared to the Russian army’s exhaustion and low morale; and, finally, Russian intelligence services’ failure, yet again to understand and foresee the Ukrainian army’s operative rationale.


These recent developments have a huge impact on the future of the campaign, and the logic driving Russia’s actions. The present paper aims to examine how Russia intends to face these developments on the strategic level, and whether they could lead it to aggravate the actions it plans to take.



The Russian strategy


Two main pillars stand at the heart of the strategy recently employed by Russia. The first, displaying determination and resistance vis-à-vis western sanctions and the massive military aid to Ukraine. It does so, inter alia, by showing its willingness to continue with the campaign and military crushing for long periods of time; promote economic partnerships with Asian powers and other countries across the Middle East and Africa; continue selling gas and oil to Europe; and the series of meetings held by President Putin (with the heads of the BRICS forum, presidents Raisi and Erdogan, and others), which, he believed highlighted Russia’s ability to establish a counter axis.


The second, gnawing at Europe’s determination and cohesion to continue with the campaign in view of growing concerns of a recession among them, and of the inability to meet the industry’s and population’s basic needs (as already manifest in the regulations imposed by some countries to minimize their gas consumption). It does so by increasing the pressure in food and energy. Thus, Russia has announced that it would cut off the flow of gas in the Nord Stream pipeline to Germany and other European countries due to “technical issues”. Similarly, President Putin has recently implied that he may stop the export of wheat from Ukraine, claiming that much of it was not reaching the poorer countries, but European ones. Russia is also taking advantage of the concerns over a nuclear disaster and possible leakage of radioactive substances from the nuclear reactor in Zaporizhzhia (the largest reactor in Europe) to increase its pressure on the West.



Projections on the future of the campaign


It is still too early to determine whether these recent developments on the battlefield constitute a turning point in the military campaign. To a large extent, such a determination depends on the Ukrainian army’s ability to hold on to the territories recovered, as well as the Russian army’s ability to regroup and curb this counterattack. Nevertheless, it seems, at present, that, from a broader perspective, Ukrainian successes have strategic and morale-boosting implications, as they could rekindle hope among Ukrainians and western countries alike that a broad shift may be made in this campaign, which would ultimately lead to the Russian forces’ withdrawal from most of the territories they have been occupying these last few months. Such an accomplishment would be possible primarily due to the perceived erosion in competence and fighting spirit among Russian military forces, inter alia in view of the supremacy of western weapons provided at unprecedented scopes to Ukraine. Thus, they would be willing to continue with the military campaign while being massively aided by the United States’ supply of weapons despite the expected exacerbation in energy distresses and economic difficulties during the upcoming winter months, while utterly rejecting any inclination to compromise or even begin negotiations with Moscow in order to reach a ceasefire.


Furthermore, to date, Putin has enjoyed the cohesion of his domestic arena, having successfully silenced all criticism against the war by suppressing and crushing the opposition. But the Russian forces’ hasty withdrawal has already begun to raise cautious criticism in Russia. While disapproval currently focuses on the military, including Defense Minister Shoigu, it could increase the pressure exerted on President Putin to make a rapid change in the current state of affairs.


Under such circumstances, Russia is likely to apply even more extreme pressure on Ukraine and the West, and resort to the use of even more forceful and violent means than it has done. The purpose being, first and foremost, to curb the counterattack and avoid losing any more territories so as to convey the message that the Ukrainian efforts are not effective in the long range. At the same time, Russia will strive to demonstrate to the West the price it would pay for continuing the assault by hurting the civilian population, and exerting greater pressure in energy and food. Concurrently, President Putin already announced a partial military mobilization; Russia intends to conduct a referendum in the territories it has occupied in Eastern and Southern Ukraine and has attacked in the last few days power stations in Ukraine, causing power shortages and cuts in various areas. Russia is also expected to increase its efforts to obtain weapons from countries such as Iran and North Korea so as to alleviate its struggle to maintain a prolonged war of attrition.


In any event, the magnitude of the steps Russia would be willing to take depends directly on its ability to curb the counterattack, as well as on President Putin’s level of confidence. The latter realizes that his legacy, and perhaps even his ability to remain in office, will be greatly impacted by the outcomes of this war. Therefore, the more he will feel cornered, and in the face of a highly probable military defeat, Putin may take drastic steps that he will view as crucial for the preservation of his presidency and in order to ensure that accomplishments are made on the ground.



Implications and recommendations for Israel

These recent developments, as well as each party’s insistence upon its own position harbor potential for escalation and a leap in the magnitude of the conflict. Thus, President Zelensky is repeatedly stating that Ukraine will continue to fight for the liberation of all territories occupied until all Russian forces will retreat to their homeland. By contrast, the Russian regime will not hesitate to take any action necessary to try and curb the counterattack, and possibly even regain control of at least some of the land lost.


This reality further accentuates the dilemma faced by Israel in recent months. Israel has a complex relationship with Russia in view of the expectation that it show unequivocal support for Ukraine “and be on the right side of history”, which runs contrary to the recognition that Russia could cause tremendous damage to Israeli interests in the region as well as to the Jewish population within its own borders, as demonstrated by its actions to stop the Jewish Agency from operating there.


Israel should, therefore, continue, for the time being, to adhere to the cautious policy that it has employed since the war broke out. The fact that Russia is allowing Israel to continue to target Iranian facilities in Syria, according to foreign sources, is a manifestation of this policy’s success. Moreover, under the current circumstances, when the tension in its relations with Iran and Hizballah is mounting, Israel must remain in possession of all the tools available to it to have freedom of action in the region. A central aspect of this perception is the preservation of a mechanism preventing military friction with Russia while attempting to resolve disputes between the two countries (such as the one involving the Jewish Agency) behind closed doors.





Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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