The Long Game: Why Protraction Continues to Underpin Moscow’s Strategy to Reclaim Ukraine

Photo Credit: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

By Shawn Rostker
Editor in Chief

Conditions were cloudy with a chance of showers as the sun rose over Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, on Thursday, February 24. The literal fog of war had set in across the nation of roughly 43 million people, and for residents in and around the cities of Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Kherson, Dnipro, and Odessa, the showers raining down took the form of high-powered ordnance. In the waning hours of Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day—a holiday commemorating the inauguration of the Red Army—Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a national address stating that Russia would execute a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine to “demilitarize” the nation. Though framed as an obliged response to Ukrainian aggression and ambitions of strategic capabilities, the actions amount to a deliberate invasion of Ukraine and a blatant violation of its sovereignty. A costly and protracted war is now likely to be in the forecast for the foreseeable future, but this has always been the Kremlin’s plan. Putin has always played the long game when it comes to regional ambition, and the strategy for reclaiming Ukraine has always been one of protracted conflict resulting in long-term economic strangulation. The storm of violence currently pummelling Ukraine is one of historical vendetta—one with the potential to threaten the prevailing security arrangements that have underpinned Europe and the international order for over a generation.

Over the course of two decades in power, Vladimir Putin has proven himself to be both a crafty and oppressive statesman. However, it is his penchant for patience that has allowed him to manifest what is currently unfolding in Ukraine. Since 2014, Russia has expended enormous resources and weathered substantial economic sanctions to ensure its entrenchment in Ukraine. Putin’s longest-held ambition—the re-Sovietization of the formerly occupied areas of the USSR—has been the driving factor behind Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory dating back to its invasion and annexation of Crimea exactly eight years ago this week. This reclamation of Soviet lands and reconstruction of the former empire could very well take the form of a confederation of de facto vassal states—Balkan, Baltic, and Caucas states, as well as neighboring autocratic regimes such as Belarus—unilaterally pledging closer alignment and integration with Russia.

Moscow had been carefully setting the stage for an invasion of Ukraine for months. An unprecedented military buildup of nearly 200,000 Russian soldiers had incrementally been deployed to various peripheral regions in an effort to surround Ukraine from three sides. Under the guise of coordinated military drills, Russia amassed joint forces in neighboring Belarus and deployed naval and amphibious units to the Black Sea to encroach on Karninit Bay and the port city of Odessa. It then mobilized multitudes of battalion units to occupy the shared Ukrainian-Russian border from Lipovka south to the contested oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Amid this buildup, Russian leadership engaged in multiple diplomatic talks with both European and U.S. leaders. However, discussions degraded and tensions heightened with each subsequent round of negotiation. Putin soon issued a formal recognition of the separatist-controlled regions of the Donbas as independent states—a move broadly denounced by the international community. A flurry of Russian propaganda then primed its citizenry for conflict, while its parliament authorized the use of military force beyond Russian borders, and, in doing so, provided the legal justification for the deployment of reinforcement units at the request of pro-Russian separatists. 

The early morning invasion of Ukraine had immediate and far-reaching economic ripples. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, and Ukraine and Russia combine to account for upwards of one-quarter of global wheat exports. Within hours of the initial movements, wheat futures had spiked over 6% and instilled widespread concern over long-term volatility. Global energy markets also faced immense uncertainty. The global benchmark, Brent crude, soared to over $100 per barrel for the first time since 2014, and particular dependencies exposed Western vulnerabilities to Russian energy exports that were complicating the European and American response. As the first tranche of U.S. and European economic sanctions began to impact Russian markets, the Moscow stock exchange took a drastic hit. Russian stocks crashed by over 40%, and the ruble dropped to a record low against the dollar and cratered against other foreign currencies as major financial institutions experienced freezes and anticipation of subsequent sanctions gripped investors and executives of state-controlled enterprises. 

The extent of economic punishment currently being laid out on Russia is nothing short of crippling in the long-term, as no state so sizeable and ingrained into the various levers of the global economy can endure the kind of perpetual ostracism and blacklisting currently taking form. Prohibition on the holding of Russian debt and isolation from foreign sources of capital will begin to disentangle Russia from the international banking system and the various channels through which Russian money is laundered and invested. Of course, such inflictions were undoubtedly part of the Kremlin’s calculus as it prepared for confrontation. Steps were taken on the part of Moscow to shield many of its oligarchic interests—those which could pressure and threaten Putin’s decision-making monopoly—including the establishment of “economic sanctuaries” in the country’s far east and west. Given his decision to follow through with a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin determined that he would be able to sustain control and weather the effects of Western sanctions longer than it would take to induce submission on the part of Ukraine.

Submission is the ultimate goal, and despite the rapid bombardment of Ukraine with a multipronged, cross-domain deluge of attacks, Russia is prepared to settle in for protracted engagement. Their attacks, spanning cyber and kinetic, across various points of critical infrastructure and facilities at the mouth of the Black Sea and along the Dnieper River indicate that they intend to induce submission through economic asphyxiation. The Dnieper River, running north from the Black Sea up through Kyiv to Chernihiv, is an economic artery that would allow Russia to starve Ukraine of vital supplies and economic activity. Furthermore, it would allow Russia to effectively split Ukraine into parallel territories—an eastern enclave controlled by traditional military units proximate to the Donbas, and a western region vulnerable to destabilization operations and isolation. After the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine moved to sever the canal linking the peninsula to the Dnieper in an attempt to reduce the promontory’s ability to sustain Russian forces. Within hours of Thursday’s military operation, however, Russian forces had restored water flow from the canal and secured their control of the southernmost point of the strategic line that is the Dnieper. Successful blockades of the ports of Odessa and Mariupol as well as control over economic and financial inlets would allow Moscow to choke the Ukrainian regime and its citizens to the point of submission.

However, submission is unlikely to take the form of outright annexation of Ukraine, as maintaining a veil of Ukrainian autonomy is essential to the future legitimacy of the new regional order Putin seeks to establish through confederated fidelity. Instead, a puppet regime of Moscow loyalists would likely be installed in Kyiv after the use of Russian special forces to destabilize and ultimately decapitate the Ukrainian regime. Once installed, a pro-Russian government would likely officially recognize the breakaway republics of the Donbas and formally cede Crimea to Russia. Russian forces would be authorized to remain in Ukraine indefinitely to maintain order and peace just as they were in Belarus. Russia’s expanded presence could then enable it to further cement its territorial gains in the surrounding occupied areas of Moldova, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. If Russia’s usurping of Ukraine is successful, not only could it be followed by a chain of subsequent regional capitulations, but continental power dynamics would be fundamentally altered and European security perpetually threatened. 

There are those who reasonably question Russia’s ability to hold Ukraine in the event that defense forces are adequately supplied and reinforced by a contingency of European allies. Military infirmities, combined with the lasting consequences of economic and financial sanctions and the internal unrest and protest they could spurn within Russia, could lead to a fizzling of the Russian offensive against a resolute Ukraine backed by requisite resources. Given the time-consuming nature of sanctions and Russia’s ability to expeditiously entrench itself and economically squeeze Ukraine however, the prospects of a successful defense appear grim. 

The European security architecture that has underpinned the post-war period now faces its greatest threat in a generation. Insofar as there is a “global security architecture”—characterized by principles of collective security and democratic resistance to the forces of autocracy— February 24, 2022 may well be remembered as the day that such an architecture was fundamentally challenged and exposed by a precipitous, patient storm from the East.

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