Main Image Credit Handle with caution: Chinese President Xi Jinping with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
This imaginary memo reviews the Russia–Ukraine war at its current stage through the eyes of an advisor to the General Secretary.
From: OFFICE OF THE CENTRAL COMMISSION FOR MILITARY-CIVIL FUSION DEVELOPMENT, BEIJING
Subject: THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION’S SPECIAL MILITARY OPERATION IN UKRAINE
Chairman and General Secretary,
The war in Ukraine is at a crossroads. The lessons from this conflict suggest that Russia’s armed forces will continue to struggle, despite establishing control of parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.
We have so far identified the following challenges in Russia’s strategic and operational experience since the launching of its ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine on 24 February 2022, of which the relevant branches and arms of the People’s Republic would be advised to take note in the journey towards 2049.
The Imperative for a Clear and Justifiable Goal
At the outset, Moscow’s strategy was based on the idea that Ukraine is a pseudo-state riven with corruption and division, with no justifiable reason for its existence as a separate, independent state – conditions which would enable a rapid capitulation and victory. Its operation was designed around the rapid decapitation of Ukraine’s government, and the installation of one more favourable to Russia’s interests.
We note that Ukrainians have pulled together under this onslaught, with greater unity than at any time in their 30 years of formal statehood. Nations are forged in battle, and Ukraine has proven no different. This intervention has accelerated Ukraine’s nation-building project, formally underway for the last three decades but shaped by 500 years of regional warfare and conquest.
It is clear now that Ukrainians have the same right to be nationalistic as Russians.
We should take note of these aspects in our foreign policy dealings in Asia, and especially with the province of Taiwan. We need to convey our position on the province with sensitivity, mindful of contemporary Western tendencies regarding support for democratic statehood, and the eagerness of many Western countries to prove their foreign policy credentials. Ukraine’s performance reminds us never to underestimate the appeal of democratic nationalism, and to carefully avoid provoking this tiger.
The Question of Sovereignty
China has strong ties with Russia as a strategic partner but also with Ukraine, as evident in the Statement on the Provision of Security Guarantees for Ukraine (1994) and the Treaty on Friendship and Co-operation Between China and Ukraine (2013). China adheres to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence of 1954 and is unambiguous in its commitment to sovereignty.
China needs to convey clearly that it still respects sovereignty. A failure to do so could upset the designs of the People’s Republic to overtake the US as the sole superpower by 2049.
Our analysts have suggested various reasons for President Vladimir Putin’s timing. The most obvious reason is that he believed Ukraine was divided and weak at this time, and could only get stronger in the future. An alternative view is that Putin is cut off from opinions outside of his St Petersburg circle of close advisers, possibly a result of the coronavirus pandemic or because he mistrusts many of his officials.
The West is no longer sleeping, nor is it timid. It has shown it has substantial enabling power if there are willing local partners
The Russian action may also be partly explained by a misreading of Western political resolve. Putin has described the West as an ‘empire of lies’; such provocation may prove unwise in the circumstances. There have certainly been acute and likely costly consequences as a result of this miscalculation, not least in terms of the sanctions which have followed.
Russia’s Abandonment of a Hybrid Strategy
We note the disappointing effects – or application – of Russia’s ‘hybrid’ or ‘non-linear’ war plan. In the run-up to this conflict, much was made of Moscow fighting an asymmetric war involving non-military and military elements, tipped by a prolonged period of political destabilisation.
But Russia has not been able to effectively secure control of the cyberspace, despite much discussion about this before the conflict. This is notable in terms of the information war, but also in terms of Ukraine’s continued ability to make appeals for assistance and receive intelligence via Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp and even Zoom.
The Lack of a Convincing Narrative
Despite the extent of its propaganda and the centrality of its narrative development through its formal (RT and Sputnik) and informal social media (including Twitter and its bot activities) channels outside of its borders, Russia has quickly lost the battle for public opinion, because it has been shown to be untruthful. The West’s credibility has been enhanced by the role of its intelligence agencies, which correctly reported on the concentration and intentions of the Russian forces and then predicted the invasion on 24 February almost to the hour.
At the strategic level, we note that the contemporary battlefield is a transparent backdrop to leadership, where the use of media and a suitable narrative can make all the difference.
We note that governments representing about 60% of the world's population – including India, South Africa and much of the Middle East – do not accept the Ukrainian/Western narrative, for various reasons including self-interest and perceptions of a Western double-standard. This may provide opportunities for further exploitation, though there may be yet unknown costs to these countries as a result of their ambivalence, including in terms of Western aid flows and trade access.
The West is not Weak: The West has proven a worthy adversary in fighting for shared values with an ally that has responded positively to external assistance. This response has been contrary to the understanding of Moscow, which – especially since Afghanistan – has preferred to view NATO and the Europeans as weak, easily corrupted, distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, inwardly focused and short-termist in their outlook.
But the West is no longer sleeping, nor is it timid. The West has also shown it has substantial enabling power if there are willing local partners.
We need to be alert to how these values might now be promoted by a resurgent West, including as a brand of anti-authoritarianism targeting the People’s Republic, among others.
One way to manage such consequences is to emphasise that this is not about Russia, Europe, the US or NATO, but about Putin. This may require pressing Putin through public channels to withdraw, even if through the mechanism of a ceasefire.
Russian Operational Failure
Even though they have not lost the war, and now occupy a larger part of Ukraine than before 24 February, the Russians have proven clumsy not only at the strategic level but also at the operational and tactical levels. For offensive action, there has to a concentration of applied force. From day one of their operation, the Russians failed to concentrate their forces in the right places for short amounts of time, which would have been necessary in order to break through.
The Ukrainians have a unique advantage in that they understand the Russian mindset and military approach, while at the same time understanding the Western way of fighting
Whereas the Russians might have expected a similar level of Ukrainian resistance to what they faced when capturing Crimea in 2014, the lessons from that conflict appear to have been well-learned by Kyiv. The Ukrainians have a unique advantage in that they understand the Russian mindset and military approach, while at the same time understanding the Western way of fighting.
The Role of Western Intelligence
We don’t know the exact extent of Western intelligence assistance to Ukraine, but one must assume it is a critical factor in understanding Russian movements, and in asserting control of the battlespace – air, sea and land. In contrast, Russia’s ability to win and manage control of the airspace has been surprisingly poor. Those who live in fear are more likely to be misled by their commanders. This type of leadership also suppresses innovation, flexibility and improvisation.
Russian intelligence has failed in all three phases of the war so far: the initial attempts to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership, the conventional efforts to take Kyiv, and the subsequent focus on static targets and large cities. This reminds us of the imperative for such agencies to tell leaders the truth, not just what they think they want to hear.
The Cost of Corruption
The long, gridlocked lines of Russian convoys have illustrated, if nothing else, that plenty of training is needed to make these operations work. Logistics, as ever, rules the battlespace. As Sun Tzu reminds us, ‘The line between disorder and order lies in co-ordination’.
The Russian armed forces are in poor condition. Such weakness reflects a failure of governance.
Widespread systemic corruption appears to have an impact on the performance of the Russian military. Some suggest that as much as one-quarter of the defence procurement budget, and much more in terms of the operational budget, may have been skimmed over the last decade to enrich Russia’s oligarchs.
Such rent-seeking is thus undesirable not only in terms of its ethical corrosion.
The Changing Face of War
A further lesson is in the limits of tank warfare, at least against modern anti-tank weapons and a determined enemy. But we note, too, that arms by themselves are not enough: for one, these weapons don’t fight by themselves. People are fighting.
The Ukrainians have learnt well the lessons of the 2014 war with Russian-backed forces in Donbas. One of these has been the need to allow commanders on the ground the authority to make decisions and the flexibility the circumstances demand. They also made the decision early on not to hold territory, but rather to absorb the Russian invasion and then conduct hit-and-run attacks – what territorial commanders refer to as a ‘mosquito’ strategy – on stretched Russian supply lines.
The Economic Costs of Failure and the West’s Options
The West will continue to isolate Russia diplomatically and in the media. We expect that Russia will have little traction in countering this, given the evidence of civilian atrocities in Ukraine and the existence of so-called ‘filtration’ camps, which are eroding Russian standing and prestige. Such actions could increase the pressure on non-aligned countries, including India, to deepen Russia’s isolation. Moreover, we expect continuous efforts to widen and deepen sanctions against Russia.
There has been speculation that the Chinese yuan could play a wider international role as a reserve currency, as a counterbalance to the dominance of the US dollar. However, the dollar’s role in this regard is not only down to the US economy’s size. It is dependent on the liquidity, flexibility and reliability of the institutions which back the dollar, factors which do not favour the yuan.
The war is also likely to have a considerable impact on food security, given Ukraine’s role as a top-five exporter of various grains, including to the People’s Republic and notably to the Middle East and parts of Africa – both providing opportunity and risking crisis.
If Russia’s forces continue to underperform in this next phase of the war, Putin may be called on to explain to the Russian people why he has incurred significant losses for little apparent gain
Moscow’s strategic weakness will provide a short-term financial opportunity, given its need for military supplies and alternative trading partners as a result of Western sanctions. This may offer opportunities for further exploitation in terms of pricing of imported commodities and trade barter deals.
But the longer-term impacts are likely to be costly for the global economy, and thus bad for China.
The Political Costs of Failure
If Russia’s forces continue to underperform in this next phase of the war, Putin may be called on to explain to the Russian people why he has incurred significant losses for little apparent gain. The Russian military may be especially unhappy as it has been made to look incompetent, while there are traditional rivalries between this institution and the intelligence services.
It is difficult to see where wholesale change in Russia’s internal situation might occur. At some point, however, the cost to Putin may become too great to bear. This will depend on how his subordinates and the military react.
Factors that Could Change the War’s Direction
The war’s conclusion may not be as foregone as some Western analysts might like to think. The upcoming series of battles could decide whether Ukraine is to be left partitioned. They will also determine whether Russia can rescue some sort of victory from an apparent defeat.
While Russia will likely acquire control over more territory in Ukraine, even with predicted losses in the East, Ukraine will still control 85% of its land area, and will remain an independent and emboldened state with its own democratic government.
If Putin were to fails in his attempts to overcome Ukrainian resistance in Donbas and to secure a land bridge to Crimea, his prestige would suffer further. Russia cannot lose completely given its possession of nuclear weapons. But its leadership is vulnerable to such a setback. They have taken risks which we must learn from and avoid.
Opportunities in Reconstruction and Development
Western thoughts are already turning to conceptualising a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Ukraine. The West has already committed more than $15 billion in emergency aid, led by the US commitment of $13.6 billion in March 2022. It is estimated that the bill for reconstruction will run into the hundreds of billions – perhaps reaching as much as $500 billion to date – on top of the humanitarian and other emergency assistance required to make up for the predicted 45% contraction in the Ukrainian economy.
The perception of China as a funder and supplier of arms to Russia, while unsubstantiated, is likely to worsen any prospects for future commercial advantage that may arise from the reconstruction process.
China must consider its options in this regard.
Summarising the Lessons So Far
Absent a peace deal satisfactory to the Ukrainians, the war is likely to drag on as long as Putin is in charge. This will come at great cost to the global economy, and potentially to our plans for 2049. While the Ukrainians may lack offensive capacity, for the moment, their strength in defence means that this could become a long war of attrition. This will suit neither side, and certainly not China.
While an increase in Russian dependency on China offers economic opportunities, this may come at a cost to our ties with the broader global economy, considering that the US and the EU are our top trade partners, followed by ASEAN (where most members voted against Russia in the UN) and Japan. Whereas sanctions might once have been considered largely symbolic, with the regime of measures against Russia now in full swing, they have acquired an increased importance in Western statecraft – despite their cumbersome characteristics.
Putin’s leadership will surely have been diminished by this failure, and by his misreading of the West’s response, despite any victory that Russia may claim. This action has come at great cost to Russia, and the effects may be felt for decades. This strategic miscalculation has prompted a resurgent and cohesive NATO, with the West realising the need to sort out its security, starting with defence expenditure. This development potentially risks our stated ambition to surpass the US by 2049.
The author was in Ukraine this month to direct and present a documentary on the relevance of the conflict to Africa.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Greg Mills
Senior Associate Fellow and Advisory Board Member