23 March 2022
Ukraine: What Next?
By Gwynne Dyer
Russian troops are stalled for the third week outside most of the major cities of eastern and central Ukraine, but they have failed to surround and cut off any of them except Mariupol, the big port on the Black Sea that has become the Ukrainian ‘Stalingrad’. Indeed, Ukrainian counter-attacks are driving the Russians back some distance in a few places.
This has come as such a surprise to most foreign observers (who expected Ukraine’s army to crumble quickly before the greater numbers and firepower of the Russians) that some have now swung to the other extreme. I have seen three think-pieces this week urging Ukraine or NATO or somebody to start building an off-ramp for Vladimir Putin.
The thinking is that the Russian army cannot win, but the Russian dictator cannot afford to be seen to lose. Therefore, it’s the other side’s responsibility to create a ‘golden bridge’ across which Putin can retreat without admitting defeat and losing face. (The phrase comes from Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, written 2,500 years ago.)
It may come to that in the end, but the pundits are getting ahead of themselves. The Russians have not lost the war yet; they have just failed to win it quickly and cheaply. Indeed, with around 10,000 Russian soldiers dead already they have failed quite spectacularly.
If the problem is just logistics, it can be sorted out in time. It might take another week or even a month, but Ukraine is not going anywhere; there’s no particular hurry to conquer it. However, it’s a whole different game if the real problem with the Russian troops is morale.
Street-fighting eats up troops like no other military operation, so the Russian reluctance to launch a full-scale ground attack on big cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa is understandable. But the alternative of just standing back and smashing the cities to dust with artillery is always available, and it worked well enough for Putin in Grozny and Aleppo.
Maybe Putin still intends to do that, and his generals are just waiting for more shells and rockets to arrive. But if neither kind of attack on the cities occurs in the next week or so, then we can assume that the problem is not just logistical. It is also about the reluctance of Russian soldiers to destroy the big Ukrainian cities, or maybe even to fight any more at all.
There have been stray reports of Russian units refusing to fight already, but that may just be Ukrainian propaganada. Yet it could also be true, because the soldiers will know by now that they are in Ukraine as invaders, not as friends, and that will be a very uncomfortable feeling.
A majority of adults in Ukraine speak Russian well enough to make their feelings known to the invaders in person and in considerable detail, so the Russian soldiers will not be fooled by the official propaganda that still misleads their friends and family back home. They will feel that they have been lied to by their own authorities.
The Russian army’s supply system has been managed so badly that the soldiers have had to spend much of their time ‘living off the land’, which actually means stealing, buying or begging food and water from the local Ukrainian population, so they will be feeling nothing but contempt for their own leaders.
Their own mobile phones were confiscated by their officers at the border, but their more enterprising comrades will have acquired Ukrainian ones by now, so they will know what is actually happening elsewhere almost at once, including any outbreaks of disobedience by Russian troops.
And most of them are just sitting around waiting for something to happen, except the few units each day that get hit by Ukrainian raids: say, a hundred dead a day.
Armies do sometimes just melt away, or at least cease to function as military hierarchies. I’m not confidently predicting that this is going to happen to the Russian army in Ukraine, but it’s certainly the ideal conditions to breed that sort of collapse.
So the Ukrainians should (and probably will) wait a while longer and see if the Russian army really does fall apart.
If it doesn’t and the Russian bombardment really starts wrecking the big cities, then wait longer, because in the end they will have to send their troops in to occupy them. If they refuse that order, then you have won.
If they obey it, then you have lost the conventional war. Send President Volodymyr Zelensky abroad to lead the government-in-exile if he’s still alive, and start planning the guerrilla war of resistance.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“The thinking…ago”; and “And most…day”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.