Staying the Course in Ukraine

International Crisis Group, 23 September 2022

Following a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russia is escalating its war in Ukraine. Yet developments on the ground show that NATO members’ approach to date – supporting Kyiv while avoiding a direct clash with Moscow – is fundamentally sound. The West should stay the course.


Russia’s war in Ukraine has entered a new phase. After major battlefield gains by Ukrainian forces in the southern Kherson and north-eastern Kharkiv oblasts (provinces), Moscow has indicated that it will escalate, not compromise, in response. On 20 September, Russian authorities said they would proceed with annexing four Ukrainian oblasts. The following day, President Vladimir Putin announced plans for a “partial mobilisation” to call up 300,000 troops, and again brandished nuclear threats against Ukraine and its Western backers.

Putin appears to believe that the promise of fresh forces and nuclear menacing may yet bend Ukraine to his will and force the West to backtrack, but this notion seems a stretch. The troops being mobilised appear unlikely to change the tide of battle, especially given the time the army needs to adequately prepare them and concomitant problems with logistics and materiel. Kyiv could well redouble efforts to reconquer territory before additional Russian forces make it to the battlefield.

Ukraine and its Western supporters have not yielded to Putin’s past nuclear threats and show no sign of bowing to new ones. Against this backdrop, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries should continue the balancing act that has guided their policy thus far – backing Ukraine with arms and funds, avoiding escalatory rhetoric or steps that feed Putin’s narrative that his war is with the West, and leaving space for Russia to seek a settlement should it realise it has failed in this latest bid to gain the upper hand.


After Weeks of Losses, Moscow Flexes Its Muscles


Moscow’s escalatory measures come in the wake of a successful counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces kicking off in late August and proceeding through mid-September. That advance returned to Ukrainian control key territory in the southern Kherson oblast, almost all the north-eastern Kharkiv oblast, which had been partially occupied by Russian troops since March, and parts of Donetsk oblast in the east. Ukrainian troops also entered Luhansk oblast, which was fully occupied by the Russian army in July.

Ukraine’s impressive gains followed months of near-stalemate and concern in Western capitals that Kyiv might be unable to mount a campaign to reclaim lost land. While signalling that it would make a major push in Kherson, Ukraine also quietly massed troops in the north east. When the Russian command moved forces south to counter the threat there, Ukraine seized the initiative, rolling quickly into occupied parts of Kharkiv and retaking strategically important towns like Izyum, as Russian forces melted away, clearly unprepared.

The battlefield losses, which can only have been extremely discomfiting for the Kremlin, damaged the Russian public’s confidence in the war effort, with enough frustration surfacing in both fringe and traditional media to raise speculation that Putin might be exposed on his political right.

The Kremlin responded first by shelling Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. On 11 September, Russia destroyed a large power plant in Kharkiv, leaving part of the country’s east without power, albeit only for several hours for most residents. That same day, workers shut down the last operating reactor at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, where Russia has based military forces but Ukrainian staff has remained in place, in the face of continued shelling for which each of the two sides blames the other.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Mariano Grossi and his team had visited the plant at the start of the month, leaving staff in place. On 14 and 15 September, Russian rockets struck a dam and an industrial plant in Kriviy Rih. While the attacks seemed intended to spark fear of a humanitarian crisis and demoralise the Ukrainian population and leadership, the reaction from Kyiv has been defiant. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine would prefer to be without power, without gas and without light, as long as it could also be without Russia.

Then, on 20 September, de facto proxy officials in Russian-occupied territories announced that Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts would hold what they called referenda on joining Russia starting on 23 September (voting appears to be under way as this statement goes to press). That would pave the way for Russia to annex these lands (although Russian forces only partially control them), according to its own laws, even as international law prohibits annexation of conquered territory. Moscow had previously scheduled these votes (and one in Kharkiv) but postponed them amid military operations.

Putin’s partial mobilisation order followed. Russia has faced substantial personnel shortages from the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, a problem it has been unable to remedy with financial incentives, efforts to press-gang men in occupied territory or resort to the Wagner Group private military company. Reportedly, naval units were forced into service as ground troops as Moscow scrambled to put together a fighting force.

A new Third Army Corps, announced and rapidly deployed over the summer, failed to hold back Ukrainian troops. Russia is now mobilising male reservists with prior training and experience, while prohibiting troops now in the field, including those who signed lucrative three-to-six-month contracts made available over the summer, from leaving service. The decree gives the Kremlin room to call up more people, in more categories, over time, perhaps affording it space to later dial mobilisation up or down as needed and as the domestic response permits.


A Major Escalation


Russia’s moves constitute a major escalation and leave no reason to think that Moscow is ready to seek a compromise or settlement. But it is not yet clear that these steps will be a game changer in the conflict’s trajectory.

Although it sends a potent signal, partial mobilisation will take time to implement. Most of Russia’s ostensible reservists do not participate in drills or exercises. Russia could in principle give them minimal training and send them to the front lines, but nothing suggests that they would perform any better than the Third Army Corps, which was deployed in a similar way. Given the capability gaps exhibited by regular soldiers over the last seven months, even longer-term training may not render the army much more formidable.

Nor will Moscow have an easy time gathering reservists. To date, the 21 September announcement has led to protests, though they are unlikely to threaten the Kremlin. Sold-out flights are departing Russia and there are reports of cars lining up at its borders as those who can try to leave. Authorities are reportedly handing out mobilisation notices to detained protesters, whether or not they meet the formal conditions of prior military experience.

Moreover, more bodies on the front, even if Russia does get them there, will do little to solve its other problems. Ukraine’s counteroffensive revealed Russian forces to be broadly unprepared. In Kharkiv, especially, Moscow’s troops fled the Ukrainian onslaught, although they have put up a stiffer fight in Kherson, where combat has largely been stalled since early September. Moscow likely had shifted forces from Kharkiv to the south, in preparation for a single-front attack by Kyiv.

But it also suffered from poor logistics: its system was already uneven at the invasion’s onset, and has been weakened and damaged by concerted Ukrainian attacks, using Western-provided high-accuracy weaponry, over the course of the summer. Moscow also continues to face gaps in weapons and other material. Thus, even if Russia is able to muster large numbers of men, it will have trouble supplying them.

Perhaps the bigger questions lie in what Moscow’s recent signals say about how far it will go to avoid losing in Ukraine and how it will define an acceptable victory. In his speech, Putin indicated that Moscow still seeks Ukraine’s capitulation and Western acceptance thereof. He repeatedly described Ukraine’s leadership as “neo-Nazis” and accused the West of seeking to deprive Russia of its sovereignty and even destroy it.

He also accused the West of nuclear blackmail. He warned that Russia “has different types of weapons as well”, stressing that he was not bluffing in making reference to them. Although Putin said Russia’s goal was “liberation” of Donbas (which comprises only Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts), the planned referenda in the southern oblasts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia indicate an appetite for a larger chunk of Ukraine.

Putin’s latest speech was not the first time he has raised the spectre of nuclear weapons, but this invocation is nonetheless troubling. In late February, he warned that states that got in Russia’s way would face “consequences such as they have never before experienced”. Now, the Kremlin appears to hope to halt any further Ukrainian advance by juxtaposing reminders of Russia’s nuclear might with its plans to annex Ukrainian territory. Once the Kremlin declares more of Ukraine part of Russia, it can claim Ukrainian efforts to regain its territory as attacks on itself, which it will fend off, as Putin put it, “by all the systems available to us”.

But Putin’s sabre rattling is unlikely to alter Ukrainian or Western strategy. His previous threats did not deter Western states from aiding Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine is already across the lines that Moscow is attempting to draw. Russia only partially controls the four oblasts on its annexation list. Additionally, since February, Ukraine has repeatedly struck military installations inside Russia, as well as in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 and has since claimed as Russian territory. Moscow may be hoping to give Kyiv pause before it pushes the envelope further, but there is little reason to expect Ukraine and its backers to reverse course, at least as far as the recapture of Ukrainian territory goes, on the basis of annexations that will be widely viewed as illegitimate.

Perhaps more importantly, Russia has everything to lose and nothing to gain if it escalates to nuclear use. Nuclear strikes in response to Ukrainian counterattacks make no military sense. They would also incur radiation risks for Russian forces and Russia itself. A nuclear strike is probably the one action Moscow could take that would most likely draw a direct Western response. That response, in turn, would create the very conflict Russia and NATO members both have to date tried to avert. Moscow has done so by not acting on Putin’s threats to attack Ukraine’s partners in NATO. NATO members have done it by foregoing direct involvement, such as imposing a no-fly zone, and by phasing their weapons deliveries so as to introduce heavier, more sophisticated systems gradually rather than as a sudden shock.

The danger of nuclear escalation is real, but remains most acute in scenarios that involve NATO’s direct entry into the war, which the Kremlin would see as an existential threat. Absent such a threat, Moscow appears to be aware of the ways in which such steps would backfire on it catastrophically.


What Lies Ahead


While the war’s trajectory remains uncertain, Moscow and Kyiv are likely looking ahead to two possible scenarios. One would be a near-term lull in fighting that lets Moscow mobilise and rebuild, and then reverse Ukraine’s recent gains. The other would see Ukraine, even while consolidating its control over areas it holds, continuing to press forward as Russia fails to mobilise, deploy and supply rapidly enough. Other scenarios, such as a longer-term stalemate while both armies struggle to make further achievements, are of course still possible, and as the last seven months have shown, further surprises could be on the cards.

Russia will of course be pushing to make the first scenario a reality. Notwithstanding its miscalculations to date, the Kremlin presumably now grasps the limitations of its military capacity and ability to mobilise large numbers of men. But it is likely to place its hopes in the possibility that Ukraine will be unable to sustain offensive operations or to hold on to territory, particularly in the face of attacks on cities and infrastructure, and thus be vulnerable to fresh Russian offensives.

Moscow may therefore try to wait for winter and spring, when mobilisation has had time to work, before attempting to retake what it has lost in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, ostensibly liberating territory newly deemed to be Russian. If Ukraine makes little progress in the south, Moscow will likely look to take back more of Kherson oblast if and when it sees an opening. It may also try to move back into Kharkiv, if only to prevent Ukrainian attacks on military facilities in Russia’s Belgorod oblast.

By contrast, Ukraine and its Western backers appear set to put to use the time it takes Russia to build up. Kyiv could strike at weak points in the Russian lines, consolidate its defences and keep hitting Russian logistics and supply. The continued flow of arms and financial aid from Western states to Ukraine is unlikely to enable the rapid recovery of all Ukraine’s territory, but could help Kyiv regain access to the Sea of Azov, breaking Russia’s land bridge and curtailing its offensive capacity, as well as other strategic locales. It could further help Kyiv better defend the rest of the country.


Staying the Course


Even if Putin seems unlikely to resort to nuclear weapons unless directly threatened, the next weeks and months will be dangerous. The Kremlin’s decision to escalate rather than seek a deal, combined with Putin’s continued rhetoric of conflict with the West and neo-Nazis in Kyiv, indicate that he is prepared to go further in efforts to prevent the military failure he clearly dreads. That he is prepared to risk a partial mobilisation that could prove unpopular at home shows how much he has vested in eluding defeat in Ukraine. Moreover, the longer the war continues without Russia making obvious gains, the harder it will be for the Kremlin to string together a narrative of having achieved its goals.

Western states backing Ukraine should be careful – as for the most part they have been over the past few months – not to feed Moscow’s narrative that Russians are caught in an existential war with the West, and that the country cannot survive a military loss in Ukraine. That means avoiding rhetoric, which has gained some currency in analytical circles, and actions suggesting that they seek regime change or state collapse. They can communicate to Russia that its nuclear bluster, if turned into action, risks creating the very confrontation it fears most. But absent that, they should also hold firm to a policy of no direct involvement in the war, even while they continue to arm Ukraine.

The gradualism in increasing Ukrainian capability that has worked to date seems wise. While there is no magic formula, there is a strong logic to at least making sure Ukraine is able to maintain adequate supplies, spare parts and components of the weapons types it has already received.

Should Russia indeed annex parts of eastern Ukraine, Western diplomats will respond swiftly, likely turning to UN forums to affirm Ukraine’s territorial integrity and denounce Moscow’s move. Russia will veto any such resolution in the Security Council, but European diplomats (who have been considering this scenario for months) are quietly confident they can get a big majority for a resolution in the General Assembly. Doing so would help promote the idea that the Ukraine war is a matter of international principles and concern, rather than merely an aspect of the Russian-Western standoff.

For the moment, serious talks about a settlement appear out of the question, but NATO capitals – and indeed others – can take steps to prepare the ground. There is no shortage of potential mediators, and several, notably Ankara and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, have helped deliver real successes, such as the Black Sea grain deal. Even now, Western states can lay some groundwork for a possible settlement by, for instance, sending quiet signals to Moscow that the sanctions that have most crippled Russia’s economy can and will be eased if there is a deal acceptable to Kyiv.

That said, at present the shape of an eventual deal looks almost certain to be determined on the battlefield. Additional military failures may eventually shift Moscow’s calculus and make it more open to a settlement acceptable to Ukraine, but speculating publicly about what that deal could look like makes little sense while fighting continues and front lines shift.

The war will also continue to be a test of stamina, diplomacy and damage mitigation. Western countries, Europe in particular, look set for a rough winter, as fuel and food prices spike. But Ukraine’s military gains and Russia’s new bluster should help stave off serious resistance in Western capitals to their support for Kyiv. Taking in Russians who wish to flee their country, including men subject to mobilisation, seems both humane and sensible.

Diplomacy to lessen the war’s ill effects – diplomacy that has, to date, restarted Ukrainian grain traffic over the Black Sea, won the IAEA access to the Zaporizhzhia plant and facilitated prisoner exchanges, including as recently as 21 September – should continue. So, too, should engagement of and support for countries outside Europe, which have suffered from the fuel price hikes and food shortages, and which see Western support for Ukraine as evidence that Europe cares more about hardship in its neighbourhood than elsewhere.

Notwithstanding the past weeks’ dramatic developments, the principles of Western policy to date largely hold. Help Ukraine, with arms and funding, to prevent a Russian victory that would have far worse implications than the current fighting for Ukraine and for international peace and security more broadly. Do so in a way that minimises risks of a wider and potentially nuclear war with Russia. Leave the door open for Moscow to accept a settlement that Ukraine can live with and remain attentive to any credible signal the parties are ready for serious talks.

Do whatever possible to mitigate the war’s human cost and damaging side effects. Reassure the rest of the world, with deeds as well as words, that NATO capitals care as much about commodities price hikes as they do about the front lines in Ukraine and are prepared to put similar energy and resources into addressing them. With the war entering what could be its most significant and perilous phase yet, the balancing act is not poised to get easier, but remains the best available option.