• Alex Hughes

Russia Attempts to Widen ‘Operation Z’ into a Global Confrontation

With Russia’s attack on western Donbas now in full swing and NATO’s military aid scaling up, a key question on the minds of Western strategists is whether or not Putin is likely to accept a dramatically smaller objective than the one he initially risked the sanctions over – political control of most or all of Ukraine.


It's now clear that Russia’s original invasion plans hinged on the success of a lightning decapitation strike against the seat of government. Early on February 24, the radars of Ukraine’s air defence network in the north suffered intense electronic jamming and a sudden wave of missile attacks. This cleared the way for the air assault on Hostomel airport, just north of Kyiv.


Around a thousand Russian troops were deployed in several dozen helicopters. Once they’d secured the airstrip, eighteen cargo planes were supposed to land and offload a strike force of seven thousand personnel in combat vehicles, which was to drive straight into central Kyiv, seize the Presidential Office and the main TV stations, declare Zelenskyy’s government dissolved, and then hope that – with the government decapitated and ground forces pushing into the country from four directions – Ukraine’s regional military commanders would order their troops to lay down their arms. In a secondary action, Russian special forces operators are reported to have parachuted into Kyiv before sunrise on the first day.


But the only Russian cargo plane to touch down that day was the one Ukrainian forces shot down – with hundreds of Russian troops onboard – assisted by real-time US intelligence. A determined Ukrainian counterattack managed to overwhelm the Russian force, and the other planes aborted their mission, hastily withdrawing back across the border. The parachutists made two attempts to storm the Presidential compound in central Kyiv, but were repulsed by Zelenskyy’s security forces.


Although the airport fell the next day when a large force in around two hundred helicopters moved in, Ukrainian forces had bought time to organize a serious defence of the capital, and to set in motion a long-planned-for defence of the country along all fronts.


In the weeks that followed, tens of thousands of Russian troops attempted to encircle Kyiv from the north, but never came close to closing the ring. The core problem arose in the planning stage: units had been organized in formations optimised for speed rather than combat effectiveness, to create a sense of panic that would push Ukraine’s army to stand down, once the decapitation was complete. The plan was devised not by military strategists, but by Russia’s main intelligence agency, the FSB. The chief of its operations in Ukraine has since been blamed for its catastrophic failure, and he’s now being held in one of Moscow’s most notorious prisons.


When Plan A failed, Russian military commanders attempted to reorient their forces onto a firmer footing and advance more methodically, but by then, the units north of Kyiv were concentrated along a single highway, much of it flanked by mud plains and forests that were impassable to armour and made easy ambush points. This meant that vital supplies couldn’t get through to the forward units, and as these came under intense Ukrainian artillery fire, much of Russia’s own artillery was stuck in the traffic jams to the north, out of range of the frontline. This artillery imbalance became a decisive factor in the battle for Kyiv.


Severe problems with logistics, morale, a lack of close air support, and a marked lack of infantry – as well as tenacious fighting by the city’s defenders, who were bolstered by accurate and continuous US intelligence provided by high-altitude surveillance aircraft operating above neighbouring Poland – eventually meant that the northern force had to withdraw back into Belarus. In their wake they left widespread destruction and, according to officials from the European Union, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, apparent evidence of serious war crimes.


Many experts now see a long war ahead. But this could unfold in two very different ways: Ukraine – unwilling to cede any territory – might be faced with a large-scale version of the stalemate that’s ebbed and flowed in the Donbas since 2014, with low-level skirmishes along several fronts, and with Putin attempting to paint this as a victory at home. Or, whether or not Russia successfully gains control over the Donbas, Ukraine could once again see its capital city threatened.


If Moscow was planning for a stalemate, one would expect to see the state media’s narrative narrowing to the plight of the separatist areas of the Donbas, and to Putin’s role as their saviour from ‘genocide’.


Instead, their narrative is widening. Increasingly, the conflict is being presented not as a campaign against Ukrainian ‘drug addicts and neo-Nazis’, as Putin famously called them, but as a proxy war against NATO; one node in a global struggle between traditional Eurasian civilization, and a globalist Transatlantic empire hell-bent on imposing its universalising vision onto the rest of the world. It is being presented, in other words, as an existential confrontation. Some Russian officials are now openly comparing this fight to the ‘Great Patriotic War’ against Nazi Germany, and the ‘Z’ symbol painted on Russian armoured vehicles and now prominently displayed in Russian cities is said to represent two stacked 7s, one upside down, denoting the 77th anniversary of Russia’s victory.


If Putin were to opt for unrestrained escalation, three elements would be crucial.


First of all, Russia can’t pretend to represent the Rest against the West, nor recover from its ejection from the Western financial system, alone. It needs partners to transact with, and to be able to highlight those partnerships to its own people. So far, it hasn’t made much progress.


China has surprised some analysts by the extent of its rhetorical alignment with Russia. Some speculate that Putin maintains a close personal relationship with President Xi. Nonetheless, China’s state-owned banks are not currently transacting with sanctioned Russian entities, namely its central bank, in order to avoid becoming a secondary target of Western sanctions. Nor does Russia’s alleged request for ammunition and weapons technology in early March appear to have been accepted by Beijing.


The India-Russia relationship has long revolved around military hardware. Most of India’s existing equipment was produced in Russia or the Soviet Union, and strong links continue, with Russia supplying crucial technology required to build nuclear-powered submarines. India’s stance on the conflict in Ukraine has been described as ‘shaky’ by Western observers, and indeed, New Delhi has so far stopped short of outright condemnation. Aside from its deep defence industry ties, the Indian government doesn’t want Russia to align too closely with China – its main potential adversary – and appreciates Russia’s position on the UN Security Council. And from Russia’s perspective, non-aligned countries like India may prove crucial to its war effort. More on that later.


Further afield, Russia has had more success. Only ten of Africa’s fifty-four countries voted to suspend Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council on April 7. Most of these states are considered to be authoritarian, but several semi-democratic nations also refused to explicitly side with Ukraine. This might reflect lingering post-colonial animosity, as some have suggested. But it’s more likely because of many African government’s dissatisfaction at being treated as aid recipients rather than as economic partners. Other factors include the lack of large-scale Western investments relative to those flowing from China, the United States’ near-exclusive engagement with governments threatened by Islamist terror groups, and the conditionality of Western aid payments on measures of democratic governance and human rights.


Russia, for its part, has been expanding its influence in Africa over the last decade. It was the single largest arms exporter to sub-Saharan states in between 2016 and 2020, and its contractors from the Wagner Group have been hired for substantial security roles in a number of African countries.


Second, to wage a war of this magnitude, Putin needs to know that his domestic control remains firmly in place. There has been a lot of speculation about the mood and cohesion of Russia’s economic and security elite since the war began. Unlike the Chinese one-party state, Putin’s regime is difficult to characterize, resting crucially on a web of informal understandings between those in key private sector positions, held in place by a tribute system of large rewards for loyalty, and severe retaliation – often lethal retaliation – for disloyalty. As in all autocracies, this elite has the collective ability to topple its figurehead.


One Russia watcher whose reporting goes beyond mere speculation is the former BBC journalist Farida Rustamova, who maintains contacts throughout the Russian state. In the first two weeks of the operation in Ukraine, her investigations showed most Russian elites to have been caught by surprise. They were deeply fearful about where the situation might lead, and about the fate that awaited a Russia banished from the Western world.


Since then, their mood has shifted. The bulk of Russia’s business elite now sees its fate as inextricably tied, by choice or by necessity, to that of Putin’s regime. State officials have also changed their tune. “Now I understand that the boss is right, that this whole thing had to happen one way or another”, a senior civil servant told her. As have swathes of the public. “These people don’t understand who they’ve messed with,” said another. The moves to besiege Russia economically and culturally have caused “a sharp reaction even among those who thought differently and asked questions [of the authorities]. Now they won’t ask questions for a long time. They will hate the West and consolidate in order to live their lives.”


The latest polling by the independent Levada Center attests to this, with Putin’s approval rating climbing throughout March to 83%, the highest in four years. Some will be hesitating to answer these polls truthfully given the Kremlin’s relentless crackdown on dissent – in the first two weeks after February 24, an estimated 15,000 Russians were detained for their opposition – but they show a clear shift towards support for the campaign.


“In the early days . . . the people had negative feelings [about the war]. There was a 50:50 split in society,” said a regional government official. “But then all the [state media] got together and started releasing decent content. And then, when they began to say that all Russians are bad, to boycott artists and athletes, everything changed. Now about 75% support the military operation. That is, there’s a social consolidation happening. Calls against the war are not at all popular, it’s more of a marginal story now.”


With a siege mentality setting in, Putin may have what he needs for the third and most important element. By April 25, the UK’s defence minister claimed that 15,000 Russian troops had been killed in action, and that the invasion force has now lost a quarter of its original strength. That force was mishandled strategically, but it also failed to perform well tactically, against what amounted to, on paper, a far inferior Ukrainian military. Russia has already pushed all additional units it can muster into the fight, but didn’t make a decisive difference on the northern fronts. In order to achieve its initial war aims, the Russian military will have to generate massive additional ground forces.


In early April, some Western media outlets erroneously claimed that a draft of around 135 thousand new conscripts was made to reinforce its troops in Ukraine. This was a regular annual rotation of conscripts. In fact, the big decision at that time was to release the prior draft’s batch of conscripts out of the army, rather than retaining them. Analysts had been speculating that the Kremlin would cancel their release, but it chose not to, for unknown reasons.


But to truly tip the balance Putin would have to go much further, and take the plunge into total war with Ukraine by announcing a state of general mobilisation. The Russian army remains in a peacetime state of mobilisation. It does not have the manpower to defeat a country of forty-four million that began to fully mobilise on the first day. Put simply, Ukraine has a much smaller population, but has that entire population to draw upon, while Russia has only a small fraction of its own to work with.


Given the widespread public support for his ‘special military operation’, Putin’s reluctance to do so probably lies with the fact that a general mobilisation must be preceded by a formal declaration of war. This has great legal significance – classifying the campaign as a special operation allows him to define his own victory conditions.


However, a declaration of war would put Russian society on a collision course with Ukraine, necessitating an all-out conflict that would have devastating consequences for both countries. A recent report from the Royal United Services Institute explicitly predicts that this is what Russian decisionmakers are gearing up for.


Now, if Russia was to cross that line, it would still take months to alter the situation on the ground in Ukraine, for three reasons.


First, new conscripts take many months to train. Casualty reports vary, but the Russian force deployed in Ukraine appears to be incurring losses far too quickly to be able to hold out for that long without temporarily disengaging, especially given reports that low morale has already caused the command structure in a few units to buckle. Russian law prohibits the deployment of conscripts with less than four months’ combat training. The rule could of course be overridden by the Kremlin, but it was made for a reason.


Second, because Russia pushed its elite units into hostile territory without support during the opening phase of the invasion, they’re disproportionately represented among the killed and injured.


Third, as the RUSI report notes, “Almost all of Russia’s modern military hardware is dependent upon complex electronics imported from the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Israel, China and further afield.” NATO governments have completely blocked direct exports of these technologies, and while some can still be sourced from Chinese manufacturers, many cannot. The Russian Academy of Sciences has concluded that its own tech sector is unable to fill most of the gap. That’s especially true now that tens of thousands of tech workers have fled the country.


That being said, some of the advanced components used in Russian weapons systems, can potentially be obtained using countries like India as conduits, which imports them for both military and non-military purposes. Obscure corporations across Asia are also willing to take the risk of funnelling military technology into Russia, for the right price. Even so, these electronics will take time to acquire and employ.


So, Russia faces a very serious dilemma. With large quantities of advanced hardware being regularly brought into Ukraine by NATO countries, the economic and human costs of achieving the initial war aims are now enormous, and growing by the day. Whatever the outcome of the battle for Donbas, its existing forces will be in no position to launch any major offensive in Ukraine in the near future. But again, the Russian government has yet to show any sign of backing down. With few other options, a major escalation remains a distinct possibility.


At the same time, Russia is hoping that the spike in energy prices and the broader surge of inflation across Western economies will begin to divide NATO, by sowing dissent for the sanctions regime. Or, at least, dissuade Germany from signing on to a full-scale embargo on Russian gas and oil. To throw fuel on the fire, a major Russian cyber response against Western economies is also probable. These operations can take months to prepare, so cyber-attacks whose development began when the sanctions were first imposed are likely to begin over the summer.


Many have speculated that Putin wants to proclaim ‘victory’ to his domestic audience by May 9, the 77th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender. This may have been the case at one stage, but given the scale of Russia’s military setbacks, it might now instead be used as a patriotic jumping-off point for a new and far more dangerous phase of the conflict.


But regardless of what happens on May 9, if his remaining forces run out of steam in the coming weeks, Putin will have no more conventional military options in the near term. If an emboldened Ukraine’s counterattacks prove to be highly effective at unseating Russian positions in the east or around Kherson – as is often the case against an exhausted enemy – Putin will be cornered, and he might turn to unconventional options, of which he has many.


His chemical arsenal has received a lot of attention, but over the last two decades Russia has developed a formidable array of ‘theatre’ or tactical nuclear warheads, designed for battlefield use. Some of these are as small as one kiloton, around the same size as the detonation that wrecked Beirut’s port area in August 2020. Doing so would come at an enormous cost to Russia, given the Western embargos that would likely follow.


But the story Putin often likes to tell, of having chased a rat through an apartment building as a young boy in Leningrad, only to have it turn and lunge at him when cornered, illustrates the profound danger of exerting maximum pressure on nuclear-armed states. It’s impossible to predict how this conflict will develop, but right now some of the most important indicators are pointing squarely towards further escalation.