Putin's War and the New Reality

Mike Minehan
12 April 2022

It's easy to conclude that Putin's invasion of Ukraine has been a disastrous mistake.

This is for many reasons, including the initially poor performance of the Russian military, the gritty defense and defiance of the Ukraine people, and the way in which the war has united and strengthened NATO. Putin's war has also galvanized the west to impose sanctions on Russia, and supply weapons to help Ukraine defend itself. But worst of all, Russia has provoked international outrage by what appear to be the deliberate killings of civilians, amounting to probable war crimes.

Russia wasn't able to achieve its initial military objectives, and it's become obvious that even if Russia had managed to quickly overpower Ukraine, Russia could never have subsequently crushed Ukraine resistance.

Those who remained behind in Ukraine took up arms with a vengeance. Many had no military training, but they joined together to create a formidable resistance.

The small farming town near Odessa, named Voznesensk, is a classic case of this epic David versus Goliath battle.

It's also easy to speculate that Vladimir Putin was poorly briefed by his military and intelligence advisors. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence for a dictator who is insulated by massive wealth and power, and who surrounds himself with underlings too afraid to speak. This is the danger for dictators everywhere. Reality can easily become diminished or distorted in an echo chamber where others are intimidated.

But it would be naive to thiink that Putin will now recognize his errors, and back down on his ambitions to resurrect the former grandeur of Imperial Russia, and restore its original territory, including Ukraine.

It's obvious that Putin will now concentrate his forces, and will redouble his efforts to subdue Ukraine. But this will not only be for the obvious reasons of trying to salvage his ego, and exact his revenge on the upstart Ukrainians who humiliated his military forces during the early stages of the war.

This renewed application of force will also be for the longer term prize of owning and controlling the riches of eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine's east contains Europe's second-largest reserves of natural gas (after Norway.) 

These riches would then be combined with Putin's earlier seizure of Crimea, and Crimea's huge offshore oil fields. These oil fields are in addition to the vast shale gas field in the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, territory that Putin is also attempting to claim.

Europe's aim to wean itself off reliance on Russian gas, and thus further cripple the Russian economy, may be only a temporary obstacle along the path to Putin's dreams of energy dominance.

The world needs energy, and if Russia's market is diminished in Europe, well, India and China are now cozying up to Russia to fill this vacuum. India and China are the two most populous countries in the world, and are both hungry for energy.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), India's natural gas consumption is expected to grow by 25 billion cubic meters (bcm), registering an average annual growth of 9% until 2024.

China is the world's largest energy consumer, and in February, Putin announced new Russian oil and gas deals with China, worth an estimated $117.5 billion.

During the next phase of his war in Ukraine, Putin has a lot to gain, and a lot to prove. Even if he has to turn parts of Ukraine into rubble, and pile up more war crimes in doing so, well, Putin doesn't seem to care.

In this context, it's not surprising that the General who Putin has now appointed to coordinate Russian forces is the one who totally destroyed parts of Syria, and who also destroyed Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in the year 2000.

This is General Aleksandr Dvornikov, who has been described by one former US military official as an "executioner" and by a senior Ukrainian army officer as a "butcher".

Dvornikov is a destroyer on an epic scale. In 2003, the United Nations described what Dvornikov left of Grozny as the most destroyed city on earth.

It's inevitable that the next phase of the war will be even more destructive and bloody than what went before. This will also be because the fields of battle in the east and south are largely more open and are also well within the range of air power and missiles from inside Russia, also from naval forces in the Black Sea. In addition, these next battles will be fought during the northern summer, when tanks and other heavy machinery of war will be less likely to become bogged down, or confined to existing roads.

The other accelerant is that Putin will likely want a quick result to try and impress his Russian people during the coming May 9 Victory Day Parade in Moscow. This parade celebrates Russia's victory over Nazi Germany in World War 11. And, well, Putin urgently needs another victory to justify all the Russian deaths so far in Ukraine.

Also, the Ukraine war is being fought on the edge of Europe, not in some comparatively far away place such as Syria or Chechnya, where the images were more sparse and filtered. Ukrainians are Caucasian and Christian (predominantly Russian Orthodox.) Perhaps what happens in Ukraine might therefore appear to be more immediate and relevant to western audiences. This is very different, say, from war in Syria, or Yemen, or Ethiopia, or conflicts in parts of Africa.

The flood of raw images from Ukraine convey the feeling that we know these people, or people like them. This is compelling. We feel their rage, bewilderment, pain, grief and defiance at the deepest level.

In real time, by way of social media, and from reports by a flood of western journalists, we are seeing people's homes being destroyed, loved ones killed, maybe murdered, families torn apart, and at least 10 milion Ukranians displaced as refugees, fleeing into an unknown future. This is not just the official version of war. The immediacy of the individual stories we are now seeing shows the brutal reality of war in much more human terms.

This is also the first war to be covered on Tik Tok and WhatsApp, and although this coverage is more immediate, it also presents a greater danger of misinformation and fake news. CBS and the Global Editorial Director of Wired, Gideo Lichfield, comment on these developments.

But whatever the perspective from which the war is viewed, the next stage of this onslaught is about to begin.

As a proxy war, with billions of dollars of weapons from the USA and NATO pouring in to help the Ukranians, it's impossible at this stage to predict anything more than a rapidly rising death toll and more massive destruction.

The other question is, how long can Russia afford to fight this war? Open Democracy estimates that Russia can't afford the enormous cost of a protracted war.

And the bigger question is, how long can Russia sustain its rapidly rising death toll? A tightly conntrolled media and glorious victory parades can hide the grim reality of Putin's so-called "special military operation" for only so long.

Nor can the rest of the world escape the fallout from this war. If Putin succeeds in taking over Ukraine, and if the west fails to provide adequate assistance in time, it's likely that an emboldened Putin will then seek further control over other neighboring Baltic states. This will threaten the security of NATO.

At the same time, it will be obvious to Xi Jinping that the USA has its hands full in Europe, thus bringing forward China's ambitions to take over Taiwan, or further expand its influence in the South China Seas. Or both.

This would result in a world where Russia controls much of Eastern Europe, and China controls much of East Asia and the Western Pacific - in a new geopolitical alignment where American power is diminished.

Such shifts in alignment would be bigger than they first seem. The EU GDP was more than $17 trillion in 2020, or 1/6 of the global economy. The South China Sea carries an estimated one third of all global shipping. Conflicts about control over either could be catastrophic.

Nuclear proliferation in Asia would be another byproduct of Russia taking  control of Ukraine, as nations such as South Korea and Japan would then feel the need need to replace an absence of American power with a nuclear umbrella of their own.

In this context, Ukraine is a litmus test for what could be subsequent tectonic shifts in global power alignments.