Ukraine and Russia prepare to battle for the Donbas

Ukraine and Russia prepare to battle for the Donbas

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 18–24 April 2022

Five North American online magazines (Foreign Affairs, The Economist, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and The Conversation) were selected to prepare a report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the media during the past week (18–24 April 2022). The sample of magazines was created based on their impact on public opinion as well as their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. Overall, the five magazines represent the centrist and liberal political spectrum. 

This report covers only the most-read weekly articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective magazines themselves. It includes articles from home pages that are promoted by the editorial boards, articles from special sections on Ukraine, and articles from paper versions of the magazines.

  • Ukraine at war: preparing to battle for the Donbas, strengthening partnerships with the West, planning postwar reconstruction
  • Russia at war: mobilizing society to support the invasion, concealing war crimes, surviving sanctions, fabricating long-term informational isolation
  • Scenarios of ending the war: the hypothetical victory of Russia, protraction of the conflict
  • Western interests in Ukraine: viewpoints from Germany, Poland, and the US on weapon supplies
  • Political and security repercussions of the Russo-Ukrainian war in Asia and Europe.

The most common arguments:

Ukraine can win the war. Alina Polyakova and John Herbst (Foreign Affairs) argue against finding a compromise with the aggressor to end the war: “Russia is a bad-faith actor with a long track record of rejecting diplomatic efforts … Russia has murdered, raped, and tortured thousands of civilians … Putin would use newly occupied areas as launch pads for further attacks.” According to Polyakova and Herbst, Ukrainians seem to be successful in “routing the Russians.” Therefore the West, and specifically the US, should support Ukrainians with more weaponry, economic assistance, and means for cyber-offense. The Russo-Ukrainian war is one between the democratic and autocratic worlds.

Ukraine will face hard times fighting in the Donbas. The Economist notes that Russia amassed a large force in the Donbas, appointed a new command, and is ready to launch a major offensive (if not launched it already). However, Russian troops are depleted (75% of combat power compared with February 2022), demoralized, under-supplied, and forced to advance in muddy terrain. The reason behind a rushed Russian offensive may be Putin’s desire to achieve a breakthrough before May 9th, “Victory Day,” when Russia celebrates the accomplishments of the USSR in WWII. Therefore, the Russian offensive will likely be both powerful and ruthless, with major skirmishes taking place in early May.

Ukraine’s reconstruction after the war. This topic is discussed in a number of articles.

Melinda Haring and Jacob Heilbrunn (Foreign Affairs) address the necessity to curtail corruption and strengthen democracy in Ukraine, portraying the post-WWII reconstruction of Germany as a benchmark. Ukraine will need to implement judicial reforms (in part through employing foreign judges), run a census, lower taxes, increase public expenditures, attract talented Ukrainians from overseas, and proceed with decentralization reforms. If successful, this reform package may likely go down in history as the Zelensky Plan.

Philip Zelikow and Simon Johnson (Foreign Affairs) argue that Ukraine should be allowed to use Russian assets seized by Western governments in order to finance its postwar reconstruction. Being a victim of unprovoked aggression, as recognized by the International Court of Justice, Ukraine can formally demand that compensation and/or reparations be covered from seized Russian assets. Ukraine’s reconstruction should be tightly linked with its accession to the EU, “an institution that can help it overcome past governance challenges and better adapt its economy to the future.”

Natia Seskuria (Foreign Policy) argues that Ukraine should not accept the Kremlin’s demands to remain a neutral state—neither now nor after the war. These demands are a trap. Russia did not invade Ukraine for its desire to join NATO but for its continuous implementation of democratic reforms: “In fact, Ukraine had already tried to remain a neutral state after it regained independence in 1991. However, neutrality did not deter Russian aggression in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.” Seskuria claims that the major objective behind the Russian invasion is to make Ukraine corrupted, failed, and reliant on the Kremlin. Ivo Daalder (The Atlantic) supports this claim and concludes that “for Ukraine to be truly free and independent, it will have to be a member of the European Union and NATO.” Daalder believes that following this disastrous intervention, Russia will be out of options to prevent Ukraine joining NATO.

The majority of Russians support the war. This topic is covered in three of the five magazines.

Shadi Hamid (The Atlantic) doubts that 83 percent of Russians support Putin’s policies in Ukraine, as demonstrated by a recent survey: “Individuals may understandably hide their true preferences from pollsters, as a culture of paranoia spreads across the country.” Hamid also concludes, however, that in the conditions of a dictatorship many Russians prefer to accept the official narratives and therefore do the morally “wrong thing” instead of being “courageous and sacrific[ing] life and livelihood to do the right thing.”

Andrei Kolesnikov (Foreign Affairs) puts forward the hypothesis that Russians are on the verge of an inner moral conflict: “Russians are collectively experiencing a version of Stockholm syndrome, sympathizing more with their own captor [Putin] than with his other victims.” In other words, the majority of Russians prefer to support the Kremlin’s narratives instead of acknowledging that they represent the side of evil. Kolesnikov concludes that such comfortable self-lies will lead to social degradation, global isolation, and discrediting of Russian culture. Young people will suffer the most, as they largely disapprove of the war and are forced to endure growing social tensions.

Oleksa Drachewych (The Conversation) argues that the narratives behind the Russian invasion in Ukraine resemble the Soviet narratives from WWII, adjusted to serve the Kremlin’s current objectives. Russians believe in waging a rightful war against the so-called reborn Nazis and agree to wage it similarly to how the Soviet Red Army did—by destroying enemy infrastructure, killing civilians and prisoners, establishing labour and filtration camps, sexually exploiting the enemy population, and committing other atrocities.

The Russian media have degraded into outlets of the Kremlin’s propaganda. Maria Repnikova (The Atlantic) writes that at the outset of the Russian invasion, the Kremlin either banned or drove out all critical media outlets. This media crackdown “symbolizes Russia’s further estrangement from the West … Putin’s regime has now dropped even the appearance of democracy and, by extension, its treatment of the West as a marker of political legitimacy.” The media crackdown has led to the informational isolation of Russian society from the outside world. The negative outcomes of such isolation—particularly the mistrust of liberal democratic values—will be felt for decades.

Russia started the battle for the Donbas. Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer (Foreign Policy) argue that the Russian offensive on 19 April 2022 marks the beginning of the battle for the Donbas. To win, Russia will use to its advantage the flat terrain of the region, high numbers of its troops, and short supply lines from its mainland. Nevertheless, the analysts believe that “Ukraine, despite being outmanned and outgunned, could ultimately blunt the Russian offensive, thanks to a combination of effective Ukrainian resistance, military aid from the West, and the poor performance of Russia’s military in the war so far.” The chances for Ukraine’s success increase as Russia continues suffering from poor railway management. The latter is crucial to move the Russian troops and military equipment (see Emily Ferris, Foreign Policy)

Russian war crimes in Ukraine are atrocious and should never be forgotten. This topic is elaborated in detail by Foreign Policy.

Janine di Giovanni (Foreign Policy) argues that Russia is committing the same war crimes in Ukraine as it did earlier in Syria and Chechnya. Putin and his generals authorize the “indiscriminate use of air power, leading to civilian casualties … they targeted heavily residential civilian areas with hospitals and schools, forcing civilians to flee from danger.” However, Ukraine now seems to have more resources to prevent Russian atrocities, support displaced people, and fight back.

Jade McGlynn and Ian Garner (Foreign Policy) stress that Russians do not acknowledge committing war crimes in Bucha or anywhere else in Ukraine. They find it more appropriate to invent a conspiracy theory in which they appear as victims. Such imaginary self-victimization further increases the social legitimacy of the war: “Since the whole thing is a conspiracy against Moscow, Russian media hysterically claims, the war against foreign conspirators must be prosecuted to the bitter end.”

Andrew Lohsen (Foreign Policy) puts it straightforwardly that the killings in Bucha must be remembered. To do so, Ukraine should “preserve information, artifacts, and testimony related to the event” and “consider how to memorialize the victims of the tragedy.” The Russian war crimes will become Ukraine’s collective trauma for generations. To overcome such trauma, Ukrainian society should construct comforting and protective narratives and identities. Lohsen suggests that honest reckoning with the past will make society more resilient in the long run.

Western sanctions will not stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the example of Iran, Kourosh Ziabari (Foreign Policy) demonstrates that sanctioned states do not necessarily abandon their aggressive policies. Russia might even learn to survive sanctions, especially considering its richness in energy resources and loopholes in the international financial system. To stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine and prevent new invasions, Western states should use a combination of “diplomacy, exclusion, and legal action.”

Michael Hirsh (Foreign Policy) concludes that high volumes of oil exports allow the Kremlin to keep the Russian economy running while hammering Ukraine’s. Hirsh points to the paradox that sanctioned Russia’s energy revenues in April 2022 are likely to surpass by a large margin the same month in previous years. This stems from the inability of Western consumers to rapidly switch to alternative energy suppliers, alongside an increase in Russian oil exports to India.

The war may become a protracted conflict. Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage (Foreign Affairs) argue that “Putin has many reasons not to end the war that he has started. He is nowhere near meeting his key objectives. So far, his armies have not performed well enough … Russia is very far from toppling the Ukrainian government. His failures have been humiliatingly public.” On the other hand, Ukraine and its Western partners would prefer to end the war as its economic, humanitarian, and security costs are astronomical. Having weighed all the factors, Fix and Kimmage conclude that “the United States and its allies must prepare to back Ukraine for the long haul.”

The new Russian victory objective is a land bridge to Crimea. Anchal Vohra (Foreign Policy) highlights that Russia failed to overthrow Ukraine’s government in a blitzkrieg and therefore needs to focus on more modest yet achievable objectives. One such objective is the establishment of a land-based corridor between the Russian mainland and Russian-occupied Crimea. This said, considering the resistance potential of Ukrainian defenders and the exhaustion of Russian troops, it will be a no less challenging (if not impossible) task for the Kremlin.

Western objectives in Ukraine are vague. Richard Haas (Foreign Affairs) highlights an interesting point: while Russian objectives in Ukraine are comparatively clear, Western ones are not. Haas argues that the Western objectives react to the situation on the battlefield and are framed through continuous consultations between NATO members. In the most general terms, the current Western objectives “could consist of a winding down of hostilities, with Russia possessing no more territory than it held before the recent invasion and continuing to refrain from using weapons of mass destruction.”

The Western media should report on Ukraine without obfuscation. Rory Finnin and Thomas D. Grant (The Conversation) highlight that many analysts do a “casual, almost unconscious” verbal appeasement of Russia. Such appeasement leads to distortion of information and misrepresentation of events in Ukraine. Finnin and Grant encourage analysts to avoid branding Russia’s war in Ukraine as merely “Putin’s war,” a “Ukraine conflict,” or “the situation in Ukraine.” Russia’s guilt should never be placed out of focus when discussing its acts of aggression in Ukraine.

The West should send more weapons to Ukraine. The Economist argues that the Armed Forces of Ukraine need additional support as the battle for the Donbas looms. Not to mention that Russians will approach that battle more cautiously after learning from their mistakes in the north of Ukraine. The supply of Western weaponry will likely lead to Russia’s defeat on the battlefield and thus open the way for Ukraine to complete its democratization and determine its future as a sovereign state.

In this light, as The Economist mentions in a different article, German reluctance to send heavy weapons looks suspect. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the key decision-maker, seems to be profoundly influenced by the position of his Social Democratic Party, which has always preferred engagement with Russia to confrontation.

Unlike his German counterpart, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (The Economist) encourages Western states to stop appeasing Russia. For decades, Poland warned its Western allies about the Kremlin’s growing revanchism, but they “acted like a frog in water brought gently to the boil.” Today, the West needs to face the costly outcome of its reluctance and provide consistent support to Ukraine, including supplies of heavy weaponry.

Curtailing Russian aggression in Ukraine has become a vital US interest. Alexander Motyl (The Conversation) argues that the war in Ukraine has elevated in importance from an ordinary conflict to a vital interest of the US. From “too small, too weak, too poor,” Ukraine has transformed into a firewall that prevents the global spread of aggressive neo-imperialism (or even fascism, as Motyl defines the current political order in Russia).

Events of the Russo-Ukrainian war are framing Asian affairs and politics. The Economist dedicates much attention to this topic.

The Economist examines Taiwan’s concerns that China will use the experience of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to decide on its own moves toward the island. Therefore, Taiwan is closely monitoring developments in Ukraine. The lessons that Taiwan learned so far are “to prepare defences and international assistance before a war; and, once one starts, to hold out long enough for help from friends to arrive.” In their turn, Bonny Lin and John Culver (Foreign Policy) highlight that the failures of the Russian invasion in Ukraine might have moderated the desire of Beijing to send troops to Taiwan. However, these failures might have also encouraged Beijing to revise its plans and resort to faster and deadlier moves.

In a single article, The Economist scrutinises the responses of Indonesia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam to the Russian aggression. Not all of these states decided to criticize Russia for its deployment of troops and committing war crimes. The major reason for the varying responses is the national interests of specific states, not ideologies or political regimes, as many Western analysts seem to think.

The Economist enquires if the West could introduce similar sanctions against China as it did against Russia. The answer is yes. However, such sanctions would trigger a much worse effect on the Western economies, especially on the integrity of their supply chains, compared to the sanctions against Russia.

The Economist posits that the Russian invasion of Ukraine provoked a dual response in the Caucasus state of Georgia. On the one hand, the citizens support Ukraine unconditionally, while on the other, the government tries to find a cautious balance and avoids aggravating the Kremlin. This duality of Georgian responses stems from the country’s negative experience of the Russian invasion in 2008, as well as from its economic interests (Russia is Georgia’s second-largest trading partner).

Worth Your Attention

The term “Russia-Ukraine war” should be avoided as it misrepresents reality. Rory Finnin and Thomas D. Grant (The Conversation) argue that defining ongoing events in Ukraine as “Russian-Ukraine war” implies “parity between the sides and muddles the key distinctions between aggressor and defender.”

“Russian-Ukraine war” or “Russo-Ukraine war” should not be regarded as terms that misrepresent reality. Many wars that have taken place in history are named by their fighting sides, notwithstanding who was the attacker and who defended. Such were, for instance, the Russo-Turkish wars, Franco-Prussian wars, or Mexican-American wars. The sole concept of “war” entails two fighting armies and/or nations, one of which attacks and the other defends. There is no other way to start a war without one side being an aggressor.

Finnin and Grant’s intention to define the ongoing military conflict as “Russia’s invasion in Ukraine” may contextually highlight the helplessness of a Ukraine which is unable to contain the movement of Russia’s troops in its sovereign lands. Instead, what we see now on the battlefield is a comparatively equal struggle between two well-trained and well-equipped national armies. Therefore, it is a productive approach to use the terms “Russo-Ukrainian war” and “Russian invasion in Ukraine” as contextual synonyms.

Russians support Putin in the war against Ukraine because they have no other choice. In his article, Shadi Hamid (The Atlantic) claims that Russians conceal their true attitudes about the war in order to avoid prosecution. Therefore, the 83 percent approval ranking of Putin’s policies in Ukraine is an inflated number.

The fear of prosecution can make Russians publicly acknowledge their support for the war. However, looking at the sociological data from earlier times, Russians seem to have always been fascinated with the idea of regaining the military prowess and international respect of the Soviet era.

According to Katherine C. Langdon and Vladimir Tismaneanu, in the mid-1990s 82 percent of Russians desired that their state would attain “great power” status. In the early 2000s, according to Igor Gretskiy, 82 percent of Russians regretted the fall of the Soviet Union, and demand for a “great power” narrative soared. In 2017, the Pew Research Center discovered that 59 percent of Russians felt nostalgic for the welfare and magnitude of the USSR; 87 percent of Russians considered Putin’s foreign policies effective, especially with respect to Ukraine and Syria; and 59 percent believed that Russia under Putin had become more potent than it was ten years ago (in 2007).

The World Values Survey shows that in the early 2010s, 66.8 percent of Russians expected their state to soon participate in war and that in the late 2010s this number grew to 80.1 percent. In other words, during the last decade Russians were getting increasingly used to the idea of a forthcoming military confrontation.

Russians are themselves victims of Putin. In his article, Shadi Hamid (The Atlantic) claims that “as the war rages on and anti-Russian sentiment grows, the temptation to see the Russian people as perpetrators rather than victims also grows. But to view them this way obscures something more fundamental: They too are victims, because they have been gradually stripped of their status as free moral agents.” To this, Andrei Kolesnikov (Foreign Affairs) adds that “the West has to understand that, as banal as it sounds, Putin’s system and the Russian nation are not one and the same.”

Since 1998 Putin has preserved his legitimacy precisely because his actions and words resonated positively with the Russian nation. The political messages coming from the Kremlin-controlled media also sound attractive to Russians. Kolesnikov himself quotes one of the Levada Group’s respondents: “If I watched the BBC, maybe I’d think differently, but I will never watch the BBC, because for me what I watch is enough.” In other words, a significant group of Russians have not considered alternative paths of development for their state as the Kremlin-designed one “was enough.” By their own free will, these Russians have been legitimizing Putin’s system of authoritarian and increasingly despotic rule.

Today’s high domestic level of legitimacy granted to Putin is more than the product of simple fear and self-preservation on the part of Russian citizens. This level of legitimacy likely stems from the conscious decision of the majority of the population to support Putin’s vision of reality. 

Therefore, claiming that Russians are the victims of their own political regime is not entirely correct. They may suffer from certain inconveniences imposed by that regime, but they embodied the foundation on which it grew in the first place. 

For more information on the willingness of Russians to believe in imaginary Kremlin narratives and portray themselves as political victims, see the article by Jade McGlynn and Ian Garner (Foreign Policy).

Ostap Kushnir

Ostap Kushnir is an assistant professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw. He holds an MA in Journalism from Odesa Mechnikov National University, an MA in International Relations from the University of Wales, and a PhD from Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń, Poland). His academic interests include geopolitical and boundary-forming processes in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically in the Black Sea region. Dr. Kushnir is the author of the book Ukraine and Russian Neo-Imperialism: The Divergent Break (2018). He is also a member of the editorial board of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (Czechia).

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