If you expected things to come to a grinding halt for a few months as winter takes hold in Ukraine and Russia, it looks as if you may need to think again. Military analysts are confidently predicting that Ukraine will intensify its counteroffensive in the south to drive through Russian forces and isolate Crimea ahead of a possible attempt to regain the territory it lost in 2014.
Now the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhny, has said he believes Russia may be gearing up for a fresh attempt at Kyiv, after its failure to take Ukraine’s capital in the early months of the invasion. “The Russians are preparing some 200,000 fresh troops. I have no doubt they will have another go at Kyiv,” he said in an interview with The Economist.
Meanwhile Ukrainian drones have continued to strike at military targets within Russia itself. In recent days a Russian airbase in Kursk, about 280 miles south of Moscow and well inside it’s border with Ukraine.
Last week Ukrainian drones struck air bases in the Saratov and Ryazan oblasts, both hundreds of miles inside Russia as well as destroying an oil storage facility near Kursk airbase. Ukraine has been careful not to claim responsibility for these strikes, preferring to maintain ambiguity over who is responsible for these attacks on sovereign Russian soil, which might prompt Russia to escalate dramatically.
Stefan Wolff, an expert in international security at the University of Birmingham, runs us through the likely outcomes of Ukraine taking the war into Russian soil using drones. He doesn’t believe drones alone can materially affect the result of the war, but writes that the attacks hand Kyiv a significant morale booster while showing the Russian people that Ukraine has the ability to strike back at them. He also notes the interesting position taken by Washington, which insists it “neither enabled nor encouraged” the attacks, but is reported to have tacitly approved the strikes.
While we’re on the subject of drones, here’s an authoritative take on both sides’ use of the weapons from earlier in the conflict, by Brendan Walker-Munro of the University of Queensland, whose research has focused on the use of autonomous weapons and unmanned vehicles in war. Walker-Munro reminds us that in 2017, Vladimir Putin said of drones that “the one who becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world”.
Ukraine is clearly keen to let Putin know that they, too, have drones and know how to use them.
Away from the battlefield
It’s been a cold week across much of Europe, a reminder – if any were needed – of the importance of fuel in this conflict. In October, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU had replaced two-thirds of its Russian gas imports since February by switching to other suppliers.
Anastasiya Shapochkina, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris whose specialism is energy, notes that Europe has a long way to go before it can claim to have energy security. She suggests the rest of the continent could do worse than Lithuania, which has pursued energy independence since Russia cut off its gas supplies in 1993 for non-payment. Lithuania responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by switching off imports of “toxic” Russian gas completely.
If one of Russia’s tactics since the invasion began in February has been to mess with European economies through energy shortages and price hikes, the west’s main tactic, apart from supplying Kyiv with the latest advanced weaponry, has been to mess with the Russian economy using sanctions.
As we have noted before here, they have probably not achieved all they had hoped, as Russia is able to evade many of the sanctions via trade deals with the likes of China and India. And putting an embargo on billionaire oligarch’s yachts might well enrage the individuals concerned, but they don’t appear to have destabilised Putin, which was surely their aim.
But, as Robert Huish notes, we are finally starting to see some targeted sanctions which may prove to be more effective. Huish, an associate professor in international development studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, believes new measures announced this week, which target Russian shipping by denying P&I maritime insurance to Russian oil tankers, could really hit Russia where it hurts.
He says these are the sanctions which proved most effective when used against Iran and North Korea. There are now more than 3,000 Russian ships that are effectively stranded at sea.
China may not have actively condemned the Russian invasion, but its president, Xi Jinping, has repeatedly stressed the importance of sovereignty and of protecting the integrity of national borders. All of which might imply there is indeed a limit to the apparently “no-limits friendship” the two countries declared when the two leaders met in Beijing during the Winter Olympics in February, just weeks before the invasion.
But Ariel Shangguan, an assistant professor in international relations at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in China, has had a closer look at this relationship. Shangguan, who studies the different linguistic and cultural context in international diplomacy, has particularly honed in on the term used to define this relationship.
In Russia the word used is “friendship”, while the Chinese have stuck with “friendliness”. This has been the same language used by the two countries ever since a treaty was signed between the pre-communist government of China and the Soviet Union in 1945. Shangguan recounts how the word “friendship” between the two countries came to imply an uneven power balance, with Russia as the dominant force. You certainly could’t say the same thing now.