At the best of times, the Kremlin’s thinking is difficult to decipher. During war, the task is even harder. Negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow have borne little fruit whilst Ukrainian cities continue to be pummelled by unrelenting Russian artillery fire. A raft of outcomes remains feasible; an (unlikely) retreat from Russia, bloody regime change and the installation of a new president, the full conquest of the country, foreign/Nation intervention or a continuation of fighting.
A representative of a member state at NATO said, “Moscow’s scenario-planning is based on the actions it calculates that NATO could take. Russians are assessing what they are doing based on the severity of the action that they see on the NATO side. International law allows us to provide weapons capabilities to a country in a self-defence mode. This is an illegitimate invasion. NATO collectively can’t provide weapons so single countries are doing that on a bilateral basis.”
“Russians are assessing what they are doing based on the severity of the action that they see on the NATO side. International law allows us to provide weapons capabilities to a country in a self-defence mode.”
Representative of a member state, NATO
In this sense, there are three elements to consider. The first is capabilities. Weapons deliveries are critical to Ukraine’s armed forces which has helped them to slow down, challenge and deter Russian encroachment. The longer that Russian advances are resisted, “… the more impact that additional measures including sanctions will have potentially forcing the administration to consider political and diplomatic solutions,” explained the NATO representative.
The second element are sanctions – whilst these have exerted a significant negative shock to the Russian economy, the consensus view of our sources is that they are not enough. Rather, more targeted sanctions against critical components of the Russian economy – oil, gas and coal for example – would be more painful and deprive the Kremlin of the funds it needs not only for its war effort but its extensive global disinformation campaign. “It is actually coal, not gas – which the media tends to make more of a fuss about because of Nord Stream 2 – where sanctions will be more effective in crippling government coffers,” the NATO representative added.
Finally, Russian president Vladimir Putin (“Putin”) has miscalculated the depth of domestic opposition to the war. This is especially the case among younger and socially/politically active constituents, many of whom remain aggrieved over creeping human rights violations and the muzzling of political oppositions, notably Alexi Navalny. Should protests morph into more serious opposition to Putin’s rule, he may be inclined to change strategy to ensure the survival of his own regime.
In spite of the potential for a change in strategic thinking, for now boots on the ground remain. A government adviser and university professor in Kyiv said, “We are now entering what is effectively the ‘second phase’ of the war where having lost the ground defensive, the next move for Putin’s strategy is to move to a war of attrition and create a humanitarian crisis and create as much destruction as possible with indiscriminate bombing as we are witnessing in Mariupol.”
“We are now entering what is effectively the ‘second phase’ of the war where having lost the ground defensive, the next move for Putin’s strategy is to move to a war of attrition…”
Government adviser and university professor, Ukraine
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (“Zelensky”) has repeatedly pressed NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over the country. The alliance has understandably been unwilling to engage Russian fighter jets – a scenario described as a prelude to WW3 by Washington. The government adviser took a different view, “They have the ability to close the skies. However, Boris Johnson and Andrzej Duda are both looking at the US for leadership. Johnson is looking at the US and Duda is looking at Germany. This is an unfortunate fact. In Ukrainian intellectual circles and even among common people there is a call for Churchill. Ukrainians are asking themselves: where is Churchill?”
Peace talks will continue in the coming days and there are signs from Zelensky that Moscow could soften its demands or that Kyiv will “accept” that it will not become a NATO member. Ukraine however could take a more assertive position in negotiations given that “… the demand from the public has shifted not just to troop withdrawal in a general sense but from areas annexed by Russia since 2014 including Donetsk and Crimea,” the government adviser explained.
As Russia becomes increasingly isolated, diplomatically and militarily, at the heart of the conflict lies Putin – his actions have cost the lives of thousands of Russian soldiers, he will need to be able to present a “win” to the home audience, either territory or acquiescence to Russian security demands. If not, his actions could cost him not only the war, but also the presidency.