Ukraine War: The Big Picture
After losing the Battle of Kyiv, a glance at the map tells you Russia is now fighting the Ukraine War on just one front.
But the map does not tell the whole story.
Russia is actually fighting on five fronts: Military, Propaganda, Diplomatic, Domestic, and Economic.
Let’s take a brief (well, as brief as possible…) look at each one and see how Moscow is doing.
That goes for the U.S., too. We’re not directly in this fight, nor should we be. But because Russian strongman Vladimir Putin decided years ago to make Russia once again a strategic competitor with the West, there are stakes involved that concern the U.S. greatly.
The Military Front
Last week there was something almost like a pause in the Ukraine War. Following the humiliating retreat from the Kyiv area and other parts of northern and western Ukraine, Russia will concentrate its war efforts in the east and south.
The so-called “Novorossiya” area is already largely occupied by Russian forces, and it has a sizable Russian-speaking minority — even a majority in Ukraine’s breakaway “people’s republics” in the Donbas.
Russia has been busy moving combat brigades battered from the Ukraine fighting and moving them east for the big push to capture the rest of Novorossiya.
ISW reports that this renewed and redirected effort might yet yield the victory over Ukraine that Putin desires, but it won’t be cheap:
Russian forces did not take the operational pause that was likely necessary to reconstitute and properly integrate damaged units withdrawn from northeastern Ukraine into operations in eastern Ukraine… Russian forces may certainly be able to wear down Ukrainian positions in eastern Ukraine through the heavy concentration of firepower and sheer weight of numbers, but likely at a high cost.
Other reports indicate that Russia is, however, finally getting its air force to contribute its fair share.
Ground fighting has become somewhat more intense over the last 24 hours, with Russian forces advancing in some places and struggling in others. With Mariupol maybe only hours away from falling — weeks behind schedule and at a terrible cost for both sides — Russia will have completed its land bridge to Crimea and the rest of their southern conquests.
The Dupuy Institute’s Christopher A. Lawrence notes that with the spring rains turning everything into mud, the heavy fighting will “probably have to wait until it has stopped raining and the ground has dried.”
Overall, the war remains a grueling grind, a far (and bloody) cry from Moscow’s initial attempt at a lightning campaign.
ASSESSMENT: Russia is winning, but not enough and at a surprisingly high cost. Not just in men and material, but in prestige as well. Moscow’s pricey, decade-long military modernization and reform effort turned out to be a big bust, and losing the Moskva to a mere pair of homegrown Ukrainian missiles was a big fail.
WILDCARD: Weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical or nuclear. If those are used, all bets are off and all assessments become null and void.
The Propaganda Front
It’s almost impossible to talk about Russia doing anything without there being a propaganda effort. That historical fact predates Putin, predates the Soviet Union, and for all I know it might even predate the Czars.
As it turns out, Russia’s ethnic cousins in Ukraine are pretty good at propaganda, too.
Before I explain, a quick note about propaganda. Propaganda is often regarded (at least by non-historians) as just lies one side tells to make themselves look like angels or the other side look like monsters.
But it’s so much more than that. Propaganda can be something as simple and innocent as making sure the best parts of your story are being told to the world. Propaganda can also entail tailoring a smaller military effort to produce a public relations result that can affect perceptions of the entire war.
The U.S. Marines (with the Brits and Free Iraqis) did just that at Second Fallujah, fashioning and executing a rapid battle to remove insurgents from the city without destroying the city.
Ralph Peters, long before TDS got the better of him, described it:
An overwhelming, multi-service force won Second Fallujah in a week, with less than 10 percent of the casualties traditional urban-warfare models would have predicted. The major fighting was over before a hostile global media could undercut our efforts – as al-Jazeera and the BBC did back in April, during First Fallujah.
Sorry for the detour through headlines from 2004, but before getting back to the Propaganda Front, I had to dispel any false or limited notions of what it is or can do.
Ukraine, despite vast natural and industrial resources and a highly educated population, is both the second poorest and second-most corrupt nation in Europe. The Ukraine Army’s Azov Battalion contains actual neo-Nazi elements and has gotten up to some nasty business with the rebels in the breakaway regions. (Civil wars are nasty like that.)
Because of all that, before Feb. 24, 2022, there was hardly anyone on Earth who would have entertained — much less gone public with — notions of Ukraine being some kind of hero-country.
And Russia, despite there being some actual neo-Nazi elements in the Azov Battalion, has basically failed in its propaganda effort to portray the invasion as a “denazification” campaign.
To be fair, it isn’t exactly difficult to win press as the good guys when you’ve been invaded by a bigger and more powerful bully. And it’s nearly impossible to win press as the good guys when you’re shelling apartment buildings and murdering civilians.
Even so, Kyiv’s propaganda effort has been rock-solid, while Moscow’s has been a ham-fisted failure.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy set the tone in the opening days of the war when he flatly rejected a White House offer to sneak him out of the country for his own safety.
Whatever you might think of Ukraine’s government as a whole, those were the words of a hero — and that’s how Zelenskyy has been seen.
It occurs to me now that the sinking of the Moskva might, like Second Fallujah, been conceived from the start as a propaganda opportunity as much as a military victory.
ASSESSMENT: For all of Putin’s KGB training and experience, there’s just no overcoming Russia’s combination of military inefficiency and brutality. As the victim of Russian aggression, Zelenskyy admittedly has the easier propaganda job, but he’s worked very hard at it.
WILD CARD: War is ugly, and invaders have never been treated kindly by the invaded. We’ve seen a couple of instances of Ukrainian brutality but nothing near enough to reverse the propaganda narrative. But who knows…
Coming up in Part II: The Diplomatic and Domestic fronts.