Bloody grind likely in
the war in 2023
March 9, 2023
  • Mikhail Vinogradov

    President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation

Mikhail Vinogradov claims that there is a gap between the radicalness of official rhetoric and more moderate attitudes within Russian society and the establishment as a whole, and outlines scenarios for the war moving forward.

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, expectations of dramatic turning points have constantly arisen, usually around certain dates. Last year, for example, many speculated that by May 9, Victory Day, Moscow would either try to reach some kind of settlement or embark on a massive offensive – though neither happened. Around February 24, the one-year mark since hostilities broke out, there was also much speculation that Russian troops could be activated and/or some political moves made – especially since Vladimir Putin’s annual address, along with a rally at Luzhniki and extraordinary sessions of the Russian parliament, coincided with the date. However, no escalation occurred.

In fact, in recent weeks and even months neither side has visibly tried to regain the initiative. Moscow has limited itself to bellicose rhetoric without translating it into decisive action. The only truly radical decision was the autumn mobilization, followed by the attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure using drones – the effectiveness of which turned out to be lower than expected. For its part, since regaining control over Kherson, Kyiv has also focused on internal problems, overcoming the damage caused by the drone attacks and reducing the level of political infighting within the country. Ukraine’s offensive activity was mostly reduced to searching for Russian infrastructural and military vulnerabilities – which occasionally produced results (an example is the strike on the Crimean Bridge) but failed to create a fundamental turning point in favor of Ukraine.
Russian state media has created the feeling among a significant part of the population that the Russian army has been steadily, if not quickly, advancing all year long, causing irreparable damage to the Ukrainian side. In the photo: Vladimir Soloviev, one of Russia's most popular TV presenters and and a highly influential propagandist. Source: VK
The Russian side through the eyes of a rational glory-seeker

Since the beginning of the war, Russian state media has preferred not to show maps of the conflict while at the same time creating the feeling among a significant part of the population that the Russian army has been steadily, if not quickly, advancing all year long, causing irreparable damage to the Ukrainian side. Of course, many Russians are “rooting” for their army. If we draw an analogy with sports, it is more like rooting for a national team than for a specific club. Club fans are more active: they tend to take an active interest in the life of the club and feel part of both victories and defeats. Meanwhile, national team fans seek glory and are certain of victory. Defeat triggers a deep emotional crisis, though the next day the shock is forgotten – until the next big tournament.

It is not considered acceptable to speak openly about the military failures – and when reasoning after the fact, experts loyal to the authorities claim that Russia would have defeated Ukraine by itself long ago, but war with the entire NATO alliance is causing temporary, unfortunate delays, which will be corrected. Some publicists have given a more cautious assessment of the situation at the front while citing historical comparisons to nevertheless sound an “optimistic” note. For example, it was pointed out that the Russian army had to retreat before (during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and in 1941), though in the end, “sooner or later,” Russia invariably won – so something like that will happen this time too.

That is not to say that such historical reasoning is particularly popular. It seems that the layman is much more receptive to the idea that defeat is fundamentally impossible. Fear of that hypothetical prospect either automatically blocks further rational reasoning about what is going on or leads to the idea of nuclear weapons as insurance against such a scenario. When people reach that thought, they do not experience much enthusiasm and prefer to cut short their reflection.

If you look more rationally, then the Russian side still has several resources that can give it the upper hand. First and foremost, it has considerable military capacity that can be unlocked if the authorities decide on a new wave of mobilization, especially since the first wave went better than everyone expected. Still, gauging that capacity remains difficult. In this regard, there was an internet meme last fall: “Will the reserve army ask where the regular army has gone?” However, the manpower is still there – though it will be harder to recruit. If the first wave of mobilization was concentrated in rural areas and small towns, then the second wave will have to take more residents of big cities, where the economic and patriotic motivation is weaker and there are more opportunities to hide.

Another ace is the nuclear card. In this regard, everything remains murky. Moscow’s attempts to periodically raise the stakes with nuclear rhetoric seem to meet with a coolly ironic reaction from Western countries. In addition, Russian officials’ eyes seem to light up less now when talking about “nuclear retaliation” compared to last autumn. Nevertheless, the line between threat and bluff remains unclear and would be so all the way up to an attempt at a real escalation, were it to happen.

Russia could continue to try to sniff out the myriad contradictions in the camp of Ukraine and its allies. However, the first year of these efforts was fruitless, as the contradictions so far have been rather effectively resolved. Much will depend on whether the front line in Ukraine will remain at the top of the global agenda. If so, then the unity can help overcome and easily neutralize the intrigues of individual players – in Budapest, Beijing or Ankara. Still, there are no guarantees that an alternative item will not emerge on the global agenda moving forward.

Finally, the Russian side has some margin of safety in the sense that it can radically shift gears in the event of major setbacks. Moscow has demonstrated the ability to toggle conflicts before: take Georgia (nearly forgotten by propaganda after the departure of Mikheil Saakashvili), followed by the Syrian opposition and ISIS (before losing interest in the story, in 2015-16 state media drove home the importance of the Russian army’s presence in Syria, where it was supposedly heading off the threat to Russia from the south). Of course, against the current backdrop, it will not be easy to move along – though it is not impossible. Especially if society wants to forget about the Ukraine conflict more than it wants to figure out who lost.

The Russian side through the eyes of a moderate alarmist

The rhetoric of people who believe that things are not going in Russia’s favor has been elaborated much better. If we put aside reports about a “patriotic upsurge” and “rallying around the flag,” then several gaps can be found. The first is between the radicalness of rhetoric and the moderateness of society and the establishment, where there are dozens of people lying low for every hawk. (For more on why the rhetoric of the Russian authorities is much tougher than their actions, see this article by Mikhail Vinogradov.)

The second gap is between manifested decisiveness and the general listlessness of the actions taken, a feeling of fatigue and a lack of energy. The size of these gaps is not yet critical, but they definitely exist.

Russian politics is not currently a space for resolving contradictions, which have been frozen over, unable to come to the surface. To what extent they can continue to be kept “under the lid” can only be determined in practice. In addition, it is not just the traditional conflicts between social groups, ideologies or territories. The conflict over the involvement of private military companies in the military operation has shown, for example, that the struggle to maintain their own dominance (or monopoly) in the military sphere is no less important for the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff than the overall outcome of the operation.

Sooner or later,
"Contradictions could manifest themselves between 'patriots' (i.e. supporters of victory at any cost – and with any risks) and 'statists,' for whom the priority is not victory as such, but the preservation of the governance system."
Moreover, the theme of victory in the official discourse is gradually beginning to resemble the specter of “communism being on the horizon” from the rhetoric of the Khrushchev era, the horizon inevitably moving away as you get closer.

The pro-Ukraine coalition’s bigger economic and military-technical potential cannot but create a feeling that “we haven’t even started yet” – especially since the sanctions pressure is designed to methodically inflict more and more pain as time goes on. Meanwhile, the ban on public analysis of mistakes and miscalculations in Russia means that the Russian side is unlikely to create an effective system to correct those failures and cannot properly assess the actual chances of its preferred scenarios for how events will unfold.

Scenarios for 2023

Modeling potential scenarios is still speculative, as both sides are mentally prepared for a protracted confrontation, though not exactly dreaming about one. Their margin of safety is relatively commensurate, though neither Russia nor Ukraine is protected against events that can quickly and radically change the situation. Thus, the scenarios are described as frameworks, focusing only on rational factors and disregarding sudden contingencies and vulnerabilities.

Scenario 1: Twin victories
This scenario involves both sides achieving some results – much more modest than expected, but sufficient for a pause to be taken. In the case of Russia, this entails maintaining control over some of the annexed territories (for example, Crimea, the DNR, the LNR), while for Kyiv it would be holding onto a large part of the disputed territories, unequivocally reaffirming the reality of Ukrainian statehood and developing a “road map” to rebuild the economy – some sort of Marshall Plan.

Such a scenario was tested to an extent in 2015 with the Minsk agreements, which, even though they had been considered by most experts to be purely tactical, led to a serious de-escalation in the combat zone.

Scenario 2: Escalation
This scenario would see large-scale offensives from one or both sides, with the rekindling of key attendant threats, from the use of nuclear weapons to increasingly painful strikes on Russian territory. The Russian side would need to whip up “élan” (which is not yet visible), while Ukraine would need to uncover the sections of the Russian defense most vulnerable to a breakthrough.

It is possible that both sides have been focusing in recent weeks on provoking each other into an early large-scale escalation without sufficient preparation. However, both Moscow and Kyiv have shown restraint thus far and are not seeking to force events, instead raising expectations about the radicalness of their upcoming moves.

Scenario 3: ‘All quiet on the Western front’
This scenario becomes possible if the offensives fail to deliver the desired results while the emotional and political backdrop in Russia and Ukraine encourage a continued confrontation. This would be reminiscent of World War I, when the front could remain unchanged for several months.

Scenario 4: Frozen conflict
In this scenario, a ceasefire along the line of contact, or with some mutual concessions, is possible. Such a scenario (apart from the lack of obvious triggers) has two key uncertainties. The first is the question of a military contingent from third countries that would separate the sides along the line of contact. At this point, it is hard to imagine troops from NATO, the UN, China or any other external player acting in this capacity due to the obvious risks and thousand-kilometer-long front line. The second uncertainty has to do with the fact that the parties will inevitably suspect each other of massing forces for a decisive strike, with no mechanisms in place to prevent such a buildup.

Scenario 5: Twin defeats
The closest analogy is World War I, when the military-political systems of the combatant countries fell into crisis regardless of the situation at the front.

Scenario 6: Complete victory for one side
At this point, this seems like the least realistic scenario, given the inflated expectations among radicals in both countries, with those on the Russian side seeking the complete destruction of Ukrainian statehood and those on the Ukrainian side wanting a radical transformation and demilitarization of Russia.
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