Ukraine War Widens

The invasion has led to a series of proxy wars.

The News:

WSJ (“Ukraine Strikes Russian Military Depot, Russians Say“):

Ukrainian attack helicopters executed a low-flying predawn raid on Russian territory Friday, a Russian official said, eluding air defenses to strike an oil depot and signaling Kyiv’s ability to broaden the field of the war.

[…]

If confirmed, the Belgorod raid would be Kyiv’s second helicopter operation in as many days, following an attempt to penetrate Russian air defenses around the besieged city of Mariupol, along Ukraine’s Azov Sea coast.

NYT (“Syrian Mercenaries Deploy to Russia en Route to Ukrainian Battlefields“):

Hundreds of Syrian fighters are en route to join Russian forces in Ukraine, effectively returning the favor to Moscow for helping President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war, according to two people monitoring the flow of mercenaries.

A first contingent of soldiers has already arrived in Russia for military training before heading to Ukraine, according to a Western diplomat and a Damascus-based ally of the Syrian government. It includes at least 300 soldiers from a Syrian army division that has worked closely with Russian officers who went to Syria to support Mr. al-Assad during the war.

And many more could be on the way: Recruiters across Syria have been drawing up lists of thousands of interested candidates to be vetted by the Syrian security services and then passed to the Russians.

[…]

On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that about 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor, were already in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, where Russia has installed two separatist enclaves, and that they included Syrians.

NYT (“Russia’s War Lacks a Battlefield Commander, U.S. Officials Say“):

Russia is running its military campaign against Ukraine out of Moscow, with no central war commander on the ground to call the shots, according to American officials who have studied the five-week-old war.

That centralized approach may go a long way to explain why the Russian war effort has struggled in the face of stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, the officials said.

The lack of a unifying military leader in Ukraine has meant that Russian air, ground and sea units are not in sync. Their disjointed battlefield campaigns have been plagued by poor logistics, flagging morale and between 7,000 and 15,000 military deaths, senior U.S. officials and independent analysts say.

It has also contributed to the deaths of at least seven Russian generals as high-ranking officers are pushed to the front lines to untangle tactical problems that Western militaries would leave to more junior officers or senior enlisted personnel.

A senior American official said that NATO officials and the intelligence community had spent weeks waiting for a Russian war commander to emerge. No one has, leaving Western officials to conclude that the men making decisions are far from the fight, back in Moscow: Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu; Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian military; and even President Vladimir V. Putin.

[…]

[I]t is hard to run a military campaign from 500 miles away, U.S. military officials said. The distance alone, they said, can lead to a disconnect between the troops who are doing the fighting and the war plans being drawn up in Moscow. Instead of streamlining the process, they said, Russia has created a military machine that is unable to adapt to a quick and nimble Ukrainian resistance.

A second senior American official said that Russian soldiers, who have been taught not to make a single move without explicit instructions from superiors, had been left frustrated on the battlefield, while Mr. Putin, Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov continued to plot increasingly out-of-touch strategy.

NPR/AP (“Ukraine top of agenda as China, EU prepare to meet at summit“):

The European Union will seek China’s assurances that it won’t assist Russia in circumventing economic sanctions leveled over the invasion of Ukraine at an annual summit Friday.

EU officials say they will also look for signs Beijing is willing to cooperate on bringing an end to the war at the virtual meeting.

[…]

The summit takes place amid sharply rising negative sentiment toward China within the bloc, fueled by China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policies and trade practices.

Beijing has dismissed European criticisms as biased and driven by an anti-China agenda being pursued by its chief global rival, the United States.

The war in Ukraine has thrown those differences into stark relief, with the EU rallying to the Ukrainian cause and China refusing to condemn Russia, while repeating Russian disinformation about the war and criticizing punishing economic sanctions brought against Moscow.

Some Opinions:

Michael Gerson, WaPo, “How long will the West stay aligned against Putin?

Some commentators on the Ukraine war — generally in the class of foreign policy realists — are ready for the denouement before the full story is played out.

[…]

How long will Europe stay united against Putin when countries face energy shortages, lost jobs and the reality of accommodating millions more refugees beyond the 4 million estimated to have already fled? How will Britons react when they experience, say, a 50 percent or more increase in energy costs? Won’t the German advocates of appeasing Putin — who are only temporarily quieted — eventually remake their argument in an atmosphere of acute economic suffering?

The U.S. economy is not as dependent as Europe’s on its economic relationship with Russia. But won’t the disruption of global energy markets — resulting in higher prices at the gasoline pump — place tremendous political pressure on Biden? Might this economic dislocation help return one of Putin’s few remaining allies — Donald Trump — to power?

[…]

First, any likely, hurried peace that is forced on Ukrainians would almost certainly involve territorial concessions to Russia. This would constitute another massive failure of deterrence, essentially inviting Putin to threaten and intimidate non-NATO countries.

Second, while the gung-ho provision of weapons to the Ukrainian army could eventually raise some risk of direct NATO conflict with Russia, we don’t appear close to that point yet. Biden has been correct to avoid a no-fly zone, but he is not yet close to exhausting the number and sophistication of missiles that could be responsibly sent. Missiles to take out more planes, more ships, more tanks. NATO needs to test the further limits of possible victory against Russia in Ukraine. It hasn’t yet.

Third, this might be our generation’s best, and perhaps only, chance to enforce true limits on the greatest threat to European and world peace. Under Putin, Russia is already a rogue terrorist state, closely aligned with China. How will the effective accommodation of Russia’s barbaric aggression make global stability more likely?

Rallying their peoples to accept the temporary economic burdens required to confront Putin is now the main challenge for European leaders and the U.S. president. It will not be easy, but it will certainly be easier than following the Zelensky example.

WSJ Editorial Board, “The European Union’s China Choice

European countries ignored warnings about Vladimir Putin as he built energy and military leverage over the Continent. Will they learn from the experience?

The virtual meeting between top European Union officials and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday should be instructive. Beijing wants the event to reboot talks on a stalled EU-China investment deal. Brussels says “the main focus of the summit will be on the war in Ukraine” and the “dramatic humanitarian crisis created by Russia’s aggression.”

[…]

China’s support for Russia is the most serious but far from only reason Europe is losing patience. Beijing has launched an economic war on EU member Lithuania over its upgraded ties to Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party’s human-rights record remains abysmal. Bullying behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic and stonewalling of the origins investigation hurt China’s credibility. The question is what Europe will do beyond condemnations, token sanctions and the occasional lawsuit.

Europeans point out that the U.S. led the way on deepening economic ties with China and the hope of change through trade was as much American as German. That’s fair, but it’s not an excuse to accommodate an increasingly hostile China now. Mr. Xi has made clear that working with Russia and other revanchist powers to overturn the U.S.-led international order is a key aspiration.

Some Europeans are hopeless. “We are very, very far away from considering the China threat at the same level of Russia,” EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said Tuesday. “It’s not in our interest to lean Russia toward China in order to create a great alliance of China plus other like-minded countries.”

But it is in Europe’s interest not to make itself vulnerable to Chinese economic extortion on supply chains, critical minerals and business investment. Smart companies are already looking for safer investment options outside China without government forcing their hands. Nearly half of German manufacturers that “source significant inputs from China” have said they plan to reduce reliance on China, according to a new ifo Institute survey.

Diversifying sources for medical supplies and rare-earth minerals, along with other strategically important goods, is sound policy. If China invades Taiwan, does Europe really want to be in an even vulnerable than it now is with Russia?

My Two Cents:

The degree to which the West and many of its partners have rallied against Putin’s crimes, often at considerable cost to their short-term interests, has been stunning to see. Bolstered by Ukraine’s resiliency and Russia’s unexpected incompetence, the resolve seems likely to remain steady.

That Ukraine has started attacking Russian logistics capability in Russia itself is not surprising. It’s a natural escalation. That the Wagner Group and various other Russian proxies-mercenaries have entered the fray isn’t surprising, either. Still, both indicate a widening conflict.

The China angle has been a backdrop all along but one understandably underplayed given the mass horror unfolding in real time in front of our eyes. The PRC has the capacity to undercut much of the sanctions regime and has been increasingly flexing its muscles on the world scene, making everyone from Hollywood to Silicon Valley genuflect before it. If the EU is willing to stand up and buck that trend over Ukraine, the US should do everything it can to make that easier.

FILED UNDER: China, Europe, 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. Sleeping Dog says:

    In the Times’ article covering the recruitment of Syrians, it described operatives going from village to village to recruit Syrian fighters. That raises the question of what, if any commitment the Syrians may have, their willingness to fight and maybe mass desertions in the hope of reaching western Europe.

    Krugman this morning delves into the wars effect on the global economy at a macro level.

    There are, however, good reasons to worry that we’re seeing an economic replay of 1914 — the year that ended what some economists call the first wave of globalization, a vast expansion of world trade made possible by railroads, steamships and telegraph cables.

    In his 1919 book “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” John Maynard Keynes — who would later teach us how to understand depressions — lamented what he saw, correctly, as the end of an era, “an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man.” On the eve of World War I, he wrote, an inhabitant of London could easily order “the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep.”

    TL/DR Wealthy nations will see cost rise, developing nations will see a serious setback.

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  2. drj says:

    How long will Europe stay united against Putin

    I think the bigger question is what will happen after the 2024 US presidential elections. Can the West stay united with a Russian stooge in the White House?

    Leaving aside the possibility of some medical crisis, Trump will be the obvious GOP nominee. And it’s not exactly the case that any other likely GOP candidate can be trusted on Russia.

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  3. JohnSF says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    I see Krugman mentions Russian wheat in 1913.
    I think Michael Cain, Lounsbury and myself have all mentioned here that the impact of loss of Ukrainian grain supplies could possible severe impacts on highly import dependent countries, especially in the Middle East.
    Ukraine supplies about 7% of world wheat exports; Russia 18%.
    Lets hope harvests elsewhere are good this year.

    1
  4. JohnSF says:

    China is finding out that its nonsense about “provocative NATO expansion” may play well with “Third World” governments, and Chinese domestic opinion.
    But it infuriates European leaders, who are well aware that it’s nonsense, no matter how often the “realists” (and the tankies) repeat it.

    EU leaders are also aware that China knows that it’s insinuations of American aggressions are b.s. by this point.

    The deduction in European capitals is that China is hankering for a Russian alignment primarily for support against the US if there is a crisis in the Far East (esp. Taiwan). There is nothing else Russia can give, that China can’t buy, from Russia or elsewhere, apart from military potential.

    And that potential power would be leveraged in areas close to Russia: the Middle East, and Europe.

    In other words, Europeans are coming to think China wants Russia as a gun aimed at their heads, and couldn’t care less about the blood price attached.

    Both in terms of pure self-interest, and in revealing the hollowness of Chinese claims to champion “mutual respect between nations”, this is alarming for the EU counties.

    Also, China appears not to grasp that a basic interest of the Europeans (not just ethics but necessity) is a continental zone of order and lawfulness: NO redrawing European frontiers, or dominion, by force.

    I suspect China does not realise the gravity of this challenge to European interest; that it is an existential threat to the post 1945/1989 western order in Europe.

    6
  5. drj says:

    @JohnSF:

    The idea basically is:

    1) A free hand for China in Asia
    2) A Russian veto over security arrangements in Europe
    3) The US back to its shores

    It’s no wonder then that the America first/MAGA crowd finds itself being supported by not the most benevolent of all state actors.

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  6. Kathy says:

    If someone told me Mad Vlad read a book entitled “The Complete Guide on How Not To Wage War From Diplomacy to Battlefield Operations,” and thought to himself “Hey, this all sounds really good. Let’s do that!” I wouldn’t be surprised.

    1
  7. DK says:

    @Kathy: Have you not heard that Vlad the Terrible is still a strategic genius, he’s just playing 5D chess? Duh.

    1
  8. gVOR08 says:

    It’s always fun to see the underdog do well, but I’m having difficulty feeling much optimism. Russia has three and a half times Ukraine’s population and 9 times their GDP. And Russia hasn’t gone nearly as brutal as they’re capable of. Maybe the West’s resupply of Ukraine, economic war, and diplomacy will tip the balance, but I fear in the end Ukraine will be forced to accept a bad deal after suffering greatly. As will a lot of Russians. All because of one man’s delusions about Russia’s place in the world.

    1
  9. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: Indeed. The wheat harvests in Southern med region are already set to be disasters. North Africa drought, rains arriving late aleviating but wheat harvest is buggered.

    If other regions have poor harvest, bad situation.

    1
  10. Sleeping Dog says:
  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    China’s not the only issue. What game does Modi think he’s playing? His real long-term opposition – as opposed to the endless friction with Pakistan – is in Beijing. China doesn’t have allies, it has satrapies. What good does Modi think will come from being the third leg on the China/Russia axis? His markets aren’t in China or Russia, he needs EU and American business. Is this just the autocrats mutual support group?

  12. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    We need to consider India’s strategic position:

    It does not want the continental Asian Great Power balance to be 2 against 1 (it being the 1).
    The idea of Russia being tightly tied to China is worrying.
    Especially as a rational policymaker in Delhi must worry about the reliability of consistent policy in Washington.

    Secondly, India’s armed forces have Soviet or Russian weapons as the core of their equipment. Maintaining that is very important for India.

    Third, any discounts on oil imports are also nice at a time of high prices.

    Fourth, it serves as a rebuke to the west, which India is inclined to believe ignored their interest in leaving Afghanistan, tolerating Pakistani actions, and in being “impartial” over Kashmir.

    Fifth, the old Indian policy establishment (wider than the BJP) has memories of the friendly relations with the USSR back in the day. For instance, Russia supported India over the Bangladesh War, when the US was inclined toward Pakistan.
    Ukraine is viewed as “not our problem”.

    Also, India is rather inclined to view the “white West” with a bit of suspicion and animosity; there is an odd tendency dating to the 1950’s that “imperialism” must involve trans-Oceanic activity.
    The reasoning is a bit daft, but the historic origins plain, to a Brit.
    Though why the BJP still defaults to this is a bit odd, given the Mughals etc.
    But default thinking on politics is often not strictly logical in any country.

    On the whole, I’m inclined to be forgiving of Delhi.
    At this point anyway; if things keep on, and get worse, the time may come to turn the screws.
    Not yet.

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  13. JohnSF says:

    @gVOR08:

    … I fear in the end Ukraine will be forced to accept a bad deal after suffering greatly

    I started out thinking Russia could win the “conventional war”, albeit with difficulty, and at great cost.
    But did not have the forces to control and pacify in the longer term.

    However, I made several mistakes: even though I considered the mud, I didn’t realise quite how bad it would be.

    I did not anticipate the monumental screw-ups and incompetence of the Russian military, and the political pig-headedness of their high command.

    And above, all the bravery and skill of the Ukrainians.

    I had come to think that assaulting Kyiv would break the Russian army.
    But I was wrong: it was broken even before it could stage for siege and/or assault.

    Mariupol still stands.
    And has eaten up vast effort in munitions and likely Russian casulaties
    Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv are no longer encircled.

    Given the losses Russia has likely suffered on the less reported Donbas JFO Lines as well, I suspect Russia does not have the forces to make serious advances anywhere.

    The Russian armoured assault army is gone.
    Throwing raw conscripts, ill-equipped second-line units, reluctant reservists, Syrians etc into the battles will achieve little, give that Ukraine has numerical superiority in terms of battle trained reserves.
    Might as well shoot the recruits in Moscow and save the travel expenses.

    Russia’s putative GDP edge is in extractive industry: gas and oil.
    The manufacturing element is being sanctioned into oblivion; even the extractive will grind to a halt in the medium term.
    Russia is enormously dependent on western machinery/plant/spare/technology.
    If Ukraine has even a fraction of the resources of the NATO to call on, it’s really no contest.

    Russia hasn’t gone nearly as brutal as they’re capable of

    Well, excluding resort to WMD, they have.
    See Mariupol, Kharkiv, etc etc.

    Kyiv has not been bombarded on that scale; but that is largely because the Russian army was unable to get close enough, and secure enough, to set up artillery bombardment positions and supply lines.

    To “win” this war, Russia will need to in effect build a whole new army based on mobilised reserves and conscripts, both needing time to train and equip.
    IMO the economy will go tits-up before they can get that done.

  14. JohnSF says:

    @JohnSF:
    Addition to above re. bombardment.
    Some people have said, “well Russia has not used their heavy bombers”
    IMO largely because they don’t want to lose their heavy bombers.
    Try Tu-160’s or Tu-95’s at high altitude over Kyiv or Lviv, watch the S-300’s light up.

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  15. dazedandconfused says:

    Last I heard the Chinese swore to abide by the sanctions against Russia and suspended the gas pipeline to it. I see no reason the Chinese would feel this op by Putin is in their national interest, yet everybody insists they MUST be in cahoots. per axis of evil theory.

    The Chinese liked the game that was being already played and for good reason, they are the current rising power in the world. Militancy is far, far more likely to screw it up than it is to improve it.

    I suspect it’s a US centric view of the world. Everything has to be about us, it just HAS to be, so everybody is either acting fer or agin’ us.

  16. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    The EU view of the policies of China has very little to do with being “US centric”.

    In fact, I’d say that view is a tad US centric. 🙂

    European countries dislike China’s policies on this for reasons of our own interests, not those of the US.

    And while it is true that China has not overtly supported the invasion, it’s refusal to condemn it and repeated attacks on sanctions as a response, strike Europeans as bespeaking a preference for Russia that is inimical to our vital interests.

    Also the continuing Beijing squawks of justifying “neutrality” because of “NATO expansion at the expense of Russia” are, to European ears, just plain insulting our intelligence.

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  17. JohnSF says:

    @JohnSF:
    @dazedandconfused:
    This does not mean that China is pleased with the current situation.
    As I’ve said before, I suspect Xi is privately not best pleased with Putin right now.
    And Beijing will, naturally, try to maximise it’s interests and gains in the situation, at the expense of both the US and Russia.
    The EU is merely putting down it’s own marker: maximise at our expense, and expect repayment in kind.

  18. rachel says:

    @JohnSF:

    As I’ve said before, I suspect Xi is privately not best pleased with Putin right now.

    I’d bet money he’s not.

  19. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF: Again, last I heard China agreed to abide the sanctions.

  20. JohnMcC says:

    @JohnSF: In my rather compulsive foraging through the internet scratching for information about the conduct of the war, I came across the interesting “fact” (that I cannot verify of course) that Ukraine had been cycling their reserves through the Dunbas fighting and now has something like 400,000 experienced soldiers.

    And in pertinent news, Russia has apparently stopped the delivery of natural gas to the Baltic states. Ta DAH!

  21. JohnSF says:

    @JohnMcC:
    Going into smug mode: I mentioned this force rotation pattern some time back here (at least a month ago I think: oh for a decent comment search tool!).
    First time I saw it on the internets (IIRC) via either RUSI or a Twitter military academic Brit (Philips O’Brien?) a little before the invasion began.
    And fits with what a Ukrainian relative’s friend told me back in 2016.

    Russia has apparently stopped the delivery of natural gas to the Baltic states.

    Lithunanians reply:
    “We don’ need no steenkin’ gas”