In the first week of the second month into Russia’s war on Ukraine, Moscow declared the end of the first phase of military operations. It is not clear when the second phase will begin, but unexpected developments on the ground have no decipherable motives.
Russia began withdrawing from areas surrounding the capital Kyiv. Some troops returned to their positions in Belarus, while others have been stationed in west Russia. As attacks in these areas subsided, they reignited in East Ukraine on the Donbas battle fronts and besieged coastal cities of Mariupol and Mykolaiv. There have also been limited attacks on the city of Odessa.
According to Western intelligence agencies, this retreat is the result of Moscow’s inability to sustain operations at the same level as it did at the beginning of the war. Russia has suffered failure and miscalculation, and is therefore now choosing to remain positioned in the East. However, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence revealed on Monday that Russian troops are preparing to attack the city of Kharkiv. The first month may be summarised as follows.
Russia advanced slowly in eastern Ukraine on the borders of Kharkiv and Donbas, placing Kherson, Mariupol and Mykolaiv under siege, without being able to control these main cities. It faced sustained resistance by the Ukrainian army and militias, and the aboutface means it will change its tactics and take control of some cities in the East.
Russia, however, faces many challenges. Its air force – the Russian army’s long arm – failed to impose blanket control of Ukraine’s airspace. Even though Russia destroyed most Ukrainian defence systems, Ukrainians have managed to execute limited but effective air operations.
Russia was mainly confronted with counterattacks by the Ukrainian side, and it did not expect Ukraine to be as resilient and resolute. While Russia focuses more on machinery than soldiers, Ukraine does the opposite since it lacks the machinery but has troops and militias trained in unconventional warfare. This has made Russia’s mission more difficult. Moving in extensive columns of Russian armoured vehicles provided the Ukrainian resistance with an easy target.
Moscow had not expected the Ukrainian regime so adamantly to hold onto and remain in power, which is a credit to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is keen on appearing at different locations either by himself or with government officials. This signals that Zelensky will remain on the scene until the end. He has stated more than once that Russia’s attempts to assassinate him have failed.
It is noteworthy that at the beginning of the war, Moscow’s goal was to take control of strategic sites including nuclear facilities, such as Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya. However, it eventually withdrew from Chernobyl with no clear explanation as to why. Subsequent analyses opined that Moscow wants to discuss this issue at negotiations, especially nuclear matters. Russia’s moves in the first month also included taking control of some biological laboratories. Moscow’s narrative accused Washington of creating laboratories with the aim of threatening Russia, but this narrative eventually began to ebb.
According to many estimates, Russia is in the process of mobilising to launch more attacks, while improving the positions of its forces that took part in the first phase. These troops were partially replaced with offensive forces or bolstered by foreign fighters or combatants from former Soviet states, such as Chechnya. Belarus also expressed a desire to participate in these operations. Private military firms such as Wagner will also play a greater role in the next stage, and could be in charge of recruiting support from the Middle East, especially via its base in Syria, Hmeimim. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported mobilisation operations are underway in Syria to transfer these groups, while Western reports declare that some of these combatants have already been transported.
It is clear that by the end of phase one, Russia’s military operations had not achieved all their goals, and left a negative impression of Russia’s military proficiency in the war. The worst impact, however, was the destructive attacks on civilian locations across Ukraine. The US-based Institute for the Study of War found many reports of disorganised withdrawal around the capital Kyiv, which was disorderly and uncoordinated, indicating chaotic command and control overall.
Meanwhile, the position of Western countries compounds the challenges facing Russia as they continue to support Ukraine with weapons that pose a threat to Russian forces. At the beginning of the war, Ukraine possessed anti-vehicle and anti-aircraft missiles such as Stinger and Javelin missiles. Since then, Washington has said it could send more advanced anti-missile systems such as the offensive long range anti-aircraft system Switchblade. London also announced it would send its Starstreak offensive anti-missile weapons. If these are delivered, the Ukrainian forces will need rapid training by soldiers from the US and Britain.
In the meantime, Ukrainian forces are opting for parallel armament of tanks and defence systems, such as the S-300 and Russian MiG fighters belonging to former Soviet states. However, the West still feels it is unlikely they will send heavy weapons to Ukraine which Russia could easily intercept and destroy.
In parallel, Western powers have hastened defensive reinforcements in Eastern European countries, especially Poland, which has become a spearhead in the face of Russia, and is replacing its weapons such as fighter jets and defence systems with American ones. It is possible that every MiG will be replaced with an F-16 and every Soviet S-300 defence system by a US Patriot.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said defence expenditures of most NATO members have doubled. Thus, NATO, Europe, the US and Canada now have a unified defence policy consistent with the vision proposed by NATO last year.
Russia is suffering from economic challenges despite recent, partial improvement due to new economic decisions on collecting revenue from energy exports to Europe, or unfriendly countries as defined by Russia. And now, it has entered another spiral of crises, namely the Bucha massacres which would lead Russia to the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal. Zelensky talked about a tragedy of ethnic cleansing and a war of extermination, but Moscow denies it and claims this is a mere farce and blames Ukraine. In fact, Russia refused to discuss the issue at the Security Council, and Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also pointed to US war crimes in Yugoslavia and Iraq.
In conclusion, Russia’s military operation is taking turns that were unimagined at the beginning of the war. In any scenario, a Russian withdrawal will spell defeat and Moscow is unlikely to choose that path. It will change its tactics to correct past failures and will not engage in serious negotiations to end the war. This is evident in its position regarding talks in Istanbul that did not result in a breakthrough, but went a step further at least.
Ukraine asserts it will not join NATO and Zelensky has alluded to the possibility of negotiating on the Donbas region, but these are not enough to satisfy Moscow and push it to alter its position on the negotiations’ track.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.