The Ukrainian counter-offensive has been compared with the Allied D-Day in 1944. Whatever the merits of this comparison, the stakes are high for Ukraine. If the campaign fails, the war may last indefinitely. Although the attacks on Russian soil are small, they deserve more attention. Ukraine seems to successfully play the uncertainty and unpredictability card, argues political analyst Mykola Riabchuk.
Ukraine's Commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi (left) and head of the presidential office Andriy Yermak. Photo from twitter
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war.
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
We should remember the axiom that first reports are never as good or as bad as they sound.
- Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges
Two weeks ago, on the 79th anniversary of D-Day, several Western newspapers referred to that historic event in their reports on a very topical and not (yet) historical issue – Ukraine’s preparation for a much-hoped anti-Russian counter-offensive. The analogy between the 1944 landing of the allied forces in Normandy and Ukraine’s eventual operation in the south east might have been tenuous in terms of military logistics but conveyed a clear symbolical message.
Ukraine’s national liberation struggle with the revengeful empire was framed as a millenarian fight of good against evil (hence Paul Krugman openly called it a ‘moral equivalent’ of D-Day). And the significance of that fight for both the participants and the entire world was enhanced to a comparable historical level. While the moral analogy plays apparently into Ukrainians’ hands, raising sympathy and support for the beleaguered nation in its existential fight with the superior enemy, the second parallel seems to be a mixed blessing as it multiplies, at least psychologically, the weight of all the possible failures, mistakes and miscalculations.
The stakes are high, especially for Ukrainians, since they are fighting on their own territory, with much more limited human and military resources at their disposal compared to their adversaries. The incentive to win the ‘decisive’ battle and thereby end the war is very strong; if the Ukrainian counteroffensive fails, indeed, the war may last indefinitely, with soldiers stuck in the trenches, behind well-fortified minefields, antitank ditches and ‘dragon’s teeth’. In this case, the North/South Korean-type armistice looms large, though it certainly does not mean a viable peace solution. Such an endgame would neither tame Russia’s imperial appetites nor bring Ukraine a much-needed relief and go-ahead to the coveted EU and NATO.
One of the scenario's: a suprise attack in two stages. Source: Meduza
Thousands of armchair experts and idle watchers who follow Ukraine developments like TV-series and make incredible noise on the web with their comments, advices, and fantasies, also do not make life easier for the Ukrainian political and military commanders. Rather, they push them toward risk-avoiding and further procrastination. The Ukrainian leadership was rather reluctant to launch the campaign in May, and still moves very cautiously in the battlefield in June, with a limited number of units and military equipment. So far, only three of 12 armored brigades reportedly have been deployed in the battlefield. It may look like a chess game where seasoned Großmeisters calculate carefully each step, checking the rival’s defense and relying more on his faults and missteps than their own direct (and costly) advance.
Checking the Russian ground
Within this context, Ukraine’s attempts to expand some military (or paramilitary) operation onto the Russian territory deserve more attention and perhaps more positive assessment. The mysterious fires and explosions in various Russian regions, sometimes very far from Ukraine, have been reported since the very beginning of Russian ‘special operation’ and apparently intensified within the past few months. The alleged acts of sabotage targeted primarily fuel depots, refineries, warehouses, electricity lines, military enlistment offices and other military or infrastructural objects. Ukrainians never confirmed their involvement in these attacks, though occasionally, with a tongue in cheek, advised Russians to better observe fire regulations and abstain from smoking in inappropriate areas.
The cat-and-mouse game culminated in May with a drone attack on a Kremlin building – rather harmless but symbolically significant, and with the emergence in border regions of anti-Putinist rebels who style themselves as the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps. One may easily notice that these developments largely replicate Russian storylines of 2014 about ‘little green men’ in Crimea and ‘peaceful miners and tractor-drivers’ in Donbas who suddenly rebelled against the ‘fascist junta’ in Kyiv. Playing chutzpah under the guise of ‘plausible deniability’ had been the favorite tool of Putin’s international politics for many years, and Ukraine’s bold appropriation of that tool against Putin himself might add some insult to rather mild injuries that Ukrainian provocations on the Russian soil cause.
Member of Russian Legion of Freedom claiming incursions in Russian border region Belgorod. Photo from twitter
The damages of these acts are relatively small and definitely incomparable with the results of Russia’s daily attacks on Ukrainian cities, civilians, and infrastructural objects. But symbolically they are meaningful as Ukrainians clearly indicate that they are not going to turn the other cheek to the terrorists who hit them from safe havens in the depths of Russian territory, and they are likely to respond even more actively to their tormentors with new weapon, technology, and networks of agents.
Ukrainians clearly indicate that they are not going to turn the other cheek to the terrorists who hit them from safe havens in the depths of Russian territory
Western reaction to Ukrainian counterpunches in Russia has been rather mixed. While some experts recognize Ukraine’s legitimate right to react both symmetrically and asymmetrically to Russian terror, others worry about the possible escalation of the conflict, alleged use of imported weapons beyond Ukraine’s borders – contrary to some inter-government agreements, and possible Russian provocations against their own civilians under Ukraine’s false flag. Indeed, Ukrainians should strictly observe agreed restrictions on the trans-border use of imported weapons, in order not to compromise their international credibility (the trick of ‘plausible deniability’ might work well against Putin but should not be applied vis-à-vis Western partners).
As to the possible provocations and escalation, the past experience show that Russians are not constrained in this regard by any moral and diplomatic scruples, but mostly by their capacity and capability to do what they wish. Ukraine’s deeds, or misdeeds, or lack thereof matter little if anything in this regard. Moscow is always ready to invent any storyline it feels suitable.
Besides sheer symbolism, Ukraine’s operations on Russian soil have also some practical sense since they distract the Russian attention and divert resources from invasion of Ukraine to protection of their own border regions, military bases and war-related infrastructure. Importantly, though not yet decisively, they sap Russia’s moral, undermine the official narrative of the regime’s righteousness and invincibility, and influence some segments of the population – not staunch nationalists, obviously, but a large group of people who are agnostic, ambivalent and indifferent.
Cracks in the monolith?
Whether intentionally or not, Ukrainians seem to successfully play the uncertainty and unpredictability card in their counteroffensive preparations. Their erratic moves combined with upgrading the ability to repel Russian attacks both in the field and in the air make their rivals increasingly nervous and even hysterical – as a recent Sergei Karaganov’s article graphically indicates. (A renowned university professor and the honorary chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, called openly to ‘lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons’ and rapidly ‘go up the deterrence-escalation ladder’, ‘to deliver a preemptive strike in retaliation for all of its [the collective West’s] current and past acts of aggression’, and ‘to hit a bunch of targets in a number of countries in order to bring those who have lost their mind to reason’, – for this is the only way, in his view, ‘to arouse the instinct of self-preservation that the West has lost and convince it that its attempts to wear Russia out by arming Ukrainians are counterproductive ’).
Ukraine makes Russian pro-war proponents increasingly nervous and even hysterical
Since April, as the Russian attempts to ‘bomb Ukrainians into a Stone Age’ had apparently failed (Ukraine even resumed a partial export of electricity to the neighboring countries), and the Russian trumpeted winter offensive in Ukraine’s south east brought meager results, the skeptical voices in regard of the ‘special military operation’ came unexpectedly from Putin’s loyalists who until recently supported his criminal war unequivocally.
Yevgeny Prigozhin gives interview in which he openly states that Russia has reached the opposite of what it intended. Screenshot from Youtube
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the notorious Wagner Group, was probably the first who openly called on the authorities to terminate the ‘special military operation’, declare its goals achieved, and ‘firmly consolidate and cling to the territories that it already has’. Later in May, he apparently contradicted himself when stated that no goals were actually achieved:
‘We came in a boorish way, walked with our boots all over the territory in search of the Nazis. While we were looking for the Nazis, we sausaged everyone we could, then we approached Kiev, then we crap and moved away... We have made Ukraine a nation known to everyone throughout the world. Ukraine has become a country that is known absolutely everywhere. It's like the Greeks during the prosperity of Greece. We legitimized Ukraine.’ The same with ‘demilitarization’: ‘If they had, let us say, 500 tanks at the beginning of the special operation, now they have 5,000 tanks. If they have 20 thousand people able to fight skillfully, now 400 thousand can fight. How did we demilitarize it? It turns out that the opposite is true - we militarized her, hell knows how.’ As the result, ‘the Ukrainians today are one of the strongest armies. They have a high level of organization, training, weapons, intelligence. They work equally successfully with Soviet and NATO stuff. They are absolutely philosophical about the losses they bear. They have everything to achieve the supreme goal, as we had during World War II. But more technologically and clearly.’
In June, two Putinist heavy-weights expressed doubts in the way the ‘special operation’ was unfolding and questioned implicitly its ultimate goals. The first was Konstantin Zatulin, the deputy head of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) committee in the Russian Duma and long-time director the CIS Institute, who recognized that Russia doesn’t have a solid standing in Ukraine or ‘enough grounds’ to ‘assume that we will definitely win’: ‘Our goals officially declared at the beginning of the military operation [were] denazification, demilitarization, the neutrality of Ukraine and the protection of the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, who have suffered all this time. On which of these items have we achieved results to date? None.’
He in particular criticized his colleagues who denied viability of the Ukrainian state and existence of a Ukrainian nation. We naively believed, he said, that the Ukrainian state would collapse under our assault and we would achieve what we tried to achieve with Minsk accords within the past eight years. ‘Unfortunately, the plan failed since it was essentially unrealistic. So, we need a different plan now, plan B.’ Ukraine is ‘dangerous’, he averred, but it would remain because we do not enough power to overcome it, considering the level of Western support it receives.
Russian TV-propagandist Margarita Simonyan worries about Ukrainian retaliations. Screenshot from Youtube
Another staunch Putinist, the head of the Russian propagandist network RT Margarita Simonyan, who cheered Russian aggression last year and was, in her own words, 'overwhelmed with euphoria', called to freeze the conflict and hold eventually a referendum on 'disputed' territories under UN supervision. Like other Putinist hawks, she has not changed her view of Ukraine but recognized that the country is too tough and, in fact, unpalatable. She genuinely worries that Ukraine is increasingly capable to retaliate and to reach Russian targets deep inside Russia, so she reasonably concludes that the bloodshed should be finally stopped, because it involves not only Ukrainian blood but also, alas, Russian.
Or is it a 'maskirovka'?
One should not be surprised that this criticism comes from the Putinist camp. This is the only camp that may more or less safely criticize the official line and the 'special military operation' – from the far-right position of extreme jingoism, anti-Westernism and Ukrainophobia. We cannot exclude, as some experts suggest, that all these 'criticism' is a bluff – a Kremlin-coordinated campaign, 'maskirovka', aimed primarily at an international audience, specifically at those experts and politicians who still believe in some 'constructive dialogue' with Moscow and would be happy to find there some 'reasonable' partners for much-coveted peace talks.
It is unlikely, however, that this 'maskirovka' can substantially undermine the Western strategic narrative that draws on the recognition of genocidal character of Russian war (and 'Ukraine denial'), and the existential character of Ukraine’s self-defense. In any case, the potential benefits of this info-ops are unlikely to offset the damage that the hawks’ criticism inflicts on Kremlin narrative about the war and Putin’s personal authority. The criticism reflects not only dissatisfaction with the spectacular setbacks of the 'special operation', it remarkably comes from the people who are much better acquainted with Ukrainian and international realities than a great majority of pro-Kremlin nationalistic hawks.
Whether this disappointment would produce any domino effect largely depends on Ukraine’s successes in the battlefield. Nothing, so far, in Ukraine is as good or as bad as it sounds.