When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Moscow promised it would be a short “special military operation.” Yet last week’s annexation by Moscow of Ukrainian territory has probably guaranteed the war will stretch on beyond 2022, as it enters a new, even riskier phase.
The annexation of about 15-20 percent of Ukraine represents the largest forcible annexation of land in Europe since 1945. It includes about 45,000 square miles, including much of the nation’s heavy industry and agricultural wealth.
Almost 230 days into the war, there is much speculation about what will come next but there is only one certainty: The conflict has entered a more dangerous phase. Russia’s latest moves also mean it is probable the conflict will become a lengthy war of attrition and is increasingly likely to extend not only into 2023 but possibly for years to come.
Moscow’s partial mobilizations of additional troops, along with the annexations, suggest Russia is probably committed to the conflict for the long haul.
While Moscow depicts the annexations as a Russian triumph, they actually reflect weakness rather than strength. To be sure, annexation has long been part of Moscow’s “game plan” but the events of last week were moved up on the timeline given the need for some “good news” that could be shared with the Russian people, to help justify the new mobilizations of troops to fight in Ukraine.
These events make the war even more dangerous because the annexations transform the conflict, from Moscow’s perspective, from an offensive operation into one of self-defense. That is because Russia will now try to define these annexed lands as part of its own larger territory, which has raised fears of escalation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will “use any means to defend Russia’s territory,” including nuclear weapons. While it is less likely that he would follow through on such nuclear threats imminently, they should nevertheless be taken seriously in the context of what is a fast-moving situation on the ground, especially if Russia suffers further reversals in coming months.
Despite Moscow’s crackdown on dissent, protests have taken place and at least 200,000 Russians have fled the country since the announcement of the partial mobilization order that activated hundreds of thousands of reservists.
The annexation move aims, in one stroke of a pen, to transform the conflict from a faraway, limited “special military operation” that Russians can be jailed for even describing as a war, into a battle to defend Russia’s own territory, rather than an attack on Ukraine’s.
Ukraine, which last week applied for fast-track NATO membership, said its plans remain unchanged and its offensive to recapture all territory now in Russian hands continues. Russian forces have been defeated in Lyman and dozens of other settlements this month as Ukrainian soldiers continue their counteroffensive in the east of the country, which allows them to threaten Russian positions along the western Luhansk region.
“Russia’s latest moves indicate it is prepared to commit to a longer war, stretching at least into 2023.” – Andrew Hammond
These new dimensions to the conflict might mean that Europe and the wider West’s staunch support for Ukraine, which has made major advances in the east and the south in recent weeks, comes with a higher risk premium given that there is no sign that Kyiv’s forces will give up the fight to restore control over the annexed districts, using weaponry and materials supplied by the West.
Ultimately, states in Europe and the wider West must continue to walk a tightrope between support for Ukraine and a perilous escalation of the conflict. The more dangerous the war becomes, the more important it will be to respond with the balance of prudence, unity and resolve that has for the most part characterized the West’s response to date.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced this week an eighth package of sanctions designed to try to make the Kremlin pay for the escalation of its war against Ukraine. This includes a price cap on Russian oil, and it also aims to punish the Russian steel industry and deprive the Kremlin’s military forces of key technologies, including bans on target semiconductors, aircraft and specific chemical substances crucial to the country’s armed forces. Separately, tighter restrictions across the bloc are planned on short-stay visas for visiting Russians.
Yet it is not only the EU but also other G7 states that are ramping up the pressure on Russia after its annexations in Ukraine last week. The UK, for instance, implemented a ban on the export of nearly 700 products that are crucial to Russia’s industrial and technological capabilities.
This is in addition to a new ban on the export of goods and services targeting vulnerable sectors of the Russian economy. Building on previous action, the UK will block Russian access to IT consultancy services, architectural services, engineering services, advertising services, transactional legal advisory services, and auditing services.
In this context, and amid much Western euphoria following recent Ukrainian battlefield victories, there is even some speculation that Kyiv could win the war in the coming weeks. While that possibility cannot entirely be discounted, Russia’s latest moves indicate it is prepared to commit to a longer war, stretching at least into 2023, and is now doubling down on its ambitions.