Russia-Ukraine conflict: What changed over the summer
August 23, 2022
  • Mikhail Vinogradov

    President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation
Mikhail Vinogradov shares his observations on the actions of the authorities and the news flow in recent months, on Russia's relations with its neighbors and far-away countries, and trends in public perception.
A Russian armored column near Kyiv, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Despite the fact that the summer seems more conducive to military operations, the flow of actual military news slowed over the summer months. It is debatable whether there was a real reduction in the intensity of hostilities or casualties, but still the news looked less extreme versus February-May.

Given the relative slowdown in the news flow, it is clearly harder to identify trends. The observer inevitably has a feeling of deja vu, that the fighting has been concentrated around the same areas, that the balance of power has remained unchanged. Watchers have increasingly noted that neither side has the initiative. In sports terms, it’s a draw, and it’s always harder to commentate a draw.

Nevertheless, let's try to highlight some things that before summer hadn’t manifested themselves or hadn’t been so obvious.

Expectations of a long war

In spring, most commentators were focused on the sense of shock and surrealness. Meanwhile, any news that indicated the possibility of a quick peace triggered much interest. The most notable examples included the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, the April talks in Istanbul and speculation that the Russian leadership would announce an end to the operation ahead of May 9.

By summer, the situation had changed: the notion had become ingrained that a long, protracted war lay ahead, one that wouldn’t end at least until the year-end or even in the worst case could go on for perhaps decades.

The successful negotiations on Ukrainian grain exports didn’t give rise to expectations that the compromise reached would extend to the crisis as a whole. It has gone practically unnoticed that in the speeches of officials the goals of the operation are formulated more and more vaguely (including by Vladimir Putin, who in his statements has concentrated on the DNR and LNR and avoided mentioning Ukraine). Moscow's calls to accelerate negotiations and official Kyiv's deflecting of them were read as part of a political ritual, since the differences between the sides remained so insurmountable.

However, such skepticism doesn’t quite mean that a quick peace is fundamentally unattainable. Recall that the Minsk agreements in spring 2015 also didn’t arouse much enthusiasm but essentially laid the foundation for a relatively lasting truce for seven years. At the same time, past examples of de-escalation are completely absent from the current agenda.
Examples of discoordination pile up

The inconsistent performance of the Russian army over six months can be attributed to a number of factors: underestimation of the enemy, tactical errors, "sabotage” and unpreparedness for large-scale mobilization. In addition, quite naturally the nomenklatura lacks a single achievable and measurable goal.

Over the course of the summer, episodes confirming the impression of discoordination within the administrative elite piled up. It’s not only attempts by the direct administrators to lay the blame on "disorganization" or "subcontractors" – such behavior is logical in any system during wartime. For a long time, in the official and semi-official discourse the thesis circulated about a rapid loss of interest among the European and world public toward what was happening in Ukraine and their readiness to move on to other issues – be it the energy shortage, an influx of refugees from North Africa or the US midterm elections. Such reasoning was supported by the previous experience of the Soviet Union and Russia. For example, the 1956 invasion of Hungary took place in the shadow of a regular crisis in the Middle East, while Soviet troops crossed the border into Afghanistan in 1979 and Grozny was (unsuccessfully) stormed in 1994 in the middle of the Western Christmas holidays.

Distracting the world from Ukraine could have been done had the number of major news events from the front been kept down. However, the opposite happened: the events in Kremenchuk (June 27), Vinnytsia (July 14) and Yelenovka (July 29) gave the global press and public a powerful moral impetus to stay focused on the hostilities.

The bombing of the port of Odessa the day after the Istanbul agreement on grain exports looked very odd and received a variety of explanations, from Moscow's firm statements about the inadmissibility of a broad interpretation of the agreement to an attempt to torpedo the very atmosphere of partial compromise.
"The 24-hour gap between the attack on the port and explanations from Russian officials added to the oddity of the situation."
Ukrainian strikes deliver a knockdown

The war spilling over into Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk regions, together with the shelling of bridges near Kherson and the August explosions in Crimea, became a serious source of stress for the Russian side, which not long before had managed to rather effectively obscure the news about the Moskva cruiser. The new escalations in summer generally weren’t ignored officially, though their coverage indicated a desire to avoid excessive emotionality and avoid the topic of a potential “retaliatory” mobilization and reaction from Moscow. Taking advantage of this, the Ukrainian side widely interpreted Moscow's restrained tone as a sign of confusion and loss of the strategic initiative.

There was even a curious hypothesis that Russia had shied away from retaliatory actions including so as not to poison public opinion. The version of the targets having “caught fire” supposedly triggered less anxiety among Russians than reports about an unsecure situation in border regions and Crimea. Interestingly, the Ministry of Defense's official statement about "sabotage" in Crimea on August 18 gave rise to speculation that attention may be being drawn to an ineffective fight against "saboteurs" and shifted from purely military aspects to the work of the special services.
CSTO Meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Isolation in the former CIS

The post-Soviet space is not a politically unified whole today, and membership of former republics in various integration projects (Collective Security Treaty Organization, Eurasian Economic Community) hasn’t contributed to a certain general line being worked out. This repeats the experience of 2014, when the annexation of Crimea triggered a very cool reaction from many CIS members, including those nominally friendly toward Russia, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan.

By summer 2022, the coldness of Minsk and Astana toward the actions of Moscow again made itself felt. Minsk didn’t officially change its rhetoric and didn’t restrict the presence of Russian troops on its territory, but its dodging of direct participation in the hostilities became more and more obvious. Meanwhile, the discussions around Kazakhstan at the St Petersburg economic forum and the subsequent suspension of operations by the Caspian Pipeline Consortium represented clear signs of growing problems in Kazakhstan-Russia relations – despite the assistance provided by Russian troops in early 2022 during the unrest in Alma-Ata and Astana.

Interestingly, the cooling of relations with Belarus and Kazakhstan has been partly offset by a relatively loyal reaction on the part of Georgia and Armenia. Tbilisi was noticeably cautious in its remarks about Moscow's actions. Although the countries still don’t have diplomatic relations, Georgia hasn’t been included in Russia’s list of “unfriendly” countries. In Yerevan, the view that it was Russia that “saved” Armenia during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war has gained wide popularity. The idea of Russian support is especially significant against the backdrop of Azerbaijan's recent actions, which can be interpreted as ideological preparations for a new offensive. The periodic excesses in the Karabakh conflict zone can be seen as an element of pressure and ambiguity on the part of Azerbaijan and Turkey – the specter of a second front makes Moscow nervous.

Window for bargaining and concessions opening back up

Despite the near-complete rupture in Russia's relations with many foreign countries, the window for compromise on local issues is still not closed. In some cases, it is through intermediaries, with the grain agreement an example, while in others it is the result of direct interaction. Following the release and return to Russia of pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been in an American prison for more than a decade, similar expectations arose regarding Viktor Bout and possible swap initiatives from Moscow.

The sides didn’t offer a clear political interpretation of how such agreements and swaps are taking place at the height of the Ukraine conflict. It would seem that in the current atmosphere of emphatically harsh rhetoric, any talk of retreat or concessions sounds like "betrayal" or "treason."
"Yet as is the case with diplomatic bargaining, the window for military and political concessions remains open."
Following the withdrawal of troops from Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, the Russian garrison left Snake Island on June 30. In late August, the possibility of postponing “referendums” on the territory of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions to join Russia was raised. 

Strategy of domestic critics in Russia remains uncertain

Despite the dubious results for Russia, together with the ironic references to the line that “everything is going according to plan,” no serious intra-elite disruption can be observed in Russia. At the same time, critics of the operation show little interest in developing a more substantive and thoughtful strategy. Convinced that the majority of the country supports the actions of the authorities, many are experiencing loneliness and depression.

Over the past months, the number of opposition media platforms has grown; however, they are more inclined to support morale and “team building” among like-minded people than influence a neutral and undecided audience or members of the establishment.
"Critics were more willing to talk about how strong the Russian regime was than about possible failures and misfires in the actions of the administrative apparatus and the armed forces, or about inconsistencies between actions taken and official statements."
In addition, critically minded observers are prone to shifting their focus to emotional, relatively peripheral topics, such as possible problems with visas for Russian citizens. Much more often it is Ukrainian experts who are the key analysts of possible problems accompanying the hostilities.
Norwegian M109A3GN in Ukraine, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Strategies of Kyiv and its allies

There is still ambiguity in Ukraine's actions. Promises of a coming counter-offensive were important to boost morale but weren’t followed up with serious attempts to actually go on the offensive. When assessing what Kyiv’s next moves are, two approaches competed: one was based on the idea that negotiations with Moscow were off limits and that Kyiv was ready to fight till the end, while the other approach saw cautious hints that Kyiv wouldn’t agree to negotiations until it tried to counterattack.

More often than in spring, the growing contradictions within the Ukrainian establishment have made themselves felt, from reshuffles in the leadership of the special services to criticism by city mayors in global publications about certain decisions of the national government. These contradictions weren’t critical (especially since Moscow's ability to play on them is very limited) but nevertheless became an increasingly noticeable concomitant factor.

The most acute contradictions between Kyiv's allies (especially between the US and UK on the one hand and Germany and France on the other) have been settled. Two variables played out: the competition between the appetite for war and the energy shortage, and the upcoming US midterm elections. Related to the latter was the release in mid-August of confidential information about the US-Ukraine talks that took place right before the outbreak of hostilities, as well as disputes about the appropriateness of Kyiv's reaction to information about the threat of war.

In the international arena, attempts were made – and not without the help of the US – to probe the appetite of countries that could escalate certain issues (China, North Korea, Iran) and thus create another major point of tension in the world. Based on what we have seen, we can cautiously conclude that these countries aren’t yet inclined to coordinate joint actions with Moscow aimed at starting a global fire. The most striking example was the Taiwan mini crisis, which caused a relatively cautious reaction from Beijing and didn’t trigger major military or diplomatic moves.

A potentially problematic area for Ukraine's allies is Africa, where most countries have taken a neutral stance regarding the conflict. World history hasn’t seen serious and successful attempts to build a coalition with African countries –  though there is still the risk of a humanitarian disaster today, as well as the manipulation of their governments.
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