Defend Truth

LONG READ – WAR IN EUROPE

A memo to General Secretary Xi Jinping on Russia and Ukraine, and much else

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) in Beijing on 4 February 2022. Putin arrived in China on the day of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games opening ceremony. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Alexei Druzhinin / Kremlin / Sputnik / Pool Mandatory Credit)

This imaginary memo reviews the Russia-Ukraine war at its current stage through the eyes of an adviser to the General Secretary Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping.

A strategy of military-civil fusion (MCF) has been adopted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to develop the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a ‘world class military’ by the 100th anniversary of the PRC’s establishment in October 2049. The acquisition and integration of technology, innovation and know-how is key to achieving this goal, to which end the CCP is reorganising science and technology institutions at home and extending cooperation abroad. PRC President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has, since 2017, personally overseen the MCF’s implementation, chairing the CCP’s Central Military Commission and the Central Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development. This imaginary memo reviews the Russia-Ukraine war at its current stage through the eyes of an adviser to the General Secretary.

Chairman and General Secretary,

The war in Ukraine is at a crossroads. His Excellency President Vladimir Putin now faces three choices given the difficulties his forces have encountered: doubling down on his military commitment, with all the risks this entails for Ukraine’s population and Russia’s reputation; withdrawing from Ukraine, possibly at risk to his rule; or making peace. These outcomes are not mutually exclusive, however. 

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 the Russian Federation’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 strategic idea that Ukraine is a pseudo-state riven with corruption and by 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 quick decapitation of Ukraine’s government, and the installation of one that’s more favourable to Russia’s interests. 

As a result, instead of ordering his armed forces to concentrate on seizing the Donbas region, for instance, President Putin set an extremely ambitious not to say vague objective to ‘de-Nazify and demilitarise’ Ukraine. This was beyond Russia’s capabilities. 

Russia’s strategy was informed by a weltanschauung predicated on its past history, rather than its current situation. It may have too quickly measured Ukraine’s cauldrons. By launching a war without a formal justification or declaration, Moscow assumed, as in recent European history, that Ukraine was a ‘rotten structure’ and would come ‘crashing down’.

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. Kyiv has quickly, through its diplomacy and underdog status, acquired assets from abroad in galvanising international support. It has also employed all their assets to their best advantage, integrating closely their administrations, both civilian and military out of necessity. 

In so doing, they have not only recognised but instantly addressed the levels of corruption and poor governance that had hampered their progress since independence. 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. 

Moscow has consequently promoted a more powerful Ukrainian patriotism and identity. 

Although Moscow has justified its special military operation on the grounds of preventing further NATO expansion, this may be exactly what transpires in the form of Finland and Sweden, which would increase in the process Russia’s border with NATO by no less than 1,340km.

We should take note of these aspects in our foreign policy dealings in Asia, especially with the province of Chinese Taipei. We need to convey our position on the province with sensitivity, mindful of contemporary Western tendencies on support especially for democratic statehood, and eager to prove its foreign policy credentials. 

We assess that the Ukrainians will take heart, also, from the very nostalgia that the Russian leadership has attempted to invoke, that of the Soviet Union against Nazi aggression, in resisting the temptation to make peace whatever the price.

Russia has failed to understand the power of democracy as a political and social enterprise, since Moscow’s ‘normal’ is not ‘normal’ now to most Ukrainians who are used to a government elected by a majority. Ukraine’s performance reminds us never to underestimate the appeal of democratic nationalism, and to carefully avoid provoking this tiger.

Tragedy in KZN as floods cause devastation, mostly for the poor in informal settlements

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 Cooperation Between China and Ukraine (2013). China’s adherence to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence of 1954 is unambiguous in its commitment to sovereignty. 

China needs to convey clearly that it still respects sovereignty, in so doing highlighting our differences in this regard to Moscow, thereby delinking the issue of sovereignty from democracy which has become the West’s policy and rhetorical tendency. A failure to do so could upset the design of the People’s Republic to overtake the US as the sole superpower by 2049.

We also note that whereas Russia’s political misconceptions lie behind the performance myth of what was billed as one of the world’s greatest armies lacking a commonality of purpose, the Ukrainian military is a reflection of a society with an increasing belief in freedom and independence as a core value.

Questionable timing

Our analysts have suggested various reasons for President Putin’s timing. The most obvious reason is that he believed that Ukraine was divided and weak at this time, and could only get stronger in the future. 

An alternative view is that President Putin is cut off from opinions outside his St Petersburg circle of close advisers, possibly a result of Covid-19 or stemming from issues of trust. 

State capture by this group has defined a black-and-white view of the world, one of enemies and friends, in which Russia has to make space for themselves. It has wrongly assumed also that Ukraine’s government is similarly composed of a superstructure of rulers, lacking organic backing of its people.

A shelling hole is seen on a damaged bridge in Bucha city, which was recaptured by the Ukrainian army, Kyiv (Kiev) area, Ukraine, 04 April 2022. EPA-EFE/OLEG PETRASYUK ATTENTION: GRAPHIC CONTENT

Such a miscalculation of a historical sort should remind of the importance of inviting potentially contradictory viewpoints. Through such diversity comes strength and an analytical understanding of all possible causes and options. 

The Russian action may also be partly explained by his misreading of Western political resolve, the latter group which President Putin has described 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 misinterpretation, not least in terms of the sanctions which have followed.   

It might also be because Russia is facing acute generational changes. By 2030, Russia’s current population of 143 million people is estimated to fall by nearly 10%. The composition of this population is also shifting, which will have an impact on Russia’s political and social landscape. 

Today, over 20% of the Russian population was born after 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union. By 2032 that population will be nearly half of all Russians. This Russian generation seems, we predict, to be unlikely to remain supportive of nostalgic glories, especially if the Russian economy declines.

Such demographic challenges affect us all. 

This highlights the need for the People’s Republic’s three-child policy to be encouraged and consolidated, especially given the 30% decline in births between 2016 and the 2020 census. This narrative should additionally stress the role of demography in achieving our goal of a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by 2049. 

We recognise fundamentally that in this age such goals will need to be supported by tangible improvements in living standards. 

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 such an asymmetric war involving non-military and military elements, tipped by a prolonged period of political destabilisation. 

General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, wrote nearly ten years ago of ‘a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun,’ he writes, ‘proceed according to an unfamiliar template.’ From this came the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, best understood as a fusion of military, technological, information, diplomatic, economic, cultural and other tactics to achieve strategic goals.

The idea behind it was that Moscow could avoid direct competition by splintering its opponents’ cohesion and alliances in the grey area between peace and war, where politics and armed conflict overlap. The aim behind such division was to undermine its enemies politically, thus ensuring Russian regime survival. Hence the need for a narrative and supporting tactics (from military actions through business ties, sporting accomplishments and cyber activities to diplomatic moves) to achieve these goals. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) and Roscosmos State Space Corporation Director General Dmitry Rogozin (C) look on at the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, some 180 km north of Blagoveschensk, in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, 12 April 2022. EPA-EFE/EVGENY BIYATOV / KREMLIN POOL / SPUTNIK

This approach recognises some important shifts in modern warfare as a result of the scale of information flows, and who controls that information. With five billion internet users globally, and given social media tends to affirm viewpoints based on a selection of prior material and friendships, an overarching and consistent narrative is crucial. It has to be sophisticated enough to be believable. It has to be supported at key moments and milestones by government actions. 

Russia has not been able to effectively secure control of 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 send out appeals for assistance and receive intelligence via Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp and even Zoom.

Rather than operating in grey areas and sewing indecision among its enemies as much as it created certainty among its allies, Russia has, through extreme measures, turned this war into a morality play, where the world is either for or, increasingly, against the Russian Federation. 

This special military operation will, we suggest, become a case study in how not to advance a national foreign policy cause.

The lack of a convincing narrative

No matter the extent of its propaganda, and the centrality of 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. It did so at the outset because it was shown up to be untruthful. 

Western 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, nearly to the hour, predicted the invasion on 24 February. 

This involved much more than satellite imagery, flights and drones, but the analysis of other movements including blood banks and specialist equipment needed in the event of an actual invasion. This necessitated a clear-cut political decision to broadcast these intelligence discoveries, thus placing considerable pressure on the Russians and their allies. 

A member of the Territorial Defense Forces learns how to use a Javelin missile during a training session, in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine, 09 March 2022. EPA-EFE/ROMAN PILIPEY

The release of such intelligence is unusual, in letting the adversary know what they have discovered, but it has proved vital in establishing the bona fides of the West and allowed them to dominate the information space and use intelligence in creative ways. 

By contrast, the Russians have looked unreliable and duplicitous, given the routine statements by senior leadership that Western warnings about the imminent invasion were ‘pure fantasy’. 

We note that the media is a key dimension of modern warfare. It can reinforce prejudices and divisions. Now the individual can challenge the state monopoly on information with digital firepower, access to transnational networks and virtually no barriers to entry. But an overarching, reinforcing narrative can be shaped by government actions. Russia has not proven successful in its aim of eroding trust in all sources of truth by infecting real news through multiple sources of propaganda precisely because the messenger is no longer trusted, and in times of crisis in particular, citizens turn to trusted news sources and outlets. 

Allowing Western media to report on the Russian position could have assisted Moscow’s cause, though of course this would have been a high-risk strategy. By lacking transparency, Russia’s version of events has quickly become tainted.

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 recommend that our state agencies maintain a level of independent commentary in our politics, not least at this point of Russian actions, to ensure that we avoid the costs of opacity.  

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 who, especially since Afghanistan, has preferred to view NATO and the Europeans as weak, easily corrupted, distracted by the Covid pandemic, inwardly focused and short-termist in their outlook. 

The fall of Kabul in August last year led to questioning about the reliability of the West as an ally, to our advantage. To an extent, these concerns were amplified in the run-up to the Ukraine invasion. In both Afghanistan and Ukraine, it is the West that had been warning for ages of the outcome, but their policy regardless seemingly stayed fixed. In the case of Ukraine, NATO embarked on all the steps that gave Kyiv the ability to fight alongside the defence body, but none of the protections of membership — effectively a realist policy dressed up as a liberal one. 

But, now, the West is no longer sleeping and nor is it timid. Even Germany has sprung into action, with a commitment to spend two percent of its GDP on defence, an extra €100-billion that not even Donald Trump could convince Berlin of. 

The West should have re-earned some respect: for one, the Europeans and their allies have rapidly imposed previously unthinkable sanctions on the Russian government. They could conceivably do the same to others who flout Western human rights norms, including some among our partners in Africa. At the very least, donors might more carefully calibrate aid to the type of domestic political system. This may create more commercial and foreign policy room for manoeuvre in the short-term for us, but in the longer term is likely to constrain the space of those firms who sometimes risk operations in a greyer area of governance. 

The West has also shown it has substantial enabling power if there are willing local partners. While the re-election of President Viktor Orban in Hungary suggests that there are deep national roots to the emergence of populism in Europe and elsewhere, it is reasonable to assume that democracy has received a shot in the arm as a consequence of what has happened in Ukraine. 

A booby trap was found by locals near their home in Zalissya village not far from Brovary, Kyiv’s area, Ukraine, 12 April 2022. Some cities and villages had recently been recaptured by the Ukrainian army from Russian forces and now people try to restore normal life there. EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

While some of our erstwhile allies, including those in Africa, have preferred to abstain from voting against Russia in the United Nations, in part because of their wish to not become collateral damage to a great power conflict and because of their historical debt towards Russia in their liberation struggles, it should soon become apparent to these populations that their stability depends on the very values that Ukraine stands for. 

While Russian propaganda and promises have played an effective role in maintaining support among key African elites in particular, we believe that it is only a matter of time before a distinction is drawn between Russia and the Soviet Union in terms of historical support — the latter which included Ukraine. 

Moreover, this version of Russian history risks relegating China as a supporter of liberation struggles to a secondary role, which is not in our interests. 

This has reminded us that the West is not engaged in a battle for geography, but rather a battle for ideas — between Western liberalism promoting individual human rights and our model which stresses collective over individual rights. Local pro-democracy forces may be a Trojan horse in our ambitions. 

But rather than attempting to make democracy fail, which could pit us against the majority of citizens in places like Africa where the majority are in strong support of Western-style democracy, we need to think about working with the grain of local preferences and in alignment and sympathy with citizens over governments. 

We must avoid being a hostage to the rhetoric of democracy, either for or against. We must learn from the mistakes of President Putin and his close advisers, shaped as they were by their experience in the aftermath of the Cold War. While we must maintain careful control over the life of our nation, we have to be seen to encourage openness elsewhere, not least since open markets will ensure greater prosperity which is in our interests. 

A man looks at the debris of a destroyed Russian tank in Bohdanivka village, Kyiv area, Ukraine, 12 April 2022.  EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

We need to be alert to how these values might be promoted now by a resurgent West including as a brand of anti-authoritarianism that targets the People’s Republic. One way to manage such consequences is to emphasise that this is not about Russia or Europe or the United States or NATO, but about President Putin. This may require pressurising President Putin through public channels to withdraw, even if through the mechanism of a ceasefire.

Overall, this war poses a substantial risk to our ‘win-win’ foreign policy and assistance strategy. This is predicated on China keeping lines of trade and communication with all nations, especially the economy of the United States, which remains our largest trade partner and the world’s largest economy with one-quarter of GDP. The European Union is our second-largest trade partner, ASEAN our third (where most members save Vietnam and Laos voted against Russia), and Japan next. 

We must take note of the fact that the 140 countries that voted with Ukraine in the first two UN resolutions on the matter represent over 71% of global economic wealth; those that abstained, just 23% (of which we comprised 17%); and the five that voted against, just two percent. Yet the 140 countries comprise just 40% of the world’s population, showing if nothing else that whatever the setbacks liberal democracy has to continuously contend with, economic choices matter.

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 not only proven clumsy at strategic level but at the operational and tactical. For offensive action, there has to be a concentration of applied force. From day one of their operation, the Russians failed in concentrating their forces at the right places for short amounts of time, as would be necessary to break through.

Russia is attempting this invasion on a relative shoestring and on hubris rather than a carefully worked-out plan, and is suffering as a result. The coalition to remove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991, for instance, numbered 650,000. Some estimate it would take a million troops to occupy Ukraine, troops Russia does not have and cannot afford.

Our assessment is that the Russians have committed around three-quarters of their fighting units to this mission. There are other dimensions to this burden. Russian soldiers have been in Belarus for months: based on their loss of leaders, troops and equipment, and the apparent absence of a centralised command, regeneration of these forces is going to be difficult and could take months, particularly given the state of Russian logistics. This is made more complex and onerous by the large distances that Russia will have to travel to reposition units in the east.   

Another reason for the slower than expected progress is that the Ukrainians are fighting hard and are well led from the top by President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Zelensky has built a very good team around him who are brilliantly advising him on his foreign and media relations. We doubt that he is determining military strategy, which is being conducted effectively by his commanders, who have also benefited from much better coordination than among the Russians. It was only in the seventh week of the war that President Putin put a general in charge of the whole operation, with the result that their various axes of advance on different sides of Ukraine have been uncoordinated. 

A handout photo made available by Ukrainian Presidential Press Service shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Kyiv, Ukraine, 09 April 2022. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv on April 9 to ‘show solidarity’ with Ukraine a day after a missile strike killed dozens at a railway station in the country’s east. EPA-EFE/UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

Whereas the Russians might have expected a similar level of Ukrainian resistance as faced when capturing Crimea in 2014, the lessons from that conflict appear to have been well learned by Kyiv. They have a unique advantage in that they understand the Russian mindset and military approach, whilst at the same time understanding the Western way of fighting. 

They thus have a very good idea of what the Russians are going to do and when supported by Western intelligence, this has had a material effect.

The role of Western intelligence

Intelligence is a critical enabler of military actions but also a means to provide security and a valuable foreign policy tool. 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 control of the battlespace — air, sea and land. 

Russia’s ability, in contrast, 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 so far in the war. 

In the first phase, the Russians tried to stage a blitzkrieg to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership. This was planned on erroneous assumptions about the poor abilities of the Ukrainian army and Ukraine’s political leadership. This was clear at the outset, when the Russians failed to quickly seize the strategic Hostomel (also known as Antonov) airport just 10 kilometres from Kyiv in the first hours of the war. 

Although Russian forces eventually captured (and have subsequently abandoned) the facility, Ukrainian resistance — a combination of territorial defence, special forces and regular army — blocked the Russian plan of a quick capitulation of Kyiv. 

This was a military metaphor for what was to occur over the next weeks.

After this failure, in the second week Russia moved to a second phase of its invasion, of more conventional conflict, reliant on combined arms. At the top level, combined arms operations depend on the integration of the air, land and the electronic battles; in the land domain, it centres on an integration of attack aviation, tanks, infantry, artillery, logistics and engineers. 

Their weaknesses of intelligence and logistics also showed up again in this phase, which has consequently metamorphosed into a third stage: a focus on attacking major cities and static targets, a phase that we expect to continue for some time and with massive destruction. An increase in Western arms flows, which has been signalled, will not only make Russia’s task harder, but will extract a heavy toll in terms of lives and infrastructure damage. 

Numbers can lie

Doubling down may expose Russian weakness of politics, planning and military capability still more, not less. Numbers and equipment is never an exact gauge of capability in warfare. Fighting will and morale is crucial. The Russians seem to have re-learnt another lesson: without motivation and training, conscripts and untrained militia are usually next to useless and, indeed, may cost considerably, as we have seen in the lack of discipline in atrocities against civilians in Bucha and which may be, in time, revealed elsewhere. 

These revelations have justified an increase in Western measures in support of Ukraine and against Russia, which are likely to have longer term strategic implications and possibly costs.   

Some numbers don’t lie

Russia reported 14,400 soldiers killed in its decade of fighting in Afghanistan. In the first four weeks of combat, according to Western and Ukrainian sources primarily, Russia may have lost as many as 15,000 troops of an initial invasion force of some 140,000 (plus another 50,000 militia), along with at least 400 vehicles (and possibly four times this number). 

The numbers of wounded would probably treble that overall casualty figure. Skilled troops would be hard to replace, since Russia no longer has the 3.5 million troops it had during the Cold War, but an army of around only 280,000 of a total military of 900,000. By comparison, the United States has an active military strength of 1.3 million. 

Whatever the size of the losses already in Ukraine, the effect on morale is likely devastating. 

Contemporary Russia is extremely sensitive to casualties, one reason why Moscow has been forced to admit the use of conscripts in the operation, despite an earlier denial by President Vladimir Putin. Public opinion seems light years away from accepting the scale of the 25 million civilian and military deaths in World War 2, perhaps because of the painful extent of these historic losses. 

The cost of corruption

The long, gridlocked lines of Russian convoys have illustrated, if nothing else, that you need plenty of training to make these operations work. Logistics, as ever, rules the battlespace. As Sun Tzu reminds us, ‘The line between disorder and order lies in coordination.’

But any weakness of Russian training reflects, too, 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 the oligarchs. 

Such rent-seeking is undesirable, not only in terms of its ethical corrosion. 

That this corruption runs right down through the officer corps has, our agents report, forced Russia’s rank and file to sell their fuel and parts of other equipment to make ends meet. The lack of winter clothing for Russian troops in Ukraine is ironic considering the experience of the Soviet Army in fighting the Nazis in 1941/42. 

The procurement of cheap truck and other military vehicle tyres — including from some Chinese manufacturers, which must be investigated — is another, related dimension, tyres that split easily and that have failed repeatedly in Ukraine, tangling up military columns. 

We might have predicted the Russian difficulties by tracking their logistics pattern, not least their supplies of food and fuel before the invasion. Also, Turkey’s supply of weapons to Ukraine would suggest that Turkey fears neither a Russian victory nor retaliation. 

This issue of so many Russian senior officers getting killed is also telling. It indicates so many logistics and other problems (especially in communications) on the ground that senior officers must move up to the front to find out what is happening. The fact that Russian secure communications equipment was apparently dependent on 3G — and the Russians eliminated the Ukrainian 3G towers in the first days of the war — is consistent with the levels of disorganisation compounded by an invariable fog of war.  

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 to allow the commanders on the ground the authority to make decisions and flexibility as the circumstances demands. They also made the decision early on to not hold territory, but rather absorb the Russian invasion and then conduct hit and run attacks — what territorial commanders refer to as ‘mosquito’ strategy — on stretched Russian supply lines. 

The difference between today’s performance and that of 2014 would partly be a result of defence reorganisation and increased political will. Western training and guidance will undoubtedly also have played a part. 

Problems remain for the Ukrainians, however. One is that they do not have the combined armed forces required to retake by force the land that they have lost. This will involve more than just equipment and logistics; it requires sound doctrine and training and this takes time, which they might not have, at least not without considerably greater Western assistance. 

An engaged diaspora has also helped, not least in buying off-the-shelf equipment from night vision goggles to body armour where NATO has been unable to assist. Tactical intelligence has been enhanced by widespread use of commercial drones, for instance, though we have to report that there has been some controversy about the deployment of drones from Chinese companies, which appear to have invited unerringly accurate counter-strikes, seemingly pinpointing exactly the launching points. 

The economic costs of failure and the West’s options

The Russian retreat from Kyiv is likely to secure Ukraine’s survival as an independent nation. Also, the unearthing of mass graves and widespread executions has already prompted an even tougher international and especially Western response not just on sanctions but on security assistance. There are fewer constraints on Western policy-makers now, though they will still be confounded as to how to increase assistance without starting World War 3.

The West will continue to isolate Russia diplomatically and in the media. We expect that the Russian Federation will have little traction in countering this, given the evidence of civilian atrocities in Ukraine and the existence of so-called ‘filtration’ camps eroding Russian standing and prestige. Such actions could increase pressure on non-aligned countries, including India, in deepening Russia’s isolation. Moreover, we expect continuous efforts to widen and deepen sanctions against Russia.

Despite the news coverage suggesting that Western sanctions are deep, there is still a reluctance on the part of Europe, in particular, to extend these to the 6,000 individuals around President Putin, beyond the small number (877 individuals and 62 entities are subject to an asset freeze under EU sanctions for example) currently embargoed, to increase banking sanctions to the half of the Russian institutions outside the current Swift ban, and to expand the bans to oil, coal and gas. 

Russian gas, oil and coal are deeply embedded in the German economy. Russia is the largest supplier of energy to Europe. Russia supplied more than half of the natural gas and about a third of Germany’s oil, and around half of Germany’s coal imports, necessary for German steel manufacture. Germany is caught between acting on Russia’s aggression and their hunger for Russia’s essential commodities. 

As evidence of Russian atrocities has mounted, there is evidence to suggest that Germany would be willing to support sanctions on Russian coal. Such sanctions on energy may hurt Germany as much as Russia, but may reduce energy costs overall in the global economy, particularly for our imports. We should bear in mind, however, that coal only amounts to three percent of Europe’s imports from Russia. We expect greater European pressure on Germany to live up to its leadership role, not least given its economic and political strength within the context of European history.  

Similarly, oil and gas sanctions could lead to short-term price increases, and a renewed effort on energy diversification, greening and fracking. Each of these offers commercial opportunities. 

There has been speculation that the Chinese yuan could play a wider international role as a reserve currency. 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 the reliability of the institutions which back the dollar. It is still sought out by those outside the United States precisely because of these reasons that do not favour the yuan. 

The war is likely also to have a considerable impact on food security, including in the People’s Republic, both providing opportunity and risking a crisis. 

Given Ukraine’s status as the #1 sunflower, #3 corn and one of the top five wheat producers worldwide, this will have a dramatic downward effect not only on its own income, but on food security. Russia and Ukraine account for nearly one-third of the world’s global wheat and barley exports. Ukraine also supplies 16% of the world’s corn exports, 20% of rapeseed, half of sunflower and 12% of honey exports. Ukraine’s contribution to the world food system is equivalent to feeding more than 400 million people, not including its own. Put differently, every third piece of bread made in Africa and the Middle East is from Ukrainian wheat. 

Asia is a major importer of Ukrainian and Russian grain, vegetable oils and fertilisers. A significant amount of the world’s fertilisers is produced in Russia. Since the outbreak of the war, wheat prices have jumped by 21%, barley by 33% and various fertilisers by 40%. 

This should emphasise food security throughout Asia, and especially in grain self-reliance.  

These sources of supply have been less affected by a reduction of area under cultivation (which we expect to be around 90% of the 32 million hectares farmed in 2021) but because of export constraints. Ukraine has a need to export five million tonnes of grain per month, mostly through its Black and Azov Sea ports; currently its Western land access points are managing only 10 percent of this figure. 

This may have a particularly negative impact on some of our African allies, especially Ethiopia which is fighting a conflict of its own and yet depends on Ukraine for 36% of its wheat, while others in North Africa and the Middle East including Tunisia, Libya, Iraq and Lebanon are also vulnerable. 

The duration of these ripples will, to an extent, depend on Ukraine developing alternative routes for export, notably via Gdansk in Poland. This may provide investment and other commercial opportunities. It may also point to a future Western strategy in opening up the Black Sea ports and breaking the Russian blockade through, among other means, the supply of greater numbers of anti-ship missiles. 

Moscow’s strategic weakness will provide short-term financial opportunity given its need for military supplies and alternative trading partners as a result of Western sanctions. It 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.  

The political costs of failure

President Putin’s over-reach on Ukraine could signal the weakening and delegitimising of the current wave of populism in Western politics.  

Steadily ratcheting sanctions against Russia in the face of increasingly outrageous atrocities against civilians will make this failure more likely, but only over time and depending, to an extent, on China’s willingness to offer a financial escape route. It will also rely on the West’s willingness to pay the premium for sanctions, especially on oil and gas.

While the Russian military has not performed as well as expected, they remain a threat well beyond Ukraine’s borders. It can easily slip back into the hybrid mode, including cyber mischief, propaganda, disinformation and mal-information, defector and dissident assassinations. We should expect that a besieged Putin administration, licking its wounds, could double down on activities short of outright, attributable use of force. This will not always and only be directed against the West since Russia’s demographics and internal dissent may create unexpected pressures. 

If Russia’s forces continue to underperform in this next phase of the war, President Putin may be called to explain to the Russian people why he has incurred significant losses for little apparent gain. The Russian military may be especially unhappy as they have been made to look incompetent, while there are traditional rivalries between this institution and the intelligence services. 

It is difficult, however, to see where wholesale change in the internal situation in Russia might occur. At some point the cost to President Putin may become too great to bear. This will depend on how his subordinates and his military reacts.

Factors that could change the war’s direction

Two factors may push the parties towards a peace deal. 

The first is Russian failure, arising out of a combination of military and economic cost. Western sanctions will slowly but inevitably bite, making the conflict a struggle between the refrigerator and the television. Rhetoric may make a full heart, but seldom fills the stomach.

The second factor would be Ukrainian collapse, less likely now than ever, but still a possibility. The cost of the conflict is massive to their economy, not least in terms of lost exports. 

This will pose a very high cost to freedom. We await clarity on the conditions that Ukraine might accept for a peace, whether this includes compromises to their territorial integrity, the demands for Russian reparations, and their role in Europe and in NATO. Any outcome that allows Russia to retain Ukrainian territory could not only lead to continuing conflict, but China should be wary of the precedent of adjustment to Ukraine’s borders.

Even if a ceasefire was to prevail along the current lines of occupation, it is unlikely whether Russia would be able to afford the rebuilding of devastated areas of Ukraine, with the result that the wealth of the Western part would rapidly outstrip the Russian-occupied zone, creating additional pressures.   

Regardless, it seems likely that the Russians will now concentrate on closing the gap between their northern and southern axis of advance in the eastern part of Ukraine, and cutting off that territory from the rest of the country, while continuing to deny Ukrainians access to the sea by continuing to attack Mariupol, Odesa and other coastal areas with artillery and missile strikes. Random if regular air strikes against other population centres will continue if only to attempt to disrupt the pattern of normal life. 

The loss of littoral access by Ukraine would have a significant impact on its economic viability, with significant economic costs, including for food-importing nations. It could also create a precedent for actions in the South China Sea. 

Moscow will likely, too, leave behind defences to the north of Kyiv, forcing the Ukrainians to spread their limited forces. While Russia faces challenges in mobilising its forces, Ukraine, too, faces dangers of over-stretching their logistics and will require a continuous flow of arms, including heavy weaponry, along with training.

Moscow may also seek to widen the war, through an attack on NATO supply lines into Ukraine, or through a proxy attack in the Balkans via its ally Serbia. The risk of being drawn into such a conflict would have to be assessed in our commercial and political relations with this region. 

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. 

Russia cannot lose completely given its possession of nuclear weapons. But its leadership is vulnerable to this 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. Already the West has 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 hundreds of billions, perhaps 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. 

Not only will strenuous efforts likely be made by the West to ensure that Russia does not benefit from this investment, but also to deny this source of contracts and funding to others who have not supported the Western resolutions against the war. This could occur through a network of collaboration established by commitments made politically during the conflict. 

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 from the reconstruction process. 

China must consider its options in this regard.  

The West’s long-term policy commitment

The great weakness we perceive in Western polity is an increasingly winner-take-all populist attitude in politics that can cause dramatic shifts in policy emphasis, even in areas such as national security alliance-building that require consistency across multiple administrations. We saw this, in particular, with President Donald Trump.

Our cause and our strategies will be less well served by pronouncements defining the extent of international partnerships, the denouncing of other regional initiatives, or any intentions to establish a new world order. The statement of such goals historically usually precedes failure and may especially make such methods a target of Western action, especially if they invoke issues of democracy.

We need to continue to maintain patience when things do not seem to be going our way, and support dissension and alternative voices in government and civil society that provoke radical policy shifts.

Summarising the lessons so far

War between two industrialised nations, even if mismatched on paper, is enormously destructive. This should reinforce the CCP’s commitment to the peaceful resolution of differences, and the prioritisation of diplomacy and respect for sovereignty. The promotion of deeper integration of China’s civilian and defence economies and their technological ecosystems is the right choice to especially improve the performance of state-owned defence industries. The stress on big data reserves and infrastructure and logistics has been proven.

China should learn from Russia’s transition from hybrid to conventional, kinetic conflict. Russia made a grave mistake in this regard. To achieve our fusion efforts, we will need to increase our efforts at international co-operation and information and technology acquisition, through all means possible, including joint investment and ventures, and targeted recruiting. We should expect that the West will raise barriers in this regard, not least in its effort to build alliances around norms and technology development and protection. 

Everyone will likely lose out in this affair, at least in the short term. 

Absent a peace deal satisfactory to the Ukrainians, this war is likely to drag on as long as President Vladimir Putin is in charge. This will come at great cost, overall, to the global economy and potentially to our plans for 2049. Whatever the lack of offensive Ukrainian capacity, for the moment, their strength in defence means that this could become a long war of attrition. This will suit neither side, and not China. 

Russia may be gambling on one last big push in the east to secure the Donbas and in the south to cut off Ukraine from its ports, but such an operation will take time and money to assemble, and will be costly in terms of equipment and lives. 

In the longer term, the West has woken up to the need to sort out its defences, starting with defence expenditure. Again, this is a development potentially risking our global ambition to surpass the United States by 2049. DM

Dr Greg Mills — at www.thebrenthurstfoundation.org — was in Ukraine this month to direct and present a documentary on the relevance of the conflict to Africa.

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  • Dear Dr. Mills, for all your exhaustive analysis, you’re just not seeing the wider board and bigger game. If not tactically, Beijing is all in on Ukraine strategically, and several moves ahead of what you’re fixated on. It gives me no pleasure to say it. I urge you to remove those spectacles tinted by your late 20th Century world view, wake up and smell the coffee. Make that tea, slow brewed by General Secretary Xi.

  • Excellent.

    Putin is probably also realising that his belligerence over a long period has taught the West (including Ukraine) to expect the worst and prepare accordingly. This multifaceted preparation has no doubt been underway 2014. Putin obliged by springing the trap

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