In Other News – No Easy Victory in Sight for Putin in the Ukraine-Russia War – 4/28/2022

April 28, 2022

No easy victory in sight for Putin as the Ukraine-Russia war reverberates across the world. Russia was likely hoping to secure all of Donetsk and Luhansk and its holding of a land bridge from the Donbas to Crimea before Moscow’s annual commemoration of World War II on May 9th, but the Ukrainians continue to challenge Russian progress. Thus far, Moscow’s military gains have been below expectations, and effective resupply efforts and offensive measures by both Ukraine and Russia will be paramount to success in the regional battle. At the same time, other fronts of the war are becoming apparent. Russia may be preparing a potential action in Transnistria and the Ukrainians have likely made tactical strikes on mainland Russia by bombing a fuel depot across the border. Reports of Russian cyberattacks on critical infrastructure have also intensified in coordination with the military’s kinetic attacks. Further, the war is intensifying beyond the frontline.

Earlier today, President Biden asked Congress to approve $33bn in additional money to support Ukraine, a significant funding increase. NATO countries are also strengthening their resolve to eliminate their dependence on Russian gas. Germany has made cuts to its reliance on Russian oil sufficient to make a full embargo “manageable” and Washington is hard at work to come up with alternate suppliers. This week, after Poland and Bulgaria refused to pay for Russian gas in roubles, Moscow cut off their natural gas supply in a move that the EU referred to as “blackmail.” As the West and NATO allies grapple with how to best support Ukraine given the direct economic ramifications for their nations, the knock-on effects of the war continue to impact nations all over the world through food shortages, rampant inflation, protective trade restrictions, new political alliances, and the uptick in armament of multiple nations.

As the West and NATO allies provide heavier arms to Kyiv, Moscow threatens to escalate the conflict. Since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, the United States, NATO, and allies have provided Kyiv more than $3bn of military aid, much of it defensive like anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. But as the conflict has continued, and shows little sign of waning, the West has shifted to equip Ukraine with heavier artillery. Notably, Germany’s parliament just overwhelmingly approved the transfer of heavy weapons to Ukraine, and the latest package announced by President Biden includes howitzers and weapons like Switchblade drones that will require Ukrainians to receive US training to use. Unsurprisingly, the increase in heavy artillery has outraged Moscow, and the Kremlin has warned that any attempt to “interfere” in Ukraine threatens security of the continent and will be met with a “lightning fast” response. But given the Russian military’s performance to date, the effectiveness of this threat is questionable.

In addition to ramping up Ukraine’s supply of heavy weapons, the West has also been more actively vocalizing support of Ukrainian offensive actions against Moscow. Russian propagandists are increasingly presenting the nuclear option as a defensive posture for Moscow, and it’s likely that Putin’s close advisors will increasingly blame the West for any ensuing struggles that the Russian military faces. According to the editor in chief of Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik, the West’s “overt backing” for Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil will not damage Russia but instead lead to the complete destruction of Ukraine. But this propaganda-laden approach is likely to end on hollow ground in the West, and there are signs that even within Russia Putin’s approval rating has begun to waiver.

In Other News – Russia is Battling for Donbas and China Signs Security Deal with Solomon Islands – 4/21/2022

April 21, 2022

The battle for the Donbas has commenced. Russia has captured 80% of Luhansk, the siege of Mariupol has been unforgiving and brutal, and Russia is playing to its strengths with superior numbers and equipment on the plains of eastern Ukraine. Putin is hoping for a decisive victory before May 9th (Russia’s Victory Day commemorating the Nazi surrender), but much remains to be seen. In the past week, Ukraine has managed to mount a compelling resistance across the whole of the front line and managed to sink Russia’s flagship, The Moskva. But this initial onslaught of shelling and discrete actions are a prelude to an advance of Russian ground attacks in the coming days. There are reports that Russian troops are weary and demoralized and haven’t reconstituted to mount a thorough assault adequate to win its desired land bridge. Moreover, there is a convincing argument to be made that the issues that beset Russian forces in their initial assault – disastrous logistics, inadequate command and control, insufficient forces, ill-adapted tactics, and a failure to dominate in the air – will endure in the Donbas. While inferior in numbers and materials, Ukrainian forces are motivated and forward-footed. They have launched some strategically-minded pre-emptive counter attacks aimed at disrupting Russian supply lines. And in the past several days, there are reports that the West has provided Ukraine with a significant supply of military aid including heavy artillery and much-needed planes that could give it a better chance at holding off Russian forces. Both sides are running up against the clock. Ukraine has very limited supplies and needs continuous aid from the West. Zelinksyy knows that the longer this conflict endures, with its disastrous effects on the world economy, energy prices, and food supply, the harder it will be to maintain European and Western consensus in supporting Ukraine and isolating Russia. Whether Putin will acknowledge it or not, Western sanctions are profoundly affecting the Russian economy and the absence of a decisive victory brings higher costs and greater risks to Putin, who has really tied his fortunes to the outcome in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, China signs security deal with Solomon Islands, alarming neighbors. As much of the world remains focused on events in Ukraine, China announced a freshly signed security agreement with the Solomon Islands. The security deal is the first of its kind for China in the Indo-Pacific, and reflects Beijing’s ongoing efforts to expand China’s influence in the region. The Solomon Islands changed diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019 – a decision that caused considerable unrest, and contributed to widespread rioting that left four people dead and much of the capital city burned. The timing of the current agreement was not coincidental as well, as the announcement came on the eve of a scheduled visit by the NSC’s Indo-Pacific coordinator later this week. Domestically there are concerns that the agreement will lead to an increased Chinese presence in the country, and possibly a military base in the near future. Internationally, New Zealand’s foreign minister called the agreement “unwelcome and unnecessary,” and voiced “grave concerns” that the agreement could destabilize the Pacific region’s security. Australian DPM Barnaby Joyce more bluntly stated “We don’t want our own little Cuba off our coast … That is not what is good for this nation, not what is good for this region.” In response to criticism, and of concern, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the deal involved cooperation on “maintenance of social order,” as well as humanitarian assistance, and natural disaster response.

In Other News – Russia Escalates Battle Against the Ukraine Even As Atrocities are Verified – 4/14/2022

April 14, 2022

Russia is escalating the battle against Ukraine even as atrocities are surfacing and verified. This week, Putin stated his intention to keep the war in Ukraine going at full force, and the Ukrainians are now preparing for arduous battles on the Eastern front. At the same time, the UN-partnered security body Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has determined Russia broke international humanitarian law and committed war crimes in Mariupol, and President Biden classified Russia’s actions as a “genocide.” Meanwhile, the war continues to have an indisputable impact on food and energy prices and availability on the global level, which could lead to lashing out at the ballot box.

Recognizing this, President Zelenskyy has recently made efforts to engage with leaders in Africa and other countries in the global south, explaining his nation’s perspective on the conflict and the need for a negotiated outcome. Western diplomats are personally taking their appeals with images from Bucha to India, Israel and other Middle Eastern states to make the case for supporting efforts to isolate Russia. Ukraine is also making a concerted online effort to make the Russian public aware of the true nature of this war and the cost to Russia of Putin’s campaign. As the battle continues, and the whole world feels the impact, these efforts to surface injustice and control the narrative will help determine whether Kyiv can generate and maintain the international support it needs to counter Russia.

Putin is framing the battle with Ukraine as a proxy war between Moscow and Washington ‒ a narrative that serves the interests of Russia and China. As the atrocities in Ukraine continue, and the United States pledges more funding and defense equipment to Ukraine, Putin is now pushing the view that the fight against Ukraine is a proxy war between the United States and Russia. In reality, Russia made an unprovoked attack against a smaller state as Washington was trying to focus on domestic policies and China. But the proxy war framing is gaining more traction than warranted and bolsters Putin’s victim narrative. Painting the United States as the opponent evokes an existential threat to Russia that Ukraine never presented, and it could serve to unite the Russians behind the war effort despite conflicting narratives and economic penalty. The proxy-war framing also allows Beijing to pin the United States as the aggressor and amplify the Chinese state media portrayal of Washington as the instigator of violent conflict.

Further, casting the conflict as a proxy war between the United States and Russia narrows the playing field and could weaken the resolve of some European nations to isolate Putin and deliver critical support for Ukraine. We’re already seeing signs of wavering among some states, as demonstrated by the current French elections, and it’s likely to only get more difficult as the energy crisis deepens. But most importantly perhaps, framing the war as a US-Russia proxy battle undermines the nation of Ukraine: a recognized, autonomous, democratic country that makes its own policy decisions and is defending itself on its own volition.

In Other News – Putin Is Still Looking for Victory After Setbacks, Chinese State Media Is Challenged by a Growing Social Media Movement, & More – 4/7/2022

April 7, 2022

Despite Kyiv setbacks, Putin’s still looking for victory. This week, disturbing images of civilians killed in Bucha reinforced that Putin’s brutality is intrinsic to his modus operandi, and that Chechnya and Syria were harbingers of what was, and is still, to come. At this point, Putin isn’t looking for negotiations he’s looking for a way to win on the battlefield. The extreme violence and loss of human life is justified in Putin’s mind by his misconceived threat of Western aggression against Russia. It’s a narrative Putin’s sown for years, and based on the latest internal polling, his citizens appear to be buying into his disinformation and rallying behind him. Now, as Russia retreats to Belarus to refit, resupply, and redeploy, intelligence suggests that Russia plans to double down in Eastern Ukraine. This will be a hard-fought battle for the Ukrainians, and likely to have a devastating impact.

It’s not just a matter of Russia taking the Donbas. Moscow seemingly has plans to establish a land bridge between the Donbas and Crimea and secure control of coasts on both the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. To do this, Putin will need to redeploy from the south and the east and there is speculation on whether Russia’s forces will be able to muster the necessary resilience. The overt brutality of Russian troops in this next stage could further weaken the neutrality of countries like India and Israel and heighten international resolve to increase support for Ukraine. Some military analysts also suggest there are tactical opportunities for Ukraine to develop as Russia retrenches and it gives NATO and others time to also replenish Ukrainian supplies and supply lines for everything including possibly more tanks and even MiGs.

The stakes of the conflict are rising not just for Ukraine but for worldwide supporters of the liberal democratic order and rule of law. And while Russia has suffered deep setbacks in Ukraine, it continues to make gains in its efforts to undermine democratic electoral politics in the West. Indeed, the information war being waged between Russia and its allies, and the West and its allies, is another critical aspect of this conflict. It will be increasingly important to maintain pressure on Putin as food and energy prices soar, supply chains remain disrupted, and Covid continues, along with other knock-on effects, and the framing of the war will impact the extent to which Russia remains isolated, and NATO and the West remain united.

Chinese state media, which continues to amplify Putin’s messaging, is challenged by a growing social media movement that translates Beijing’s propaganda into multiple world languages. While Putin has actively cut off Russian independent media and aims to control the Russian narrative at all costs, Chinese state media has echoed Putin’s messaging and continues to frame the United States as the instigator of the Ukraine invasion and subsequent war. For every egregious human rights violation and war crime Putin’s army commits in Ukraine, President Xi’s media arm makes excuses, often spreading myriad conspiracy theories to explain the horrors. This week, Chinese media representatives offered multiple and contradictory explanations on the Bucha atrocities: the killings were staged by Ukraine, committed by Ukrainians, and committed by Russians against illegal combatants. Indeed, the Chinese campaign is rampant and confusing enough to make the validity of any reporting suspect, which is a key tactic of disinformation.

To expose the blatant propaganda and shame China’s hypocrisy, an international group of Chinese dissidents have organized a growing online campaign to translate state media messaging into languages like English, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and others. The effort, dubbed The Great Translation Movement, has grown rapidly and now has over 100,000 Twitter followers. It’s a decentralized effort, and the authors don’t necessarily even know each other, but it has served to expose the Chinese state line to readers far beyond Chinese borders. While the Chinese state media is a powerful propaganda machine, and its message is amplified by the void of competing narratives permitted throughout the nation, Beijing has already demonstrated frustration with The Great Translation Movement‒ indicating that an objective, diffuse social movement can present a threat to Chinese propagandists at the highest level.