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Ukraine gains; Russia to escalate

Ian Bremmer, Ph.D
 

 

Ian Bremmer’s Quick Take: Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here, backstage of all things, but have a few moments and wanted to give you a Quick Take on what is going on in the world. Want to get to Russia, Ukraine.

I mean, of course, over the weekend, massive amount of news after the Queen’s death and King Charles in charge of the UK. And also in the United States, we had of course, the 9/11 commemorations. But actually the big news in the world is once again on the ground in Ukraine with the Ukrainians having taken a significant amount of territory with counterattacks against the Russians. This is after months of close to, I mean, just incremental grinding land gains by the Russians, taking a little more than 20% total of Ukrainian territory.

And then over the course of 72 hours, several thousand square kilometers lost by the Russians as the front lines just melted away, particularly in the town of Izium, which has been captured by the Ukrainians critical because it was the headquarters for Russian military operations in the north and half of the Donbas. And of course the Donbas is the entire focus of the second phase as the Russians have announced of the special military operations, the war in Ukraine. A lot of this is, of course, because the Russians are getting exhausted. Because they haven’t been able to increase their forces on the ground. And the Ukrainians are getting better trained by NATO and they’re getting a lot more weapons from NATO, and they’re also fighting very courageously for their territory.

What’s been the response in Russia? Well, number one, and quite interestingly, the Russians have indeed been admitting to the losses. Now, the Ministry of Defense has said these troops were intentionally redeployed to focus on core Donetsk and Luhansk defense. That is clearly not the case. In many cases, they even left their weapons as they were fleeing, and that’s clearly not being planned. This is also reality that the Russians had wanted to announce annexations starting in the southern city of Kherson, which they’ve now had to basically postpone for the foreseeable future indefinitely, because they don’t actually control enough of the territory to make that happen and incorporate that formally into Russia. So that’s the first thing. Because if you watch Russian state media, there’s been a lot more explanation of the fact that this is going badly for the first time, really, in the last six months. Secondly, the Russians have responded by attacking some civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, the electricity in particular, plants in Kharkiv shutting the lights off essentially.

And most of that has been gotten back on over the course of 24 hours, but still it’s an effort to show the Ukrainians that they’re going to be punished for the gains that they’re making against the invading Russians. And then finally, you’re seeing a little bit of opposition. There was first some about a week ago in Saint Petersburg, a city council, and then more recently in the last couple of days in Moscow, a city council, not enormously important politically calling for Putin’s resignation. In both cases, state police are responding to these as acts of criminalities. It’s not the kind of thing you’re allowed to do in a dictatorship.

So what’s next? Well, part of the problem for Russia is they can’t get a lot more troops. I mean, short of a mobilization, which would require the Russians to admit that this is actually a war going on. Right now, it’s by the way, illegal for Russians to say it’s a war. You get up to 15 years in prison for that. That would be unpopular. And also keeping reservists on beyond their normal tour and pulling up more Russians into the fight would be quite unpopular on the ground in Russia. So a general mobilization seems a bridge too far. And also they wouldn’t get those troops for months and months anyway. Even a more limited mobilization isn’t likely to make an enormous amount of difference in the near term. Having said that, will the Russians attack more broadly? Will they go after civilian centers? You haven’t seen many missile strikes, for example, against Kyiv, against Lviv in the west in recent months. Certainly they could step that up if they wanted to, but it wouldn’t affect anything militarily on the ground. And finally, of course, you have the possibility, God forbid, of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, even tactical nuclear weapons.

Again, I don’t think the Russians are thinking about that at this point with the territory that they’re presently lost, though, if it were to start pushing them back towards the old February 24th borders, or even more, to all of Ukraine’s territory that’s been occupied since 2014, leaving aside Crimea, then I think the Russians would be more willing to consider that. What they clearly need to do, of course, is negotiate. And indeed, the Ukrainians and Russians have been involved with the help of the UN and the Turks in some negotiations. That’s how you got food out of Odesa and how you’ve gotten fertilizer out of Russia. That’s mattered a lot for the world. But in terms of negotiation over the territory in Ukraine and the fight, Ukrainians think they’re winning. They’re absolutely not going to sit down and accept any negotiations until they’re taking a lot more territory.

And it’s hard to imagine Putin accepting negotiations with the Ukrainians that would show functionally that everything he’s tried to accomplish on the ground in Ukraine since February has been an utter failure. So at this point, I think it’s more likely you see more escalation than not. Though the place I would most focus on escalation is actually on Europe. One thing you see in Russian state media all over right now is the fact that the reason the Russians are losing is not because the Ukrainians are so awesome, but because they’re fighting NATO, they’re fighting against NATO economy, technology and military systems and training and intelligence and all the rest of it. By the way, a lot of that is true. Though I would give the Ukrainians a hell of a lot of credit here. They really deserve it.

But if that’s the case, then the Russian willingness to push the Europeans in particular harder and shut off all the energy in the coming weeks, it seems more likely to me because they really want the Europeans to feel the pain and they want to see if they can actually divide Europe. I think that’s not going to work. So maybe we can see sort of more limited escalations in the coming weeks to months, but longer term, this war is looking more dangerous, not less, even though we welcome the headlines, clearly welcome the headlines that Ukrainians are able to have some significant success in the battlefield. And of course, for all the millions and millions of Ukrainians that have been suffering so desperately through this now 200 plus day invasion, that is very welcomed news indeed.

That’s it for me. I’ll talk to you all real soon.

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