Over three months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Paul Rogers and Richard Reeve explore the dynamics of a war whose destructive impact on global human security is spreading and worsening.  

After almost one hundred days of fighting, the Ukraine War is approaching a violent stalemate. Ukrainian resistance and strong support from NATO mean that Russia cannot achieve its original war aims, yet it controls large swathes of southern and eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has broken Russian offensives in several areas but is steadily losing ground in the Donbas and Putin retains the option of resorting to weapons of mass destruction should he be facing defeat. The prospects for early negotiations are currently minimal.

As well as the huge human costs in Ukraine, and the increasing costs in Russia, the war is also having an impact on global human security, directly in the form of food shortages and indirectly in its economic consequences. These are likely to get significantly worse from the autumn if the war grinds on.

Four elements need to be considered in looking for possible ways to decrease tensions and ultimately achieve a peaceful outcome: the political context in Russia; Putin’s evolving war aims; attitudes towards a negotiated peace settlement in Ukraine, Russia and other countries; and the growing human security impact of the crisis well beyond Europe.

Eurasia rising: The Russian political context

When the Soviet Union fractured at the start of the 1990s, the collapse of the world’s largest centrally planned economy was seen as a triumph for the Western economic model, this having moved decidedly over the previous decade in the direction of market fundamentalism focused on free market shareholder capitalism. The Soviet collapse was taken by many as powerful evidence of the “end of history”, especially as the other centre of central planning, China, was already moving towards a hybrid model of authoritarian capitalism and had recently faced its most significant internal protests in four decades.

Aided by strong encouragement from the IMF, World Bank, EU and especially the United States, Russia embraced the Western system, but this was little short of disastrous throughout the 1990s. Under President Boris Yeltsin, hyper-capitalism brought on a kleptocracy in which thousands of people acquired sudden wealth, but society fractured into a small elite and mass poverty. At its worst, inflation peaked at 2,300% per year, one-third of Russians were in poverty and there was a 6-year decrease in life expectancy. In parallel, Western attitudes to Russia bordered on contempt at a failing state. NATO had won the Cold War and, by the time that Russia’s economy crashed for a second time in 1998, was preparing to greatly extend its border with Russia through the accession of Poland (in 1999) and the Baltic States (in 2004).

Vladimir Putin, with his security and intelligence experience, took control from 1999 onwards. He progressively embedded control in himself and a core group drawn mainly from those services. He brutally crushed Chechen resistance, curbed the separatist inclinations of other parts of the federation, and used selective arrests to ensure the compliance of the oligarchy. Helped by high oil and gas prices in the decade from 2004, the economy recovered and the Putin regime sought to re-establish Russia as a great power internationally. From his second elected term (2004-08) onwards he relentlessly pointed to the West’s treatment of Russia as a deep injustice to the Russian people, an attitude popular with older Russians who remembered the era of Russian-led Soviet power before the humiliation of the 1990s.

By the time Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, after four years as prime minister, it was clearer that his primary aim was to establish a “Greater Russia” at the centre of a wider Eurasia that could readily counter the power of the West, an outlook sometimes described as ethno-fascism with a touch of imperial Tsardom. This militarised “Eurasianism” was rooted in an otherwise obscure element of Russian political philosophy dating back to exiled White Russians in the 1920s, promoted by a small minority during the Soviet era, notably Lev Gumilev. Under Putin this thinking came to the fore, the recent Guru figure being Alexander Dugin.

The Russian military were used selectively as he moved to expand international influence with the war in Georgia (2008), the annexing of Crimea (2014) and support for separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine, support for Assad in Syria (2015) and more recent involvement in paramilitary violence across Africa, from Libya to Mozambique to Mali.

Ever decreasing circles: Russia’s diminishing war aims

In continuation of this Greater Russia agenda, Putin ordered the “special military operation” in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 with three main aims: to gain supremacy of the skies over and seas around Ukraine through “demilitarisation” of Ukrainian defences; to advance rapidly to take Kyiv and terminate the “Nazi” Zelensky government; and to achieve full control of areas (oblasts) in the Donbas region claimed by the secessionist “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. If air and naval forces are included, Russia put forward well over 200,000 military personnel but it did not go for full military mobilisation or, indeed, a declaration of war. That was not thought necessary as little opposition was expected. Total Russian ground forces moving into Ukraine were around 145,000.

Putin anticipated disunity within the EU and NATO while he was also confident of substantial support from China. The war was not expected to last more than a very few weeks, with much of that restricted to small pockets of opposition once the Zelensky government had been replaced.

The key was taking Kyiv in the first 2-3 days but the Ukrainian military were ready for airborne landings at the Antonov airstrip close to the capital. It took elite Russian forces 36 hours to gain control instead of 6-12 hours. In the first week of the war the Russians also failed to gain air superiority let alone air supremacy and only in the south-east was some progress made by troops advancing from Crimea. Even that was far slower than expected, with the strategically located industrial port city of Mariupol not fully controlled for almost three months. Efforts to push west from Crimea to take the Black Sea ports of Mykolaiv and Odessa were repulsed in the first ten days of fighting.

The failure of the Russian operation was down to multiple factors. The expectation of widespread civil support for Russia was wrong, informed by optimistic intelligence assessments presented to please Putin. Ukrainians were strongly resistant to Russian advances and the Ukraine military had far higher morale than expected, the resistance to the air assault in the first 24 hours being crucial. Light arms, especially portable anti-armour missiles from NATO states, were supplied in quantity. Ukrainian conventional and special forces drew on eight years of experience fighting in the Donbas, as well as more recent Western training. US and British intelligence on a 24/7 basis gave the Ukrainian military a further boost, not least given Russia’s own skewed intelligence and limited situational awareness.

Russian logistic support was very low quality and casualties mounted rapidly. Although data on casualties is subject to major propaganda efforts by both parties, the Russian military death toll after three months is likely to be at least 15,000. Given the nature of this kind of warfare, those seriously injured, absconders or prisoners will be, at the very least, a further 30,000, giving losses of troops of at least 45,000, close to a third of all the Russian forces committed.

Within days of the onset of the invasion, the main Russian war aim was reduced to undermining Ukrainian civil and military morale by artillery and air-launched attacks on Kyiv and on Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv, thus forcing a Ukrainian surrender. This, too, failed, and Russia withdrew its forces from around Kyiv at the end of March as well as being forced into substantive withdrawals from around Kharkiv in early May.

Russia is now concentrating on gaining territory in the Donbas region while staging some missile attacks on major cities, but its ground attack missiles are subject to high rates of failure, with a further complication being serious production problems due to sanctions affecting supplies of key components from Western states. Thus, while Russia still has vast amounts of conventional, “dumb” shells, bombs and rockets with which to pulverise the Donbas, it has few reliable options to pursue more than a tokenistic “strategic” campaign against the rest of Ukraine.

As for Ukraine’s military, while its forces have won the battles for Kyiv, Mykolaiv and Kharkhiv, sunk the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, destroyed more armoured vehicles than any Western European country holds in its total inventory, and denied Russia control of its skies, it remains under huge sustained pressure in Donbas and all its vital sea ports are blockaded.

Prospects for peace talks 

A negotiated settlement, or even a limited ceasefire, is currently not in prospect. Despite the damage and loss of life, the Ukrainian government is still willing to negotiate with Russia but says it will not concede territory. Russia persists with its attacks, with Putin and his immediate team showing no sign of compromise. Russian state media is insistent on Russia being under NATO attack, this being easier to argue given the increasing level of NATO involvement. There is little open opposition to the war within Russia, with strong levels of public order control being maintained. Such accurate information as is available points to more questioning among younger Russians and more support for the war from the older population.

Sanctions are now having an effect on Russia but are not as game-changing as many imagined in the first days of the war. Chinese support for Russia may be more nuanced than at the start of the war but remains reasonably firm. It prefers to refrain from criticising Russia rather than offering overt diplomatic, let alone military support.

On the other hand, support for NATO across the Global South is less than Western states expected, a “plague on both your houses” being a common view. Recent polling of public opinions of Russia (though not necessarily its actions in Ukraine) found net positive views in China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan (four of the world’s five most populous states) as well as much of the Arab world and South East Asia. Other than the experience of imperial and neo-colonial suppression that so many such states recall, equivocal attitudes to the war in Ukraine in much of the non-West most likely stems from the experience of the death and destruction of the US/NATO-led wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere, still much higher than in Ukraine and without any meaningful international accountability.

The Ukrainian willingness to negotiate remains positive, the main obstacle being Putin’s position. Unknown factors include the impact of the Russian war losses, not just on the families and friends of those killed and maimed but also on wider societal attitudes. This was ultimately significant in the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89. At 14,500 the Soviet losses there were similar to those in Ukraine but over nearly a decade not three months, and from a total population twice the size of Russia’s current one.

The impact of sanctions is by no means certain. If there is a consensus among analysts, it is of a cumulative impact, which may be grievous but in the long term. Otherwise, possible factors might be a change in China’s attitude, opposition to Putin from within the armed forces, and growing questions over Putin’s own state of health.

One problem at present is the tendency for Western politicians and retired military to see the war as requiring a complete victory, sufficient to remove Russia as a serious military challenger to Western interests. Not only does this play into the hands of Putin and “the threat from NATO” but it is not clear how a powerfully armed nuclear state can be defeated on its home territory – and this is certainly how Putin and very many Russians see Crimea – in the conventional sense. While an easy case can be made for the justice of Ukraine regaining full control of all its territory, there is a sense that Ukrainian blood and soil is being backed by Western money to bog and grind down the Russian military in an open-ended struggle on Europe’s far periphery.

Global human security impacts

The war in Ukraine is having a considerable impact on food, energy and economic security across the world at a time of high inflation and a growing food crisis, the impact being felt most among poorer communities and especially across the Global South. To make matters worse this comes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed 15-20 million globally and weakened already struggling communities.

The food issue is particularly worrying as Ukraine is the world’s fourth or fifth largest wheat and maize exporter and the leading global producer of sunflower oil. Its granaries were already mostly full, awaiting export, when the war and blockade began. Most of this year’s crops can therefore be neither stored nor exported, even assuming they can be harvested. This year the impact will be further exacerbated by climate factors, especially the extreme heat wave affecting much of South Asia, with India banning all wheat exports from 13 May. Other major producers of grains and cooking oils, including Argentina, Indonesia and Kazakhstan, have also contributed to price rises by imposing export restrictions. Russia has meanwhile restricted its own exports of chemical fertilisers (about 15-20% of world supplies), which has sent prices soaring and is likely to reduce crop yields in the poorest countries.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has reported that the number of people experiencing “acute food insecurity” has increased from 108 million to 193 million in 53 countries in the past five years, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The WFP forecasts a further 47 million increase, partly through the effects of the war on harvesting and distribution of grain and vegetable oils from Ukraine.

This is bad news for the Ukrainian economy, for consumers anywhere in the world impacted by higher prices, and potentially devastating for the poorest in countries most dependent on wheat and Ukrainian imports. This includes such potentially volatile countries as Egypt, Lebanon and Pakistan. While the price impact may already be manifest, the actual shortage of supply will become steadily more biting over time.

The other big impact economically has been the shock to global energy prices, given Russia’s status as the world’s largest gas exporter and second largest oil exporter. The European Union is making efforts to end its dependence on Russian gas (over 40% of its pre-war supplies) and oil (some 30% of its pre-war supplies) before demand for heating energy surges again in the autumn.

Progress has been patchy and depends in large part in the short term in finding alternative sources of oil and gas from other authoritarian states. The UK – which already had very low dependency on Russian energy imports – has also used it as an opportunity to bypass prior commitments not to develop its own new oil and gas fields.

Meanwhile, thanks to the surge in energy prices, European states have been paying Russia some $23 billion per month for their energy supplies, double what they were paying before the war. Still, if they can find alternative energy supplies or efficiencies as currently planned, Russia stands to lose over half of its global energy export revenues by this time next year.

Conclusion: Losers and winners

The main losers are the people of Ukraine, with thousands of people killed, many of them non-combatants, tens of thousands injured and traumatised, and many millions displaced both within Ukraine and across Europe. While the leadership in Moscow remains entrenched and determined, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed or seriously injured. Across the Global North there are many economic costs, disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable communities. And in the Global South, the prospect of famine and destitution is increasingly real.

Yet there are winners too. Chief among these are the world’s military industrial complexes, especially in the West but including China, Turkey, Japan and, in some ways, Russia too. As world military spending exceeds two trillion dollars per year, the trend towards rapid re-armament will increase their profitability and strengthen their position within political systems. In some cases, increases in military spending will be at the direct expense of aid programmes and moves to prevent climate breakdown.

NATO will also benefit from Putin’s actions, with greater unity and a higher political standing after its manifest failures in wars of the last two decades, most notably in Afghanistan, Libya and (a few member states excluded) in Iraq. However, while its reputation within the West may rise, the view from the Global South may be different, the risk being that NATO is seen as a powerful military alliance of states making up less than one-seventh of the world’s population and focused on the security of this privileged minority.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Drazen Nesic on Pixnio.

Richard Reeve is the Coordinator of the Rethinking Security network. He has worked in peace and conflict research in the UK, Africa and Western Asia for over 20 years, including as Chief Executive of Oxford Research Group, Head of Research at International Alert, research fellow at King’s College London and Chatham House, and editor/analyst at Jane’s Information Group.