Russian preparation for a prolonged campaign in Ukraine and its implications for Israel
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | April, 2022
|Photos: Kremlin.ru | CC BY 4.0|
The war in Ukraine in recent weeks has demonstrated both parties' inability to achieve a decisive military or economic outcome, and it is clear that the conflict has taken the course of a long and bloody war of attrition, in which President Putin continues to hold the cards with regard to the length and intensity of the military confrontation.
The aim of the present paper is to examine the implications of how the war has evolved on the strategic cards available to Putin, versus the strategic distresses he must face, how they would impact his willingness to continue fighting, and projections for Israel.
Russia's willingness and ability to keep the military campaign going, at least in the upcoming weeks (if not longer), is founded primarily on three key pillars:
On the political level – Support from the Asian powers, China and India, as well as other countries in Latin America (led by Brazil) and Africa (headed by South Africa). China and India are refraining from condemning Russia and aligning themselves with the American position. They carefully continue their economic partnership with Russia, and are even looking into the possibility of advancing new agreements for the purchase of low-cost energy. Furthermore, China may be willing to find ways to deepen the assistance it provides Russia, inter alia from the military aspect, for fear that the latter's collapse would project on the world balance of power, and allow the United States to refocus its efforts on the Asian arena. By contrast, Russia's reliance on China is turning it into the junior partner in the strategic axis that President Putin had hoped to establish against the United States before the war was waged.
On the economic level – Europe's energetic dependency on the supply of gas and oil from Russia (as was demonstrated by Russia's decision to halt gas supply to Poland and Bulgaria), alongside the dependency of Middle Eastern countries, primarily Egypt, on the supply of wheat from Russia (and Ukraine), as well as concern over a food crisis, are all allowing Russia to keep up the flow of incoming foreign exchange, which gives the Russian economy oxygen. Additional levers on the West are the possible projections on levels of inflation, which have already affected western economies before the war, and are now likely to worsen in upcoming months due to the rise in commodity and transportation prices (the world food price index soared in March by 13% compared to February – the largest increase in recent years), as well as the social and financial repercussions of millions of refugees in Eastern European countries.
On the military level – Despite the low operative capabilities that the Russian army has demonstrated to date, it still enjoys significant supremacy over the Ukrainian army, particularly with regard to the weapons at its disposal. Moreover, western disinclination to send forces to Ukraine is keeping the fighting confined to these two armies alone, in a way that actually strengthens Russian willingness and confidence to continue using high-intensity firing, and target the civilian population without fearing a western military response.
Russia's strategic distresses
While Russia's strategic advantages are allowing it to continue fighting for now, it is also forced to address several developments on the state-security, economic and image-related levels that could, once the dust of war settles, lead to the considerable compromising of its international standing, as well as the impact levers available to it.
The economic sanctions imposed by the West are one of the most significant informers of the war. Their scope and intensity, alongside financial corporations' massive abandonment of Russia, have led to the Russian economy's isolation, created a shortage in many products, high unemployment rates and human capital flight (brain drain). In fact, Russia is almost entirely restricted from trading in USD or Euro, leading to limitations on fundraising and the execution of transactions with many countries worldwide, not only in the West. Russia is also prohibited from using almost half of its foreign exchange reserves, making it hard for it to repay its debts (although it has been able to pay off its debts in March). In fact, Russia could reach insolvency in the near future due to its inability to pay off its debts in USD. According to World Bank forecasts, the Russian economy is expected to shrink by 11%.
Alternatives for energetic dependency – Its dependency on Russian imported oil and gas has honed Europe's need to create alternatives. Although this process will take time, the seeds have been sown in recent weeks as various options were explored, among them the supply of LNG; importing coal; generating electricity from nuclear energy; accelerating the processes of using renewable energies, and even looking into the possibility of cutting down electricity consumption. The EU has already announced its intention to reduce the quantity of gas imported from Russia by 60% by the end of the year.
On the state security level – the Russian invasion has demonstrated the importance of defense pacts, and has led to NATO's renewed relevance. Europe is now demonstrably willing to stand by its commitment to allocate extensive resources to force buildup, as well as President Biden's commitment to protect all NATO member states by sending U.S. forces to Eastern European countries, in addition to the military and intelligence-based partnerships between members of the anti-Russia alliance and Ukraine. Furthermore, the possibility that Finland, which shares a 1300 km border with Russia, will join the alliance, and possibly Sweden too, will considerably change the status quo established in this region in recent decades.
Putin being perceived as a war criminal – The narrative that has taken hold in the West whereby Russia is committing war crimes and Putin is being perceived as a war criminal is projecting on Russia's image and status in the international arena, certainly as long as Putin remains in office. So much so that it may present substantial hurdles on the path of a long-term resolution of the conflict, and return to "business as usual" vis-à-vis Russia.
An analysis of the balance between strengths and disadvantages seems to indicate that, from Putin's perspective, in the short-to-medium range, the cards he holds, primarily the support of the Asian powers and energetic dependency on Russia, provide him with economic and military oxygen, as well as the ability to continue with a confined campaign.
In practice, after efforts to take over Kiev and other cities failed, and in view of the high number of casualties, as well as the logistical and operative difficulties encountered, Russia has begun to regroup and adjust its war goals to the reality created on the ground, while making a special effort to gain control of areas in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
In the immediate timeframe, Russia seems to be striving to create a land corridor to Crimea while completing its occupation of Mariupol and other areas in Eastern Ukraine. In the medium range, Russia may also strive to take over Odessa, thereby denying Ukraine all access to sea, and effectively dividing it into two countries. Furthermore, Russia might try to extend the campaign to the pro-Russian Moldavian district of Transnistria, inter alia, with the aim of increasing pressure on the west.
At the same time, and by way of optimizing command and control processes, Southern Military District Commander General Aleksandr Dvornikov has been appointed head of all Russian forces in Ukraine. It is noteworthy that, while acting as head of the Russian forces in Syria between 2015 and 2016, Dvornikov's fighting mode was to systematically crush and wear down the enemy while using high-intensity firing.
It therefore appears that appointing Dvornikov and changing the main goals of the operation, are an indications that Russia wants to present tangible accomplishments on the ground almost at all cost, perhaps by 9 May (on which it celebrates its victory over the Nazis), so as to allow Putin to declare his "victory", and bolster the Russian narrative of "de-Nazifying" the territories occupied (while framing the operation as "the great patriotic war" against the Nazis in World War II), thus providing him with the legitimization domestically to announce the completion of the second, and perhaps final, phase of this "special operation". Under such circumstances, Russia may unilaterally state that all fighting will cease (at least temporarily), while it establishes its control on the ground, and regroups its forces in preparation for the rest of the campaign.
Recommendations for Israel
The unrelenting battles and uncovering of atrocities in Ukraine increase expectations and demands of Israel to position itself on the right side of history by clearly condemning and denunciating Russia's conduct. For now, Israel continues its attempts to cautiously steer itself, as seen in the gaps between the statements issued by Prime Minister Bennett and Minister of Foreign Affairs Lapid with regard to the atrocities exposed. Similarly, Minister of Defense Gantz's announcement that Israel will provide Ukraine with helmets and flak jackets can also be viewed as yet another attempt to walk on eggshells.
Yet, despite rising pressure from the West, and Russia having flashed a "yellow card" by voicing its criticism of Lapid's statements, Israel would do well to actively coordinate its positions with the U.S. administration in order to examine its potential leeway, and minimize prospects of compromising its bilateral relations with Washington, while attempting to preserve its essential security coordination with Moscow. At the same time, Israel should continue to provide all humanitarian aid possible to Ukraine, including avoiding any restrictions on taking refugees in, and supplying both medical and equipment, such as helmets and flak jackets.
Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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