the War in Ukraine: Halftime
Winter is coming, and with it, a new phase in the War in Ukraine. What happened in the last phase?
The saying goes that “news is the first rough draft of history”.
Our coverage of the War in Ukraine is more of a second rough draft: not quite news, but not yet history either. The news is happening on the other side of the world, and we are in no rush to analyze and rebroadcast it here. And in October 2022, it is too soon to know the historical outcome, or even the duration of the conflict.
But seven months after Putin’s folly first became ground truth in Ukraine, we are entering a new phase of the war. It seems reasonable to hope that seven months more might be enough to find peace.
the Tisatsar Newslettr described at length in February why Vladimir Putin’s plans (as described in the Western media) were nonsensical, or at least certain to fail. After twenty years of Mr. Putin being a rational actor acting on behalf of the Russian Federation, we expected him to avoid such a course of action.
The one benefit of his heel-turn was the element of surprise1. Certainly, the Tisatsar Newslettr was surprised … as much as it is possible to be surprised by an invasion that was warned about repeatedly in most major American newspapers.
Whether by hook or by crook, Russian troops used their superior numbers to quickly occupy large sections of Ukraine. A feint2 towards Kiev allowed masses of troops to occupy much of Eastern Ukraine with minimal resistance. The last Ukrainian army in the city of Mariupol surrendered on May 16th, but for all practical purposes Russian advances reached their maximum extent everywhere by March 24th.
Soon after that, Russia ended its efforts to control territory near Kiev. The exact intent behind this move is still shrouded in the fog-of-war. Was it a planned retreat, or an acknowledgement of defeat?
Six Months of Retreat
Despite claims from myself and many others before the war that Ukraine could not hope to win a conventional war on the ground, they have been doing exactly that for the past six months. After several months with no substantial changes on the map, in September, Ukrainian forces expelled all Russian forces from Kharkiv oblast. How?
The most important reason is the large amounts of war materiel sent by the United States to Ukraine. This exceeds $15 billion in value3, and includes the extremely effective HIMARS system that has disrupted Russian supply lines and ammunition depots.
Russian troops may have believed the claims that any military effort would be a quick coup de grace, and were largely unprepared for the realities of a year-long military campaign.
Retreat by design. While Putin may have implied that his goal was to occupy and annex all of Ukraine by force, the more fact-based members of the Russian government certainly knew this was infeasible. Russia could neither kill, expel, nor pacify much of the population in the west of Ukraine through its efforts on the battlefield. Thus, some occupations only had strategic value as territory to be retreated from in the future.
Concentration of force. Russia may have had a larger army, but that doesn’t imply overwhelming superiority of numbers in individual battles. The well-motivated (and well-armed) Ukrainian forces aren’t inherently disadvantaged in an equal fight.
Morale and skill. The reports of how skilled and well-trained the Ukrainian forces are have more than a touch of propaganda to them. And a picture of Russian forces as lacking in food, ammunition, and leadership is also a bit fanciful. But it is clear Ukrainian morale is higher than Russian morale.
Referendum and Mobilization
Regardless, after six months of defeat, Russia’s military situation appears to have become desperate. On September 21, a “partial mobilization” was declared. This has not helped Putin’s popularity, with many fleeing Russia to avoid a draft. Putin has had to publicly walk back certain “mistakes” in mobilizations.
At the same time, a “referendum” in the occupied oblasts was announced and conducted over the course of a week.
These referendums will surely go down as one of the great farces of history. The inability for the refugees of those regions to vote (not to mention the Ukrainian soldiers from the region, or the untold dead) make it clear the referendum is purely for show. And having armed soldiers conduct a referendum by voice vote is such bad optics that nobody can pretend the referendum is legitimate.
Looking to peace
There are three possible resolutions to the current War in Ukraine: peace, stalemate, and nuclear war4.
Clearly the first would be preferable. And if Elon Musk is tweeting about it (and Zelenskyy’s Twitter account is replying), surely we can't cause any additional sturm und drang by discussing the outlines of a peace here.
The de jure boundary between Ukraine and Russia will be the post-Soviet one, but with Crimea (and Sevastopol) remaining part of Russia. This is a compromise currently acceptable to nobody, but it is the only possible option for a negotiated peace. Russia’s naval ports (and decade of mostly-peaceful administration)5 mean that it would be unreasonable to expect a handover. But neither Ukraine nor their Western allies can be expected to agree to anything more than that.
A certain degree of regional autonomy is to be expected for Russian-speaking areas.
the Tisatsar Newslettr has used the phrase “Transnistrian sovereignty” before, but nobody else has done so. In short — for ceremonial purposes (the Olympics, the Eurovision Song Contest, the United Nations6) the regions would be part of Ukraine. However, regional governments would have full authority to do things (such as invite in Russian armies for "defensive" purposes) that would be opposed by Kiev7. The various relations between governments in Beijing, Taipei, and Hong Kong may provide interesting models.
However, as Ukraine is currently winning the conflict on the ground, it is more likely that a more limited autonomy would be part of the peace. Perhaps a degree of autonomy similar to that of a province8 in Spain or America.
Both sides will agree that Russia is allowed9 to sell gas and oil to western nations.
Monetary sanctions against Russia will be limited to a small portion of the various “seized” or “frozen” assets of Russia in Western countries. Sanctions will be more symbolic than punitive, and more punitive than compensatory. The expenses of rebuilding Ukraine will probably be paid by the United States.
The other unfrozen conflicts10 in the former USSR will not be mentioned in a treaty with Ukraine.
The situation of Vladimir Putin’s personal problems with such a treaty could be addressed by his removal from office11. This feels improbable today. But the fall of an autocrat follows the old saying: first it happens slowly, then it happens quickly.
In the more predictable scenario that Putin remains in power, there is not going to be peace before the end of winter. The two sides do not agree on what the political or military reality of a continued fight is. So, thousands more will die as a demonstration of that reality.
“““A prisoner is told that he will be hanged on some day between Monday and Friday, but that he will not know on which day the hanging will occur before it happens. He cannot be hanged on Friday, because if he were still alive on Thursday, he would know that the hanging will occur on Friday, but he has been told he will not know the day of his hanging in advance. He cannot be hanged Thursday for the same reason, and the same argument shows that he cannot be hanged on any other day. Nevertheless, the executioner unexpectedly arrives on some day other than Friday, surprising the prisoner.””” — The Unexpected Hanging Paradox, Wolfram Alpha
There was quite a lot of chatter on Twitter (and in outlets of similar intellectual capacity, such as Vox) that the forces heading towards Kiev were not a feint. The fact that they were able to fool people such as Vox only proves that it was a successful feint. Russia opened a military front that had to be defended against. They were not expecting to overrun all of Ukraine, but pinning Ukrainian armies hundreds of miles from the Donbas was a strategic victory.
Yes, “dollars” is the correct unit of denomination here, not “kilotons of TNT” or “tanks”. Military strategy is fully aware that you can’t ignore economics and win a war.
As far as a more specific breakdown goes: unfortunately, the Wikipedia article attempting to list more specific aid is of atrocious quality. You will have to do your own research.
The historical note that the Crimea peninsula was administratively part of Russia and not Ukraine until the 1950s is likely to be mentioned only in contexts where it will be ignored.
There is a certain sense that, as it is governments and not the people of the governed countries that are represented at the UN, the people of the Donbas will not be “represented” at the United Nations regardless of the outcome.
#KyivNotKiev is a thing, but we do not endorse such a change at this time. Perhaps we would feel differently on a debate between Ки́їв and Киев.
They are called “Autonomous communities” in Spain, and “states” in the United States.
The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline is relevant, but we don’t know enough to say anything about it yet.
This refers primarily to the Armenia—Azerbaijan conflict, which is too complicated to analyze in the footnotes. Other conflicts, such as the recent brief conflict between Krygyzstan and Tajikistan, are likely to resolve on their own.
It is, of course, uncertain who Putin’s successor would be. One can imagine Dmitry Medvedev (a hardliner, and possibly a drunk who wants to invade Kazakhstan) being as intransigent as Putin towards peace talks. But the political pressures that Putin appears to be surviving would be far more threatening to any new leader — and thus a peace deal would be more likely.