Ukraine:Serious Escalation on the Horizon

There are darker clouds of war on the horizon. The escalation is likely to be qualitatively different from the events so far. Russia has mercilessly pounded the entire territory of Ukraine with no respect for civilian residential areas and with a particular focus on civilian infrastructure. The power generation and transmission infrastructure has been specifically targeted. Water supply infrastructure has been also bearing the brunt of Putin’s fury. Schools, hospitals and theatres have been hit by Russia’s missiles, either by design or due to the inaccuracy of the weapons. The mercenary group Wagner has taken charge of entire theatres of war, contrary to all tenets of international law, conventions and treaties. Wagner’s soldiers, like all mercenaries, are criminals under laws of war as well as domestic criminal law. In spite of all this, Zelensky has so far held his hand from attacking Russia and has limited offensive to areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia. Even when incidents have been reported in Russian territory, Ukraine has desisted from confirming its involvement. That is likely to change in the near future.

On February 7, 2023, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Defence Minister had warned that NATO’s supply of heavy offensive weapons to Ukraine is openly urging Ukraine “to seize our territories.” He said that this is “dragging NATO countries into the conflict and could lead to unpredictable levels of escalation.” “Our territories” may have referred to the regions of Ukraine that Russia has declared as annexed viz. Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Crimea. But could it also mean Russian territory too? Is there a possibility of war extending into Russia and Belarus after one year of the one-sided pounding of Ukraine?

Repeated allusions and even direct threats from the Russian side, of escalation to the use of nuclear weapons, had so far increased the level of caution exercised by the West. Ukraine’s demand for long-range artillery and missiles have been turned down because of the apprehension that there may be a temptation in Kiev to attack Russian territory. Repeated requests of Zelensky for advanced fighter jets have also been ignored, both by the US and the EU, for the same reason. Yet, on January 19, 2023, Dmitry Medvedev, Chairman of Russia’s Security Council and a confidante of Putin had warned, “The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war.” From the NATO side, however, clear signals have been given to Russia about the consequences of the use of a nuclear device including a “dirty” bomb. Former CIA director and retired US  general David Petraeus had warned in October last year that although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the spillover of nuclear radiation over a NATO member country could be construed as an attack on a member country and trigger an Article 5 response. Article 5 says that an attack on one or more of the member countries countries “in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had said on September 25, 2022, that it has been spelled out to Russia that the nuclear escalation will bring “catastrophic consequences for Russia.”  CNN had reported on October 27, 2022, the statement of Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, “We’ve also communicated directly and very clearly to the Russians, President Putin, about the consequences,” if Russia used nuclear weapons.  On November 15, 2022, the White House had disclosed that CIA Director William Burns had met his Russian counterpart Sergey Naryshkin in Ankara, not to conduct negotiations of any kind, but to convey “a message on the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia.” From all accounts it appears that the message has gone home and now Zelensky is convinced that for all the nuclear sabre-rattling, the possibility of a nuclear attack on Ukraine has become remote.

It is becoming clear that Russia is running short of armour, artillery and ammunition, with production capacity falling considerably short of the rate of use. A report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies says that Russia has lost half of its advanced battle tanks. The Economist, in an article “How quickly can Russia rebuild its tank fleet?” on February 28, 2023 had reported that the only tank factory in Russia UralVagonZavod can produce just 20 tanks per month against the need of 200. Russia has thousands of old tanks and it is resorting to restoring them but is hampered by shortage of chips and appears to be using chips from imported dishwashers and refrigerators as substitutes, but it compromises seriously on the efficacy of the weapon systems. Even with such improvisation, the total production cannot recoup the monthly losses. The situation is worse with ammunition and use of 40-year old artillery shells has been reported. The Economist had carried an article on December 20, 2022, “Is Russia running out of ammunition: Many of its shells are probably older than the conscripts firing them.”  A February, 2023, report by the Institute for the Study of War says that Russia’s equipment and manpower “necessary to sustain a successful large-scale offensive” has been “significantly depleted.” Even as news started filtering in that China may provide weapons to Russia, the AP reported on February 20, 2023, that the US has tried to persuade and even warn China  not to do so. There is no indication so far that China has sent any weapons or ammunition to Russia though it does appear that some dual-use technologies and material may have been shared. By all indications, Russia will have to scale down its offensive after a month or so.

Encouraged by this scenario, Ukraine and the partisans in Belarus seem to have become more bold. On February 27, 2023, anti-government activists in Belarus claimed that they had blown up a sophisticated Russian surveillance aircraft near the capital Minsk in a drone attack. Since July last year, there have been dozens of drone attacks on military facilities and air bases in Crimea with significant losses of hardware and aircraft. During December 2022, drones attacked military bases, airforce stations and oil installation in Russia causing multiple casualties, fires and loss of hardware. On the night of 28th February, a drone targeted a gas compression station just 100 kilometers from Moscow. Though the drone clipped trees and crashed a few meters short of the target, it showed how the Russian capital itself is being drawn into the war. On the same day, the airspace over Saint Petersburg had to be closed because of an air-raid alert due to a suspected missile attack. Moscow claimed later that their system was hacked to issue a false alarm. Yet, at the same time drones attacked Rosneft oil depot in the Krasnodar region causing a huge fire. Two more drone incidents were reported on that day within Russia. On March 2, 2023 a partisan group of Russians, operating from Ukraine attacked the Russian village of Lyubichane and Putin called it a “terrorist” attack.

All this points to a conclusion that Ukraine is convinced of the decline in Russian capability to sustain the offensive. The attacks on Russian territory may be aimed at “persuading” Putin to stop attacking Ukrainian cities. In the past, such drone attacks have been followed by intense missile barrage on Ukrainian cities. The increased intensity of drone attacks on Russia shows that Ukraine is willing to carry on in spite of such Russian response. Russian-American writer Masha Gressen had said, “Dictators fall when they’re overconfident; they stay in power when they’re paranoid.” Putin is certainly paranoid. Is Zelensky becoming overconfident?

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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