Ukraine’s high-tech and improvisational warfare outflanks Russia

Ukraine’s high-tech and improvisational warfare outflanks Russia

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 1521 August 2022

Four North American magazines (The National Interest, National Review, The Conversation, and The Economist) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the media during the past week (15–21 August 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. These four magazines represent the conservative, centrist, and liberal political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective magazines themselves in the past week. It also covers promoted texts on home pages, texts from special sections on Ukraine, texts from the paper editions of the magazines, and texts about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

Topics featured in the selected articles:

  • Ukraine at war: private satellite companies help Ukraine wage the war; the liberation of Kherson may be trickier than planned; Oleh Sentsov exposes the putridity of the Russian state and law enforcement machine; 
  • The world and Ukraine: Russo-Ukrainian war will not likely end soon; brutal skirmishes in Ukraine’s cities change contemporary war studies; the US failed to satisfy its national interest in Ukraine; Western sanctions against Russia are not efficient enough; Ukraine’s victory against Russia may help the West deal with China; Poland continues providing support to Ukraine but faces its limits; 
  • Russia at war: Russia exploits frictions in the Western camp to win the war.

The most common arguments:

Ukraine shows how to use private satellites to fight Russia. Mariel Borowitz (The Conversation) claims that satellite imagery can make a decisive impact on the dynamics of war, as numerous cases from the Russo-Ukrainian war demonstrate. This imagery is well-suited for “informing both military planning as well as the public view of a war” regardless of where the conflict takes place. Considering the growing numbers of multi-purpose space satellites that belong to private companies, the enhancement of cooperation between state and business actors seems to be inevitable. Since February 2022, Ukraine has benefited from such cooperation as it could access large volumes of data in almost real-time, as well as bypass permissions from foreign governmental agencies to download classified information from their spy satellites. The US government particularly encouraged such cooperation aiming to reveal Russian aggression to the whole world. Apart from this, by sharing images of the Ukrainian Army’s territorial gains and/or shelling of Russian military objects, private satellite companies strengthen the resolve of Ukrainians to defend their state. Borowitz concludes that “some space experts have called the war in Ukraine the first ‘commercial space war’.”

Neither immediate nor postponed liberation of Kherson is advantageous for the Ukrainian Army. The Economist writes that the Ukrainian command set a precedent in contemporary warfare by inflicting unparalleled damage to a much more powerful army and halting its invasion. This said, the recapturing of occupied territories, specifically the city of Kherson, will raise different challenges. According to The Economist, “Russia has been pouring troops into Kherson and digging in. Urban warfare is slow and costly for the troops waging it and the civilians in the way. Russia has captured Mariupol, Severodonetsk and other Ukrainian cities because it had little compunction about destroying them in the process. Ukraine would rather Kherson remained intact.” These and other factors will likely render Ukraine’s counter-offensive a protracted siege of the city. If such a scenario happens, the international support for the Ukrainian cause may decrease with time: “Western governments may be nervous about maintaining public support for Ukraine as heating bills soar in the winter months.” Ukraine does not have much time for a counter-offensive, however, the reality may leave Kyiv with no other option except to wait and accumulate resources. 

Oleh Sentsov defines his experience in Russian detention as a farce and “dark comedy.” Jay Nordlinger (National Review) writes a story of Oleh Sentsov, a filmmaker, political prisoner, and combat soldier, whom he had a chance to interview. Sentsov, a native of Crimea, got detained by Russian security services on 11 March 2014 for delivering food and helping escape Ukraine’s soldiers trapped on the peninsula. Following the detention, in the first 24 hours, he was tortured and accused of false crimes. More than a year after, his case was scrutinised by a Russian military court which hears terrorism cases. According to Sentsov, the charges were absurd, the trial was a farce, and “everyone was playing an assigned, scripted role.” After the judge announced a verdict, Sentsov had to endure confinement in fifteen prisons and labour camps. In one such camp, Labytnangi, Sentsov went on a hunger strike and demanded the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. On 7 September 2019, Sentsov was sent to Ukraine in a prisoner swap. Following his release, Sentsov continued campaigning for Ukraine’s political prisoners and directed new films. He changed his activities on 24 February 2022 when joining the ranks of Ukraine’s Army in response to Russia’s invasion. Sentsov believes that “this war is not Putin’s alone; it is a collective responsibility. The blood of innocent people, including children, is on the hands of everyone who has supported Putin or stood by silently.”

Russo-Ukrainian war can last for years as no side will be victorious on the battlefield. Michael O’Hanlon (The National Interest) claims that “with the Ukraine war entering its fifth month, the fighting has entered into a slow-moving slog. Tragically, there is no end in sight.” In this light, O’Hanlon encourages Western leaders to invent a “complementary strategy that recognizes the likelihood of a protracted grind on the battlefield” instead of delivering advanced artillery systems to Ukraine’s army in growing numbers. As a point of reference for the new strategy, O’Hanlon advises looking at the lessons of the First World War. The German advance towards Paris in 1914 resembles the Russian invasion of Ukraine today: the Germans managed to conquer some of the French territories within the first weeks of their operation, but then stumbled for years in a trench fight. Before the US intervened in 1918, both belligerents invested much effort in developing artillery, air, and sabotage forces with little to no effect. Therefore, O’Hanlon concludes that the Russo-Ukrainian war may last longer than any side anticipates now. To find a solution to this war, both belligerents will eventually need to negotiate as even an unlimited supply of heavy weaponry will likely not change the stalemate. 

The Russo-Ukrainian war stimulated research on urban warfare. The Economist highlights that the Russo-Ukrainian fighting has recently moved to the cities which requires a reconsideration of the rules of modern warfare. Before the wide-scale Russian invasion, it was common wisdom for army command to avoid urban skirmishers whether possible. However, heavy fights in densely populated regions of Ukraine force military strategists to accept a new norm: urban skirmishes have become unavoidable today and will remain such in future conflicts. To increase the efficiency of armies in the cities, a profound reform should take place embracing everything “from camouflage patterns and weapons to vehicle design and logistics.” This reform will reflect the socio-political changes of the contemporary world as fewer people continue living in the countryside whilst the number of megacities with over ten million inhabitants is on the rise. The urban skirmishes are known to be brutal and effort-consuming: one building can bind an entire battalion, civilian victims are unavoidable, some of the civilians turn to be combatants in disguise, every door may be boobytrapped, ambushes from behind the corner become common, fighting may shift to underground facilities, and contemporary tanks and missiles are not designed for surgical strikes. This said, with proper planning and execution, the skirmish in the city may turn even less destructive than on an open terrain: the fighting side which accepts the urban tactical constraints usually wins. Ukraine provides many eloquent examples in this respect. 

The US policies in Ukraine do more harm than good. Ramon Marks (The National Interest) argues that the US government made a few strategic and irreversible miscalculations in Ukraine’s policies. Because of them, after the war is over, “Russia will build closer relations with China and other countries on the Eurasian continent, including India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. It will turn irrevocably away from European democracies and Washington.” This will allow the Kremlin to challenge Washington’s global leadership and gradually isolate the rest of the Western world from mainstream international politics. Moreover, with their energy sanctions against Russia, the Western states will further weaken their economic standing, increase the volatility of energy markets, and empower the developing states to re-design the world order. Such a Western miscalculation will not be corrected easily as two-thirds of the world’s population reside in states that are either neutral or critical of Washington. The only positive development for the West in Ukraine’s policies resides in the reinforcement of NATO. In particular, the European states seem to become keener on investing more money in their security. Marks encourages maintaining this trend as it will eventually liberate the US from the burden of being an irreplaceable NATO backbone. 

Western sanctions are failing to curtail Russian aggression. Mark Episkopos (The National Interest) puts forward a hypothesis that the Russian authorities managed to mitigate the negative effect of Western economic sanctions. Episkopos provides the data from the Russian federal statistics service which estimated that the state’s economy “shrank by [only] 4 percent year-on-year over the second quarter.” At the same time, according to Episkopos, “the ruble became one of the world’s strongest performing currencies” in 2022, “parallel import” schemes were successfully introduced to provide Russians with Western-made luxury goods, consistent nationalisation of the Western brands (e.g. McDonalds or Starbucks) allowed Russians to preserve their lifestyle, and the developing states such as India and China jumped in to replace the West in Russia’s foreign trade. Episkopos concludes that “Russia has so far largely managed to mitigate the pain from sanctions and is shifting its strategy in Ukraine from trying to quickly seize major cities to bleeding Ukrainian forces white in a grinding war of attrition.” At the same time, “Europe’s mounting economic challenges have reignited concerns that EU states could start peeling away from the Western sanctions regime.”

To make its Chinese policy more productive, the West should help Ukraine defeat Russia. Victoria Coates and Marshall Billingslea (National Review) argue that “there isn’t real cooperation between the U.S. and the PRC on Ukraine. There won’t be until President Xi Jinping fears he has more to lose than gain from bankrolling Putin’s murderous aggression.” In this light, to enhance cooperation with China on regional and global matters, the US and the West should implement the following three stages plan. Primarily, to sanction Russian banks and hence undermine Russia’s export capacities and operations by rendering the ruble worthless. Secondly, to penalise every international actor who will conduct any financial transaction with Russian banks. Thirdly, to communicate to India, China, and other developing states that their bankrolling of Putin’s regime will block their access to Western financial markets and institutions. 

Polish citizens who help Ukrainians may soon run out of the money and energy to continue. Patrice McMahon (The Conversation) highlights that regardless of millions of Ukrainians fleeing from the war to Poland she did not see any refugee camp there. Instead, almost all Ukrainians in need “are being housed by Polish citizens, and while most have applied for financial assistance, some Poles are covering the expenses themselves.” McMahon was also impressed by the Polish government’s generosity: “Ukrainians are able to live in Poland legally for 18 months, and the government is giving them access to the country’s social welfare system.” At the same time, the initially warm support for Ukrainians in Poland starts waning. Many Polish benefactors are at the breaking point: they cannot continue supporting Ukrainians financially, as well as they are mentally exhausted. This said, an uninterrupted flow of money between international organisations and Polish private benefactors is yet to be established. If this flow fails, the first refugee camps for Ukrainians may eventually appear in Poland.

Russia aims to exploit the fragility of the Western unity on Ukraine to press its agenda. Robert D. English (The National Interest) writes that “the rising costs of war appear less sustainable for wealthy, democratic EU countries than they do for poor, isolated Russia.” In particular, the EU governments and societies need to embrace “soaring energy costs, rationing, reduced aid for the poor, and looming recession.” In Italy, this has already led to the collapse of governing coalition and the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi. In the US, this initiates the discussions of changing the strategy of support to Ukraine as Russia’s defeat on the battlefield may become unrealistic. At the same time, autocratic Russia demonstrated unexpected resilience: it swiftly designed an alternative payment system for exports, poured its massive cash reserves into the domestic market, benefited from the increasing energy prices on the international markets, and swiftly replaced European energy customers with Chinese and Indian. English concludes that two scenarios of ending the war are equally likely: Ukrainian triumph in 2013 under the condition that the West remains supportive and united vs Russia’s retaining of “a major swath of Ukrainian territory while squeezing Europe through months of high inflation with severe energy and commodity shortages.”

Worth your attention:

Western sanctions against Russia gradually contain the Kremlin’s aggression. In his analysis, Mark Episkopos (The National Interest) argues that the logic behind Western economic sanctions against Russia is based on three assumptions: that Ukraine can defeat Russia on a battlefield the Western support, that sanctions weaken the Russian economy and threaten Putin’s regime, and that the developing states will join the Western camp in its condemnation of Russia. Episkopos argues that neither of these assumptions is realistic and, therefore, sanctions harm the West much more than they harm Russia. The necessity to maintain sanctions should be reviewed. 

Episkopos seems to overestimate the military capacity, reserves, and efficiency of the Russian army. In their recent analysis of the dynamics of war, Raphael S. Cohen and Gian Gentile (Foreign Policy) argue that the initiative is gradually shifting toward Ukraine: “While the outcome of the war is by no means clear, the balance of materiel, manpower, and willpower all seem to make the case for cautious optimism. Setbacks in the Donbas aside, the strategic balance still favors Ukraine. Although Ukraine is unlikely to throw Russia back to its borders any time soon, the war will likely trend in Ukraine’s favor in the coming months. But only if the West does not blink first.”

Episkopos seems to be over-reliant on the data coming from Russian official sources when estimating the healthiness of the contemporary Russian economy. The fact is that sanctions have already cut Russia’s energy exports which is one of the key sources of filling the state’s budget. If to believe Carole Nakhle (The Conversation), “since the war began, many western oil companies, which typically bring capital and technology, have exited Russia. In a country with complex reservoirs, ageing fields and a hostile climate, the lack of investment and access to technology will accelerate the long-term decline.”

In their turn, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian (Foreign Policy) highlight that Russian official data is very unreliable and the state’s economy is imploding: “Defeatist headlines arguing that Russia’s economy has bounced back are simply not factual—the facts are that, by any metric and on any level, the Russian economy is reeling, and now is not the time to step on the brakes.”
Episkopos argues that the developing states are prone to develop cooperation with Russia and help it avoid sanctions today instead of joining the Western camp and punishing it for the invasion of Ukraine. This may be partially true. If to believe Lisa Curtis (Foreign Affairs), the developing states will eventually support the West, specifically India. The West has much more to offer them than Russia will ever have: “the best way for [India] to protect itself is to not play into China’s and Russia’s hands. It is, instead, to exude strength—including by speaking out against Russian aggression, rather than being cowed by Moscow. And that means New Delhi should deepen its partnership with the United States, the country best positioned to help India achieve its great-power ambitions.”

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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