The War After Bucha

World opinion has shifted even more against Russia. Will it matter?

Flag Ukraine Silhouette Ruins Soldier War
CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain photo via Max Pixel

The eminent strategist Lawrence Freedman argues that we’re entering a new phase in the Russo-Ukraine War in the wake of the massive atrocities at Bucha and elsewhere. Countries who had resisted condemning Russia lest it damage relations are now being forced to take a side.

The effect has also been to bring a moral clarity to all strategic calculations. Having now seen what happens when Russia occupies Ukrainian territory, Western governments know that they cannot push President Zelensky to make any territorial concessions simply to bring the war to an end. Of course, the West is in no position to bring regime change to Moscow. Nor can Ukraine. Only the Russians can do that. So all that can be done is to support Ukraine until Russian troops have left, leaving Putin to face the consequences of his catastrophic folly. It may still be too much to expect to recover Crimea, but for Kyiv it is now imperative that all the Donbas, including the enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk, remain as part of Ukraine, by force of arms if not by diplomacy.

This moral clarity is reinforced by the fact that the war has acquired a new military clarity. This is the result of Russia’s decision, announced on 25 March, to make the Donbas its prime military focus. It has been obliged out of military necessity to concentrate on an area where it has the fewest logistical problems and which also provided the Kremlin’s casus belli. Russian forces have now retreated from the northern areas of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy. This is one reason why we got to find out about the atrocities before they could be covered up. As a result of this retreat Ukraine now controls the border area with Belarus. There is no longer a danger of Belarusian brigades joining the war. As we pause to take account of the horrors and hardships of this war, thinking of the Ukrainians as victims, we should note that this represents a stunning victory, against what were widely assumed to be hopeless odds.

Alas, Freedman assesses, “This new stage of the war . . . promises to be much harder for Ukraine.”

After extensively detailing the sorry state of the Russian forces and the even sorrier prospects for effective reinforcement, Freedman observes,

If this analysis is correct this new stage of the war could be critical. Another Ukrainian victory will not see the Russians pushed out of Ukraine but will make their position more difficult for the stage after that. Ukrainian losses have also been significant, both in personnel and equipment, although with the country now mobilised for war they are not short of committed and reasonably well trained soldiers. Their problem is with equipment. Their successes up to this point have largely been with judicious use of portable, light equipment, including drones, anti-tank weapons, and air defence systems. They have a shopping list that has been discussed with Western donors to fill some of their gaps. This means keeping up supplies of the equipment they already use, but also providing the extra armour, aircraft, and artillery to raise their game for the coming operations. Here there has to be balance between taking in aged kit from the former Soviet Union, which could be put to use quickly, or getting more modern kit, which may require more training. 

Yet even if Russia does acquire the territory it seeks in the Donbas and prepares for a climactic defensive battle, there still remains the perplexing question about the nature of Putin’s end game. From the start the most baffling aspect of this war has been the incoherence of Russian strategy. The gap between stated aims and available capabilities was wide enough when it started but it has now widened even further, especially after being defeated in the war’s first round.

Putin no doubt wishes to avoid being seen as a loser. It is possible that the ideas developed by the Ukrainian government for it to abandon NATO but rely instead on security guarantees might provide some consolation, but it would not be much. He is left with the worst of both worlds. He is seen as a bully but not a winner, and his battering of the very territories he claimed to care about most has reduced their attraction. Putin is not really a ‘hearts and minds’ man, and now has no hope of incorporating the Donbas into Russia with minimal fuss. For all his talk about historically close bonds, his approach has been brotherly only in the sense of Cain and Abel. Taking over the Donbas now would mean oppressing a hostile population, reconstructing shattered towns and cities, and guarding against future Ukrainian military action.

Maybe he will soon lose interest in a land grab but satisfy himself with a de-industrialised and impoverished Ukraine, its people traumatised and its infrastructure broken. There are suggestions from American intelligence, who seem to have some good sources, that Putin has set a target for Russian forces to get the whole operation concluded in time for 9th May, the anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World war, and normally marked by a big parade in Moscow. There is another round of intense military action to come but if that fails as badly as that of the first round then perhaps he can do no more than look at the mess his forces have made of Ukraine by 9th May and call it a day.  

Which leaves me where I’ve been from the moment it became clear Putin wasn’t going to easily achieve his war aims: seeing no good way out of this. Indeed, the atrocities have made it even harder. Neither Zelensky nor Western leaders can allow Putin any gains from his barbarism. Ending the sanctions while Putin remains in power is simply untenable now. And there’s no “calling it a day” for Putin. If he leaves with his tail between his legs and the Russian army humiliated, someone simply has to put a bullet through his head. That prospect will surely stiffen his resolve.

FILED UNDER: Russia, Ukraine, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    My guess is that if they try to declare Donbas neutral or something they simply go back to the status quo of a low grade civil war. Russians could create a massive level of destruction on the way out, but that certainly blows a hole in the fiction they have perpetrated that Ukrainians really belong in the Russian empire since they are really Russians too. Or the other fiction that they were just going to kill nazis.

    Steve

    1
  2. Ha Nguyen says:

    Actually, it’s not fiction that they were only going to kill “nazis”. It’s all in the definition of “nazis”. Russia defines “nazis” as people who are anti-Russia. So, of course, they have a perfect right to kill “nazis” – they’re opposing Russia – who are the holy people. According to Putin, anyway.

    4
  3. Slugger says:

    The killings at Bucha do not change much in my opinion. This is what war is. It is not knights jousting on a meadow somewhere. It is attacks with explosives and fire on cities, cities full of people, people who are not in some defined military unit. It is organized murder, destruction, rape, and looting that we as a species seem to think is tolerable because some flag can be waived. I am sure that Putin has no illusions about the nature of war, and he started this war because he wants the murder, destruction, etc. There is no pile of gold in Kyiv that will improve the wealth of Vanya living in Moscow, but there are people full of life and blood who can be killed. This is the treasure that Putin is after.

    1
  4. Michael Cain says:

    I think the fundamental question in the near term is whether western Europe — Germany in particular — is willing to suffer a fairly deep, long recession by quickly stopping the purchase of Russian fossil fuels.

    2
  5. steve says:

    Ha- Good point, but it does make things even more awkward for the narrative Putin has been trying to make up. These were all supposedly part of the Russian empire. They needed to be brought back into the fold. Instead they all fought proving that they were all really nazis all along? One of the basic rules here is that Putin/Russia are never wrong so something has to give here.

    Steve

    1
  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    I don’t think it’s a great idea to bully Germany into cutting off all Russian oil/gas imports. If the lights start to flicker in Frankfurt support for Zelenskyy will plummet. That’s a bad for Germany, bad for Russia tactic. The better approach is to help Germany adjust to a Russia-free energy policy long-term. Good for Germany, bad for Russia. Our goal IMO should be to weaken Russia, not for a few months, but for decades to come.

    We have more to think about than just Ukraine: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland are in danger so long as Putin is in power and Russia has the military power to threaten those NATO members. We also have the growing issue of the arctic, and Russia’s potential role as a Chinese catspaw.

    6
  7. gVOR08 says:

    This isn’t as much a rock/hard place deal for Putin as it appears. Russia is like the U. S. except MRGA are 80+% of the population, they have real historical grievances a deal more serious than, “Mommy says I have to wear a mask.”, and FOX News is de facto and dejure the only news source. Like GOPs, but on a bigger scale, Putin is able to square the circle by lying. Whatever he emerges with will be a miraculous victory for Russkiy Mir. And he’ll start planning his next bite out of the apple.

    2
  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @gVOR08:
    Propaganda can be very effective. What’s more effective at changing perceptions? Inflation, deepening poverty, the inability to access cash or credit. People will fall for plausible government bullshit only up to the point where their kids go hungry.

    1
  9. JohnSF says:

    @Ha Nguyen:
    Yes.
    Derives from the Soviet habit of defining all people opposed to Bolshevik rule in the Russian Empire or Eastern Europe as fascist by definition.
    Inherited by Russia in the post-Soviet period and blurring together Soviet and Russian.

    1
  10. gVOR08 says:

    I seem of late to keep coming across the name Aleksandr Dugin. He’s described as Putin’s Rasputin. He is thought to heavily influence Putin. Whether that’s true, or Putin just finds him a useful idiot, generating rhetoric and support, I have no idea. But he is truly weird, and scary.

    @Ha Nguyen: Dugin apparently believes the Nazis were right, until they invaded Russia. Only then, and only for that, did they become the arch villain.

    @Michael Reynolds: “Chinese catspaw”. Dugin believes the Russian Empire should control Eurasia “from Dublin to Vladivostok”. I have so far not stumbled across how he feels China fits into this destiny.

    Dugin is Russian Orthodox. But he’s an “Old Believer”. Which is to say he rejects the reforms of the 17th Century. Has anybody seen a recent picture of Rod Dreher? Is he still trimming his beard?

  11. JohnSF says:

    @Slugger:

    This is what war is.

    No. This is what an army conditioned into barbarism and unleashed by indiscipline or command intent looks like.
    Criminal acts are not uncommon in war, whether by individuals or groups.

    But systematic rape, torture and mass murder is a different order of things.
    That is why the categories of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and attempted or partial genocides exist.
    No Western army that I can recall has behaved in this manner, in a systematic and command-approved manner, since the wars of empire.

    2
  12. JohnSF says:

    One effect of the massacres is that some opinion that was already firmly behind Ukraine is now even more so.
    For instance: Czech Republic is now supplying T72 M4CZ main battle tanks to Ukraine.
    Based on the Soviet T72 but with major Czech upgrades to NATO combat standard.

  13. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Cain: The German challenge is rather more than a mere recession, total cut off of Russian gas risks collapsing their industry, their dependence is really extensive. Unless they restart their nuclear baseload although the infra bottle necks for industrial gas are such that it’s not merely recession….

    @Slugger: This is simply wrong and foolishly reductionist.

    Such foolishly pretence to posturing merely opens the door to barbarism.

    While some deaths currently rounding the news like the infamous Bucha Bicyclist can possibly be put down to Fog of War, particularly for troops possibly having been subject to partisans surprise attacks (the preparation of which having been cheered here and generally), the range of deaths, particularly large and not isolated cases of groups of civilians with restraints are clear beyond the pale and vlear war crimes. Hell even for uniformed combattants they would be ear crimes.

    @JohnSF: a common refrain from my Czech colleagues of a certain age has been “1968”

    @JohnSF: France, Algeria although perhaps to classify as as Empire Wars

    2
  14. Barry says:

    @steve: “Ha- Good point, but it does make things even more awkward for the narrative Putin has been trying to make up. These were all supposedly part of the Russian empire. They needed to be brought back into the fold. Instead they all fought proving that they were all really nazis all along? One of the basic rules here is that Putin/Russia are never wrong so something has to give here.”

    Fascists use words like bricks, weapons. Honesty is weakness.

  15. Slugger says:

    I look at some more conservative websites from time to time to see what they are thinking. On Reason.com there is a lot of discussion that the Bucha murders are not the action of Russia because if Russia had committed any atrocities, they surely would have hidden the bodies. I am not going to sign in and comment over there, but it has occurred to me that the Russians may want the atrocities to be in the open. They are not going to kill every Ukrainian, but they probably want to send a clear message to any potential resistors. They could have whacked Victor Yushchenko a lot of ways but chose to send a message.
    To those who think that I misrepresent war, WW II, Algeria, Vietnam, Iraq, and yeah I’ll throw in Gaza, those are the faces of war to me.

  16. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:
    Yes, I was thinking of France in Algeria just after I posted that; though IIRC the majority of the atrocities carried out by units operating under command were the harkis.
    Still a very nasty business.
    And some British operations in Kenya “Mau Mau” emergency were probably culpable.
    But again, seems to be more colonial police than the regular army.

  17. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: French general command or enough of it have bloody fingerprints, whatever latter plausible deniability spin was given. But I believe that you meant Pieds noirs rather than Harkis (the latter being the poor Muslim bastards who believed in French pretence to Laïcité, Égalité etc).

    @Slugger: Misrepresent? No one said you “misrepresented” war. Rather you engage in simplistic reductionist posturing.

    There’s a real world difference in results between forces that give no effort to the boundaries to barbarism that are “rules of war” and those that try. Nothing is perfect, but there are real differences. One can compare Iraq and Syria.

    3
  18. JohnSF says:

    @Slugger:
    There was no mass slaughter of civilians by Western armies in Germany 1944/45.
    A lot of looting, episodes of rape.

    And god help the SS who fell into the hands of the Poles or Canadians.
    But it was not sanctioned or “overlooked” (apart from SS “shot trying to escapes”, who were obviously not civilians) by command authority.

    Nor did the US Army routinely carry out massacres in Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq.
    Such things happened, but not as a matter of policy or of shrugging indifference.

    “Command Policy” might cover World War 2 area bombing which is these days presumed to be at best marginally legal. (I suspect I’m the only person here who’s talked with an actual RAF Bomber Command Staff Planner about the bombing of Germany in 1943-45)

    But the difference is the sheer personal intent involved in the gang rape of a twelve year old and the slaughter of entire family.

    They could have whacked Victor Yushchenko a lot of ways

    Good heavens man, do you suppose they have not been trying?

    2
  19. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: by all accounts they indeed were trying.

    WWII provides a useful contrast, in terms of real world results difference including for ordinary civilians. One need only look at which way refugees and even ordinary soldiers bent on surrender flowed. West. Not of course that the Western Armies were saints but grotesque barbarism was not policy neither de facto nor de jure. It was for the Soviets (a Russian army in the end). Of course one must acknowledge equally the Nazis started that game in the East (lucky for us losing themselves any chance of splitting off the Soviet captive nations)

    1
  20. JohnSF says:

    Some recent comments by European leaders:
    President von der Leyen:
    Some recent comments by European leaders:
    President von der Leyen:

    “Only seven weeks ago, Bucha was a friendly and quiet suburb on the outskirts of Kyiv. But last week, humanity itself was killed in Bucha. It was killed in cold blood, executed with its hands tied and a bullet in the head. It was left to rot in the middle of the street or in mass graves. We have all seen the haunting images of Bucha. And we have heard the testimonies of those who speak freely again, now that the Russian army has left. ‘They shot everyone they saw’, one witness said about Putin’s soldiers. This, Honourable Members, is what is happening when Putin’s soldiers occupy Ukrainian territory. They call it liberation. No, we call it war crimes. And we really have to give it this name.

    Slava Ukraini. Long live Europe.”

    High Representative Josep Borrell :

    “The EU (states have) paid €35 billion for Russian energy since the start of the war compared to the €1 billion it has sent to Ukraine in the form of foreign aid…
    …Zelenskyy needs us to tell him less often that he is a hero and give him more weapons to fight.That’s what Ukrainians expect from us and that’s what we’re doing; and we must do it faster. Putting pressure on Russia and arming Ukraine. Help them to combat the invading forces with all the capabilities at our disposal…”

    Also a blazing speech in EU Parliament by Guy Verhofstadt, very much an EU establishment figure.

    German Foreign Minister (Green Party) Annalena Baerbock:

    “No country is a pawn. No one is Russia’s backyard. No one is doomed to live in eternal bondage because that is the will of the Russian Government in its nationalistic fanaticism.”
    “…we as a European Union must completely phase out fossil energy dependence on Russia, starting with coal, then oil, and then gas…”

    Read between the lines IMO: there is a battle going on between the EU Commission and the Council majority, and the various obstructionists in the German ministries (note: NOT necessarily the government) and other places (Hungary, Cyprus? various lobbyist factions) and within the German government and bureaucracy.

  21. Mike in Arlington says:

    @JohnSF: I think I read something recently that said that Hungry was obstructing some of the EU’s attempts to put sanctions on Russia.

    Does anybody think that might be enough to put Hungary’s membership in the EU in doubt?

  22. Mike in Arlington says:
  23. Tlaloc says:

    If he leaves with his tail between his legs and the Russian army humiliated, someone simply has to put a bullet through his head. That prospect will surely stiffen his resolve.

    That’s not really the point though, is it. The question long since passed from “when does Putin cut his losses” and has been for weeks now “when does a general or oligarch cull Putin?”

    1
  24. gVOR08 says:

    @JohnSF: Water Girl at Balloon Juice posted a long piece on the Law of War. Long story short, the US military puts a lot of effort into compliance. There is extensive and repeated training up and down the chain. There are also JAG functions that are charged and empowered to enforce the rules. Russia, not so much.

    1
  25. Tlaloc says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland are in danger so long as Putin is in power and Russia has the military power to threaten those NATO members.”

    Right now Russia doesn’t seem to have the military might to threaten the Girl Scouts. Their colossal failure against the frankly primitive Ukrainian forces bolstered with a smattering of modern arms and some intelligence support has been jaw dropping.

  26. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    People will fall for plausible government bullshit only up to the point where their kids go hungry.

    The middle class has been falling further and further behind in this country for decades, and a large chunk believe it is the work of coastal elites who want to transgender their children, and that if you just cut taxes on the wealthy enough, then everyone will prosper.

    And if things are changing too fast for something subtle like that, they can always blame the Jews. The Jewish Nazis, to be specific, but honestly, isn’t Jewish Nazi just a little bit redundant?

    Do you know whose kids aren’t going hungry? The Jews’.

    When you’re making up shit, the sky is the limit. And anti-semitism is a well that seldom runs dry. You’re Jewish-ish, aren’t you? You’re telling me your seder-sense isn’t ringing?

    Have you not noticed that QAnon is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion with a few of the details changed? And that’s taking off here, where there is an actual semi-effective media.

    —-
    Seder-sense is like Spider-Man’s spidey-sense, but Jewish!

    4
  27. Slugger says:

    Yes, I’m a simple guy. I believe that the US is the good guys and makes efforts to minimize civilian casualties, but when I was young my country bombed Hanoi and Haiphong in Operation Linebacker with civilian casualties and bombing of hospitals. I think that these things are inherent in war; incident not accident. How many civilians were killed in the shock and awe attacks on Baghdad? No question that the bad guys do things that are worse things, but in my view war makes good guys do bad things. Putin knows this.
    My comment about Yushchenko was intended to convey the idea that the brutality of what they actually did was intentional.

    1
  28. Beth says:

    There are suggestions from American intelligence, who seem to have some good sources, that Putin has set a target for Russian forces to get the whole operation concluded in time for 9th May, the anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World war, and normally marked by a big parade in Moscow. There is another round of intense military action to come but if that fails as badly as that of the first round then perhaps he can do no more than look at the mess his forces have made of Ukraine by 9th May and call it a day.

    So, my question after reading this is, can he? I mean, assuming Putin puts on Blitz round two with the expectation that he will have secured some “victory” as defined only in his head, could he really walk away on May 9? I think that assumption would mean that the Russians have functionally defeated the UA and possible decapitated the political and military leadership. Outside of chance or luck (or nukes), does anyone really think that’s going to happen?

    It’s not like they could pull their troops in to the Donbas and Crimea, call it a day and then start shipping things back home for a victory parade on May 9. The Ukrainians would a the very least fight like hell, at the worst start slaughtering Russians trapped between them and the parade. I don’t think the Ukrainians have the strength to push the Russians back over the border, but they certainly have the strength and support to stop the Russians from sort of “victorious disengagement.” Am I wrong? Missing something?

  29. JohnSF says:

    @Slugger

    How many civilians were killed in the shock and awe attacks on Baghdad?

    Taking the Baghdad bombing campaign as March and April 2003 the total of Iraqi civilian deaths calculated by Iraq Body Count was 6,882.

    Intent makes all the difference.
    In France from 1940 to 1945, Allied bombing killed 68,778.
    They are not considered war crimes.
    By comparison, the German massacres of civilians in France, such as 642 killed at Oradour-sur-Gleine, may have killed far less.
    But were most definitely criminal.
    The difference is the intent, the deliberate action, and in a historical if not legal view, the infliction of cruelty both for it’s own sake and as calculated terror.

    Similarly, the German bombing of Britain killed some 70,000.
    These are also not usually considered war crimes as such, except insofar as they are covered (along with all Second World War deaths inflicted by Germany and Japan) by the category of acts in a war of aggression, for which the command authority bears responsibility.

    1
  30. JohnSF says:

    Reporting by Der Spiegel on Bucha.
    Includes reports of Russian communications intercepts provided by the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service.

    …the atrocities perpetrated on civilians in Bucha were neither random acts nor the product of individual soldiers who got out of hand.

    …indicates that the murder of civilians has become a standard element of Russian military activity, potentially even part of a broader strategy. The intention is that of spreading fear among the civilian population and thus reducing the will to resist.

    Some of the recordings apparently indicate that incidents such as those in Bucha have also taken place elsewhere. There are reportedly indications of potential atrocities in the area surrounding Mariupol

  31. Lounsbury says:

    @Slugger: Your view is reductio ad absurdem and childishly simplistic.

    The question is not, “do bad things happen in war” (either to civilians or generally) but the extent to which deliberate action is taken – such as targetted killings.

    As one can see in the difference between the US & Co outcomes in Iraq where yes, collateral damage but in comparison with the intentional razing of Assadist & Russian actions in Syria, generally reasonably avoided mass terror, “dehousing” and death squads. Even in the depths of the worst of the post Saddam period in no way did the USA provoke the mass horror, waves of refugees and mass destruction that Assad and Russia did in Syria, and with intention.

    Bad things are not all equal nor comparable. Collateral damage – that is dead civilians – will happen in war. But it is quantatatively and qualitatively different than utterly ignoring constraints of the ‘rules of war’ and not even trying or indeed deliberately targetting civilians in either bombardments or death squads.
    (good God, you have me defending the stupid Ibn Bush adventure…)

    The superficial “my country bombed Hanio so no difference in bad things in war” is vacuous, preciously empty and priviledged American moral posturing, and really merely a pious fallacy of the excluded middle: the US or UK or NATO need not be Saintly White Knights to be ‘better’ in . The ‘Western’ powers are not saints and do commit war crimes. However, generally speaking they do put a real effort in trying not to play Ghenghis Khan.

    War is bad and generally speaking a failure, particularly modern warefare: That does not make all conduct warfare equally bad at the same level.

    1