Intelligence Brief: Will We See a Pivot in the Ukraine War?

The war initiated by Russia against Ukraine is now over four months long, and a number of events within the past week point to a prolonged conflict and to extensive and cascading impacts on the rest of the world unless a negotiated settlement can get started. First, Ukraine’s inability to export its grain crop and the war’s devastation of agricultural workers and land are harbingers of ongoing inflation in food prices with the most significant impacts on the poorest nations. Second, Russia had some success in eastern Ukraine, taking the final sections of the Luhansk region from retreating Ukrainian defenders. This after a scorched earth set of tactics that emphasized large-scale use of artillery to devastate areas ahead of ground advances. While reports are that Ukrainian forces retreated, other reports highlighted the high casualties that Ukraine took. Third, Ukrainian forces launched several successful long-range strikes against Russian ammunition and fuel depots in an attempt to slowly sap Moscow’s ability to sustain offensive operations. All of this means that Russia may have gained the upper hand in the East and nations and companies need to consider the rippling impacts of this ongoing war both regionally and globally for months and maybe years to come unless the West can get Ukraine to the bargaining table.

Russia retains a multi-layer blockade on Ukraine’s ability to export grain and other supplies from the few ports that Kyiv still controls. Early in the war, Ukraine laid sea mines outside of its ports and critical sea approaches to its coast to deter Russian attempts at amphibious operations. So far, this defensive mining coupled with increasing Ukrainian long-range fires has kept Russia from attempting any amphibious operations. However, Kyiv has been unwilling to remove these mines because it is concerned that Russia will then attempt amphibious operations.

They may only be willing to remove the mines if they could have some sort of assurances that Russia would not take advantage of the situation. Such assurances could only really be provided in two ways: 1) a significant attrition of the Russian fleet based at Sevastopol – something currently beyond the capability and range of Ukrainian weapons or 2) an external guarantee in the form of NATO ships in the Black Sea to escort merchant vessels going to and from Ukrainian ports. This seems unlikely given Turkey’s unwillingness to allow warships to pass the Bosporus. Russia has little incentive to allow Ukraine to export its grain and therefore gain revenues it would use to continue the war. Turkey is attempting to negotiate a way for Ukrainian grain to be exported, but there is little Ankara can offer Russia to agree to such a plan other than ceasing the selling of drones to Ukraine – something it is unlikely to do.

Russian advances in the east of Ukraine point to the ability of Moscow to continue a scorched earth advance, albeit slowly and at great cost. The question is how long Russia can keep up even this type of slow advance and whether it is suited to any other theaters of the war. This may be one reason that Ukraine has been targeting supply depots recently, seeing them as key to slowing Russia’s advance by taking out artillery ammunition and fuel in bulk. Russia’s strategy is in part intended to convince the West that Moscow can sustain this level of violence indefinitely, hoping that the West will pressure Kyiv to negotiate an end to the war on Moscow’s terms. The Ukrainian government is unwilling to negotiate on these terms, and it is counting on increased weapons supply from the West to eventually turn the tide.

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