Thousands of Russians converged on Moscow’s Red Square on May 9 for the annual Victory Day celebrations, a highly symbolic commemoration of Nazism’s defeat in World War II.
But there is widespread consensus in the rest of the world that the Russian military has so far failed to achieve the strategic territorial successes that would have allowed Vladimir Putin to declare Moscow’s war aims achieved in time for the event. And so, denied the opportunity to declare his own victory in Ukraine, Putin merely repeated a version of his well-worn diatribe against NATO and the West in his Red Square speech.
But Russia’s pushback began much earlier. After failing to take kyiv and force the Ukrainian surrender in the first days and weeks of the invasion, Moscow announced somewhat more modest, though not necessarily more achievable, goals for the second phase of its aggression against Ukraine in April.
In the course of this second stage of the war, Russia hopes to establish full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine, including Odessa, and consolidate a land corridor to Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria.
This strategy is reminiscent of the New Russia project pushed by the Kremlin briefly in 2014 to justify Russian territorial claims over southern Ukraine and Crimea. It is based on the historically dubious claim that these areas, conquered by the Tsarist Russian Empire in various 18th-century wars with the Ottoman Empire, have always been Russian and therefore should be part of present-day Russia.
So far little progress has been made in this regard. Russia has scored some initial territorial victories north of Lugansk, but has fallen back around Kharkiv. Similarly – and also from the first days of the invasion – Russia took over much of the Kherson region, but had to abandon plans to hold a referendum there, initially scheduled for April 27, and is struggling by the introduction of the Russian ruble.
Also, about half of the Zaporizhia region, including the capital that gives it its name, remains in Ukrainian hands. Russian forces have also been unable to advance towards Mykolaiv, the capital of the neighboring region of the same name, and in fact have been pushed away from this strategic city by a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Kremlin has also been unable to take all of Mariupol, where Ukrainian defenders continue to thwart Russian efforts amid a humanitarian catastrophe.
Although the Russian offensive in eastern and southern Ukraine has stalled, it is not over. Russian forces have made little progress around Izium and Popasna since the war effort redirected to Donbas, and there remains a danger that Ukrainian forces will be encircled in government-controlled areas of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. .
Russia: from offense to defense?
But Russia’s advances have had a significant cost in terms of personnel and material. Both increasingly difficult to replace due to a lack of available combat-ready troops and Western sanctions, which make it difficult to produce and repair new equipment.
But the continuation of heavy fighting in Donbas and long-range attacks on major population centers and critical infrastructure in central and western Ukraine indicate that Moscow retains significant combat capabilities and is ready to put them to use.
The very determined and successful Ukrainian defense efforts, supported by Western military aid to kyiv and the simultaneous increase in economic pressure on Moscow, raise the question of how long Russia will invest in an unjustifiable aggression that is increasingly difficult to sustain. and lacks any sign of tangible progress.
As time goes on, a war of attrition is becoming more and more likely. As Russia happens defensively, it will entrench itself firmly in whatever territories it holds by then and, in a reversal of the current situation, Ukraine will have a hard time pushing Russian forces back much further.
Negotiations on the horizon?
Ukraine’s Western allies, meanwhile, have pushed for increasingly ambitious war goals. Among them, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia must be weakened “to the point where it can’t do the kinds of things it has done by invading Ukraine.” For her part, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has demanded that Russia be expelled from Ukraine entirely.
This goes beyond Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s minimum goals in any negotiations: for Russia to withdraw beyond the front lines as they existed before the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022.
But Zelensky has also made it clear that a precondition for Ukraine to enter negotiations was the successful evacuation of civilians (which has now been completed) and fighters from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
At the moment, there is no indication that the war will end with anything other than a negotiated settlement. To assume otherwise would be to overestimate the chances of expelling Russia from Ukraine and to underestimate the human and material cost and timeframe for doing so. Furthermore, after almost three months of war, both sides are exhausted and may be looking forward to a break from the intense fighting to rest, regroup and resupply their forces.
Regardless of how this ceasefire plays out, it would also create an opportunity for negotiations, not least because any subsequent changes to the status quo that it be achieved until then would only be possible at a probably intolerable cost.
The growing engagement of the United Nations in mediation efforts and the recent UN Security Council presidential statement, which was also supported by Russia, indicate that a return to negotiations may be feasible in the near future.
Since a situation of no war, no peace Similar to what happened in 2014-2015, the West must remember the ill-fated Minsk Agreement of February 2015. New negotiations with Russia now need not, and should not, involve any concessions that legitimize Putin’s aggression.
Moscow must fail in Ukraine and in a visible way to dissuade future adventurism. But for that to be possible, negotiations need to take place, and they won’t even start as long as one of the parties continues to believe that it can win on the battlefield. Even once it is realized that this is not possible, both sides will try to improve their positions on the ground before the war reaches a stalemate.
Therefore, the West must further increase the pressure on Russia. This means, for example, applying the sixth EU sanctions package and subsequently expanding it in accordance with the G7 declaration of May 8, 2022.
At the same time, military support for Ukraine must continue and expand. Weakening the Russian war effort and strengthening Ukraine’s defense capabilities will be critical to minimizing kyiv’s losses – territorial and otherwise – and strengthening its position in future negotiations.