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LMC 2023

Pavel Baev: Exhausted Armies Can Break and The Wars May Be Cut Short

A turning point can come as early as these spring and summer months, says Dr Pavel Baev, professor at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. Neither we nor Russians need the Pentagon leaks to see how seriously Ukraine has been preparing for a new offensive to liberate the occupied parts of the country. And it makes Russians nervous.

AP Photo / Libkos / Scanpix
Ukrainian soldiers are controlling drones in Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region. Photo: AP Photo / Libkos / Scanpix

You recently wrote that the costly assault on Bakhmut aims to prove that the course of the war is controlled by Moscow, but even the so-called ‘patriotic’ bloggers are anxious about the looming Ukrainian offensive. At the same time, the Pentagon leaks suggest that the US is not very enthusiastic about the Ukrainian assault. What do you think? Should Russian forces in Ukraine be worried?

Obviously, Ukraine has been preparing for this season of heavy fighting. We may have a pause now, but Russians have also been trying to demonstrate that they control the course of this war. This is why the attacks continue – senseless and costly as they are – not only on Bakhmut but in several directions.

Assaults in Bakhmut and Avdiivka are different, with different forces and different tactics employed. For Russia, the goal is to prove that it still has the initiative. Meanwhile, anxiety about Ukraine’s offensive is evident not only among the bloggers but also policy planners and the military command. They all see how seriously Ukraine has been preparing for its counter-offensive and assembling new brigades. They see Kyiv receiving new equipment, new weapons, and training.

The Pentagon leaks may offer a bit of a glimpse, yet that glimpse is two months old by now. [The interview took place in the middle of April]. Time flies, training continues, and new equipment has been arriving. What are those leaks? It is old news, and the information itself – such as weapons supplied to Ukraine – has been public regardless. I do not think the leaks are particularly damaging to Ukraine’s preparations. In Russia, they don’t take it seriously either. Besides, there are all sorts of ‘doctoring’ and playing with data nowadays.

The most worrisome for Russians in this regard is the fact that they do not have reliable intelligence. Their satellites are rather old and not particularly useful. They cannot conduct air reconnaissance as they fear losing their aircraft. They have a shortage of drones, and the ones they have are short-range only. Russians simply cannot see what is happening deeper in the second or third echelons of Ukrainian troops. And it makes them nervous.

Pavel Baev

Dr Pavel Baev is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). He is also a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, and a senior research associate at the French International Affairs Institute (IFRI) in Paris. He specialises in Russian military reform, Russia’s conflict management in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and energy interests in Russia’s foreign and security policies, as well as Russia’s relations with Europe and NATO. Dr Baev is the author of several books, including The Russian Army in a Time of Troubles (SAGE, 1996) and Russian Energy Policy and Military Power: Putin’s Quest for Greatness (Routledge, 2008). Dr Baev received a doctorate in international relations from the Institute for the US and Canadian Studies, Moscow in 1988.

Those leaks do nothing to help Russians as they prove that Ukraine has been preparing. Ukraine may actually have a good shot with this offensive. A delay may be working in its favour. And so may be the weather and the fear spreading in the Russian trenches.

It is not just the top command who is nervous – more and more has been seeping down to the troops, who are exhausted by this offensive that brings no result. They are afraid of what Ukrainians might do next. They see the Ukrainian side effectively resisting the Russian push – with not the best of their troops and not the best of their arms. Reports from Bahmut suggest that Ukrainians have mostly been using dated Soviet equipment from their old reserves – not the new weapons supplied by the West. Everything newer and better appears to be stored for the offensive, which might produce sudden results.

You know, armies can break. The Soviet army did break several times – in 1941 and 1942 – at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. There were other examples of how exhausted armies suddenly break. We might see a change that will break this long-lasting deadlock. We should not buy into the idea of a protracted war – it may be cut short.

Let’s dive into the Pentagon leaks again. It paints quite a rosy picture of European unity: even Hungary and Serbia are presumably willing to help Ukraine. Hungary, for instance, has not been seen doing that. Whereas only Austria and Malta are reported to be saying no.” Is it really so?

In my opinion, for the United States, and the Pentagon in particular, such strong European support for Ukraine has been as big of a surprise as Ukraine’s performance in the war. They did not expect to see such a degree of unity in the European Union that the US – much like Moscow –

has always perceived with scepticism and mistrust. They view it as a competitor in some areas and a failure in other areas. The EU’s ability to deliver what it has delivered has come as a huge surprise to Washington. Pentagon, too, is impressed not just with the political unity but also with how involved the EU has been in practicalities, such as supplying ammunition or investing in defence industrial base.

Of course, there will always be voices of dissent. Yes, Austria is unhappy, and Hungary has its own peculiar line. Yet overall, the EU has not only proven itself potent in economic terms by delivering funding for Ukraine but has also taken on a new security role by reshaping the European military industrial base.

I have recently watched a panel with Gen Philip M. Breedlove, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who suggested that the West was supplying enough for Ukraine to stay on the battlefield but not enough to win. What do you make of it?

It is, indeed, a difficult question. In this spring and summer season, Ukraine will certainly be at a disadvantage because it will not be able to provide air support for its offensive. However, while air power is a big pending issue, I think, everything else has been delivered.

Gen Breedlove is a true professional, and his opinion matters a lot. However, he adheres to the American military thinking – that is, a lot of air power and a lot of combined arms are needed for the tanks to move.

Ukrainians fight differently and very successfully, having surprised many Western experts again and again. They still have to prove that they conduct a serious offensive. Thus far, much has been accomplished with the ‘fluid’ operations: foiling the Russians attempts at going forward or finding some weak spots in the Russian defences. There are not so many weak spots now because defences are stronger.

At the same panel, there was another US expert [Charles A Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University] who had a strong opinion about Crimea. He said that the war was one thing, but Ukraine should not attack Crimea because it would mess up the picture and thus be unnecessary. Let Crimea be Russia and let it just get away with it. How would you comment on that? 

Crimea is not a question for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow but one for a later stage in this war. For Ukraine, planning an offensive operation inside Crimea is very difficult. Striking targets in Crimea is a different story. Ukraine has already been doing it for quite a while. Several long-distance strikes were delivered on Sevastopol and on some other locations.

Yet, moving forces into Crimea would be an incredibly difficult operation, and I do not think it would even be necessary. Military success in Zaporizhzhia – such as advances towards Melitopol – will inevitably generate a lot of shock and awe in Moscow and produce a different political reality on the ground.

We all know that war is politics through and through. And the politics of this war are very peculiar. In my opinion, the issue of Crimea will not be resolved on the battlefield but will have a political solution. There have been similar signals coming from Ukraine: what is important to win is much closer to the trenches. Then, there will be more space for negotiations, talks, and compromises. Step by step, Moscow will have to accept some uneasy compromises. First, it will have to retreat, probably to the position it had before 24 February 2022. Then, it may have to keep retreating further in Donbas. Crimea will come into play at a later stage via a chain of political compromises and retreats.

You wrote not so long ago that Putin was detached from reality and living in a bubble, with everyone telling him what he wanted to hear. It seems slightly unbelievable, to say the least, that the rest of the world sees one thing, while he sees something completely different.

His inability to receive accurate information, as well as the availability of data (that we have more and more of) to him, is worrisome. He does not use – or understand – the Internet and does not have a mobile phone. Therefore, his bubble prevents him from verifying the information that is supplied to him.

I must, however, add that there were several decisions during the course of this war that indicated that the top brass was able to convince President Putin to do the only possible thing – to retreat from Kyiv towards Belarus, western Russia, and Belgorod. The retreat from Kherson must have been a very difficult decision, given that it was made after the annexation, when the region had been formally and constitutionally incorporated into Russia.

The top brass was, nonetheless, able to convince Vladimir Putin that there was no way to hold the positions: “We need to retreat or face a disaster.” There have been some crucial decisions that could not have been taken without the president’s approval. Hence, he cannot be living in a hermetically sealed bubble. However, to me, it appears that the bubble has been tightening up, thus leaving less and less room to convince Putin of the need for a future compromise.

What we had as an outcome of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping was a good case in point. President Xi did his best to cut the visit as short as diplomatically possible, and very little has been revealed publicly since then. What we can infer from it is that the Chinese must be worried about Russia: about the prospect of Russia’s defeat and about Putin’s inability to grasp this prospect. They may not want to see Russia defeated but, at the same time, do not see any way to prevent it.

Another piece of evidence to suggest that this bubble has been tightening up is Putin’s recent reflections on the state of the Russian economy. They have put to question his capacity to understand what is happening, how quick the pace of economic degradation is, and how dramatically the Russian industrial base has been falling behind the pace of modernisation – if not yet falling apart. This de-modernisation of the Russian industrial base is a trend that he is completely unable to grasp.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu meeting in Moscow on 18 April 2023. AFP PHOTO/Russian Defence Ministry/Scanpix

Let us stay on the topic of China. What kind of game has Beijing been playing? President Xi’s visit to Moscow was hardly a reassurance but rather a wishful thinking that China was about to turn its back on Russia – this is what is happening.

It is very difficult to read Chinese intentions and decision-making processes. The flow of information is so restricted that we know very little about the inner workings. The same goes for the Kremlin. What we do know is that Xi Jinping – unlike Vladimir Putin – prioritises economic growth and economic modernisation. This is a significant discrepancy. Putin has essentially given up on economic development. For him, it is all about transforming the Russian economy into a war machine. For Xi, it is very much the opposite.

Russia is of lesser economic significance for China than its trade relations with the EU and the US. We should not take their words about the ‘no-limits friendship’ at face value. We should rather take a closer look at the economic dimension of this Sino-Russia partnership to see the big picture.

Russia is hardly at the top of Xi’s agenda. The only thing he is worried about is the prospect of Russia’s defeat and the collapse of Putin’s regime that it would entail. Beijing learned the lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union much better than Moscow did. This is the only scenario that China would like to avoid yet does not know how. The economic assistance, which Moscow has been receiving from Beijing, is not sufficient for that purpose.

For China, the lessons to learn from this war concern economic consequences and vulnerabilities, as well as the need to make sure that the world’s order continues to function. In contrast, the Russian discourse revolves around the need to break down the unfair, discriminatory, and US-dominated world order, to reshape it or shake it to the core. China is much more cautious in that regard. The Chinese leadership understands that the world order has been working in their favour, allowing their economy to grow and their country to rise and prosper.

On the subject of economy, how serious the impact of Western sanctions on Russian oil and gas revenues has been? In April, Russian energy minister Nikolai Shulginov said that they managed to redirect the exports affected by the embargo, while that sales did not suffer at all. Hence, cash continues to flow, doesn’t it?

Well, at least some of it does. In particular, the flows that the US wants to keep open to avoid oil shortage on the global market. The goal was to reduce Russia’s revenues from the oil trade, which has been achieved.

Natural gas is a different story: you cannot reverse a pipeline – such as the Yamal-Europe pipeline from the Bovanenkovo gas field – to the East by magic overnight. Thus, the Russian gas sector has been hit significantly more than the oil industry.

However, sanctions will have a cumulative effect since they affect not only trade but also the production base. Oil and gas sectors are demanding, high-tech industries, with many facilities heavily dependent on the West for technology and services. When such imports and cooperation are restricted, production starts decreasing as well. There is no way around it.

To reiterate, what is being reported to Putin is one thing, but what is happening in the gas and oil fields is a completely different story. The fact that Russian oil continues to flow is not something we should worry about. It is the prices that we need to watch closely, as well as the volume of the oil revenues. As of today, we already have the numbers from the first quarter [of 2023]. Even with all the doctoring, the Russian Finance Ministry had to report a significant drop in real income – far more significant than the federal budget had projected.

Having read your analysis, I have a feeling that you are convinced that Ukraine will win. Am I correct? And what makes you so sure?

It is my opinion and my judgment that is not fully detached and professional in this case. On a personal level, I have always felt very involved since I follow and comment on the war daily.

I also sense that this war caught many experts by surprise, not only with its abrupt beginning but with its developments as well. The assessments that we all had about the Russian army – its capabilities, its readiness, and its equipment – need to be revised.

On the one hand, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have demonstrated an incredible capacity to learn – not just to mobilise or build societal support but to learn. They have been consistently surprising Western specialists with how fast they can bring modern weapon systems into play and how quickly they can learn not only the very basics but the most advanced skills, such as communications and interoperability. Russians, on the other hand, have mostly been falling back on their old Soviet habits and patterns.

This convinces me that Ukraine has a very good opportunity to decisively turn the tide of this war this year. The balance of forces – as difficult as it is to measure – depends a lot on the motivation and the desire to win. Current developments in this area seem to favour Ukraine, so we can expect a turning point as early as this spring and summer.

I agree that there is a danger of wishful thinking. I want to see Ukraine win this war and not only because I am so pro-Ukrainian. I believe that this may be the only chance for Russia to come back to its senses, to realise that the war – as criminal and unnecessary as it is – will drag on, and to see it as a tragedy not only for Ukraine but for Russia itself. Therefore, Kyiv taking the initiative and scoring a sequence of small victories can make a big difference in Moscow.

Lately, the discussions about a possibility of a regime change in Moscow have largely died down. Can we conclude, on a pessimistic note, that we should not bet on it or the democratic processes?

No, we definitely cannot bet on it. It has nothing to do not with elections either. Unlike in Turkey, for that matter, we cannot expect a change any time soon. However, the regime change debate will inevitably resurface once Ukrainians begin to reshape the reality on the battlefield. Russia has a long track record of coups and regime changes, with each one being different. One thing we know for a fact is that it will come very suddenly when we least expect it and without any early signs or warnings. The only recipe for success is for the elites in Moscow to understand the hopelessness of the whole endeavour and act upon this realisation.

A municipal worker cleans the monument of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin from a crane during preparations for the 153th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday in St. Petersburg, 18 April 2023. EPA/Scanpix

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