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Expert round-up: The next week is vital for the future of Ukraine

Commentary

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues to suffer major, and slightly bizarre, logistical issues as a massive convoy continues to stall outside Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. With refugees fleeing, and death tolls on both sides continuing to rise, the situation continues to look as uncertain as ever.

What does the future hold for Russia, Ukraine, Europe, and the world? We asked foreign policy experts to weigh in.

If Russia keeps suffering losses, expect peace negotiations

Richard Shimooka, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute

Overall, the situation seems to be devolving into a much more sluggish phase, partly due to both extremely effective Ukrainian resistance and broader issues with the Russian forces. 

Ukrainian forces have maintained cohesion, logistics, and the ability to conduct operations, including counterattacks against Russian forces. They also have been effective at striking at weak points within the Russian military’s effort: rear area convoys, logistics hubs, and artillery systems. The high morale and technical competence of their forces, as well as western material and intelligence support, have allowed them to put up a very effective resistance to the Russian invasion thus far. 

In many ways, the Russians have both too many troops in the field and too few – they are unable to supply their deployed forces, but lack sufficient numbers to overwhelm the Ukrainian defenders or truly control the country. Their plans have been undermined by a number of major problems. The most significant seems to be morale and logistics. It’s fairly apparent that Russian forces were not prepared to either launch an invasion of this scale or to sustain combat operations for more than a few weeks. This may have been due to unrealistic expectations about the resistance Ukrainians would provide as well as systemic problems in the Russian military itself, related to doctrine and corruption. The relative lack of artillery and air support may be due in part to these issues. 

It is evident that significant portions of Russia’s military are suffering significant morale issues, and there have been several instances where their formations have abandoned equipment or disintegrated in the face of serious resistance. When combat is sustained, their losses have been reportedly severe.

If Russian troops continue to suffer unsustainable losses and are unable to push much further than the current front lines, negotiations to reach some sort of agreement will start to progress. But this only becomes a viable course of action once the Russian government accepts the impossibility of its war aims. There are some very small suggestions that this is starting to occur, with initial reports from negotiations stating that Russia has dropped its demands to remove the Ukrainian government and “de-nazify” the country. 

Much likely hinges on the next week. The Russians have spent the past few days reorganizing and attempting to address their logistical issues for a renewed offensive. It is possible the Russian military will create major breakthroughs and collapse significant parts of the Ukrainian defence lines, leading to large territorial losses. However, if past performance is any indication, Russia might only achieve local successes and any advance will eventually grind to a halt. The offensive would come with enormous human and material costs, which may force the Russian government to contemplate negotiations to terminate the war. Whether this occurs will likely be known very soon.

Russia is a country in decline and Putin knows it

By Karen Restoule, CEO at Shared Value Solutions

What will follow from Russia is rooted in the causes that drove Putin to act. Many are saying restoration of territorial boundaries. Some suggest NATO democracy creep. Others, economic pursuits. Another factor of potential influence: Russian peoples.

Putin holds that 25 million Russians were lost following the collapse of the USSR. He has consistently expressed over past years his concern of a disunited Russian nationhood. In his interview with Charlie Rose in 2018, he stated, “Is that a problem? Well, not for you, but it’s a problem for me.” He laments the treatment of “lost” Russians, becoming secondary citizens in the Baltics, Balkans, and beyond, being denied their socio-political rights and has gone on record stating this treatment will “provoke an appropriate response”.

Russia has been identified as a country in decline. A 2014 report shows Russian emigration increased five times since Putin’s first tenure in the early 2000s, citing economic and political instability. Birthrates between 1993 to 2007 fell to 1.5, significantly lower than the 2.1 replacement rate needed to hold its population. The Economist estimates Russia lost close to one million citizens in part due to a dismissal of COVID-19, vaccine hesitancy, and a weak healthcare system.

While we are unlikely to ever get clarity on Putin’s motives, what remains is to see if his mission is influenced by an effort to a forceful reunification of Russian peoples with a goal to replenish human capital. If yes, his reach may extend further and deeper than we think.

The U.S. is conducting a diplomatic blitz with oil-producing nations

By Amal Attar-Guzman, The Hub’s content editor

In The Hub‘s last analysis roundup, I explained how Latin American countries have specific ties with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, as the crisis continues, we may be now seeing some changes in state alliances.

According to anonymous U.S. officials, the Biden administration has been concerned that Russia’s allies in Latin America, specifically Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua could be deemed as “security threats” in the region if the situation with Russia further escalates.

Because of this, it’s not surprising that senior U.S. officials flew to Venezuela this past Saturday to have talks with President Nicolas Maduro and his government, attempting to get the administration to change their alliance away from Russia. While the talks had no tangible results, the fact that there have been talks at all is a clear indicator of U.S. concerns about its relations with the South American country.

While there is a security component for these talks, there is another angle here at play. Venezuela is one of the major oil producers and exporters in the world. In fact, despite its political and humanitarian crisis in 2013 and facing stringent sanctions from the U.S., as of December 2021 oil exports have doubled from a year prior through the rising production of hydrocarbons. Having Venezuela on their side would be a great substitute for the Russian oil imports that President Biden has now banned.

The question remains if these talks or any future talks would convince Venezuela to switch sides. Evidence of that is not strong. For instance, Venezuela did not participate in the UNGA resolution about “aggression against Ukraine.” Who’s to say whether their position with Russia will change anytime soon. Furthermore, despite the potential challenges of being a Russian ally, Venezuela still has another major player backing them up: Iran.

Venezuela-Iran relations are strong. In fact, Iran has helped Venezuela to double its oil production in recent months, an Iranian supertanker carrying more than two million barrels of condensate, a mixture of light liquid hydrocarbons that is treated like crude oil, docked at Venezuela’s port in early February, and direct Venezuela-Iran flights commenced this month to increase tourism.

The U.S. has been doing its homework and is resuming nuclear talks with Iran. While Secretary Blinken states that talks with Iran had nothing to do with Ukraine, these talks and any further gestures from the U.S. towards Iran will impact the situation in Eastern Europe in some way or another.

Further, Russia seems to be mucking things up with Iran, by demanding guarantees from the U.S. that Western sanctions would not impact Russia’s trade, investment, and military-technical cooperation with Iran. Despite Russia trying to clarify the situation saying that the requests for guarantees were “misunderstood,” foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian stated that Iran would not allow “any foreign elements to undermine its national interests.”

Back in Latin America, it would be also interesting to see whether the U.S. will try to extend the olive branch to Cuba and Nicaragua. On a list of priorities, my gut feeling is that after its attempts with Venezuela they might attempt talks with Cuba due to the island’s geographical proximity with the U.S. It would be wise for the Biden Administration to start there given its history with the island country.

The West has been shaken from its slumber

By Joe Varner, an adjunct Scholar at West Point’s Modern War Institute

The situation on the ground in Ukraine shows that Russia has three main axes of advance; there is a northern advance to envelop Kyiv. There is a secondary axis of attack to seize Kharkiv, home of Ukraine‘s defence industry. Then there is a third axis of attack to take the land bridge connecting Rostov-on-Don to Crimea and the entire southern coast of Ukraine up to and perhaps including Moldova. The north and central axes have been troubled and delayed. The southern axis of attack has been much more successful. Russian troops have surrounded MariupolKherson conditionally surrendered, and Russian forces are preparing to renew their advance on Mykolayiv and Odesa.

Thus far there’s been great jubilation in the West about Russia’s failures to take Kyiv and Kharkiv. But the reality is that even though the Russians are having difficulties and the Ukrainians are fighting quite well, the Russian war machine is massive and will overwhelm the Ukrainians at some point soon.

When that happens, there’s going to have to be a lot of soul-searching in the West, within NATO and the EU. When those Russian tank columns start rolling towards the frontier to secure the battlefield and cut off the final supply line to the Ukrainian military and people, there will be a lot of hand wringing and teeth sucking in Romania and Poland. This is where life gets real for NATO and the EU.

We all hope that Russia then pulls back from the table and calls it a day with Belarus and Ukraine in hand. The Russians taking Ukraine and controlling and holding Ukraine are two different things. Russia may be able to take the country and hold it by brutal force with a puppet government, but if the Ukrainians put up a sustained insurgency the Russians are going to be in some difficulty. Especially if that insurgency is fed by the West and NATO.

As well, the chance for further conflict with Russia exists as Vladimir Putin makes decisions about what he’s going to do about countries like Georgia, Azerbaijani, Armenia, and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. A further source of conflict could be Sweden and Finland’s potential quests for NATO membership. Russia has threatened both states with military and political consequences if they do.

The world has changed overnight in the sense that the West has been shaken from its deep sleep by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and made aware of the grim reality that there is evil on this planet and that war anywhere at any time is a reality.

Dictators in China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia do not look at war or peace as we do. There will be debates now about what NATO and the EU should have done to protect the innocents of Ukraine. Should we have employed a forward deployment of NATO troops into Ukraine or a no-fly zone, and with hindsight and spine both may have been enough to deter Russia from conventional war? They are as scared of our nuclear arsenal as we are of theirs. In fact, there still might be time for a forward NATO deployment behind the Dnieper and or a no-fly zone, but that seems unlikely. Sending in Polish surplus warplanes and large numbers of Turkish TB2 drones would be excellent measures short of a no-fly zone to give further lethal aid to Ukraine.

In real terms, Ukraine’s people are defending NATO, the EU, and the Liberal rules-based order with their own blood. The public in Canada and in NATO and in the EU are collectively horrified and saddened by these events which find us tied to our social media and news. They are seemingly just as upset at Russian president Vladimir Putin as they are with their own leaders’ failures to act and stop this tragedy before it began. People cozy in their homes, happy to be on the downside of the COVID-19 slide, and trying to deal with the cost of living, are suddenly interested in military and geo-strategic affairs. That is a good thing but how long does this newfound interest last?

The Western rules-based order is still alive but its institutions like the UN and its leadership in the U.S. are tarnished. There was always a fear that China, brimming with newfound confidence and nationalism, would use Russia’s action against Ukraine as a distraction to go after Taiwan. We are seeing China now distance itself from Russia after countries around the globe punished Moscow with isolation and economic sanctions. Perhaps China has reacted to Russian equipment failures made with Chinese parts and the same parts and sensors that are found in Chinese military hardware. Maybe China is taken aback by Ukrainian patriotism and resistance and surprisingly concerned about the costs of war. It comes at a price of both blood and treasure. But it is likely short-lived or wishful thinking. The junior partner in that strategic relationship, the Russian bear, is still out there at the doorstep of Europe and hungry, and the Chinese dragon, now the senior partner, sits equally ready to act in Asia-Pacific. North Korea and Iran are dangerous but not on the level of Russia or China. Very sadly, the West cannot allow deterrence of a hegemonic power to fail again as it has allowed it to fail for Ukraine. Even if it means war. 

Livio Di Matteo: Russia’s chronically weak economy may be its undoing

Commentary

As the Russian military continues its assault on Ukraine, casual observers no doubt view the ultimate outcome as inevitable given the reputation of Russia as a formidable military and world power.

Along with its nuclear arsenal, the Russian military machine is a behemoth compared to that of Ukraine, with 850,000 active-duty troops to Ukraine’s 200,000 and 772 fighter aircraft to Ukraine’s 69. Not to mention over 12,000 tanks to Ukraine’s 2,596. Indeed, the Global Firepower Index places the power of the Russian military second out of 140 ranked countries, with only the United States ahead of it and China right behind in third place.

Maintaining a massive military machine is ultimately an economic undertaking. In U.S. dollars, Russia is the fourth biggest spender in the world after the United States, China, and India, and just ahead of the United Kingdom. That an army marches on its stomach is a quote long attributed to Napoleon. In the modern world, that includes massive quantities of supplies and materials as well as the energy needed to power movement. All of this takes money. While Russia is a big spender with the military as its priority, it remains that the resources to pay for all this military infrastructure are not as abundant as one may think.

Of course, Russia is a large country with abundant natural resources and a skilled and relatively well-educated population that has made enormous economic strides over the last few decades. Yet, the legacy of decades of Communist rule as well as the growth of corruption in its economy during its transition after the fall of the Berlin Wall has hampered its full economic potential. While President Putin may have dreams of a Greater Russia that rivals the empire of the Tsars, in achieving this goal he is hampered by the same forces that held them back—a perennially weak economy that raises the opportunity cost of investing in military infrastructure. Every dollar spent on the military is a dollar less for productive investment geared to improving the lives of ordinary Russians and their consumption standards.

Nowhere is the weakness of the Russian economy more apparent than when simple comparisons using national output are made. Russia spends 4 percent of its GDP on its military, a higher share than the United States at 3.5 percent. It is also a much larger share than the rest of the G7, which ranges from 1 percent for Japan to 2.5 percent for the UK. However, it is applying that much larger share to a much smaller economy. According to the IMF World Economic Outlook Database, Russia’s economy is just over 1.6 trillion USD, whereas the United States has a 22 trillion USD economy. Even Canada, with a population less than a quarter that of Russia has a GDP that, at over 2 trillion USD, is 25 percent greater than Russia.

Source: IMF World Economic Outlook Database
Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

The difference is just as stark when GDP per capita is examined. Whereas per capita GDP in USD is just over $11,000 for Russia, for Canada it is nearly $53,000. For the U.S. it is $69,000. Even the country with the lowest per capita GDP in the G7—Italy—comes in nearly three times higher than Russia at $35,000. It remains that Russia’s economy may generate massive natural resource wealth from its exports, but on a per capita basis, it has an income on par with China. Even former East European satellites of the former Soviet Union have often done better, as is the case with Poland which comes in at $17,000. And while Russia has created numerous billionaires and wealthy oligarchs, a low average per capita income in the face of such extremes also means that income inequality is high. Russia’s military might is at the expense of the economic welfare of the average Russian. This makes the toll that Western economic sanctions are taking more devastating—especially when the flight of foreign companies in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine threatens to reverse decades of economic progress.

The Russia of Vladimir Putin, like the former Soviet Union and the empire of the Tsars before it, is marked by a set of constant themes. They are all regimes characterized by the exercise of autocracy, the use of a secret police security apparatus to monitor dissent, and an expansionist foreign policy. To these themes can be added another: a chronically weak economy that fails to meet the material needs of the average Russian on par with the rest of the developed world. In the end, this economic failure provided the seeds of the 1917 Russian Revolution that ended the rule of the Tsars and the productivity lag that sealed the end of the Soviet Union. As Putin continues his quest to make Russia great again, he is likely to meet a similar fate.