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  • Alex Hughes

Escalation Looms in Ukraine as Russia Switches Gears

As of the time of writing, around two-thirds of the Russian force built up around Ukraine is moving through the country along three main axes: northwards from bases in Crimea, westward in two parallel thrusts from the Russian border, and most importantly, southward toward Kyiv from Belarus. So far, their progress has been slower than many military analysts predicted, and Ukrainian forces have put up fiercer resistance. However, claims that Ukraine is ‘winning the war’ are certainly premature.

The American and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 provides the only twenty-first century precedent for an operation on this scale. There, it took just over two weeks for a large mechanized force, pushing into the country from neighbouring Kuwait, to reach the outskirts of the capital, Baghdad.

While Kyiv’s distance from the entry points in Belarus is less than a third of the distance traversed by US and British forces, Russian ground units had reached the outskirts of Kyiv by Friday morning, roughly 24 hours after entering the country. Early in that campaign, there were bottlenecks and major logistical problems, so it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions on that front.

Still, although its air capability has been badly mauled, Ukraine’s ground forces easily withstood the initial bombardment – no ‘decapitation’ occurred. The air attack that began in the early hours of Thursday morning has not been nearly as comprehensive as many had anticipated.

Russia’s ground attack strategy was hinged on a blitzkrieg-type advance or “thunder run” along the highways down towards Kyiv, and on the ability of small, highly mobile units to rapidly advance – often without the heavy armour and artillery support present in the standard battalion tactical group formations – so as to make Russia’s progress seem as rapid as possible [1]. The goal, analysts believe, had been to precipitate a general collapse of Ukrainian government forces, allowing for a relatively bloodless capture of Kyiv and other major cities.

This would enable them, they thought, to quickly establish a puppet regime, without engendering a major insurgency among the civilian population, without incurring the most severe Western sanctions, and without causing much alarm in Russia about the sudden outbreak of full-scale war [2]. So far, the Russian public has essentially been told that what’s happening only amounts to an expansive operation to thoroughly secure the newly-recognised Donbas separatist regions.

That strategy, which was fundamentally based on flawed assumptions about the ability and resolve of Ukraine’s armed forces, has failed. Ukraine’s government remains stable, and President Zelenskyy has transformed himself into an inspiring wartime leader; Ukraine’s population appears to be mobilising itself for serious resistance; major Western sanctions have been levelled, although there is still room for escalation on that front, and the Russian public appears to be waking up to the reality of the situation.

At the tactical level too, things haven’t been going well. The unsupported mobile units have suffered heavy casualties, with Ukraine utilising its Bayraktar drone fleet to great effect against units straying beyond Russia’s air defence umbrellas [3]. In a further sign of Putin’s hubris, it has emerged that the northern force is partly comprised of units from Russia’s Eastern Military District. These troops receive only limited training, and often use obsolete combat vehicles, some of which are essentially unaltered models produced by Soviet factories in the 1980s [4].

All this means that the Russian military command will be about to significantly shift its strategy.

Now, the overall impression that many Western observers have had so far – of a disorganized Russian force crashing on the rocks of Ukraine’s defences and failing to take capture major cities – is only partly accurate.

Moscow has not yet brought the vast bulk of its forces to bear; Russian airpower has been mostly absent from the theatre, with hundreds of warplanes sat clustered on airstrips just over the border in Russia and Belarus. Most Russian armoured units have not seen large-scale combat either. Capturing cities other than Kyiv this early on was not a central goal, with forces bypassing them to prioritise rapid advances [5].

What we’ve seen so far are relatively minor engagements in exurban areas, mostly involving light Russian units effectively behaving as scouts ahead of the main formations.

The fact that the onlookers capturing footage are Ukrainian biases what’s being shared on social media towards examples of Russian losses, while Ukrainian losses – like the large numbers of vehicles destroyed on the highway while retreating from Russia’s southern advance out of Crimea – have scarcely been noticed [6]

As the giant main column of Russian vehicles – roughly sixty four kilometres long – slowly makes its way southward towards Kyiv, cities across Ukraine are slowly but surely being surrounded [7].

As the rings close, some analysts are doubting the willingness of regular Russian troops to fight their way through urban areas full of hostile civilians. This might be true, but it’s why large numbers of Chechen fighters are being brought forward, men who are thought to have few qualms about using unrestrained violence against civilians.

It’s also why heavy artillery is moving into position around cities. History clearly shows how physical distance can remove the reservations people have about indiscriminate killing. This war, in other words, might be about to get a lot uglier. Putin’s government appears to be in a state of panic about the trajectory of their economy, but this is a cause for concern rather than celebration.

The combined effects of the financial war that Western countries are now waging against Russia – banning technology exports, ejecting major banks from the SWIFT messaging network, and the partial prevention of Russia’s central bank from deploying its reserves, to name just a few – have led to a thirty percent fall in the value of the rouble, long queues outside banks in Moscow, a cratering of the country’s stock market, and an exodus of Western energy firms.

In response, the central bank has hiked interest rates by more than ten percent and, in an unprecedented step, has ordered domestic stock brokerages to ignore sell orders coming from foreign owners of Russian stocks. They’ll be well aware of how catastrophically this will damage Russia’s foreign investment prospects, so the move is a sign of sheer desperation. For Putin, the screws are now dramatically tightening, and Russia is hurtling towards becoming an Iran-like pariah, besieged by most of the world’s largest economies.

That’s why, on Sunday, he announced that he was instructing Russia’s strategic nuclear forces to a ‘enhanced combat duty’. In peacetime, there’s a separation between those forces and the central government. This move is a sort of ‘preliminary command’ that removes the barriers in the chain of command to a pre-emptive or retaliatory nuclear strike. It’s equivalent to taking the safety off a firearm.

The announcement immediately elicited outrage in Western capitals. Russia, after all, possesses more than enough warheads to easily overwhelm NATO air defence systems, and to then devastate every major city on earth [8]. The move might well be just Putin reminding the world of Russia’s capabilities. However, while many analysts still believe he’s is a more-or-less rational actor – and no rational actor would start a nuclear war against other nuclear-armed states – they probably shouldn’t be confident enough in that belief to wager the fate of human civilization.

Putin, of course, won’t see military defeat or humiliation as an option at this stage, because that would likely spell doom for his regime. As resistance stiffens in Ukraine and the Russian economy contracts, the threat of an escalatory spiral, both within Ukraine and beyond, becomes increasingly apparent. An animal is at its most dangerous when cornered.

This means that Western policymakers ought to urgently shift their focus away from maximum punishment, and get creative about finding a face-saving off ramp for Putin, perhaps tying sanctions to any peace agreement being reached at the talks in Belarus, which will have to be one that Zelenskyy can agree to and that Putin can spin favourably at home. This is a very real possibility - he won’t have planned for a long-term occupation, and with popular resistance stiffening, that would now be the only way to establish a puppet regime in Kyiv. Financial pressures aside, the Russian military almost certainly lacks the basic manpower to pull this off with around four Russian soldiers for every thousand Ukrainian civilians.

So, while the widespread clamour for retribution is understandable, many lives depend on the two governments quickly agreeing to a ceasefire. Afterwards, the West’s focus can then shift to finding ways to encourage Putin’s overthrow from within.


[1] Sarah McCammon and Michael Kofman, ‘Analyzing the State of Russia’s Military’, NPR (2022)

[2] Michael Kofman and Ryan Evans, ‘Interpreting the First Few Days of the Russo-Ukrainian War’, War on the Rocks (2022)

[3] David Hambling, ‘Ukrainian Drone Strikes Are Extremely Bad News For Russia’, Forbes (2022)

[5] Michael Kofman and Ryan Evans, ‘Interpreting the First Few Days of the Russo-Ukrainian War’, War on the Rocks (2022)

[6] Ibid

[7] Guy Chazan and Polina Ivanova, ‘Russian forces pound Ukraine cities as Putin’s tactics turn more brutal’, Financial Times (2022)

[8] Katie Earl, ‘Is Mutually Assured Destruction Back? It Never Left’, Georgetown Security Studies Review (2018)


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