Russian military’s aggression — and retreat

Ukrainian infrastructure and industry have been decimated by reckless air bombardment and missiles onslaught

Ahmer Shehzad October 12, 2022
The writer is a retired Air Marshal of Pakistan Air Force

Putin has always been highly resentful on the Soviet Union’s demise and harboured imperialist obsession of ruling the superpower, as evident from his recent remarks while declaring annexation of four Ukrainian regions. He could not settle well with the global preeminence China secured in the past two decades, particularly with the US declaring China as the main competitor. Therefore, for imperialist Putin, creating global crisis at the cost of European security became irresistible temptation. Such adventure also served Russian nationalist urge of undoing Ukrainian independence and invading energy-rich Eastern swath.

In this war that has now lasted for months, Ukrainian infrastructure and industry have been decimated by reckless air bombardment and missiles onslaught, killing thousands of civilians. War waged on the region, which is a big source of energy and food for the world, caused unprecedented global inflation, badly hitting the poorest of the nations, and widespread energy insecurity owing to the stoppage of Russian gas to Europe.

Today Russia sits on 20% of the Ukrainian territory, which Putin has formally announced annexing after holding a forced referendum. This territory includes Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and parts of Zaporizhzhia spanning 100,000 sq km. On the battlefield in the seven months long war, Ukrainian defence and counteroffensive, aided by the US-NATO, did cost Russia colossally, featuring a loss of 56,000 troops, 50% of armour and 1/10th of air force fighters, as per the Western media. While Russian forces are struggling to hold on the conquered swaths of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, they are compelled to retreat from an area of 6000 sq km, adding to Putin’s embarrassments. In frustration, the Russian leader has already made numerous changes in the military hierarchy, despite the fact that he wrongly over-relied on the military that still carries the Soviet-era centralised command culture and military hardware limitations.

In this reckless war that has brought much human tragedy to Ukraine and global instability, Putin has been nowhere close to the objectives he spelt in February this year, including prevention of NATO’s expansion; commitment not to deploy offensive weapon systems near Russian borders; and return of [NATO] Bloc’s European military infrastructure to 1997 levels. Contrary, with the onset of war, the US and NATO have furthered military deployments in Baltic states and Poland.

Though Russian forces are entrenched in the sizeable swath of Ukrainian territory, retreat of Russian forces from Kharkiv compelled Putin to order partial mobilisation other than renewing nuclear threat against NATO, illustrating that he has run out of options, militarily. Mobilisation allows Putin to employ the reserves and the conscripts. In all the situations, it would be imprudent to conceive that 300,000 demotivated reserves and conscripts, even if all employed, would bring an outcome which Putin’s trained and well-equipped regular forces failed to achieve. Contrarily, the mobilisation call significantly troubled Putin, questioning his legitimacy as leader, evident from the massive protests breaking out in the ethnic regions.

Having failed to achieve initial objective of overrunning entire Ukraine and neutralising its leadership, Putin is capitalising on the territories he conquered in order to negotiate end of war on the terms favouring him. Declaring absorbed Ukrainian territory as Russian mainland allows Putin to link nuclear threat to these invasions as warranted by the nuclear decree he signed in 2020. Nuclear saber-rattling along annexation is aimed at forcing the US, NATO and Ukraine to settle on the negotiations for ending the war. This is the best outcome Putin could have, having exhausted all other options, particularly after quick meltdown of Russian conventional military prowess.

However, Putin’s nuclear bellicosity could not intimidate Americans and Europe. Instead he has become more isolated after the recent criticism of war by the leaders of China and India at the SCO Summit. China, which has global ambitions, has its own economic and strategic predicaments while supporting Russia. Snubbing by China and India happens to be a great setback for Putin, further narrowing his options, and questioning Russia’s ability to sustain its economy, which has so far been propped by its allies.

With humiliated and isolated Putin taking refuge behind territorial gains amidst military setbacks, the US may be cautious not to further push him — particularly in terms of complete dislodging from the invaded swath — nor would it support Ukraine to achieve this. On the contrary, Ukrainians with Western aid are riding the momentum as evident from military embarrassments they inflicted on the Russian Army while liberating parts of Kharkiv region and Lyman. This is a point where Ukraine and the US may start to diverge as the former appears poised to force well-entrenched Russia for complete withdrawal from the invaded area, including Crimea, humiliated and dangerous Putin can hardly afford; and the US may not risk such desperation of the cornered, yet unpredictable adversary.

The US, having succeeded in bogging down global aspirant in the local conflict and discrediting Russian military, would further attempt marginalising Putin through measured and regulated military support to Ukraine, that may ensue more retreats, before it persuades both the sides for negotiations.

Though Putin has linked nuclear threat to his hold over the invasions in Ukraine, he may not be able to translate his threat into reality. Use of tactical weapon may not yield desired battle outcome, as Ukrainian counteroffensive forces are lean and dispersed. And attacking counter-value targets such as major Ukrainian cities may bring grave consequences. Nuclear attack on any NATO member would prove catastrophic for Russia and the world itself. Any such irrationality by desperate Putin would not be endorsed by China, which happens to be his critical ally.

Solely banking on nuclear after exhaustion of conventional might has brought Russia on a par with North Korea. The hegemon having brought devastation on neighbour to earn prominence and to absorb territories ended up losing own military prowess. With nuclear Russia not to culminate war advantageously on the objectives Putin spelt earlier, it has reduced his global stature, costing him domestic legitimacy. This revalidates a well learnt lesson that nuclear weapons without conventional credibility may not constitute a true capability.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2022.

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