The Winter of Yuri
Big Serge –
I have been attempting for several days to collect my thoughts on the Russo-Ukrainian War and condense them into another analysis piece, but my efforts were consistently frustrated by the war’s stubborn refusal to sit still. After a slow, attritional grind for much of the summer, events have begun to accelerate, calling to mind a famous quip from Vladimir Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
This has been one of those weeks. It began with the commencement of referenda in four former Ukrainian oblasts to determine whether or not to join the Russian Federation, accompanied by Putin’s announcement that reservists would be called up to augment the force deployment in Ukraine. Further excitement bubbled up from the Baltic seabed with the mysterious destruction of the Nordstream pipelines. Nuclear rumors circulate, and all the while the war on the ground continues.
In all, it is clear that we are currently in the transitional period towards a new phase of the war, with higher Russian force deployment, expanded rules of engagement, and greater intensity looming. Season 2 of the Special Military Operation looms, and with it the Winter of Yuri:
Let’s try to process all the developments of the past few weeks and get a handle on the trajectory in Ukraine.
The keystone event at the heart of recent escalation was the announcement of referenda in four regions (Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson) to determine the question of entry into the Russian Federation. The implication of course was that if the referenda succeeded (a question that was never in doubt), these regions would be annexed to Russia. While there were some rumors circulating that Russia would delay the annexation, this was never really plausible. To allow these regions to vote in favor of joining Russia only to leave them out in the cold would be monumentally unpopular and raise serious doubts about Russia’s commitment to its people in Ukraine.
Formal annexation is a certainty, if not on September 30th as rumored, then within the next week.
All of this is rather predictable, and completes the first layer of annexations which I noted in previous analysis. The reasoning is not particularly complex: clearing the Donbas and securing Crimea were the absolute minimum Russian objectives for the war, and securing Crimea requires both a land bridge with road and rail connections (Zaporizhia oblast) and controlling Crimea’s water sources (Kherson). These minimum objectives have now been formally designated, though of course Ukraine maintains some military activity on these territories and will have to be dislodged.
I think, however, that people lost focus as to what the referenda and the ensuing annexation means. Western talking points focused on the illegitimacy of the votes and the illegality of any annexation, but this is really not very interesting or important. The legitimacy of annexation is derived from whether or not Russian administration can succeed in these regions. Legitimacy, as such, is merely a question of efficacy of state power. Can the state protect, extract, and adjudicate?
In any case, what is far more interesting than the technicalities of the referenda is what the decision to annex these regions says about Russian intentions. Once these regions become formally annexed, they will be viewed by the Russian state as sovereign Russian territory, subject to protection with the full range of Russian capabilities, including (in the most dire and unlikely scenario) nuclear weapons. When Medvedev pointed this out, it was bizarrely spun as a “nuclear threat”, but what he was actually trying to communicate is that these four oblasts will become part of Russia’s minimum definition of state integrity – non-negotiables, in other words.
I think the best way to formulate it is as such:
Annexation confers a formal designation that a territory has been deemed existentially important to the Russian state, and will be contested as if the integrity of the nation and state is at risk.
Those fixating on the “legality” of the referenda (as if such a thing exists) and Medvedev’s supposed nuclear blackmail are missing this point. Russia is telling us where it currently draws the line for its absolute minimum peace conditions. It’s not walking away without at least these four oblasts, and it considers the full range of state capabilities to be in play to achieve that goal.
The move to hold referenda and eventually annex the southeastern rim was accompanied with Putin’s long-awaited announcement of a “partial mobilization”. Ostensibly, the initial order calls up just 300,000 men with previous military experience, but the door is left upon for further surges at the discretion of the president’s office. Implicitly, Putin can now ramp up the mobilization as he sees fit without needing to make further announcements or sign more paperwork. This is similar to American Lend-Lease or the “Authorization for Use of Military Force” in America, where the door is opened once and the President is then free to move at will without even informing the public.
It was increasingly clear that Russia needed to raise its force deployment. Ukraine’s successful drive to the Oskil River was made possible by Russian economy of force. The Russian army had completely hollowed out Kharkiv Oblast, leaving only a thin screening force of national guardsmen and LNR militia. In places where the Russian Army has chosen to deploy sizeable regular formations, the results have been disastrous for Ukraine – the infamous Kherson Counteroffensive turned into a shooting gallery for Russian artillery, with the Ukrainian Army haplessly funneling men into a hopeless bridgehead at Andriivka.
So far in this war, Ukraine has achieved two big successes retaking territory: first in the spring, around Kiev, and now the late summer recapture of Kharkov Oblast. In both cases, the Russians had preemptively hollowed out the sector. We have yet to see a successful Ukrainian offensive against the Russian Army in a defensive posture. The obvious solution, therefore, is to raise the force deployment so that it is no longer necessary to hollow out sections of the front.
The initial surge of 300,000 men is being a bit muddled. Not all of the men being called up will be sent to Ukraine. Many will remain in Russia on garrison duty so that existing ready formations can be rotated to Ukraine. Therefore, it is likely that we will see more Russian units arriving in theater much sooner than expected. Additionally, many of the units originally committed to Ukraine have been off the front for refitting and resting. The scale and pace of Russia’s new force generation is likely to shock people. On the whole, the timing of Russia’s manpower surge coincides with the depletion of Ukrainian capabilities.
Ukraine spent the summer sending its 2nd tier conscripts to the front in the Donbas as it lovingly collected NATO-donated weapons and trained units in the rear. With generous NATO help, Ukraine was able to accumulate forces for two full scale offensives – one in Kherson (which failed spectacularly) and one in Kharkov (which succeeded in pushing past the Russian screening force and reaching the Oskil). Much of that carefully accumulated fighting power is now gone or degraded. Rumors circulated of a third offensive towards Melitipol, but Ukraine does not seem to have the combat power to achieve this, and strong Russian forces are in the region behind prepared defensive lines.
On the whole, therefore, Ukraine’s window for offensive operations has closed, and what remains is closing quickly. The last zone of intense Ukrainian operations is around Lyman, where aggressive Ukrainian attacks have so far failed to either storm or encircle the town. It is still possible that they take Lyman and consolidate control of Kupyansk, but this would likely represent the culmination of Ukrainian offensive capability. For now, the area around Lyman is a killing zone that exposes attacking Ukrainian troops to Russian air and ground fires.
The large scale view of force ratios is as follows:
Ukraine has spent much of the combat power that they accumulated with NATO help during the summer, and will have an urgent need to reduce combat intensity for refitting and rearming at precisely the same time that Russian combat power in the theater begins to surge.
Simultaneously, NATO’s ability to arm Ukraine is on the verge of exhaustion. Let’s look at this more closely.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the war in Ukraine is the extent to which Russia has contrived to attrit NATO military hardware without fighting a direct war with NATO forces. In a previous analysis I referred to Ukraine as a vampiric force which has reversed the logic of the proxy war; it’s a black hole sucking in NATO gear for destruction.
There are now very limited stockpiles to draw from to continue to arm Ukraine. Military Watch Magazine noted that NATO has drained the old Warsaw Pact tank park, leaving them bereft of Soviet tanks to donate to Ukraine. Once these reservoirs are fully tapped, the only option will be giving Ukraine western tank models. This, however, is much harder than it sounds, because it would require not only extensive training of tank crews, but also an entirely different selection of ammunition, spare parts, and repair facilities.