A sobering view of the Ukraine war from behind the new ‘Iron Curtain’

Associated Press/Evgeniy Maloletka
Ukrainian servicemen fire at Russian positions from a U.S.- supplied M777 howitzer in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on July 14, 2022.

Western press coverage of the war in Ukraine seems to have gone through a full cycle: from horror at the invasion to ebullience over Ukraine’s courageous victory around Kyiv to horror again as the bodies pile up in the Donbas region. A new, surprisingly candid analysis from the Russian side is revealing, regarding the state of the war and the ominous dangers that continue to lurk in the background.

To be sure, Russian military commentators have been gloating lately about troop successes in Mariupol and the relatively rapid fall of Severdonestk, so this article by Yevgeny Fedorov in Military Review (Военное Обозрение) could have been intended to bring the high-flying Russian commentariat back down to the gruesome reality of the Ukraine war. The analysis is structured around a few provocative questions prompted by a previous Russian article: Why hasn’t Russia exploited its airpower advantage? Why hasn’t Russia succeeded in deploying large, mobile forces? And why hasn’t Russia cut off the significant flow of Western arms to Ukrainian forces on the front lines?

The first question concerns Russian air superiority, or lack thereof. The original question, as related by Fedorov, wondered how it is that the Russian Air Force does “not hang over the heads of the enemy for days.” The answer states succinctly that NATO radar aircraft (AWACS) are “hovering like vultures near to Ukraine around the clock,” providing real-time intelligence on all Russian aircraft sorties, including from the time they leave their Russian bases. With this kind of tracking, Ukrainian air defense systems can operate with their own radars turned off — making them much harder to detect. By turning on their fire control radars only at the last moment before engagement, the Russian target aircraft have “minimal time to make evasive maneuvers.” 

Thus, extensive NATO radar capabilities make the work of the Russian Air Force significantly more costly.

A second question speculates on the possibility of Russian mobile airborne operations into the enemy’s rear — namely, aimed at strategic points in western Ukraine. The Russian military expert notes the possibility: “We are talking about an offensive along the Lutsk-Lviv-Uzhgorod line from the territory of Belarus. On the map it turns out very beautifully — the troops [deploying] from north to south with a swift motion along a 500- to 700-kilometer march.” Yet the possibility of launching such a parachute or heliborne strike is quickly dismissed, given the vast amount of intelligence information that NATO is sending to Ukraine. Fedorov explains: “In general, in any military operation, the factor of surprise plays … a key role, which, unfortunately, the [Russian] forces are deprived of at the strategic level. [Therefore, we would require] a 3- to 4-fold advantage in manpower and equipment.” 

An unstated admission is that Russia no longer has the nearly unlimited manpower resources that it historically wielded.

However, it is the discussion regarding interdicting Western weapons flows that is most disturbing. The author makes a comparison to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, observing that this situation is not like cutting off “the supply channels of the Mujahideen from Pakistan. … Blocking several rat trails in the mountains is much easier than keeping several hundred kilometers of the border [of Ukraine] under control.”

Noting technical difficulties and cost constraints in destroying Ukrainian bridges, Fedorov concludes: “The beautiful idea of blocking the supply of weapons … on the western borders of Ukraine is shattered by a lot of uncertainties.” He also mentions the consequences of destroying dams that also form key bridges over the Dnepr. But in evident desperation, the Russian expert observes that one way to completely halt the flow of Western weapons to Ukraine would be to “smash the entire transport infrastructure with several dozen tactical nuclear strikes.” 

The good news is, the analysis does not seem to carry the theme forward as a serious proposal, though similar warnings are heard with increasing regularity among Russian strategists.

This Russian news article stands as a sober reminder that a severe danger of escalation, including the use of nuclear weapons, remains. But it is worth underlining that the Kremlin is not on the cusp of total victory and that Ukraine, together with the West, still wields some cards.

Many Western strategists are starting to agree with Henry Kissinger’s advice that peace negotiations should begin. And yes, that might well mean pressuring Kyiv to come to the table and grapple with unpleasant realities. A future Ukraine, albeit in a smaller form, still could thrive and build a prosperous, secure future under European tutelage. 

Compromises could ease the way to a bright future. For example, accepting various Russian territorial acquisitions could pave the way for Moscow to finally drop its fervent objection to Ukraine receiving sophisticated arms and other assistance from NATO, ensuring a fortified neutrality that preserves Kyiv’s autonomy. Both sides could then claim a substantive “victory” — the prerequisite for halting this war. On the economic side, Russia might even agree to pay substantial reparations to Ukraine and help fully open the vital port of Odessa, in return for significant sanctions relief. 

Such compromises could help stave off a global recession and the growing prospect of a world food crisis.

As many as 50,000, or even more, already have died in this tragic war. Will the relevant leaders wait for another 50,000 to die in the coming months before calling a halt to the carnage and putting some realistic peace plans on the negotiating table?

Lyle Goldstein is the director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities and a visiting professor at the Watson Institute of Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @lylegoldstein.

Tags peace negotiations Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian military forces Western military aid to Ukraine

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