Piercing the Fog of War: What Is Really Happening in Ukraine?

Piercing the Fog of War: What Is Really Happening in Ukraine?

We are skeptical about what we are reading, hearing, and seeing from reporters and commentators talking as if they found a way to pierce the fog, unmask the protagonists, and discover what is actually happening in Ukraine.

4. What about Zelenskyy and the future of Ukraine?

A comedian who became a leader at a time when many leaders became clowns, Zelenskyy rightly commands admiration around the world. Nevertheless, if Russia conquers Kyiv, or if Zelenskyy is killed or flees into exile, then it is likely that Moscow will appoint a puppet government in Ukraine.

If Kyiv falls to the Russians, one possible future would be the establishment of a pro-Russian government in the eastern part of Ukraine, while the Zelenskyy government withdraws to Lviv and governs the west of the country. We cannot imagine Zelenskyy or any other Ukrainian successor of a rump state formally accepting Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. Nonetheless, they might agree to an end of active fighting along a line of control across from which a Russian puppet government rules in the East.

5. If Russia installs a puppet government or annexes part of Ukraine, will a popular resistance develop?

We think yes. As the United States discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq, occupying the capital city and changing the government is the easy chapter in the campaign. Dealing with a resistance movement is complex, costly, and can take years. It is not clear to what extent Russian cruelty and brutality will be effective in suppressing the resistance, even if it is supported by neighboring NATO members. Given the development of Ukrainian national identity in recent years and its success in rising up to defy Putin’s aggression in the past month of combat, it is unlikely that such a puppet regime could gain enough support of the Ukrainian people to suppress an insurgency. Russian forces would thus likely remain in Ukraine.

6. What are the prospects of the war in Ukraine leading to war between NATO and Russia?

A NATO-Russia war remains unlikely. The actions of both the U.S.-led NATO and Russia in the first month of war show clearly that both sides recognize the risks of direct conflict and are making significant efforts to avoid it. NATO countries are sending Ukraine unprecedented numbers of surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, drones, and other war materiel. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned that “any cargo moving into the Ukrainian territory which we would believe is carrying weapons would be fair game,” and Russia’s attack on the Yavoriv military facility 15 miles from the Polish border, which had been receiving and storing arms from NATO countries, underlined the point. Wary of such warnings, the United States and Poland have not sent Poland’s MiG-29s to Ukraine.

NATO’s escalation ladder of potential actions includes: Arming Ukrainian forces with nonlethal materiel, like armor or strategic intelligence; arming Ukrainian forces with lethal materiel, like missiles or tactical targeting intelligence; a small, random incident—perhaps lethal to some Russian forces—that can be contained and isolated; a NATO-enforced No-Fly Zone for limited humanitarian corridors; a NATO-enforced No-Fly Zone over substantial Ukrainian territory; use of NATO airfields for Ukrainian pilots and aircraft attacking Russian forces.

As Zelenskyy pressures NATO to climb this ladder and provide more support, there remain some uncertainties about where Putin will draw the line. Putin certainly does not want war with NATO or the United States. He has exercised great care not to cross the border of NATO countries for fear of such a war. Still, he has attempted to deter Europeans by threatening that their strangling economic measures could force him to resort to a military response. We judge that Putin will not conduct operations against NATO allies in the Baltics in the short or medium terms. After the slow slog in Ukraine, so many Russian casualties, and such a united Western response, we think that Putin is unlikely to pursue ambitions beyond Ukraine in the near future.

7. How is Russia employing its cyber capabilities?

Like others, we have been surprised by the relative lack of Russian strategic cyber operations and electronic warfare against Ukrainian critical infrastructure and command-and-control systems that would complement kinetic operations. From our seats in the theater of war and peace, we observe that Zelenskyy holds live video sessions with the parliaments of Europe, the Knesset, or the U.S. Congress on a near-daily basis. He holds regular evening television broadcasts. He is constantly making head of state phone calls and posting direct appeals in videos on social media. Reportedly, the United States provided Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba with secure mobile satellite phones to ensure they can safely reach American officials at any time from any place. The Ukrainian military’s command-and-control communications systems appear to be functioning adequately. Where is the previously feared Russian cyber dominance? Whether Russia is withholding this weapon for use against the United States or Europe at a later stage of the war, or whether this is vivid example should lead us to discount prior claims about what cyber can do remains a puzzle for us.

8. How effective are the economic sanctions imposed on Russia?

Putin thought that he could build a sanctions-proof Fortress Russia by amassing $650 billion in offshore reserves. That theory did not work. The scale of the economic assault that the United States and European Union have mobilized and the extent of the damage to the Russian economy and elite have been the biggest surprises for Putin and his team. The effectiveness of sanctions, embargoes, and other instruments of economic warfare are reflected in the fall of the ruble, the collapse of trade in anything but commodities, and the departure of international companies. There is also the long-term geopolitical effect of sanctions that may lead Europeans to reduce their dependence on Russian energy resources and weaken Russian leverage, though in reality, that transition would take many years.

On the other hand, Russia’s economy is complex. As the war has created fears of disruption, the price of oil and gas has spiked. Since the war began, Russia has been receiving more than half a billion dollars daily from its sales of oil and gas. On March 3, it received $720 million from gas sales to Europe alone. Thus, it is difficult to judge how economic pain will influence Putin’s choices. The key question is whether Putin will conclude that the costs of continuing the war so far exceed its benefits such that he will turn to a diplomatic path and accept less than he had demanded. At this point, we think that is unlikely to happen soon.

9. What are the implications for China and Taiwan?

China is the only major power supporting Putin’s war. China has set aside its core foreign policy principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and accepted risks to its economy in order to back its closest partner. This reflects the fact that over the past decade, Xi has built one of the most operationally significant alliances in the world. As detailed in “Will China Have Putin’s Back?,” Russia and China share a common adversary (the United States) and a common objective (to weaken America while building a post-American order). The two nations have built a thick web of cooperation in trade, investments, intelligence, weapons development, military exercises, and diplomacy.

Could Xi now be having second thoughts about the “no limits” partnership with Moscow that the 5,000-word communique that capped the Xi-Putin summit at the opening of the Beijing Olympics declared? Certainly, he and his colleagues have to be thinking about: the underperformance of Russian soldiers, weaponry, and logistics; the rapid and massive response of the “Global West,” including Japan and Australia, that is willing to upend decades of economic, financial, and trade relationships to punish aggression; the beginning of the end for Putin, who will become an isolated pariah regardless of the outcome of the war; the growing domestic disturbances across Russia; the promise of prolonged popular resistance or insurgency in Ukraine even if Russia sacks Kyiv and installs a puppet regime.

On the other hand, if the U.S.-led sanctions and other forms of economic warfare were to prove effective in crippling Russia, China has to fear that it could be the next target. If the West were to succeed in “canceling” Putin, his circle of oligarch supporters, and other Putinistas, China would have to be concerned about its own vulnerabilities to something similar. Thus, at this point, we have seen no concrete evidence to suggest that China is seeking to constrain Russia’s war.

If Russia had achieved a quick victory at low costs, and the West’s response essentially mirrored the sanctions imposed after Crimea, the likelihood of a Chinese move against Taiwan would have increased. Watching the performance of what Putin had advertised as a new modern army with the capacity to “fight and win,” the repeated breakdowns and malfunctions of Russia’s most modern military equipment and logistics, and the ferocity of the U.S.-led Western response, we suspect Beijing is pausing to review its plans for military action against Taiwan.

10. Will Putin go nuclear?

As of this writing, since we believe that Putin still thinks he can achieve his goals on the battlefield, we see any use of nuclear weapons as highly unlikely. If, however, Putin’s only alternative was humiliating defeat, we fear that this could become a live option.