“If Russia still wins in Ukraine, the gate will open”

Jonathan Holslag teaches at the Free University of Brussels. He is the author of From wall to wall: world politics since 1989. He writes an essay every month The morning.

Jonathan HolslagFebruary 4, 202303:01

A year later, and it starts all over again. While everything in our region goes on as usual, the average citizen, still satiated and dazed from the end-of-year dinners, prepares to get the skis from the attic again, lamenting that the world couldn’t be more gray than this February under North Sea grey, troops in a good day’s journey from here more than half a million young men together to slaughter each other in the coming months. slaughter. That is the essence of war. And while we will again sigh in incomprehension that negotiations are urgently needed and that we must be realistic in this world, superpowers elsewhere will draw up new plans to fundamentally change the reality of the world, or as a Chinese professor put it: end Western dominance once and for all.

For Russia, this will be the final attempt, the new great spring offensive. Last year things went wrong where they could go wrong and in the summer the Ukrainians took over the initiative, as they say, with heroic counter-attacks in Kherson, Kharkiv and Izium. Panic broke out in the Kremlin. Generals were changed; plans questioned. Russia needed a break. Last winter the campaign froze into a brazen war of positions. Both sides dug in, but the Russians unleashed wave after wave of mercenaries and scum from the penal camps on the enemy’s firing posts – like shadows among the craters. The sledge hammer awaited those who deserted from the Wagner horde. Russian artillery routinely continued to hurl projectiles at civilian targets, to make it clear that no Ukrainian should feel safe. For a while Kiev was looking for new offensives, but had to take it easy until now due to a lack of ammunition and in view of the Russian power build-up behind the lines. It could even be that the Western tanks and armored vehicles will arrive too late.

Brutality as a military advantage

And here we are, in February, amid frozen gunk, trenches and rubble. The images of the front are reminiscent of those of the First World War, not surprising because the entire warfare is similar. “The body planted in mud”, as the poet Geert Buelens once wrote so aptly. 300,000 recruits are hurriedly prepared to flood the front. 300,000 ‘bodies’ should be able to do that too, if only because it requires enormous amounts of ammunition for the defender to take out those bodies. Russia will scrape everything together to make progress. And that’s still quite a bit. In any case, it has enough ammunition to bombard the opponent with a hellish rhythm this spring. Whether Russia will make it to the end of the year is not clear, but the breakthrough should come soon. It has missiles, still thousands of missiles: not the most precise, but just enough to sow terror. Turning brutality into a military advantage, that’s what it’s all about.

The roughly seventy kilometers between the current front line and the western borders of Donbas could be the bloodiest seventy kilometers in recent military history. The Russians will get bogged down in a network of positions, be torn apart in endless minefields and, if they get past them, will cut their teeth on heavily fortified cities such as Slovjansk, Kramatorsk and perhaps also Zaporizhia. It is estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 Russian soldiers are already in the region, another 200,000 to 300,000 will be held back in the coming months, and another 200,000 to 300,000 will be mobilized if the first waves are not enough. The precise objectives of the Kremlin are not entirely clear. Officially, it is sticking to the goals it already set at the start of the conflict: to occupy the east and the south – up to and including Odessa, but also to demilitarize the whole of Ukraine. Perhaps the Russians will adjust their objectives according to progress in the coming months. However, we cannot assume that if successful they will stop at the Dnieper.

Holslag: ‘The roughly seventy kilometers between the current front line and the western borders of Donbas could be the bloodiest seventy kilometers in recent military history.’Image REUTERS

Russia cannot go on indefinitely and has maneuvered itself into a difficult situation with last year’s failed offensive. However, we should not assume that the country has run out of reserves. Certainly until the summer, and perhaps longer, it should be able to maintain a hellish combat pace. The tanks and armors that roll out of companies like UralVagonZavod and Rostec will not always be reliable, but they are produced in large numbers. The Russian economy is also holding up. Last year it shrank by barely 3 percent, mainly due to significant energy exports. Zeebrugge was one of the favorite destinations. The rate of the The Russian ruble recovered quickly and inflation was only marginally higher than in the European Union last year. There is hardly a trace of social unrest. For this year, the international coin fund expects slight growth again.


Meanwhile, Russia is working to normalize its relations with other major players. There has never been any question of diplomatic isolation. Foreign Minister Lavrov was recently in South Africa to discuss more intense economic cooperation. Within two weeks, the two countries, joined by China, will hold a symbolic warship exercise. “We decide for ourselves how our diplomacy should represent our interests and we will not be lectured by anyone,” it sounds there. The same message came from India, a major consumer of Russian energy and weapons. “I could give many examples of countries violating the sovereignty of another country and if I were to ask how Europe is doing on that front, there would be a long silence.” Since the start of the war, Russia has strengthened its economic relations with dozens of countries, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. The new Brazilian president, Inacio Lula da Silva, has already indicated that he will refrain from criticizing Russia. The Russian news agency TASS announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Russia this year.

The Russian invasion has made countries think. Many consider the West’s failure to stop the war to be the end of Western dominance. This is the signal to break free from the West more quickly. Especially in the financial domain, it is hoped that the Western sanctions will lead to the accelerated crumbling of the dollar and the euro as dominant currencies. Iran and Pakistan are calling for the Chinese yuan to be promoted in payments between the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). For example, India has paid Russia with the Yuan for imported coal. Symbolic, but highly relevant. “Russia will now encourage the use of the Yuan anyway,” wrote Professor Wang Xiaoquan. “The first ‘de-dollarization zone’ will be established in the SCO.” Those countries also want to cooperate more in the field of security and technology.

Anyone who thought that the net would close around Russia today sees that the West itself is increasingly surrounded by all kinds of projects between predominantly authoritarian countries and open hostility to the West. In part, this is an inevitable consequence of the shift in the balance of power that has been underway for some time. If Russia breaks through Ukraine’s defenses in the coming months, it will strengthen other ambitious powers in their quest for a sphere of influence, the pursuit of greater economic independence from the West, even the development of increasingly powerful weapons to keep rivals at bay. nuclear weapons included.

If Russia still wins in Ukraine, the gate will open. The timid steps towards a multipolar world will accelerate and we will then move with brusque steps towards an anarchy armed to the teeth. The stakes are high on the battlefield of Donbas in the coming months.